More About (shh!) Tension

“Keyboard Teaches Hand” spoke of physical tension and relaxation. Now I want to point out something about two kinds of tension: physical and emotional. They’re separate, but it’s all too easy to confuse them. This tires us, and robs us of technique.

When a piece is ebullient, triumphant, tragic, dramatic, joyous—or intense with any emotion—our natural physical response helps teach us to express and convey the feeling. But when we’ve learned this lesson for a given passage, we should also use another lesson that applies to all passages: that conveying emotional tension does not require physical tension.

Of course playing requires tension, as we’ve said elsewhere. I’m talking about tension beyond the minimum necessary to play the notes and create your desired sound. Required tension good. Spurious tension bad.

Try this experiment: play the passage using every means in your power to convey its feeling with full intensity. Record your playing.

Listen to the recording, and notice how you conveyed the feeling. With an intensely dance-y rhythm? A specially well-chosen tempo? Detailed shaping of dynamics, or extra-wide dynamic range? Hesitations at crucial moments? Voicing of chords? Shaping of melodies? Sharp staccato? Luxuriant legato?

Now record yourself again doing, as best you can, the same things as before, but without lifting your shoulders, tightening your neck, tensing your forearms or hands, arching your back, or any of the 101 things that we do and don’t need to do.

Listen to this second recording and see how you did. Not good enough? Play and record again, still with as little spurious tension as possible. Perhaps aim at only one or two of the points in your original recording. If you succeed in one, continue the experiment tomorrow. Keep it up till you get all the way there, and you’ll have really taught yourself something! For help on the way, find yourself an Alexander Technique teacher.

Copyright © James Boyk 2013. All rights reserved.
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