PIANO TECHNIQUE REVIEWS

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Thomas Mark: What Every Pianist Needs to Know About the Body

 

Thomas Mark has written a fine work bringing to light many crucial aspects of how the human body moves that, until now, have remained in the dark. The illustrations and the practical exercises to educate the body’s feeling “make the abstract concrete” (a favorite phrase of Moshe Feldenkrais’s to describe the aim of his own Method) in a tremendously empowering way, and do so while avoiding tedious, overly technical language.

 

Body Mapping

Mark mentions “Body Mapping,’ the process whereby different parts of the body that may take part in a certain movement are brought into one’s sensory awareness. This of course is a key process - perhaps even the core process - of both the Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais Method of somatic education, and readers are advised to practice such disciplines if they wish to make best practical use of the information found in these pages.

 

Welcome to Reviews on Piano Technique.net, a site devoted to comparing and evaluating the various approaches to piano technique on the market today. 100 years ago Germany, France, Russia and England each had their version of the finger action school, and were developing the arm weight techniques of Deppe and Breithaupt in Germany and Matthay in England as well as a more active use the arm to produce rich tone in Russia. Pianistic lineages had evolved stemming from the great pianist-composers: the Beethoven-Czerny-Liszt line in Germany, the Chopin-....-Cortot line in France, and Anton and Nikolai Rubinstein and their descendants - Goldenweiser, Neuhaus, Essipova, Tatyana Nikolayeva et. al. - that formed the nucleus of the Russian school.

Chapter One

In Basic Concepts, Mark points out the dangers of understanding technique only in terms of finger movements, and cites several 20th century pioneers (Otto Ortmann, Arnold Schultz, Dorothy Taubmann) who break new ground in understanding the involvement of the whole body in playing. He then goes on to explain how we can involve our bodies more - by cultivating the kinesthetic sense.

He stresses the need to train the attention, because “parts of the body that are not included in our awareness are likely to become fixed, immoveable.”

Playing with the whole body

He suggests improving the “body map” to develop a better functionality… “The body map is the self-representation that governs movement. A person may know about the structure of the body, but if that knowledge does not govern the person’s movement, it is mere intellectual knowledge and not a part of the body map.” The body map corollary in Feldenkrais is self-representation, or the self-image, the improvement of which is a key component of that method.

Mark continues: “Many pianists are unaware of their torso, back, pelvis or other body parts as they play… They are ‘disembodied,’ out of touch with their own bodies.” To remedy this situation he recommends beginning by “attending to tactile sensations of all kinds,” and later on offers specific strategies for developing awareness of those parts of ourselves especially important to playing the piano.

Finally, in “Kinesthetic & Musical Imagination,” Mark writes wonderfully on the organic relationship between the way we move and our musical conception. The continuing enrichment of our kinesthetic awareness will influence our musical conception, and the ongoing refinement of our musical conception will further develop our proprioceptive sense.

Chapter Two

Mapping the Structure provides a clear, comprehensive account of the main supportive parts of our skeleton - the legs and torso. Most importantly, he explains the crucial function of this skeletal structure.

The Spine

His discussion of the spinepoints out that a fixed spine is a non-functional one, that leads to non-functional piano playing. Mark takes great care to discuss the entire body rather than focusing on the hand and arm alone. He aims well when he aims to help pianists involve their whole body in playing. His description of the spine’s natural capacity to lengthen and gather with the in and out breaths is wonderfully empowering. The simple practice of trying to feel this natural function in yourself, and monitoring what you may have been doing to inadvertently inhibit it, can totally transform not only your posture but the way your hands feel on the keys.

Chapter Three

Mapping the Places of Balance deals with the articulations of the skeleton, the places where movement takes place. His wonderful discussion of Posture vs. Balance is a vivid illustration of Feldenkrais’s concept of unstable equilibrium, though Mark never actually uses that terminology. He expresses well the key concept that a posture held rigidly is of no use, and must be moveable to be potent. He describes how the body is a marvelous feat of engineering designed to rise up elegantly in the downward pull of gravity, and lists key places of flexibility where alternately losing and recovering balance are constant functions that keep us in good movement health.

Mark stresses that the illustration of a standing skeleton with several points of balance all vertically aligned does not show how we must always stand: “As I move and perform different actions, I will continually depart from balance and return to it. Balance is not a stance or position but a means of organizing movement, a place of reference, that place from which movement in any direction is easiest.” (p. 36-7) This statement correlates wonderfully with Feldenkrais’s concept of the neutral point, “the position in which you possess the greatest amount of potential energy.”

The Head

Mark says that the head balances exactly on the top vertebra of the spine, the atlas, and offers several awareness exercises to help the reader approach this state, which relieves pressure on the entire spine underneath (p. 38-9). Although this is virtually true, in practice the head is held very slightly tilted forward, and the extensor muscles maintain just a bit of tonus to keep it from falling further. Thus we can understand Horowitz’s posture, straight back with head bowed forward in concentrated listening, not as an aberration but an expression of excellent body organization. This is a slightly more practical arrangement than absolute, precise balance of the head, but most of us would improve much by even approaching the quality of balance that Mark describes.

Sitting

Mark then discusses sitting in a “back-oriented” way, where you perceive your spine as just under the surface of the back. In reality, the weight-bearing spine is closer to the core of the body, midway between the back and the front of the chest. Perceiving this can lead us closer to balanced sitting. Mark correctly points out that many pianists do sit in a “back-oriented” way, stiffening their torsos and drastically limiting movement. I myself have tended to sit in a “front -oriented” way, where my body is overly flexed or hunched and thus, once again, restricted in its movement - another possible anomaly that Mark neglects to mention. Thus for me, the discovery of a wider, taller and more expansive feeling in my back was wonderful. For me, becoming more “back-oriented” improved my sitting by moving me closer to a core orientation. The direction in which you may improve depends largely on your initial subjective perception.

The Legs

Mark says that in sitting the legs are out of the way and the torso is balanced over the sitz bones (p. 46). But the legs do play a role in sitting: they act as pontoons, an important means of fine tuning balance of the upper body. Mark also points out that in sitting down, many people bend at the waist instead of the hip joints, thus losing postural balance. Feldenkrais teaches an effective way of moving from sitting to standing by avoiding any stress in the legs or torso but merely rocking forward until the weight of the torso itself pulls the body’s center of gravity forward until it comes off the sitz bones to hover over the feet. At this point, it is merely a matter of straightening the legs to stand up. The reverse process, where you don’t think of sitting down but of squatting, but at a certain point your rear end ‘kisses’ the chair as if by accident, is what Mark describes as “mainly a bending of the hip joints, knee joints, and ankles.”

Bench Height

Some years ago a colleague of mine, Natasha Dukan, enrolled at Peabody Conservatory as a graduate student in piano. When she arrived, she was astonished at how high everybody sat, and she had a problem finding benches that were low enough for her to sit comfortably. She also noticed that nobody else could produce the big “Russian” sound that is one of the trademarks of her playing. There’s a corollary here. Mark says that most people sit too low, but here I would venture to disagree. Perhaps he feels this way because injury avoidance issues, but too much is lost in terms of sonoric possibilities by sitting high. The human body is very adaptable, and the physics of piano playing dictate a lower bench height as most useful for producing the maximum sonority. Many pianists such as Hoffman, Horowitz, or more recently Kemal Gekich provide ample demonstration of this, although others have indeed produced wonderful sonorities with a higher bench height - in the end, bench height is an individual matter.

Chapter Four

In Mapping of the Arm and Hand, Mark continues to stress the moveability of each part of the skeletal system, and how important it is to avoid fixation. Mark is wonderfully diplomatic: he himself avoids referring to the great author-pedagogues of the past who did indeed advise fixation, and simply concentrates on the task at hand, coming to an as complete and up-to-date understanding of human movement function as possible.

The arm attaches to the breastbone

Mark points out that the arm does not end at the shoulder; rather, the shoulder blade and collarbone are an integral part of the arm. He quotes neurologist Frank R. Wilson: “the hand is an integral part of the entire arm, a specialized termination of a crane-like structure suspended from the neck and upper chest.” Mark continues, “The arm structure attaches to the skeleton in only one place, the sterno-clavicular joint, where the collarbone meets the breastbone.”

The Hand is a Group of Fingers

He later points out that the fingers end not at the metacarpal-phalangeal joint (the top knuckle), but at the wrist: “Pianists should map their hands on the basis of the underlying sturcture, not the appearance. We should feel that our fingers do not end at the knuckles, they end only at the carpo-metacarpal joint - where they connect with the wrist bones - and they include the metacarpal bones.” Thus Mark says that we basically do not have hands, only fingers and wrists, and if we feel and experience ourselves as such, our hands function much better on the keyboard.

He also points out how many of us fail to use the powerful third part of the thumb, the joint closest to the wrist. A wonderful exercise is offered where you fold the thumb over to meet the fifth finger, noticing that both the thumb’s and the fifth finger’s metacarpal bones move closer together, not only the phalanges…

Mark encourages the reader to investigate these facts and most importantly, to feel them in one’s own body - this is how this information becomes not only useful but transformative to one’s playing.

Chapter Five

In Mapping Muscles, Mark begins by illustrating three layers of muscle in the torso: the deep and intermediate layers that control the body’s core, and then the sheath of the superficial layer, muscles that entirely envelope the back and chest, and which are devoted entirely to controlling the arms. These illustrations alone are worth the price of the book. An underlying confusion concerning function leads to many of our bad posture habits. If the muscles governing the core don’t do their job well, the arm muscles feel the need to help support the core, thus reducing their own capacity to move the arms effectively (this is another instance of muscular co-dependence - the same phenomenon whose occurrence between thumb and hand is discussed in my film The Craft of Piano Playing). Simply developing the capacity to feel these distinctions of function between layers of muscle in our torso can lead to a vast improvement in our technique, and Mark’s illustrations offer us an effective means of doing so.

The Back as a Dual Suspension Bridge

Later on, Mark shows how the arm ‘hangs’ from the dual suspension bridgemuscular arrangement of the back.

The Back as a Suspension Bridge

Chapters Six to Nine

Further chapters map Muscles, Breathing, and the Piano itself before Mark turns his attention to some Additional Concerns of Organists and finally, Injuries. These all present a goldmine of not only useful but fascinating information about the instrument we use to play our instrument.

A Few Problematic Points

The pelvis and the spine

In Mark’s discussion of the sacrum (the central part of the pelvis - p. 20), he says that the pelvis does not participate in spinal movement. But from a functional viewpoint, the pelvis is the lowest vertebra of the spine, the point at which the spine connects directly to the legs through the hip joints. A few pages later he implies as much himself, noting that the spine of a pianist with a fixed pelvis cannot lengthen and gather. Cultivating the image of a pelvis as a unified part of the spine is simpler, more elegant, and more useful than introducing the complexity of the sacrum, iliae and isciae as separate entities.

The problem of deducing function from construction rather than from required actions

Understanding function from the point of view of how the body is constructed can lead to different conclusions than looking at it from the point of view of the action needed. The former limits functionality; the latter capitalizes on the body’s wonderful capacity to adapt. Mark runs into this problem in two key areas: ulnar deviation and the hand’s arch structure.

Ulnar Deviation (pp. 82-86)

Mark rightly notes that the forearm rotates around the ulna: the radius moves while the ulna stays stationary. He calls movement that respects this aspect of structure “fifth-finger oriented movements.” He illustrates how the hand reaches out from the forearm in a straight line when it is fifth-finger oriented, whereas it is turned to the outside when it is thumb-oriented. This position is ulnar deviation, and Mark says it is ‘bad,’ that it leads to tension and injury.

Mark also mentions another school of thought that encourages ulnar deviation, because this has the advantage of equalizing the length of the five fingers. When the hand is positioned straight on to the keyboard, the thumb is much shorter and much further away from the keys. For the thumb to even reach the keys, the fingers must venture into the black key area. Ulnar deviation has the positive effect of bringing the thumb into the keyboard, making it equal in length to the fifth finger, greatly facilitating ease of navigation.

However, Mark doesn’t mention a further negative aspect to ulnar deviation: it tends to deform and thus destabilize the double arch structure of the hand (see below). And although the thumb is shorter than the fingers, its entire construction is different from that of the fingers, so trying to equalize them entirely is not necessarily a good thing. It actually feels good to nestle the fingers in amongst the black keys thus creating a nice space for the thumb on the keyboard.

Mark intelligently approaches this complex question from the point of view of function rather than position: he notes that it is not the position itself that is dangerous, but the quality of movement with which you reach the position, and he says that it is possible to deviate effectively and without risk of injury. However, he notes that most pianists who do deviate are at risk, because they haven’t learned to organize themselves well in doing so (or in his terminology, the movement hasn’t been properly mapped). The bottom line seems to be, if you map your hand and arm structure well, most of the time you will find a way to move effectively without ulnar deviation (because your structure dictates it so), and you will also be able to manage situations when some ulnar deviation is necessary.

Ulnar Deviation and Rotation

Mark says that pianists who rotate their forearm in a “thumb oriented” way are at risk whereas those who are “fifth finger oriented” are not.

Hold a note with your fifth finger and raise your thumb to the sky. Rotate your thumb all the way to the outside, past your fifth finger that still holds its note. This is an easy movement, because the radius, which rotates in an arc to move your thumb, is not attached to the elbow. Only the ulna is attached to the elbow, and it remains stationary. This is Mark’s “fifth finger oriented rotation.”

Try the same movement but holding a thumb note and lifting your fifth finger. Now your radius is fixed and it is the ulna that must move through an arc. This would seem to be “thumb oriented forearm rotation,” which Mark says “is the result of mismapping the radius as the stationary bone,” and “feels stiff and awkward compared to little finger orientation” (p. 83). However, this movement is often needed in piano playing, tremolando octaves being the most obvious case. It can be accomplished smoothly and fluidly because of the arm’s unique construction: as the ulna is attached to the humerus, it can’t rotate freely unless it gets help from higher up: the elbow rises and so the rotation now involves the upper arm as well as the forearm. Thus your fifth finger lifts not because of a thumb oriented forearm rotation but because the humerus rotates in the shoulder socket, lifting the ulna in space. Mark does mention rotation of the humerus as one of the three rotations of the arm that should be a part of the pianist’s body map (p. 87), but neglects to point out that it’s the practical way of achieving this ‘quasi-thumb-oriented forearm rotation’ in a functional way.

The Arches of the Hand

Mark has a wonderful illustration of the foot, showing how both its longitudinal and transverse arches serve to bear the weight of the body coming down through the leg.

The Arch Structure of the Foot

It is fascinating to see how the foot’s arch works in a similar way to the corollary arch of the hand on the keyboard.

But Mark perceives the hand’s arch as extending not from fingertip to wrist but from fingertip to elbow. I believe he does this assuming that, because the construction of the hand is different from that of the foot, its function must be different as well. There is no leg bearing down on the metacarpal-phalangeal joint of the hand - instead, the arm is attached horizontally at the wrist, and so Mark envisions a different kind of arch comprising both hand and forearm.

The Arch Structure of the Arm

There are several potential problems with this. Cultivating the natural double arch structure of the hand itself empowers the hand, enriching piano tone and avoiding injury. Pianists such as Yonty Solomon and Carola Grindea (protégés of Dame Myra Hess and excellent purveyors of Matthay school of Arm Weight), Horowitz, Rubinstein, Arrau, Argerich and others all demonstrate the practical truth of this. The metacarpal-phalangeal joint of the hand is equivalent to the ankle joint of the foot: Heinrich Neuhaus describes putting his full weight on the student’s hand to make that arch feel its function, just as the body’s weight comes down through the leg to the ankle forces the foot’s arch to do its work.

The danger of taking the wrist as keystone as Mark does is the potential of severely limiting the hand’s functionality. It potentially undermines one side of the arch whose peak is the metacarpal-phalangeal joint, drastically reducing strength of tone, hampering facility and even increasing the risk of injury.

Careful observation of Horowitz, Rubinstein and others shows that they use the arch structure of the hand alone (metacarpal-phalangeal joint as keystone) when the dynamic level is not high, but always shift to the wrist-as-keystone as Mark describes when playing louder passages. Most important is that when theyshift to the wrist-as-keystone, they do not abandon the potency of the metacarpal-phalangeal joint - it stays fully viable and active rather than collapsing. Thus the denominator common to both these scenarios is the potent, effective action of the lumbrical-interosseous muscles. When these do their work, there is no danger of the metacarpal -phalangeal keystone collapsing, and the elbow-to-fingertip arch structure can indeed function effectively.

The few points in which my view differs from Mark’s in no way reduce this reviewer’s fervent endorsement of this book. Mark’s whole book is wonderfully effective at empowering pianists by having them make better use of their skeletal structure, and I personally have benefited a great deal from his clear and cogent discussion. We can all be grateful that Thomas Mark has invested so much of his intelligent speculation in this fruitful investigation of how the human body works in movement at the piano.


Buy the book at http://www.pianomap.com/

 

Price/Value Quotient

Book $34.95               

good value for money