The Four Physical Levels
I don’t let go of concepts –
I meet them with understanding.
Then they let go of me.
~ Byron Katie
Whenever I’m on the road for concerts, I’m eager to find ways away from the Piano to keep in pianistic form. Yoga is wonderful and is practicable anywhere. Swimming is also great, but only occasionally do I have a pool available. However odd it may sound, I’ve found that patting and lightly punching away at mattresses does wonders for anyone’s technique.
Pianists spend their entire life developing an uncanny finger independence. Yet most have a painfully underdeveloped independence between the joints of their fingers to the hand, hand to the forearm, and forearm to the upper arm. How long has it been since you bounced a basketball? As a young child, you were probably much more athletic and physically connected than you are now. Your body simply needs to be reminded of the sensation.
Find a mattress or a couch and with your palms flat out several inches above at, begin lightly slapping it alternately with your from the wrist with a generous rotation upwards before descending. Neither speed nor power nor endurance is the goal here, simply a light reminder of what it feels like to exercise your wrists independently from the forearms.
After a minute or so, begin patting from the elbow, letting the wrists and upper arms remain relatively static, although not tight or locked. The movement should be much slower but also much larger to allow for full rotation up before each slap downwards.
After a minute or so of that, move the movement up to the armpit, with outstretched arms, and continue flapping away with full rotation.
Then move the movement all the way back to the wrists and fingertips, as if scooping up the mattress into your hands with each slap. Keep it light and comfortable.
Next make a fist and lightly punch the mattress for a minute or so.
Then take it alternately back to the wrists, elbows and armpits, and move it side to side, as if playing octaves or chordal passages all over the expanse of the keyboard.
All of this should take between five and ten minutes – don’t overdo it, especially the first time. If a piano is nearby, go immediately to it and try out an octave or chordal passage.
You will be amazed at the size and effortlessness of the sound. You could practice for hours or days and not obtain such results.
What happened? Did you get stronger or smarter? In a way, yes, but actually you’ve just opened up paths of energy and strength that have long been dormant. The body begins accessing its inner wisdom, leaving behind unconscious inhibitions and allowing you to concentrate your mind and emotions on the music.
The more independence you develop between the joints of the hand and arms, the more virtuoso technique you will find at your disposal.
Movement can be initiated from four primary levels – the fingers, the hands (also commonly designated as the wrist), the forearm, and the upper arm. Note: The shoulder and torso could be considered Level 5, but it’s rarely brought into direct use in playing the piano; it acts as support. At the other extreme, the fingertip alone could be considered Level 0, but I treat that technique within the confines of Level 1.
Each of the Four Levels can be compared to an orchestral section. Each has unique power potential, speed potential and colors. As a rule principal melodies are generally best played from Level 3 or Level 4 while fast passagework is best played from Level 1. Level 2 is the least understood and is the great facilitator. Great facility at this level will give you speed, power and finesse in every type of passage.
Let’s experiment with our Prelude. First go through the first page playing EVERYTHING from Level 4, the upper arm. Many of you may still feel uncomfortable playing from the upper arm, but it’s the most natural movement in the world. Why should piano technique be thought of so differently from normal daily activities like closing a window or pushing in a chair? With a little experience, you’ll become quite comfortable and be able to achieve a wide dynamic range, from ppp to fff, all from the upper arm. It’s actually possible and quite effective to play this entire first page solely from Level 4 because it’s slow-moving and chordal. But there are of course more orchestral ways to approach it.
Now try playing everything from the forearm, like bouncing a basketball but with less play from the wrist for the moment. Try it a few times until you get used to it. The effect is still quite solid and strong, yet slightly less serious and mountainous.
Next play the page a few times from the hand alone. (Again I’ll explain why I say hand versus the more common appellation of wrist. If you think of moving the wrist, you’ll immediately feel a certain blocking tension in the upper part of the forearm. But if you think of playing from the hand, you draw the energy from the palm of the hand without blocking the forearm – this is much more natural and efficient.) How does it sound? It should feel more flexible and intimate, but will still easily fill a large concert hall if you get used to it. It’s of course not as powerful as Level 3 or 4.
Now try to play the page a few times through from the fingers alone – Level 1. One teacher of mine pointed out that harpists, often thought of as delicate angels, have fingers of steel from plucking the strings. Don’t underestimate Level 1! You can achieve infinite effects and results simply by using a Level 1 technique supported by the arm. But it can never replace Level 2 or 3 or 4. The effect of Level 1 alone here is slightly effortful, but very intimate and refined.
Now let’s begin combining Levels. Play the Red layer and two supporting layers from Level 4. Play the Royal Blue and remaining 5 layers from Level 2. Try it a few times. Two clearly distinct colors are at play. Experiment with other combinations.
When I notate the Levels into my score, I prefer to use f. for fingers/Level 1, h. for hand/Level 2, f.a. for forearm/Level 3, and u.a. for upper arm/level 4:
Work through the entire excerpt notating the Level you want to play from. Sometimes you may want to notate more than one, such as f./h. Be aware that no touch is completely isolated; it’s a matter of degree. For example, if a touch originates from the fingers, the hand and forearm will still be actively supporting it and feeding in energy. Except in rare circumstances, you don’t want to disconnect the fingertips from your torso. The elbow is the greatest culprit here. It traps energy out of fear instead of letting it pass into and through the upper arm.
Whenever you feel disconnected, remind yourself of the simple movement of bouncing a basketball - the fingertips, the hand, the forearm and the upper arm all move in fluid harmony. And in terms of color potential, be aware that even though the fingers can imitate the sound of the upper arm and vice-versa, the color will never match. Learn to understand the distinct tonal possibilities of each of your orchestral sections.