What can architecture teach us about piano playing?
One of the most fundamental building structures is the arch. The arch is an incredibly stable structure that has allowed buildings from ancient Greece and Rome to remain standing for literally thousands of years. Can the arch help us improve our piano technique? According to Thomas Mark, author of the very insightful What Every Pianist Needs to Know about the Body, the answer is an emphatic yes!
The Arch and Piano Technique
Notice how the word arch is a root of architecture. That’s how important it is! Interestingly, the other root of the word comes from the Greek tekhnē, meaning “art” or “skill.” So why shouldn’t the arch have something to tell us about technique – the art or skill involved in playing piano?
The classic arch is a balanced, secure arrangement that supports and delivers weight:
The crux of any arch is its keystone, which locks the other stones of the arch into place, allowing it to bear weight:
Feeling the Arch at the Piano
At the piano, we can feel our arms and hands as an arch that supports our playing. The bones of the forearm and hand can provide much of the same sense of support as a stone arch provides to its structure, resulting in enhanced technical facility at the keyboard.
The kinesthetic feeling of the hand and forearm as an arch can provide a firm foundation for playing the piano without tension, yet with a sense of stability, ease and power. Mark describes how to feel the arch:
Stand in balance with your arms hanging freely at your sides. Your fingers, hands, and forearm naturally tend to assume the arch shape: fingers are bent in the natural curve [and] the wrist is approximately straight…. Without changing any of that alignment, think of it as an arch.
Now take that to the piano…. Moving principally at the elbow joint and still keeping the arch in mind, let the arch descend so that one finger lands on a piano key. Notice how that feels. [T]he sensation is that the “keystone” holds the whole structure in place with no muscular effort.
How the Arch Helps Pianists
The arch is helpful to piano players because it helps us organize our movements around the bony structure of the body rather than applying excessive muscular contraction.
Mark is careful to note that in advocating that pianists feel the sense of an arch from fingertips to elbow, he is not suggesting that the forearm actually appear arched. The forearm should remain basically level. Ultimately the arch should not be an image held in your mind but a sensation you mindfully feel in your body.
Learn More about the Forearm Arch
You can learn more about the forearm arch and many other aspects of effective piano technique based on the body mapping approach in What Every Pianist Needs to Know about the Body.