For the jazz pianists…Part 1.

A very belated congratulations and thank you to Graham Wood for his wonderful article published in the March 2014 edition of Medical Problems of Performing Artists (click to read) Graham Wood MPPA Article March 2014. While many studies have documented the prevalence of playing-related injuries among classical pianists, the issues amongst jazz pianists have been mostly ignored in the literature to date.

At fist glance, jazz players share many similarities with their classical counterparts. According to the study, 41% of participants had either a current or past injury (p. 39), which is similar to the classical world. Acknowledgement of playing through pain was also a disturbing finding (p.39), which also unfortunately still exists in classical circles. Jazz players most commonly reported issues in the forearm (84.7%), neck (64.2%), shoulder (44%), hand (35.1%), triceps (36.2%) and wrist (30.7%) (see p. 39)

Yet as Wood mentions, there are some important differences which have not been explored thoroughly enough. Although classical pianists play their share of pianos which are not maintained well, jazz players regularly have to deal with poor quality pianos in jazz venues. A common response to badly or unevenly regulated pianos is to force the tone. Furthermore, jazz players often perform on keyboards, in situations whereby they may not be able to create the ideal set up in relation to the bench height and music stand (p. 37-38). Furthermore, the nature of electronic keyboards means that even “weighted” keyboards do not have the same experience of resistance that the escapement of a grand piano provides. Rather than the sound being produced close to the bottom of the key, with a continuing follow through movement bringing the finger to rest lightly on the keybed,  sound is only made right at the keybed with most electronic keyboards.  The temptation to push, squeeze, or hit at the keys is thus very strong, with subsequent symptoms.

Compounding these disadvantages, jazz pianists often feel they have to play LOUDLY to be heard over the drums (p.37). When the piano or keyboard is not amplified sufficiently, this problem is magnified. Added to this, the players tellingly identified that “heavy playing”, “heavy attack” (funk / soul), “heavy touch” (p. 40) caused the most problems. From a Taubman perspective, a “heavier” touch equates to requiring more forearm release. If instead this task is delegated to the fingers alone, a very tight forearm will result, which according to the statistics in this study seems typical of what many jazz pianists experience.

Wood points to a lack of progressive pedagogy in the field  compared to the classical tradition, which has a more established pedagogy over just a few more hundred years. While I appreciate the advantage of following a linear progression of repertoire gradually increasing in difficulty,  many of the jazz pianists I have worked with have escaped being locked into five finger position, independence exercises, holding onto melody notes etc. that “formal” training often entails. Being left alone can be a blessing if you have good instincts. Conversely, when intuitive jazz players then have formal classical training, their playing can be soured by some of the classical schools of “working the fingers”, “raising fingers”, low wrist for good sound, and so forth, and the familiar symptoms begin to appear. At the end of the day, the ingredients for a healthy technique are the same no matter the genre.



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