Tag Archives: piano

Point Of Sound

One of the causes for strain, stress, injury and other maladies pianists, organists and typists experience is simply that they press too hard into the keybed of their device or instrument. Let’s first take a look at sports and then physics (that HS subject you think you don’t use in real life).

As a baseball player stands at home plate and the ball is hurtling toward him, he back-swings, forward swings, hits the ball, then all the energy left over from the swing dissipates into the follow through. The same action occurs when an athlete swings a tennis racquet, kicks a ball, swings a golf club, punches someone, throws a ball, etcetera. That is Newton’s third law of physics that every action has an equal and opposite action. In order to forward swing, one must first back swing. Even when we walk forward, as one leg is extending up and forward, the other leg is pushing backward. So according to the laws of physics, in order to type or play the piano down, one must first lift up. Many of us were trained or taught to play or type from a resting and relaxed position which actually creates tension because holding a position requires effort. So we know that everything requires an opposite motion and a follow through. I bet all you smart kids out there know exactly where I’m going with this.

Now imagine that our baseball, tennis, soccer, golf, football players or boxers are standing before a concrete wall and they backswing then forward swing but instead of hitting an object and following through, they strike the immovable wall. All the energy of the swing, instead of following through and dissipating, ricochets back into the athlete. That can hurt.

A piano is much the same. Many pianists press into the keybed of a piano and not only does that fail to produce any more of a tone but, all the energy of pressing down is being transferred back up into their finger joints and tendons. We often don’t notice this until after an hour or so of practice or the next morning when we wake up with stiff fingers. We are taught by bad teachers “no pain, no gain.” In this case, it is very much a lie. No pain, no gain is fine when building muscle but not for bones, joints, tendons, ligaments and certainly not for our technique. Often poor technique, strain or missed notes are a result of what we are not doing rather than what we are doing and often we are using the wrong muscles.

Sit at any acoustic piano and very slowly, depress a key so you don’t play a sound. At some point you will hit a little bump in the action, then press through it and you will hit the keybed. That little bump is the point of sound once you actually play.

As a pianist drops the controlled weight of their arm onto a key, they must use Newton’s third law. As they hit the point of sound, much like an athlete striking a ball, they must then follow through without hitting the keybed. When they press into the keybed, not only is their energy backfiring but, they are pressing down and according to Newton, we can’t set up for the up motion if we are pressing down. This hinders technique. You can’t play down if you don’t play up and you can’t play up if you are pressing down.

So, the key and cure to playing without tension or pain is learning to play to the point of sound and simply following through and not pressing into the keybed. Unbeknownst to most teachers, their students press into the keybed. It is a motion that is often invisible. When a student experiences problems with technique or pain, the teacher often says practice more or run exercises to build strength and endurance and the teacher is often oblivious that the way the student practices is what needs to be addressed, not a clock.

Danger Will Robinson. Before anyone tries to learn to play to the point of sound, there are other components of technique which must first be in place. This includes controlling arm weight, controlling up/down, controlling in/out from the shoulder and elbow, using the fulcrum of the elbow, controlling rotation of the forearm through the use of the pronator and supinator muscles. Likewise, there are movements to avoid such as abduction, curling the thumb under the palm, isolating a finger, equalizing fingers, radial and ulnar deviation, and trying to play too relaxed, still and quiet.

A virtuoso technique looks like it is effortless and relaxed. That is true, the fingers are relaxed because the arm does all the work. Observers are often looking at the pianist’s hands and fail to notice the elbow and arm is actually doing most of the work. Pianists who attempt to play from the fingers and have fatigue, are told to relax so, they relax the same muscles they are continuing to use and they achieve nothing.

Once all of the proper motions are achieved and the improper ones eradicated, point of sound will just happen. Some “techniques” such as the Russian Technique, surreptitiously imbue the pianist with these movements but personally, I would rather learn the physics and ergonomics of movement rather than being tricked through mindless imitation. Although, it works to some degree. Where it fails is when a pianist encounters a passage they can’t execute and if they knew the mechanics of the arm, would be able to figure out what sort of adjustment is required to play that passage.

I once studied with a leading concert pianist in my area who didn’t know what he was doing but had a phenomenal natural technique. His instruction to me was to watch him play then imitate his motion. That would have been fine but I already had bad habits hardwired into my brain which were getting in the way. Since he didn’t know anything about ergonomics nor physics, he had no idea how to fix me other than prescribing “practice more.”

I once gave a lecture on this topic and a pianist disagreed with me about Newtons third law citing that the piano is down, not up. The finger must come straight down onto a key. If the pianist is playing with a “still and quiet hand” and they must also play black keys, note that the black keys are higher than the white keys. This results in the still and quiet pianist to stretch or twist to reach those keys which in turn create vector forces or, two muscles pulling one bone in two directions simultaneously. This creates tremendous imbalance in the arm which controls the hand and fingers and this leads to an incoordinate technique. Keep in mind your fingers have no muscles. They are moved by the flexor muscles in your forearm so that is where the pianist must first play from.

If you were to walk up stairs, your ascending leg would lift HIGHER than the next stair, then come straight down onto it. If you tried to walk upstairs without lifting your foot higher than the step, you’d trip. Playing the piano is the same. We must use the larger muscles of the arm to get the fingers higher than the notes we are desirous to play. Of course as we become more efficient, we minimize the height but make no mistake, although it may appear invisible, it is still there. Hanon knew this and prescribed the pianist to isolate one finger and lift it high but, this isolation engages the flexors and extensors at the same time resulting in strain to the long flexor tendons which leads to median nerve entrapment (AKA carpal tunnel syndrome). Remember the arm, hand and fingers can only move in one direction at a time. By abducting, for instance, the hand gets pulled in two or four directions despite the pianist trying to play a passage in a specific direction.

I have no conclusion to this post other than don’t try this at home. Find a teacher who knows what a pronator and abductor is and work from there.

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A better send-off than wretched 2016 deserved

Songs to Amuse, Steamer No. 10 Theatre, Dec. 31
Shawn Stone | Monday, January 2 2017

Keyboardist Malcolm Kogut and singer Byron Nilsson (aka B.A. Nilsson in these pages) brought their cabaret act Songs to Amuse to the stage at Steamer No. 10 Theatre on New Year’s Eve, where a happy crowd heartily laughed at a two-hour (including intermission) program of (mostly) 20th-century songs intended to, as advertised, amuse.

They began with “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” which was originally introduced in a 1939 movie by Groucho Marx, and widely known now thanks to Kermit the Frog’s version. It’s a pun-filled, slightly salacious chronicle of one woman’s varied and outlandish body art, and as an opener, a pretty good indication of what was to come. Written by Harburg and Arlen around the same time they were composing the songs for The Wizard of Oz, Nilsson also told the story of–and sang–a lyric excised by a studio exec out of concern that it would “date” the number. The line? “When she sits, she sits on Hitler.”

What was the thing with everyone underestimating Hitler’s long-term prospects?

And that was the show: Smart, varied musical approaches by Kogut, fine singing and snappy patter by Nilsson. There were songs by Noel Coward and Tom Lehrer (the latter allowing Kogut to add a little synthesized Irish fiddle); songs made famous by the likes of Al Jolson (“Why Do They All Take The Night Boat to Albany”) and Blossom Dearie (Dave Frishberg’s “My Attorney Bernie”); a trio of thoroughly delightful numbers written by the Brit duo Flanders and Swann; and many more.

Nilsson even tossed out a couple of lines from DeSylva, Brown and Henderson’s “Turn On the Heat,” one of the more demented songs from that most demented year of Hollywood musicals, 1929.

Particularly enjoyable was the woe-filled (as opposed to woeful) temperance ballad, “Father’s a Drunkard and Mother Is Dead.” This horrible tale of 19th-century death and abandonment provided the opportunity for a jaunty sing-along. The duo helpfully included the lyrics to the refrain on the back of the program: “Mother, oh! Why did you leave me alone/With no one to love me, no friends and no home?/Dark is the night, and the storm rages wild/God pity Bessie, the Drunkard’s lone child!”

While there was no happy ending for “Bessie,” we in the audience had a fine time singing about her misery.

As the second half of the program wound down, the duo saved something special for the end: the 1937 labor ballad, “Capitalistic Boss.” This rich bastard’s lament gave Nilsson a chance to tear into a life of greed, exploitation, indolence, political violence and selfishness with an angry glee, as the narrator continually returned to one line of defense: “Something is wrong with my brain.”

The evening ended with everyone joining in on “Auld Lang Syne.” Kogut and Nilsson sent us out into the cold with warmer spirits than when we arrived, and ready to enjoy whatever revelry the last three hours of 2016 had in store.

http://thealt.com/2017/01/02/better-send-off-wretched-2016-deserved/

Musicians Warming Up

Every once in a while I come across a piano teacher or musician who think that they need to stretch their hands or run scales to “warm up.” The myth behind warming up is that you are able to isolate a body part such as the hands and move them to warm them up. If that were true, the blood that you think you warm up in your hands while moving them, because of circulation, doesn’t stay there. It circulates throughout the rest of the body meaning “cold” blood is coming back into the hands. Furthermore, you are not warming up the blood or muscles, the blood is already at its maximum temperature. The real issue is circulation.

A danger in moving cold hands or other body parts is that the elasticity of the muscles and tendons are compromised because they are in a contracted state and if you try to move cold body parts fast, you can cause damage to the tissue such as micro tears and pulls to either the muscles or the tendons. Slow movement and in the medium range of motion is always advised when the extremities are cold.

When the body is cold, the blood is kept near the core vital organs and circulation is slowed to the extremities such as the hands and feet. That makes our hands and fingers feel cold and stiff. Stretching is not a solution and our teachers and coaches have been teaching this mistruth about stretching for years.

When you stretch beyond the mid range of motion you are creating micro tears in the muscle tissue or tendons and the body’s response is to rush blood to that site to both immobilize and repair the damage. This process gives us the sensation of “warming up” when in reality we are damaging our tissue structures. Whenever we move, we must only move as far as the mid range of motion, not the extreme where we will stretch, tear and damage tissue.

There are actually two categories of muscle, fast twitch and slow twitch. Musicians should take the time to learn which ones are which and how to utilize them in their craft. Even so, forcing fast twitch muscles to move fast or to stretch them when they are cold and in their contracted state could damage them. Think of your muscles as being like warm gravy. The gravy can easily pour out of the bowl when it is warm. Now put the bowl in the fridge for half an hour and note that it no longer pours fluidly. You can’t just run a spoon through the gravy to warm it up, it needs to come out of the fridge and be warmed totally.

If you have a teacher or coach who prescribes stretching and isolation exercises to warm up the body, find another teacher. It is not their fault that they have been given erroneous information themselves from their own teachers, but, their ignorance on the subject can cause you permanent damage. Ignorance is not bliss if it results in tendon, nerve or muscular disorders. That is like going to a mechanic who says that your tires are bald but you can probably get away on them for another few months. He may be the best mechanic in the world but he is risking your life.

If one wishes to truly warm up the body and consequently the hands, one needs to sit in a warm room so that the whole body warms up, not just the part they are going to use. Another solution is to do some mild whole body movement to get the blood pumping throughout the circulatory system.

There are mini steppers on the market for under $50 that a musician can take to a gig with them and use in the green room before a performance. After doing twenty minutes or about 2,000 steps on one of those, the blood will be circulating efficiently throughout the whole body and one may even break a small sweat. You won’t have to warm up your legs because you’ve already been walking all day and, movement that is well known such as walking is as simple as the brain turning on and off a switch. One doesn’t need to warm up to remember how to ride a bike. The brain just knows what to do, like flicking a switch.

Conditioning is important, too. If you can only do three minutes on the stair stepper before fatigue sets in then you’re not going to achieve a full body warm up in that amount of time so, it would behoove you to do this every day so the body is conditioned to work at that level without fatigue. One doesn’t want to go on stage exhausted and weak. It is also advised to be hydrated before, during and after this simple body warm up procedure.

I’ll not endorse any particular brand but you can find mini steppers on Ebay, tax and shipping free. Read the user reviews on Amazon to find a brand you think you can trust.

. . . with “Rhyme on My Hands,” a Tribute to Comic Songs

A pudgy high-school kid who likes classical music isn’t bound for much of a social life, especially in the photogenic wilds of Fairfield County, Connecticut. Fortunately for Byron Nilsson, there was salvation. It came in the form of an LP he swiped from a radio station in nearby Danbury, an album on the back of which one song title was scribbled out, with the added inscription: “NOT SUITABLE FOR AIRPLAY.” The album was “Noël Coward in Las Vegas.” The song was “Uncle Harry.” The lyrics were mildly suggestive.

That Coward album – and a book of Tom Lehrer songs and recordings by Flanders & Swann – inspired a love of well-crafted light verse. Which means it rhymes. And can get a delightfully nasty before you realize it. Byron not only enjoyed those songs, he learned them. His social life didn’t improve, but he gained a measure of frightened respect.

“Rhyme on My Hands” is the latest excuse for a cabaret performance by Byron and his longtime musical director, Malcolm Kogut, spinning the fantastic story of how he weathered a life of scorn and heartache in order to sing these songs for you. Songs like “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” “The Irish Ballad,” “The Sloth,” and “The Butler’s Song” will liven the proceedings.

The show takes place at 3 PM Sunday, January 2016, at the legendary Caffè Lena (47 Phila Street, Saratoga Springs) and tickets are available at brownpapertickets.com or by calling 1-800-838-3006. Their recent Valentine’s Day and Christmas shows played to sold-out houses, so they’re hoping they can inveigle an audience once more. Warm yourself on a chilly afternoon – or come see this show!

Healing from Repetitive Stress Injuries Naturally

Healing from Repetitive Stress Injuries Naturally

The original video was an hour long so I made copious cuts to shorten it. Unfortunately, the many cuts caused an audio sync issue. Deal with it. Close your eyes, don’t watch my lips.

Halloween Organ Recital Q&A

When?  Before everyone else, on October 18th, 3:00 p.m. 2015

Where?  Trinity Lutheran Church, 42 Guy Park Ave, Amsterdam, NY 12010 (the United States one, not the other one where pot is legal).

Is there a Cost?  Only my blood, sweat and tears.  All others, free.

Will there be refreshments?  I wouldn’t play otherwise.

Is the church handicap accessible?  Yes, there is a spacious elevator located on the parking lot side entrance. If need be, I will carry you up the stairs (I’ve done it before). Watch the end of the demo video, I show you how to find it.

What kind of organ are you playing?  It is a newly installed three manual tracker, built by a local builder. There will be a dedicatory recital in the upcoming months.  Come to find out when and all the other pertinent deets.

I hate organ recitals, they are boring, arcane, esoteric, stuffy, recondite and they all sound alike.  What are you playing?  I hate organ recitals, too.  I will be playing the ubiquitous, standard “scary” organ music such as the Chopin Funeral March, Bach’s (sic) Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Boëllmann’s Toccata  plus a few novelty songs and pieces arranged by me.

The organ is currently lounging in it’s summer tuning estate but, here is a demo video of me at my first practice session getting to know the instrument and finding my arm weight. Here I demonstrate the en chamade and the full organ (which distorted my camera’s microphone).

See you then.

-Malcolm (The pastor wants a bio) Insert pretentious crap about myself here)).

Malcolm, a true Capricorn, is actually not funny. He is just really mean and people think he is joking.  He is a lover of ice cream and a runner – because of all the ice cream.  Malcolm is a Nomad in search for the perfect burger and is an especially gifted napper with killer abs (want proof, check out “Mount Baker Glacier Clips.”  Do not judge him before you know him, but just to inform you, you won’t like him.  He is not on Facebook and most likely wouldn’t friend you anyway so this is all you are ever going to get.  Malcolm feels sad for seedless watermelons because, what if they wanted babies?  The humanity.