A full ten years after the publication of All Thumbs, Alan Fraser presents his most far-reaching exploration of Piano Somatics to date. Growing out of his final years' work with the late Phil Cohen, his ongoing collaboration with Kemal Gekic, and new research into the nature of human movement, this book is a masterpiece of new pianistic learning strategies presented in appealing, easy-to-digest form.
“Over several decades, a number of dedicated pianists have been seriously researching healthy, effortless technique and exploring how this information can further enhance the quality of their musicianship and interpretive decision-making. Alan Fraser’s newest contribution for piano teachers is an important and comprehensive book containing incredibly valuable information from which every pianist around the world can benefit. Alan’s years of study and extensive research, combined with his excellent musicianship, has resulted in an outstanding resource that belongs in every pianist’s library.”
- Gail Berenson, USA (Past President, MTNA)
- Gail Berenson, USA (Past President, MTNA)
This book uses Feldenkrais-style strategies not only to have you feel more comfortable in your body, but also to have you move with new ease and command at the piano. Passages that had seemed insurmountably difficult become possible, and passages that were naggingly problematic become a breeze when you are "in yourself" in the best physical sense. You already have this potential in you, it only needs the ingenious strategies of Play the Piano with Your Whole Self to unlock it and make it completely yours.
"The Awareness Through Piano Movement lessons of Play the Piano with Your Whole Self expand the physical possibilities needed to rebalance the body, improving how the pianist transitions from a vivid inner imagination to refined musical ideas. The resulting increase in agility, coordination and security at the piano transforms technical challenges into an ease-filled relationship with the instrument. For all pianists seeking continued musical growth, this extraordinary resource will bring refreshing conversations to lessons, curiosity to the practice room, and a new level of delight to performance."
- Dr. Grace Asquith, NCTM, USA
- Dr. Grace Asquith, NCTM, USA
But just how does this happen? How do we overcome habits that prevent us from fulfilling our pianistic potential?
Nobody learned to walk by walking. We all rolled around on the ground for a year before coming to stand. We needed that time to learn the hundreds of movement patterns inherent in standing, walking and running. Parts of Play the Piano with Your Whole Self do the same for the pianist's hand, laying it down on the keys or on a table and exploring the myriad ways it can move while supported from below, free from the stresses of normal piano playing. In this secure state the hand is free to differentiate its parts: muscle tonus lowers, the different digits become more independent – not through mechanical exercise but through sensorial learning, leading to a new blossoming of ability and agility when one returns to playing music.
"Alan Fraser’s previous books are an inspiring and thought-provoking read, but his latest book, Play the Piano with Your Whole Self, is his Magnum Opus indeed – an important landmark in the field of instructive music literature. It offers a unique insight into the interaction between player and instrument from a neurological point of view, expressed with a new concept, biotensegrity, and showcases such a wealth of revelatory ideas expressed in an engaging and lucid manner that one may return to it many times over and still find new illuminations and an abundance of food for thought. As an added bonus, the instructive parts are interspersed with autobiographical writing both edifying and entertaining. Enthusiastically recommended!"
- Kemal Gekic, Miami
- Kemal Gekic, Miami
Dr. Steven Levin coined the term biotensegrity to describe the wonderfully elastic quality of human movement - it's not about relaxation; it's not about building up strength; it's about developing a keen muscular vitality that moves the skeleton effectively and easily because the bones are well-aligned and the muscles are primed just right. The degree of tonus required for biotensegrity to function well is quite precise, and Play the Piano with Your Whole Self offers numerous Awareness Through Piano Movement lessons that bring the hand to this optimal state. It's worth going back to a 'primordial state' when the result is not only more agile, potent movement but a fuller expression of Phil Cohen's "expressively directed micro-timing:" a deeper, more capable and expressive musicianship.
“Alan Fraser’s methods are a unique amalgam of principles of Tai Chi and Feldenkrais, of the wisdom of his mentors, and of his intense study of Horowitz’s technique. My own experience has led me to believe wholeheartedly that his approach opens the door to complete technical mastery, heightened musical sensitivity and artistic freedom. This book is the culmination of Alan’s life work to date, in which every serious pianist and teacher can find inspiration to take their playing and teaching to the next level and beyond!”
- Jackie Sharp, BSc, AMusA,LMusA,LTCL, Australia
- Jackie Sharp, BSc, AMusA,LMusA,LTCL, Australia
The book leads off with biotensegrity because it has the potential to unify all the previous schools of piano technique. The conceptual framework of biotensegrity allows significant updates to the work of Matthay, Breithaupt, Ortmann, Schultz, Neuhaus, and the more recent work of Bernstein, Fink, Taubman, Lister-Sink, Johnson, and Karpoff. Neuromotor development in the pianist’s hand follows, and then Phil Cohen’s mature work on the ‘bio-physico-musical’ aspects of piano performance, before we delve into injury rehabilitation, the antecedents of piano technique in harpsichord technique, and a new look at that old conundrum, the thumb. In my discussiion of my work with Kemal Gekić, we address integration as well as the music – which is, in the end, what it’s all about.
The following Detailed Table of Contents gives a taste of the book's orientation - its intriguing view of human movement and how you can deepen your musical ability by delving into the detail of your physical relationship to the piano.
"Alan Fraser’s detailed tables of contents, exacting photographs, exhaustive index and wonderfully illuminating text are all helping lead this reader-musician along a pathway, from fingertip to sitz bones, that illuminates new possibilities for producing beautiful and transcendent sounds at one’s piano. Only now, after over forty years of keyboard abandonment, with Alan’s latest crowning achievement nearby, have I the means to return joyfully and capably to the piano."
- Kathleen Carels, MLS, USA
- Kathleen Carels, MLS, USA
The physical as a channel to the musical. Cohen. Gekić. Feldenkrais. Levin & Slutsky. The peaceful hand. The body’s crucial role. This book’s focus. Repetition. Robust exercises and the risk of injury. Tonus, tension, and functional strengthening. Be sensitive to one’s physical process. Chapter order. An alchemical view of piano technique – “As above, so below.” Where to start? How to do the ATPM (Awareness Through Piano Movement) lessons. My writing style. The photo illustrations. It’s not always easy.
1: Phil Cohen (1926-2018). 2: Kemal Gekić (b. 1962). 3: Feldenkrais Method. 4: T’ai Chi. 5: Harpsichord technique. 6: Infant movement development. 7: Biotensegrity. Elastic transmission of kinetic forces. Biotensegrity to synthesize the different pianistic approaches.
Moving the fingers ‘too well.’ Improve loose movement by increasing biotensegrity. Awareness Through Piano Movement. A specific strategy to address a specific internal state.
Sliding into an octave. ‘Flexible solidity’ on the keybed. ‘Flexible solidity’ in the air. Stiffening before sliding. Using anti-movement to improve movement. Just one step in the learning process. The 2nd is the most important finger in an octave. ‘A feeble hand hip-joint is the root of all evil.’ Tonus masquerading as tension. Biotensegrity in chords: ‘bobsled’ the middle finger. Biotensegrity in passagework. Integration
Elastic stretching and movement-generating contractions are two different functions. Thumb
opposition to evoke elasticity.
Distinguish elasticity from other touches. No curling.
How to maximize potency and thumb independence. The tendency to lapse back into stiffness.
The great virtuosi possess this quality. Relaxation begets stiffness. Tonus begets movement.
Relaxation can disempower the whole body. Extremely quick hand position shifts. Maintain
connection to the key, even in mid-flight. Tension – Tonus – Relaxation: mutually exclusive.
Just the right amount of snugness. Cultivating snugness.
Play from the surface or slightly under the surface of the key. Indirect attack. Complete absence
of arm weight. Sensing the weight: useful or not? Inexactitude. Free fall and the resulting
hook-clamp. The finger should have only one job. Compression and/or fixation. The biggest
illusion is that the key goes down. Replace relaxation with activation. Use ‘the Hoop’ to
create effective, snug levers. Make the hoop as large and stiff as possible.
There is no sense of weight in piano technique. One segment of the skeletal chain follows
another. The kinematic chain. Flopitis infection. Tensility is not tension. Tensility for easy
ulnar deviation. Let the body facilitate ulnar deviation.
Become an ‘ulnar deviant.’ Getting to the extremes of the keyboard easily. Keep the body in play: don’t drop dead. The arm’s kinematic chain extends throughout the whole body. Open
collarbones, open-heartedness. Wonder Breath to vitalize the whole self. A broken kinematic
chain is a problem. Wonder Breath in the hand. Curling the pinky enlivens the kinematic chain.
What constitutes the arm?
Security combined with moveability. Neuromotor templates of efficient movement. Ulnar
deviation and the thumb corkscrew.
Reversing the roles of proximal and distal. Ultimate pronation. The Roman Arch clock. The
learning is neuromotor, not mechanical. Combine ulnar deviation and supination. Use ulnar
deviation to your advantage instead of avoiding it. An integrated movement transmits all
the way through the skeleton. Connected in stillness – ‘sensorial presence.’
The arm is a teeter-totter.
A specific wrist position facilitates a specific internal hand organization. Why is the seesaw
exercise effective? Horowitz and the seesaw.
The developing sense of self is sensorially based. Sensation combines with intention to beget
learned movement. The sensory-motor feedback loop. Healthy movement wastes no energy.
Preliminary elements of complex actions. Nobody learned to walk by walking. The long
apprenticeship is informed by whole-body sensory experience. Context of comfort and security.
After the long apprenticeship: finally, full verticality. A full seven years to learn adult walking. Standing and moving: an inherent contradiction. “As above, so below” – As for the whole body, so for the hand. The pianist’s hands have been denied their movement birthright. The high incidence of piano disabilities is a natural outcome. A new regime for developing capable, healthy hands at the keyboard.
Sucking. Extension. Grasping and flexion. Propping. Extending the legs. Commando crawling. Toe differentiation. Rolling – prone to supine. Rolling – supine to prone. Folding the leg in and under. Folding the body. Sitting. Half-standing. Integration.
Palm glissandos for a deeper connection to the keyboard. Bobsledding – extension. The Swamp
Monster. Roll, leaving the thumb neutral. Use the thumb as a prop.
Collapse your arch so it can better soar. The fingers as a delivery system for the wisdom of the palm.The physical becomes biological. From the biological to the aesthetic. From the aesthetic to the expressive. From the physical/biological/aesthetic/expressive to spirit. The Hermetical fusion of three modes of awareness.
The mindful, intelligent hand.
Antidote 1: Cultivate the wisdom of the palm. Play chords ‘from inside the key.’
Antidote 2: Move laterally off a chord. Antidote 3: Slide on the key. Antidote 4: Move sideways. Antidote 5: Curl to lock down. Antidote 6: Separate and join thumb and hand.
Antidote 7: ‘Boing’ off the keyboard without flapping the wrist. Antidote 8: Use a flattened curve in thumb opposition. Integrate the exercises immediately.
The arduous task of cleaning up old brain clutter.
Obsessive finger substitution. Quasi-independent thumb. Playing ‘from within the key.’
Horizontal standing. A necessary preparation. A stroking sensation. Sensorial learning and
the empowered sense of self. Integrating these new abilities in practice. Joists in a wood-
frame house. The ‘one-bone lever’ evolves into a ‘three-bone lever’ by ‘knocking.’ Transform
the ‘one-bone’ lever into a ‘three-bone’ lever by squeezing. Combine three seemingly anti-
thetical feelings. Physical means serve a musical end. Another distinctive orchestration
technique. Not arm weight. The difficulty of bringing ‘play’ to piano playing. Playing
classical music seems equated with ‘difficulty.’
The fingers’ articulative activity echoed in the mouth. Finger substitution.
Leap through multiple octaves by chaining.
Proximal-distal relationship in the thumb corkscrew. Thumb & forefinger: proximal vs. distal
The 3-dimensionality of scat sounds. Map vowels & consonants onto finger inflections (notes)
or arm inflections (phrases). Scatting 16th notes. Sliding bones create sinuous tone. Finger
pedalling on one note. Scatting and staccato touch. Scatting Scriabin. The simplicity of establishing a skeletal touch. Deviating from the neutral. The unity of arm and thumb.
Reduced parasitic contraction improves hearing. Free melodic tones to sing by playing them
staccato on the pedal. Making full chords sing. The future creates the present. Gentle finger
flexion to ‘play’ the air above the key.
Soundless glissandi. Don’t integrate too soon. Hyper-clamped ‘oozing’ movement. The ‘air
holes’ of the hands in T’ai Chi. Ongoing psychological resistance. A new physical relationship
to the music requires relearning the text. Another ‘oozing’ technique to melt away an old
‘crunching’ habit. The subjective experience of ‘letting go’ may not be what’s actually
happening. The greats don’t do as they were taught.
The nature of the biological. Access the potent sensitivity of your palm. The pianistic Dan Tien.
Bringing the caress to the key. Begin any phrase from your lap.
Computer tendonitis. Too little effort can be worse than too much. A similar situation at the
piano. ‘No connection’ does not equal ‘objective interpretation.’ Mental tendonitis.
Play a note from a slightly lowered key position. A new type of finger pedalling.
Playing on the escapements in the repertoire. Discover your intransigent, unmoving thumb.
Impressionist escapement playing. Recreate the shallow key depths of early pianos.
Integrate the exercise into the playing action. Break down old habits to cultivate the new.
Non-playing exercises change the way you play. No transformation without integration.
Some thoughts on dystonia. Grasp to cure a dystonia. Restore right function to resolve the dystonia.
‘Neurological’ movement. Addressing a hyper-extended 2nd finger. Slide in the other direction.
Lie on the back of your medial phalanges. Lie on the back of your proximal phalanges. Take
your time. Return to neutral. Extend to avoid triggering the dystonia. The healing power of a
structurally supportive skeleton. Contract the finger muscles without flexing them.
Learn the inner hand action of octaves at a slow tempo, then apply it at speed. Feldenkrais
and hand functionality at the piano.
Dangle to minimize structural pressures. Dangling in repertoire. Address hyper-mobility
by enhancing it? Go slowly to allow neuromotor learning to take place.
The hand arch is crucial in harpsichord technique. Harpsichordists need a stronger hand than
pianists. No role confusion.
Bending time. A different compositional process. A different interpretive process. A non-
pedalled technique. The pedal undermines biotensegrity.
Antecedents in harpsichord technique. Tenuto touch. Non-tenuto touch. Whence the
necessary increase in power? Weight – an illegitimate solution to a legitimate problem. Usethe arm to shape phrases.
The complex inner organization of a simple movement. The finger creates a tone. The wrist joins tones. The unfortunate development of weight technique. Weight technique: a collection of contradictions. Appearances can be deceiving. An arm weight variant – pressure technique.
Curving and curling – a conundrum. Three arches.
The piano action as a tensegrity.
Surprisingly high resistance.
Play from the nail joint alone for finer control. Done in isolation, distal phalange flexion can
lead to injury. Nail joint flexion: the final link in the kinematic chain.
Reduce amplitude instead of speed.
Discover the two components of any note: consonant and vowel. Musico-pianistic consequences.
Create voicings by timing key descents. Create voicings with articulation instead of dynamics.
Both Gekić and Cohen are moving away from dynamic differentiation. Horowitz seldom played
loud. Not the physical alone. The palm as a bellows. Empower the palm-bellows by deflating
instead of inflating.
Elements of speculative playing. The biophysical basis for freedom in playing. Altering the
tone of one note.
Hilary Hahn’s Bach and uneven scale fingerings.
Improve proximal flexion to empower fingers in scales. Thumb opposition is different from
flexion. Thumb opposition to move the piano key. Thumb opposition to ‘elastify’ the hand in
scales. Now replace flexion with opposition. I pass and do not pass the thumb under. I pass
and do not pass the hand over. Flexion disempowers; opposition empowers. Searching for a
more effective learning style.
The presenting problem often distracts from the real issue.
Resolve the awkwardness of the position shift by avoiding it. An interesting side effect. The
thumb uses a physical legato in slow arpeggios. The faster the arpeggio, the less ‘thumb under.’
The thumb as a flying buttress.
The sense of a potent, moving skeletal structure originates in the pelvis. Thumb and hand dome have a special interaction.
An alternative to vigorous finger movement. A structure strong but not stiff. Secure bone contact for free movement. The antithesis of weight technique.
Flexion: bad. Adduction: better. Opposition: best. How thumb opposition & forearm
supination/pronation interact. Scales to the outside: ‘passing the thumb under.’ “I pass and
do not pass my thumb under.” Scales to the inside: ‘passing the hand over.’ Superfluous
swivelling. Eliminate the sense of falling. Supportive muscular activity. The corollary in
walking. Resolving over-differentiation. 5th finger orientation.
One hand grasps and moves a passive forearm. The same, isometrically.
Thumb opposition empowers the hand.
Cardinal direction 1 – Flexion–Extension. Why not lean against the chair back? Cardinal
direction 2 – Side bending. Side bending and arpeggios. Cardinal direction 3 – Rotation. The
first cardinal direction modified for pianists. Combining the three cardinal directions in the
dynamic act of sitting at the piano.
Starting position. Flexion–extension – Cranial version. Side bending – Cranial version.
Rotation – Cranial version. Gentle, slow and small. Only one vertebra.
Habit embedded in a belief system. Monitor sacrum–sternum to empower entire body.
Vital activity moves us, not relaxation. The curious case of the clavicle.
The torso’s center of gravity is not the spine.
Walking is a continual loss and regaining of balance.
The neuromotor complexity of managing movement. Fully evolved walking: a quantum leap
in elegance and effectiveness. At peace with gravity – in standing. At peace with gravity – in
walking. The illogic of sensing weight. High tonus in the hip joint. The physics of weight
transfer should remain imperceptible. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Arm weight eradication.
Replace parasitic contractions with healthy ones. Horowitz’s unique sound. A functional
structure is not fixed.
Elastic release vs. contractive pull as means of movement. The ‘loaded spring’ in the calf
muscle. Elastic release in running and in piano technique.
Kinetic energy stored in elastic contractions. Elasticity at the elbow. Elasticity at the wrist
joint. Elasticity at the metacarpal-phalangeal joint.
The wrist remains neutral. Many preliminary sensory steps maximize improvement.
Unconscious holding patterns coming to light. You must be born again. The value of
pressing the keys silently. Delayed enlightenment. The link to harpsichord technique.
Handling parasitic contractions.
Repairing a faulty movement image. Arm movements across the body involve the whole
body. See your reflection in the ladle.
Physical vs. musical experience.
Exploring the pelvis–hand relationship. State of the hand – tensility made manifest. A physical technique and an artistic act are neurologically different. You must access the whole brain in your artistic work. The ear is the most effective instrument for physical & artistic refinement. First practice physical strategies; then practice musical strategies. Smooshing is not flopping. Eerie resemblance to weight technique. A particular inner state. Biotensegrity in action. Put the palm ‘in the key’ beforehand. Percussion is a result of faulty structure. Muscular readiness connects pelvis and hand – not tension, not relaxation. My practice goes round and round. Fulfill the ancient dictum, “Know thyself.” Help from the instrument. We tend not to do a whole finger action. Is it possible to avoid the downward spiral?
Don’t study these movements in isolation. Is an arpeggio a physical difficulty or a musical structure?
Solve the difficulty by removing it. Inversion of thumb and 2nd. Physical organization must
always serve musical ends.
A supercharged version of the one-boned finger.
Splayed joints: all or nothing.
The advisability of a given lesson at a given time.
Tapping single notes. Tapping chords. Tapping melodic chords. Rapprochement. It’s actually
musical, not physical. Structural integrity in both hyper-legato and non-legato. A trace
remains of every practice technique.
Part 1. Part 2.
The arm hangs just enough to keep the palm flat.
Piano & harpsichord not totally similar.
Caught in my failure to integrate. Elastic loading even more useful than activity. Sit at a
height that allows arm freedom. One note at a time for gleaming, rich sonority. Physical legato across the thumb in slow tempi activates supporting muscle groups. Moving the arm to support the thumb. The skin plays legato; the bones non-legato. The physical serves the musical. Crucial support from the triceps. From the think tank to the stage – a long, arduous journey.
Use your spare arm as a ‘substitute pelvis.’ Complete a closed-circuit loop. There’s a brain in your forearm. The closed-circuit loop is two arms and a body. Physical support morphs into musically functional support.
Papandopulo etude. Chopin Op. 25 #2. Make a Haydn sonata ‘tell a story.’ Harmonic
progressions contain emotional colours. One pulse per measure in a slow movement. Create
contrasting characters in Islamey. Experiment with varied characters in Chopin. Rhythmic
deformation practice counteracts the tendency to blur articulations. A physical ability is
needed. The benefit of a musical instead of technical teaching.
Primal elements of good piano playing. Excellent is not good enough. Kemal’s methodology.
Playing piano well is mainly a musical, not technical problem.
The fake mask. Which is wanting, musicianship or physical organization? Improve movement
to improve the music. Improve musical conception to improve movement.
If we knew why, we would play very differently. Achieve it through rigorous musicianship.
Refreshing new interpretive directions from the world of early music. The unavoidable
suffering of great artistry.
A naïve but musical youngster. The problem with arm weight technique. The arm shapes
the phrase. Feldenkrais Method to improve body movement. Kemal Gekić: a practical,
transcendent technique. Legato and the arches of the hand.
Overholding empowers the arch.
Functional differentiation 1: hand/arm.
Functional differentiation 2: fingers/hand: unstable equilibrium.
Functional differentiation 3: individuate the thumb. Thumb pushups.
Functional differentiation 4: the thumb corkscrew.
Functional differentiation 5: the rearing horse.
Functional differentiation 1 review: overhold while the arm breathes.
Integrative element #1: movement.
Integrative element #2: rhythm.
Integrative element #3: mental breathing, return to neutral.
Integrative element #4: differentiate arm direction from note direction.
Integrative element #5: the wrist flip.
Integrative element #6: ‘listening backwards.’ We need both thinking styles.
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