Biotensegrity in Piano Playing

Don't relax it; make it elastic

A student finds a well-organized way of moving the hand. The sound improves; playing feels easier. She says, "I feel so relaxed." Actually, she is anything but relaxed - she is active, intentional, powerful... but that's the way we think. We think that if it feels easy, we must be relaxed.

The skeleton... and the muscles that move it

Feldenkrais said that any truly efficient movement will be perceived as effortless, and he cultivated a well-aligned skeleton to facilitate that ease and effectiveness. He differentiated between "parasitic contractions," tension that interferes with movement, and contractions that generate kinetic energy - that move the bones by opening or closing the joint. But there's another crucial form of muscle activity that plays a major part in movement - elastic activation. A muscle can contract to generate movement, but it can also be stretched while contracted, becoming elastically loaded - and when that stored-up energy is released, the skeleton is moved elastically. Think of the difference between a slow jog and a sprint: in the former, the calf muscles are mainly contracting to launch you forward; in the latter, they are loading elastically and then releasing to spring you forward.


The anatomical term for this is biotensegrity, found in biological organisms whose structural integrity is derived from tensile, rather than static, strength. The term was coined by Dr. Steven Levin, an orthopedic surgeon who had never been satisfied with the "stack of bricks" model of the human spine. When he saw some art works by Washington sculptor Kenneth Snelson, in which thin struts were arranged to created tall structures without any of the struts touching - instead, they were held together by wires - Levin had an inspiration: this is the model for the human body.

This short demo shows some of the intriguing qualities of tensegrity structures, and one can deduce from this how counterproductive a weighted touch can be to the optimal functioning of a tensegrity system. Too much collapse prevents kinetic forces from being evenly distributed through the whole system.

Tensegrity and the Body from AnatomyTrains on Vimeo.

The biotensegrity dimension in human movement helps us understand why relaxation can be so detrimental to ones piano technique. If you are too relaxed, you can't move! Many of us have trained our hands so thoroughly to relax that in order to raise their elastic loading to the level necessary for agile technique, we must almost tense the hand!

Bringing the hand to life

When the springing action of the hand is vital, when the hand has been energized to right action so that it moves with agility and ease, biotensegrity is at work. The hand lacking biotensegrity is sluggish and inert, and so are the sounds it makes. It is tricky to introduce elastic tension into the hand without making it tense, but there is much to be gained by making the distinction.