12 • What we play the piano with:

The pianist bio-mechanism consists of four parts:

1: Shoulders, anchored into the balanced torso, which guide independently (from each other) and freely swiveling

2: arms, which function like the bow arm of the violinist, moving cyclically like pendulum weights or ocean waves and which transmit their momentum into the

3: wrists, which function like a car suspension, transmitting the weight of the arms as quills transmit the force of the wing to the feathers, forward down into the

4: fingers, which have their entirely separate mechanisms (finger independence) like the fingers of the violinist, with the necessary range of firmness ranging from bladesmith hammers to steel rapiers and from water falls to falling ashes.

Each of these four parts has physical properties that govern them, and understanding these properties – as well as basic and general physical laws like gravity and momentum – is paramount to our art; their proper (coordinated) application permits effective practicing and prevents damage to the pianist bio-mechanism. The absolute (i.e. limitless, infinite, comprehensive, enlightened, transcendental, virtuoso) piano technique results from the organic synthesis of these four parts.

4) Fingers have sets of four main muscles and tendons that are relevant to the pianist mechanism:
a) Flexors - Profundis and Sublimis - to curl fingers into the palm. One muscle in the arm with two tendon endings:
one attached at the first phalange (the tip of the finger) and one at the second (which is the reason fingers can not be
curled from the first phalange alone without opposite contraction);
b) Extensors to straighten fingers by pulling them up in the opposite (dorsal) direction;
c) Iterosei (palmar and dorsal) to move fingers sideways at the knuckle ridge; and the
d) Lumbricalis, the most important, the “fifth element”, the quintessential pianist finger muscle. It is that tiny, wormlike, muscle in our palm that allows the straight finger to bend from the knuckle, the joint of the third and fourth phalange. The Flexors provide the appropriate position (curvature) for the Lumbricalis to do its work, allowing the finger to descend in the most relaxed and efficient manner (without grabbing or clawing); that muscular cooperation is the key to finger independence. A relaxed finger doesn’t have to be lifted by the Extensors as the key pushes the finger back into position. Fingers can move independently from a balanced hand and arm, like water pouring from the shower head of a watering can, or function like spokes of a wheel, transmitting the weight and momentum of the arm. When the fingers are used to transmit dynamic arm weight, the muscles combine into a firm but flexible stance, like the thrusted blade of a steel rapier.

Four Muscles Five Tendons

When the muscles in the inner part of the forearm are activated (Flexors), the fingers curl; when the muscles in the outer part of the fore arm are activated (extensors), they straighten. When one finger is raised above the knuckle ridge and curved at the same time while the other fingers are down at the keys, an unnatural and undesirable position, the "cocked blunderbuss hammer" as Breithaupt referred to it; is produced as two opposing sets of muscles (flexors and extensors) have to be activated at the same time to achieve that position. The pursuit of the curved and high-raised single finger is a Fallacy!

"Der gespannte Büchsenhahn (die überstreckte Stellung) ist und bleibt, als Norm betrachtet, eine lebendige Karikatur jeder natürlichen Fingerbewegung."
"The cocked blunderbuss hammer (the overstretched position) is and remains, in general, an animated caricature of any natural finger movement."
Rudolph Breithaupt "Die Natürliche Klaviertechnik", 1913

3) Wrist movement is an important factor in piano playing, though almost never the governing one (opposite to what for example Taubman proclaims). The importance and function of the wrist was first observed and explained in terms of pedagogical methodology systematically by Thobias Mathay. The wrist can and must rotate (pronation, supination) – the ulna and radius bones (the two lower arm bonds) are parallel when the palm faces upwards and over-cross when facing down – thus supporting and enhancing consecutive finger movements (particularly in arpeggiated clusters, which is 71% of all technical application). The wrist often functions like the suspension of a car wheel: moving to accommodate finger positions while transmitting energy (arm weight) and absorbing unevenness between engine (arm) and ground (fingers on keyboard), transmitting arm weight to key and compensating for the difference of individual fingers and the topography of the keyboard. Sometimes the wrist functions as an auxiliary to finger movements - for example for accents in continuous passages; - and, far more seldom, as the initiator of key contact - like for example for light (‘wrist’) octave passages or first contact impulse in octave, chord, and polydactyla passages. When the inexperienced observer notices wrist movement without the understanding of bio-mechanical reasons - for example accommodation of arm weight and momentum transfer to the fingers - the wrist appears as the initiator of movement and is enthymemically taught in that way. If applied thus, the wrist moves as if cranking an accelerator handle grip on a motorcycle and wastes most of the resources of arm weight and momentum. The pursuit of momentum generated from the wrist is a Fallacy!

2) The arm must and can provide a balanced and calm position for the arm, like the tonearm of a record player, from which the fingers can and should move independently. When the whole arm is engaged, it has to move in a cyclical, wave like motion, wrist point (hand) and elbow point (lower arm) moving consecutively; the way you'd use a Yoyo or a Frisbee. Simultaneous, linear, movement of elbow and wrist (like a fork lift) doesn't generate momentum without tension and should be avoided like a Fallacy.

1) The upper arm has to be anchored freely in the relaxed (not raised and thus fixated) shoulder, enabling the elbows to oscillate. When the shoulders are raised (another Fallacy), the range of arm motion is substantially diminished, if not completely inhibited. Think: shoulders relaxed, arms moving; simplified: shoulders down, elbows up!

The integration of these four parts is a path to an absolute piano technique.

"Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed."
Francis Bacon

See: 135 • Good gesture
See: 192 • Jonathan Livingston Seagull

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  • A weblog of thoughts, ideas, concepts, observations, suggestions, research, methodology, discoveries, rules, exceptions, aphorisms, and secrets from pianist to pianist.
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