Untitled Document

Barbara Lister-Sink: Freeing the Caged Bird

Barbara Lister-Sink has combined her knowledge of Alexander Technique with her own experience in the physical aspects of piano technique to create a film that aims to free you from physical restriction in your playing. Her aim is excellent, and much of the film provides highly effective advice on how to use oneself well at the piano - to organize one's body to best use all the tonal resources of the instrument. This review attempts to document both the pros and cons of Lister-Sink's approach to the physical in piano playing - by pointing out the few weak points in her argument I hope to make the positive aspects of her contribution even more effective.


Luckily for us, several excerpts from Freeing the Caged Bird can be found on YouTube. These provide us with a detailed look at Lister-SInk's approach.

Basic Moves Part I

This excerpt contains much sound advice:

Habit #1) Don't retain tension in the shoulders (0:35-1:40). Notice the very evocative slow motion sequence at 1:10 showing exactly how many profound body changes take place when the shoulders really let go. And notice how much the Schumann Romance in F sharp major gains in eloquence, richness of tone and expressive depth. A great example of how a physical change evokes a corresponding musical improvement.

Habit #2) Don't wave your elbows out to the side like a duck, what Barbara calls "elbow jutting" and what I call the "classic arm out to the side" (1:45-3:00). At 2:45 note how Debussy's "La fille aux cheuveux du lin" acquires a luminescent, transcendant impressionist tone when Barbara demonstrates a whole arm technique untrammelled by the distracting movement of the elbows (known elsewhere as the "classic arm out").

Habit #3) But then she advises not to play with high, flat fingers (3:06-3:55). It's a very interesting moment, because when she demonstrates how not to do it (3:20), it looks and sounds really great! She uses high, flat fingers to play a light, fast scale passage, beautifully articulated and even, bubbling with pearl-like energy, and then says that we must not do it this way because it overworks the extensors and cuts off our fingers from the rest of the playing mechanism! But she does it with no difficulty - it's effortless and tension-free, and then when she demonstrates the supposed correct way (3:50), her hand looks pinched, and the sound is not as even and pearly.

This is a great example of dogmatic thinking clouding one's judgement. Fear of overwork here offers nothing but limitation and a blight on one's capability.

Habit #4) According to Lister-Sink, high, curved fingers are another big no-no, even more dangerous than Habit #3 (4:00-5:35). Lister-Sink wants to save pianists from injuring themselves or from playing with unnecessary tension thus hurting their sound. She has seen pianists doing this by raising and curling the fingers while maintaining a low wrist, and has found through her own vast experience that often the way to help these people is to stop them from doing that. Her demonstration of how to return the hand to a natural alignment and level of effort is very educational and effective.

However, she fails to note that the wrist tends to function as the keystone of the arm/hand/finger arch only at dynamics of mf and above, and that at lower dynamics the keystone is the metacarpal-phalangeal ridge. She also fails to note again how many great pianists play in exactly the way she condemns, pianists such as Horowitz, Argerich, Glenn Gould, etc. She also fails to notice how well she herself does the very technique she proscribes! One worries again about blanket proscription simply because in many cases it doesn't work well.

HOWEVER: At 5:00, the "cure" Barbara shows for overly curled fingers is really beautiful. Look at the transformation of the hand into an organic, vital, breathing organism instead of the tightly held one she had before. Her citation of free, proper alignment, and everything else she says here as well is 100% accurate, true, and tremendously valuable. The tension-free, well-aligned hand is of course the ideal template from which we should begin our pianistic training, and here Lister-Sink rightly and beautifully presents it as such.

To my mind, once that template is well-learned and securely in place, it is possible to depart from it without fear of injury. And many times it is necessary if we are going to exploit the full gamut of tonal resources the piano offers.

Habit #5) Don't hold the hand's arch stiffly (5:40-6:55). Another brilliant plus in Lister-Sink's arsenal. Her she has zeroed in on one of the key problems many pianists struggle with, and her approach to solving it is 100% right on. My only quibble: she says "the hand and finger muscles eventually develop naturally by supporting more and more weight from the arm lever." No! They develop naturally, and maintain the arch naturally, by activating the fingers!

Habit #6) Don't hold fingers off the keys. (6:55- ) Once again, the demonstration gives one pause to wonder, why is she sanctioning something that looks so good and obviously works so well? Her slow motion performance of Chopin's etude Op. 10 #8 (at 7:05-7:15) bears eerie resemblance to the same slow motion view of the same etude by Horowitz. Take a look! Op. 10 #8 begins at 0:22 (before that is the octave etude Op. 25 #10)


It is uncanny how similar the two performances are - and yet Lister-Sink is saying you should not play like that!

Again, her idea is good: many times it is highly useful to eliminate excess tension from the fingers by letting them rest on the keys. I devote a whole chapter (Quality of Movement in Thumb Pushups) to it in my own book. It is especially good as a therapeutic practice to return the hand to its natural organic state. But to extrapolate this idea and make it universal only robs the pianist of much needed activity in many situations.

However, when she says, "Once we learn the subtle skill of directing weight into each finger" (7:14), she again expresses a fundamental misconeption about arm weight. If the subjective experience of "directing weight into the finger" helps you relax and play better, fine. But if you actually played that way you would be inhibiting the fingers from their natural ability to move robustly and vigorously (and of course, subtly and sensitively) - a profound act of self-disempowerment.

Again it is a very tricky question, because this one inaccuracy is mixed in with a bunch of really beautiful and helpful descriptions of some fundamentally good elements of piano technique, for instance: "The arm is so beautifully supported by the torso that the whole hand can rest without tension on the keys" (7:25). A great description which is immediately followed by, "when the fingers just rest on the keys, it saves a lot of energy" (7:33), which fails to note that if you need brilliant sound, you may well be better off expending that energy because if the fingers just rest there like limp dishrags, it's not going to happen!

In this second video excerpt, Lister-Sink continues her documentation of bad habits...


Habit #7) Over-Pressing and Over-Moving. (0:00-1:30) Here Barbara gives a wonderful demonstration of both the negative results of overmoving and overpressing, and the wonderful blossoming of tone that happens when you let go of these bad habits. Bravo! But her verbal explanation again contains the misconception that this wonderful coordination is achieved by a "well-coordinated regulation of weight." Perhaps she believes that she is really doing that, but it appears to me that her fingers actually move - imagine!

Habit #8) Supporting Weight on Lowered Wrists. (2:15- ) Here Barbara takes a poke at one other paragon of relaxation piano technique, Carola Grindea. She first demonstrates Carola's "wrist flop" technique beautifully (2:35-2:52) and then proceeds to give a cogent explanation as to why this doesn't work. However her demonstration of the "right" way aty 3:45-4:00 also suffers from an over-reliance on arm weight technique and a lack of activity in the hand itself, which would lend a more monumental quality to the tone and expression.

Habit #9) Heavy, Relaxed Arms. (4:05-5:05) This clip bears detailed examination. She says, "The assumption that the released weight of the arm produces big sound is true, but it is only true while the arm is free-falling and at the split-second of tone production. The moment the fingers contact the keybed, the weight of the falling arm should be transferred back into the torso , leaving just enough weight to keep the key down, just a few ounces."

1) She seems to assume that the ONLY thing producing a big sound is the released weight of the arm. She leaves the hand and fingers out of it, which to my mind is a rather glaring omission!

2) "It is only true while the arm is free falling": if this were so, then the arm would have to be free-falling for each single note or chord in a passage which might be moving with considerable speed. Another highly doubrful assumption, because to let the arm free-fall, stop it in the moment of contact and then start it again in the next instant to prepare the next note or chord is something that simply cannot be done rapidly.

3) How does one transfer the weight of one's arm into one's torso? Am I supposed to lie my arm on my shoulder? We think we know what she is saying, but the whole description is fraught with such inaccuracy and potential for misunderstanding that we need a new description - one that respects both subjective experience and objective physical process...

The wonderful slow motion demonstration of what she is talking about clearly shows the limitations of the "Arm Weight = Inert Hand" school of playing (4:35-4:50). As far as it goes, this technique is OK. The hand structure is beautiful, and she is using virtually no tension to keep it that way. This is already great and very evolved. The way the arm releases into the hand is also wonderful - relaxed and precisely coordinated and balanced.

But this way of playing fails to explore the wonderful capability of the hand itself! It's as if she did all the correct preperatory work, ridding the hand and arm of all its bad habits, but then left it at that. It's like setting a dining room for a beautiful meal and then not putting any food on the table. All this relaxation could serve to empower the hand into potent action, which would give each of those Chopin chords 100 times more colour, variety, power, and expressive content. But the hand just sits there like a bump on a log and lets the arm pump its weight through it into the keys. For me its sad because its a great opportunity that ends up a missed opportunity.

She then says, "It's sort of like a falling brick transforming itself into a ping pong ball..." Too true, too true!

Lister-Sink is a proponent of the arm weight school, but her presentation of the arm weight philosophy is problematic. Her description of what actually goes on in arm weight technique is inaccurate although it may well be one's subjective experience:

“The joints of the arm and finger must be fixed in the moment of playing so that the weight of the arm can successfully be transmitted through the hand structure into the key.“

Fixation can be a useful element of technique, but it is the antithesis of arm weight technique. Most often the stable and potent functioning of the skeletal structure takes place in the context of joints remaining free. Sensing the weight of one's arm is done to relax it in order to free the joints, not fix them. Skeletal stability is achieved not by fixation but through a balanced alignment of bone structure. This allows forces to be transmitted effectively through the joints without their needing to be fixed. The body retains a crucial quality: moveability.

Sensing your arm’s weight in free fall tends to relax the muscles that would otherwise bind the finger joints. The finger manipulates the key ‘on the fly,’ producing warm, free, singing tone because there is never a point of stiff impact or over-definition of a note’s attack. But when Lister-Sink demonstrates what she’s talking about, she fixes her hand structure and then pumps her arm to move the hand into each note in turn, and she actually slightly collapses the arch of the hand – loosening the very joints which she says should stay stiff. This subtle, hidden collapse, while she is attempting to stay fixed lends a pumped, note-by-note quality to the melody that is quite unattractive (unlike Mme Lister-Sink herself!).

Analyzing and sensing the use of the body in piano playing is an admirable intention – it is regrettable that the large amount of really useful information Lister-Sink offers on whole body organization, healthy sitting etc. is compromised by a central and fundamental inaccuracy in her approach.

Let's round out this review with a look at how well Barbara Lister-Sink practices what she preaches... and then some! Her performance of Reflets dans l'eau is really beautiful, polished and shimmering, although at times we can detect a slight lack of activity in the hand as she insists on leaving it almost inert and letting herself feel that the arm's weight is doing most of the work. But look at the scales at 1:15-1:35! The arches of her hand leap into potent activity when it's needed. That glistening scale passage simply can't be done without the right, potent work of the hand itself. Yes, this potent work is supported by the optimal body organization she cultivates so well, but it's a pity she never speaks about the central fact of fundamental, crucial hand and finger activation, which she obviously knows cold!


Buy Freeing the Caged Bird at http://www.freeingthecagedbird.com/

Price/Value Quotient

DVD $39.95   Good value for money


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