THE PULSE PATTERNING TECHNIQUE
Piano technique includes numerous means of using our muscles and skeleton to achieve the results we desire from the music, whether it be thunderous chords and octaves, fast rippling passage work, or an almost inaudible pianissimo. No matter whether you become a pianist or violinist, a dancer, or an accomplished athlete, it takes years of training to develop the refinements of your technique and art. One very major component of the technique for a pianist is freedom in the wrists and shoulders. This is equally as important as strong and independent fingers. However, I would like to propose that freedom in the hips is also a critical component and I would like to provide some insights on this website into the musical and technical benefits of good use of the hips.
[One word of caution I would like to make at the outset, however, is that no amount of good biomechanical use of the wrists, elbows, shoulders, or hips, will make up for a lack of strong arches throughout the hand, generally developed in the small muscles of the hand. Without strong hand muscles forming strong arches (not the flexors and extensors in the arm that curl the fingers), all the good body movement in the world will be compensatory in nature, creating more problems than it solves at worst, or resulting in weak, inarticulate tone at best. For a complete study of the Feldenkrais principles applied especially to hand technique, please study Alan Fraser’s superb book The Craft of Piano Playing.]
I believe that music surpasses even language in its power
to mirror the innermost recesses of the human soul.
— George Crumb
Feldenkrais Pelvic Circle Exercises
Just as you are able to make circles with your wrists and arms, you can also do the same with your pelvis, rotating the hips in a circle on the piano bench. An inordinate amount of stiffness occurs in the hips (maybe even more so than in the shoulders), when you sit practicing or performing at the piano, whether for short or long periods of time. Some pianists instinctively know how to adapt to the requirements of positioning at the keyboard. They do so in the context of the music they are performing, and not only with ease but with an inner expressiveness that is a result of their innate physical freedom. Others, inadvertently, and without any conscious awareness, sit with considerable tension as they attempt to work exclusively with the fingers (or hopefully the arms as well), when in fact playing the piano is a wh
ole body activity.
The Pulse Patterning technique is derived from the work of the noted physical practitioner Dr. Moshé Feldenkrais (1904–1984) in his lesson on awareness of movement while seated on a chair or bench. It begins with postural positioning. In the first place you need to sit forward on the bench so that your pelvis is able to roll forward, allowing the hips to rotate somewhat forward, thus bringing your torso and head into their upright alignment with no muscular effort such as is required when sitting further back with more of your legs on the bench. The further back you sit on the bench the more you will naturally hunker down because you are off your rockers (no pun intended!), the bony protuberances called the ischia, and you are sitting on your tailbone and legs. Sitting upright then takes considerable effort. On the other hand, in this comfortable forward upright position your head is in alignment over the hips and is in a perfect position to read from the score or, by nodding the head, to look down at the keyboard.
Where to Sit
Sitting forward on the bench also distributes your weight to the feet so that the pelvis and feet form a tripod. You should be able to stand up without having to place the feet under the bench.
Even with the feet on the pedals you can feel some of your weight in your heels. Although it is common to observe pianists performing with the left leg under the bench, it is unnecessary to do so and causes needless contraction of the hamstrings and extension of the quads. Furthermore, when the left foot is forward it is readily available for use on the soft pedal.
(N.B: Organists must sit further back on the organ bench so that they can have “dancing” feet on the pedal board. This makes their positioning at the organ somewhat different from that of the pianist.)
As to bench height, the rule of thumb is to have your forearms parallel to the floor. (Interestingly, pianists experiment throughout their careers sitting just a little higher for power or ease or lightness, or a little lower for greater finger control.) The distance from the piano is also determined by marking an arms length from the fall board: a straight arm from shoulder to wrist (or fist if leaning back slightly).
The Two Pathways
The forward and back movement and the side-to-side movement of the hips create two principal axes that form the basis of the Pulse Patterning technique. The forward and back movement is what I call the Energy Pathway. The side to side movement I call the Keyboard Pathway. The latter allows you to negotiate the keyboard with ease from one end to the other. It has a neutral quality. On the other hand, moving forward and back has a powerful dynamic feeling — from strong and authoritative in the forward position to soft and gentle in the rounded back position.
The Energy Pathway — Forward and Backward
If you forward tilt the hips to the extreme, the back arches and the head falls slightly backward in a “C” formation. This forward tilt and arched back (a concave lumbar curve) brings the body closer to the keyboard when your hands are playing wide apart at opposite ends. In this position you may tip your head forward slightly (as in a “yes” nod) so you are able to look at the keyboard, but the neck should never “break,” dropping out of alignment with the spine.
This forward tilt of the hips with the concave lumbar curve may often be observed in a student sitting in a normal, straight position. This is a hyperextended position of the back and is not uncommon in many pianists, particularly those who are of slender build. Even if we as teachers observe this position in students, we may overlook it for we see it as “good” posture, when in fact it has negative consequences equal to those of the slouch. It is especially harmful if you sit in this “straight” (hyperextended) posture and then bend the neck at a sharp angle to look at the keyboard. On the contrary, the back should appear flat, or even, from the shoulders to the hips. One should see neither a swayback or inward curve of the low back, nor a slouch or outward curve that we will consider next.
Tilting the hips slightly backward, away from the piano, results in a rounded back with the head tipped forward in an opposite “C” shape, a convex lumbar back. There is nothing inherently wrong with this position, the so-called slouch, when used knowingly and as part of a complete use of space that one has available while seated. You may find this position advantageous when the hands are playing close together or in a hands-crossed position. The backward convex position is also extremely useful for soft, delicate, slow playing that places no complex demands on the technique. However, if you are always in this position at the piano you will then most certainly develop back, neck, or wrist problems, often serious ones, as well as limit your technique and range of expression. (Because we all learned to play the piano with our hands directly in front of us and not at the extremes of the keyboard, it is easy to see why perhaps many of us have come to adopt this “rounded back” position.)
The Backward Lean
Alternatively you may tilt the hips backward while keeping the back straight, a position of strength and authority, which also provides room for the hands playing in front of the body or when playing hands-crossed passages. You can estimate the lean to be about ten degrees past the vertical. For the greatest dexterity, the back and neck need to be in alignment over the hips while the chest is lifted and feels expansive. When the body is hunched over the arms are unable to operate from the shoulders within their optimum range and with maximum freedom. The feet are forward on the pedals and this helps to counterbalance the backward lean. This postural position may be the one of greatest use to the pianist as the arms are now straighter with the hands and have much space to move freely, yet the whole torso may be brought forward or tilted side to side as necessary. The wonderful painting of Brahms at the piano comes to mind.
The Keyboard Pathway — Leaning Side to Side
The hips can also tilt left and right. (If you move your hips at all, it is this movement to which you are most likely accustomed.) You lean right to play with both hands at the extreme top of the keyboard and left when both hands play in the bass register. You should balance on one sit bone (ischium) or the other, and counterbalance by tipping the shoulders and head in the opposite direction — again forming a “C” shape. It is this counterbalancing that pianists often don’t do, and find themselves getting stiff holding the torso in a straight line while leaning right and left. As you position yourself in these different “C” shapes, you will notice that there is a plumb line from the head to the pelvis; stiffness and fatigue result when the head is maintained outside the vertical axis of the body.
Around the Clock
The magic is that your hip movement is not confined to straight lines, but is capable of articulating circles as well. Feldenkrais teaches that you should imagine sitting on a clock dial. If you tip the hips forward you are at 12:00. Move slowly to the right and back and you can stop at 3:00. Continue the circle and you find yourself in the rounded back position of 6:00. Circling left and forward takes you through 9:00 and then back home to 12:00. (All the time, you are mindful of your head remaining centered so that you are not circumscribing clocks on the ceiling!) Having completed a clockwise movement, you should then practice doing the same movement in a counterclockwise pattern as well. You should also take note of all the “hours” along the way.
Furthermore, you can move from any point on the dial to any other point in a straight line with perfect ease, say from 2:00 to 8:00, or 5:00 to 11:00. Observe that the movement is principally in the lower torso. The upper torso hardly moves, except to counterbalance. Although you don’t really “bend” at the waist line, you do need to be supple in the center of the body and be able to yield easily forward and back, and side to side. This is a fantastic warm-up exercise before beginning to practice or perform. At first, hold onto the piano somewhere in front of you for stability and balance as you do the rotations, and then try placing your hands on the keyboard in different locations as you circle left and right, forward and back. (I sometimes refer to this as the “Hoola Hoop” warm-up.) You should also practice tilting the hips straight back from 12:00 to 6:00, taking the head and back with, as described under the Backward Lean When in this position, you will use more of the lower half of the clock dial from 3:00 to 9:00. (See pictures above.)
That’s it! That’s the basic postural positioning technique. There are also small refinements and specialized movements, e.g., the use of clocks within clocks, or the use of swiveling (corkscrewing) the torso together with the clock for special case use. Although I have already indicated some uses for postural positioning — having both hands together at the extreme ends, hands at opposite ends, hands directly in front or hands crossed, I invite you now to click on Applications for a more detailed use of this hip movement for Pulse Patterning. You will not only learn to achieve maximum technical fluidity and comfort, but you will also learn to achieve rhythmic flow and energy as well as breathtaking dynamic contrast and phrasing.