THE ARM-WEIGHT METHOD
The emergence of the Arm-weight Method created a revolutionary change to piano-playing. The training of piano technique experienced a crucial break through. It enriched and broadened the expressiveness of music and brought the glamour and charm of the piano into full play.
Evidently, the Arm-Weight Method is the participation of the entire body, mind, arms and fingers in playing.
What we need to discuss is: how to correctly and effectively implement the Arm-Weight Method. We will elaborate in two respects: the unblocked state and the balance.
I): The Unblocked State
First of all, we must achieve the unblocked state. The energy should go all the way to the fingertips. In the meantime, our mind should also be in direct control of the fingertips in playing. Only in this way can we play with high quality.
The line of demarcation between the Arm-Weight Method and the Exclusive Finger Method is whether a pianist plays in an unblocked state or in a blocked state. The Finger Method believes that the involvement of the arm weight hinders the independence and agility of the fingers. But the Arm-Weight Method considers that only when the arms are involved can the fingers be truly independent and agile, the playing full of vitality and the training fully develop. This unblocked state is the prerequisite and the foundation of scientific playing.
Let us do a simple exercise: sit up straight on the piano bench and put the hands on the lap. Now, the weight of the arms comes through the wrists and is resting on the lap without any tension. The arms are in their most natural condition. When we lift the wrists lightly, the weight of the arms would move to the fingertips. This is the unblocked state. If the weight of the arms is moved backward to the elbows, it becomes the Finger Method, which is in a blocked state.
The weight of the arms goes all the way to the bottom of the key bed from the shoulders. We need ten strong fingers to support the weight. We cannot just concentrate on the weight of the arms coming down vertically from top to bottom; we also need to realize there is the capability of the fingers to support from the bottom to the top. One might not expect that only using the first joint of the finger to grip the key, the finger would immediately be firm; the weight of the arm would comfortably go to the bottom of the key through the finger. But this is actually the genuine unblocked state.
When the fingertip grips the key, the arm weight would rest on the fingertip. The fingertip feels intimately connected to the key and the attention of the pianist is naturally brought to the fingertip. The fingertip is under the direct control of the brain and becomes very obedient, easy to command, and one can play with more assurance, precision and can express the music with facility.
There are many advantages when the fingers grip the keys. For example: to play the piano with evenness and with unified tone quality is very important. Although our fingers are not of the same length, once they grip the keys, each finger is able to support the same weight and produce even sounds with the others. There is no necessity to humanly enhance the strength of the little (pinky) finger, so it can be as strong as the middle finger. Therefore, training time is much shortened when the fingers grip the keys.
The Finger Method focuses the attention on the palm knuckles. The Arm-Weight Method is different. When fingertips grip the keys, the attention is moved to the front and focused on the fingertips. Playing becomes more at ease, more direct, simpler and more energy-saving.
Consequently, pianists play at a much faster speed (when it called for) than previously; the dynamics is greater, using minimum effort to achieve maximum effect.
To truly achieve the unblocked state, the natural weight of the arm and the first joints of the fingers gripping the keys must co-ordinate and integrate.
2): The Balanced State
Balance is very significant to an athlete. If an athlete loses his balance, he would be unable to give full play to his skills and might even fall down. A professional pianist needs to possess advanced technique, balance is most crucial to him. Only with balance as foundation, can a rational state of playing be attained and the potential of the skills be reached.
“Balance” indicates the equilibrium or balance between the weight of the arms and the capability to support it by the fingers.
We need to establish a concept: when the arm hangs down from the shoulder, it is not heavy. This is the natural weight of the arm. When the first joint of a finger grips the key, the finger is sturdy and is capable to support weight. So when the fingers grip the keys, they can support the natural weight of the arms, including the little (pinky) finger. This is the balance in piano playing. When one has reached this natural balance, the unblocked state is achieved and the Arm-Weight Method is being verified. This balance is so very important to pianists; it allows us to bring the function of the hands into full play, without any obstruction, and to train our technique effectively. Never neglect this balance or equilibrium. It is the foundation of piano playing; the most essential of the fundamental.
Unfortunately, some of our students have lost or have not established this balance or equilibrium. The unbalanced state is quite widespread. Here are two examples of the incorrect playing:
a) To push and to press
Piano teachers often come across students who forcefully push down to the key bed without considering whether their fingers could support such a huge force. They have lost their balance. To push and to press is not using one’s natural arm-weight at all. It overwhelmingly exceeds the fingers’ ability to support such weight, making the hands and muscles very tense. Training cannot be done under this blocked and stiff condition. This incorrect way of pushing and pressing exists extensively. It is like asking a child to carry an one hundred pound load. He would lose his ability to move.
b) To only stress the relaxation of the arms but neglect the support of the fingers
These pianists cannot achieve the balanced state, because they do not realize that gripping the keys makes their fingers sturdy so that their arm-weight can go through to the key bed. When they do not grip the keys, their fingers can never become sturdy, their arms will never be truly relaxed, and they cannot achieve a more advanced level of playing. The sound they project is usually gentle and fluent but with little dynamic range; contrasts are small and without sonority, brilliance or vitality. Their repertoire is limited. If they play pieces which require big dynamic ranges and multiple varieties of changes, they would have to resort to pushing and pressing, which could cause injury to the muscles of their hands.
We rely on our fingers to do everything when we play the piano. A pianist needs ten strong and sturdy fingers to perform difficult repertoire. As the fingers’ capability to support gradually strengthens, the level of technical prowess is elevated. This is to say, without strong fingers, the technique would stay at a lower level. We should not be satisfied with our fingers just being able to support our arm-weight; we need to continue to strengthen our fingers’ ability to support more weight, even to hold up the entire weight of the body! In the training process, we must advance step by step, in an orderly manner, gradually from weak to strong, and always maintaining the flexibility to the fingers. We must firmly abide by the principle of the unblocked state and balanced state. Or in other words, only when a pianist trains in an unblocked state and balanced state, his fingers will become sturdy and strong, making stride in technical improvement. The two incorrect ways of playing mentioned above are both examples of the loss of balance and cannot reach advanced level of piano performance.
We continuously stress balance because it is so important to piano playing. Balance needs to beregulated.We must pay attention to whether the weight of the arms goes directly to the fingertips without any obstruction in the elbows and/or the wrists. In the meantime, we should also be mindful of the ten fingers’ ability to support weight. Balance from the top to the bottom and from the bottom to the top will ensure that the hands are in the maximum possible state of relaxation. We all know that playing the piano requires a fair amount of tension from the muscles of the hands, especially tackling difficult pieces. Therefore, we must constantly adjust the balance to buffer the tension, to eliminate any obstruction during playing, bring potential technical ability into full play so that our fingers can freely express the feelings in our hearts.
To be adept at constantly adjusting the balance between the arms and the fingers is a responsibility a piano teacher must shoulder and cannot disregard. A student’s starting point and foundation must be established on a scientific method so that he will always play in a naturally balanced state. This will have a decisive affect on the quality of his playing and his future as a pianist.
Three suggestions calling for our attention:
a) Grip the keys with the first joints of the fingers:
We have already discussed this matter at length and will not repeat here. The reminder is: the purpose of this gripping of keys is to make the first joints strong and sturdy; the arm-weight will go directly to the bottom of the key bed. But if one uses excess effort to grip the keys, it would make the palms and wrists tense and rigid and the purpose of gripping the keys is lost. Therefore, if a pianist can use appropriate effort to grip keys and experience an unblocked and balanced state while playing, he has attained the goal.
b) About the wrists:
The wrists are important in playing; they cooperate with the fingers. The fingers are the front line; the arms, elbows and wrists are the fingers’ “logistic support”. When the soldiers on the frontline lose the support and cooperation of their logistic support and lack ammunition, the battle cannot win. The wrist is the passageway and the juncture where the arm-weight passes through and is the closest to the fingers. The use of the wrists directly affects the ability and quality of playing. It controls the force and the speed to go down the keys. More importantly, the wrist helps the hand and each finger to find its best position in playing. There is a variety of musical figures in the repertoires. There are different intervals, and therefore there are different distances between the keys to reach for. Consequently the wrists must adjust continuously and at all times. Only when the most appropriate position and angle is found, can the weight of the arms go through comfortably to the key bed, and can the arms coordinate effectively with the fingers. The wrists should always be agile and elastic in order to suit the different types and styles of repertoires, giving vitally to the playing and performance.
But unfortunately, many piano students do not realize the logistic role of the wrists as the rear-service to the hands and fingers. Their wrists do not help and participate in their playing, and become obstacles. For instance, some use the wrist to produce force, using the wrists to push and press the keys, causing tension and rigidity to the muscles of the entire arms. This violates the principle of the unblocked and balanced state.
To let the wrists play the role of cooperation and regulation, to feel while playing that one “has no wrists”, the wrists will automatically cooperate with ease. This is because one has a natural coordination in physical movement.
c) Fingers keep close to the keys and go down slowly:
How should a teacher teach pianists who do not really have the technical ability to play or those who play with incorrect technique?
Suggestion: Fingertips keep close to the keys so the pianist has a feel of security; go down the depth of the keys slowly to sense the relaxation of the mind and the muscles with ease. Let him comprehend the technique of playing the piano and its training is within his reach. Without lifting the fingers from the keys, use the wrists to go up and down the keys lightly to put the weight of the arms accurately and quietly through the fingertips down to the key beds. Meantime, fingertips grip the keys lightly. This is to implement the principle of the unblocked state and the balanced state from the very beginning. The pianists or students will realize through experience that it is easy and comfortable to play the piano. In this way they will gradually have confidence and security in playing; calmly, they will feel their finger’s ability to support their arm-weight and the depth of the keys from the surface to the bottom of the key bed; and their ear will be able to distinguish good tonality from bad. Keeping fingers close to the keys can prevent knocking down from above; going down slowly can prevent pushing and pressing.
This method can be used to train single notes, thirds, sixths, octaves and chords….etc. As the fingers become strong and sturdy, a variety of exercises can be used. But, one principle must be kept in mind: never let the muscles of the hands feel pain or be hurt; never lose the balanced state; train and advance step by step on the condition that the fingers are able to support the weight.
Some pianists and teachers believe one must feel the weight of their arms by lifting them from way above the keys and without any control (totally relaxed), drop to the keys fast. The combination of speed plus weight produces such huge force that fingers cannot support. This method cannot be effective at all, since the balanced state is lost. Speed plus weight is already not the natural weight of the arms.
Although this article has discussed the Arm-weight Method at length, it might still seem confusing to some. Actually the method is very easy to implement; everyone can achieve it in a short period of time, without any exceptional training, since everybody can relax their arms and grip the keys since these are one’s natural ability. Our task is to adjustand to practice in a balanced state.
The Arm-weight Method is an important point of departure on the path of correct piano playing. Technical training must be on the foundation of the Arm-weight Method. Only then can technique advance smoothly and high quality of technical ability be attained.