Helping students learn to identify and release tension is important. Playing with tension is not only uncomfortable, it can affect the quality of sound our students produce as well as make it more difficult for them to play their pieces correctly. Over time, playing with excess tension can even lead to injury!
In today's article, I am sharing 5 ways you can help students who are struggling with tension. These are techniques that I actually like to use with every single student, since these are healthy habits that can help any student prevent problems in their playing down the road.
Keep reading to learn more....
I started incorporating off-the-bench warm-ups into lessons many years ago and saw immediate results in my students. These simple exercises are designed to help students develop body awareness, learn how to identify tension, and learn how to release tension.
Try these exercises at the start of each lesson and encourage students to do them at home before each practice session:
- Shoulder shrugs: Help students feel the difference between tense shoulders and relaxed ones by raising the shoulders, then dropping them to a relaxed position.
- Arm swings: Let arms swing freely from the shoulder and allow the hands and wrists to fully relax. This exercise also helps to prepare students for using arm weight at the piano.
- Wrist floats: Allow the wrist to gently float up, as if attached to a balloon, while the hand dangles freely underneath.
- Finger wiggles: Gently wiggle the fingers to make sure each one is soft and relaxed. Don't forget to wiggle the thumb, too!
Tip #2: Practice mindfulness when it comes to breathing.
Have you ever noticed your students holding their breath while they play? I find this is common with students who struggle with tension, and I especially see this often in adult students!
Help your students practice mindfulness when it comes to breathing by encouraging them to take a few deep breaths before playing each piece. I also like to mark "breathing spots" in the music, where students can take a second to make sure they are not holding their breath.
Tip #3: Remind students to find their "piano stance" before playing a piece.
Students who play sports really relate to the concept of a "piano stance"--just like the stance you might take before swinging a bat in baseball, or before making a free throw in basketball.
What is the "piano stance"? In our piano stance we have:
- good posture (sitting tall and at the correct distance from the keys),
- feet flat on the floor,
- shoulders relaxed,
- wrists level with the arm, and fingers gently curved on the keys, ready to play .
Make it a habit for students to get into their piano stance, then to take a few deep breaths before starting to play each piece.
Tip #4: Mark "tension checkpoints" in the music.
If you have students who struggle with tension, marking their music with "tension checkpoints" can be very helpful! You can place small stickers in various places in the score that serve as a reminder for students to check their piano stance and to relax their shoulders, arms, wrists, and fingers.
You might also find that there are certain spots in the music that even non-tense students are prone to tension. Sections with large hand stretches, fast runs, loud dynamics--these are all places that could benefit from having a "tension checkpoint" so that students remember to check for tension while playing something particularly challenging.
Tip #5: Take breaks periodically throughout the lesson.
Don't forget to encourage students to get off the bench periodically throughout their lesson and during practice sessions at home. Encourage students to walk around, take a few deep breaths, and even repeat the off-the-bench exercises listed above to prevent tension from creeping in.
In conclusion, overcoming tension comes down to developing 3 key skills:
- Learning how to identify when tension is present.
- Learning how to release tension.
- Developing mindful practice habits that prevent tension from creeping in and taking over.
Learning how to identify and overcome tension can be a challenge for many pianists, but it is possible! I hope the ideas above give you and your students a few specific techniques that you can use to make your playing tension-free for years to come.
What do you think? Do you have any tricks for encouraging tension-free playing? I would love to hear from you in the comments!