The Fraser Institute
of Piano Somatics

Arm Weight Woes

Sublime pianissimos

The concert stage. A world-class pianist. Sublime moments of colour, emotion, subtle shades of tonal nuance. Artistry and musicianship of the highest order.

Faltering fortes

Then all is transformed. A crescendo, a moment of forte. The pianist raises his hands, lets them fall. The same for the next note... the next chord... and the next... Perhaps it’s just a vertical wrist movement, but in any case, although the sound is big, round, and beautiful, the musical line is lost, cut up into little pieces. Each beautiful sonority has become a local, isolated musical event.

Weight is good?

This scenario is repeated time and again in piano recitals around the globe, and it is accepted – even sought after. We think it is good. For me this is problematic.

The weighted touch is taught in conservatories the world over; entire pedagogical approaches are based on it, and even as revered and gifted a pedagogue as the great, the monumental Heinrich Neuhaus, teacher of Richter, Gilels and Radu Lupu who is still alive and playing beautifully today, falls into the trap with his equation, F = V = M x H (the Force applied to the key, that determines its Velocity, is derived from the Mass of the hand times the Height from which it falls). This equation, accurate though it is, ignores the central role of muscular activity in moving the key. Although Neuhaus later castigates the dead falling of the hand on key, he unwittingly encourages just that with this equation.

Enlightened ergonomics for high artistry

The goal of the consummate artist is not just to sound a note but to "move" the tone. This phenomenon arises when there is no blockage to movement in the pianist's body. Falling tends to result in compression; the muscles tend to contract in compensation. The piano's amazingly sensitive sound board picks up on this. Any blockage of movement in the body causes sound quality to deteriorate.

Compression makes a big noise; moving the key elegantly and efficiently makes a living forte

Intriguingly, the weighted touch arises only from mf on up to the stronger dynamics. It is amazing that high level concert pianists can be so beautifully organized physically in the softer dynamics, and then universally shift to this ergonomically inefficient way of moving the key in forte. The false perception is that weight is needed to play loud. If we could get over that illusion, our playing could evolve to new heights artistically and aesthetically. If we could perceive the cessation of movement hidden in every weighted dynamic, we could avoid killing the musical life of our melodies, our chords.

Forte, Feldenkrais style

The Feldenkrais view of human structure and function offers us a way out of this dilemma. Yes, we need to play forte, and yes, it can be done without any loss of musical line. There are many sophisticated and subtle ways of moving a key to extremely high velocities without losing balance, without reducing ones ability to move with freedom and elegance, instantaneously. The musical benefits are incalculable. Melodic grace is restored. Monumentality of full orchestral expression moves the soul once again. Polyphonic clarity intrigues the intellect. Emotion lives.