Back straight. Chin up. Shoulders back. Feet flat on the floor.
To many people, that sounds less like the prelude to an enjoyable pastime and more like something your mother would tell you to do at the dinner table.
Many beginner piano students do not have a musical career in mind and are looking to fill their time with a rewarding hobby. These students often find themselves discouraged when faced with the truth of the matter: learning to play the piano is as challenging and time-consuming as it is rewarding, and without a solid foundation of good musical habits, it will take even longer for you to achieve your goals.
One of the most important things you need to remember is that the idea ‘no pain, no gain’ does not apply to any form of musical practice. If you are just learning how to play the guitar, the process of finding the right strings and playing them is awkward and uncomfortable. Some might take bleeding fingers as a sign that they are ‘working hard enough’ when it comes to getting a handle on their new craft, but this belief could not be further from the truth. Any form of pain or discomfort in practice is an instant warning sign that you are doing something incorrectly. Perhaps you are practicing too much, or simply pressing down on the strings much more aggressively than you need to.
The equivalent of ‘bleeding fingers’ for a piano student can take many forms, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis of the thumb, repetitive strain injury, and ulnar/radial deviation. All of these scary-sounding conditions are usually the result of one simple thing: poor posture and technique.
If you have a desk job or are a chronic sloucher, it is likely that you already carry a lot of tension in your body and are prone to bad habits like craning your neck or arching your lower back. These bad habits invariably lead to premature fatigue and consistent strain whenever you play the piano. Muscle memory is incredibly powerful, and so attempting to correct your posture is most definitely a challenge. With time, however, all that initial fatigue will begin to disappear. Your movements will gradually become smoother and more fluid, and mastering the piano will be a lot easier. Pianists who can move their hands as quickly as hummingbirds, perform with lightness and grace, and perhaps even sing while playing, cannot reach that level of success without first being relaxed and in full control of their bodies.
To understand what you need to do to gain a similar level of control, you need to consider not only your hands but your body as a whole.
YOUR LOWER BODY
The keyword of the day is ’90-degree angle’. The moment you sit down on your bench, you need to make sure your feet are planted firmly on the floor, and your knees are at 90-degree angles. It’s best to sit in the middle or on the edge of the bench, as this not only straightens your back but also gives you easier access to the piano’s pedals (bonus: it works your abs!). To maintain an upright posture and keep your lower back from arching, it helps to imagine a light thread connecting your head to the ceiling, as if you are a marionette.
YOUR UPPER BODY
Your arms must have a full range of motion throughout your practice session. They only have this freedom if you keep them bent at 90-degree angles. To do this, you might need to push your bench away from the keyboard and adjust its height accordingly. If your overall posture is correct, your ribs will be stacked and your shoulders rolled back. Be careful not to exaggerate this motion – focus less on the idea of pushing your shoulders back and more on keeping your clavicle level.
It is extremely common for beginners to lack finger dexterity and independence. Your hands will naturally tense as they struggle to coordinate your movements. Like any part of your body, it is important to give them a brief warm-up before exerting them. Basic stretches for your fingers and wrists not only make practice less arduous but can also prevent some of the conditions we mentioned earlier, such as carpal tunnel syndrome.
Once you begin playing, keep your wrist soft and all your fingers curved so that only your fingertips touch the keys. The only exception is your thumb, which remains straight. It’s a common myth that you need long fingers to be able to play the piano well – unless, like the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, you have an unusual condition which is known colloquially as ‘spider fingers’. It is more important to be ‘spider-like’ when playing: in addition to maintaining a soft curve in your fingers, you need to make sure that you press as lightly as possible on the keys. It is a delicate dance between you and the piano, and it is always better for your default setting to be ‘gentle’ until you are skilled enough to deliberately change the intensity of your playing according to the piece.
On the subject of pieces, starting with complex ones that feature a great volume of notes in varying octaves without first having a strong foundation in proper technique is a recipe for disaster. Musical bad habits are some of the hardest ones to undo, as they are the children of both muscle memory and guided practice. Instead of falling victim to methods like forcibly extending your fingers to the farthest corners of the earth, or moving your hand entirely and then getting lost as soon as you reach the next bar, the best course of action is to learn how to play simple pieces first with sound technique before gradually progressing.
Your body is in a constant feedback loop with your mind, even if you are not aware of it. If your body is in perpetual discomfort or pain during your practice sessions, your mind will begin to translate that into explicit thoughts such as “this is too hard” and “this is exhausting” which can lower your motivation, reduce how often you practice, and may even lead to you giving up piano altogether.
Ultimately, having good posture and using proper playing techniques ensures that your practice sessions are as comfortable and enjoyable as possible. As you grow more advanced, they also set your body free and allow energy to flow directly from you to the keys you play. Without the relaxation they afford, you would be significantly limited in terms of emotional expression and dynamic range.
It is important to know that it is difficult to undo bad habits and also recognize why it is necessary to overcome them. It might be more of a struggle if some aspects don’t come naturally to you: for instance, you are left-handed (link to new article) or have poor hand-eye coordination, but innate ability is a very small part of success (link to new article). Dedication, excellence, and a strong foundation in good musical habits can get you to all the new heights you hope to reach someday, no matter what your initial starting point was.