On relaxation

In presenting a technique clinic recently, my class was informally promoted amongst staff and students as learning how to relax at the piano, despite no mention of relaxation in the workshop title, nor in the description. Meanwhile on Facebook forums, students at this same institution advocated to “just chill out and relax” along with rubbing coconut oil into their aching arms as a “cure” for their playing-related pain.

We can only understand concepts from the prism of our own experience. If we have only ever experienced tension, relaxation may sound like an appealing antidote.  Certainly, that was the case for me as injured pianist before retraining in the Taubman Approach.  The idea of relaxation sounded great, but although I thought “relax”, I was still in pain, with a very limited technique. For Taubman Teachers, the term “relaxation” is highly charged, almost a dirty word. The aim is to have a coordinate technique, in which there is no tension to relax from in the first place. We seek the midpoint between tension and relaxation, which is a place of maximum freedom, ease, and speed. 

It’s not only in the Taubman Approach that the idea of relaxation is misused, and I will give examples from yoga and meditation. Let me say that I am very much a beginner in both disciplines, but I would like to share some  parallels in my learning process. Last week I saw the wonderful Venerable Robina Courtin speak, who reminded us that mindfulness alone is missing the point, as “even thieves have to be mindful”. There’s little benefit in observing that I consistently play an F sharp instead of F natural in bar 32, or that my wrists are low. I actually have to do something to fix it. Being mindful, or concentrating in this way, excludes relaxation. Similarly,  developing the mind through meditation is not about zoning out, shutting off the brain and “relaxing”. Nor does one’s posture “relax”, which often translates as slumping.  Meditation requires enormous discipline, continually bringing one’s “monkey mind” back to the breath, just as our our practice at the instrument requires great focus and discipline.

Similarly, in yoga, the only pose where one really truly can “relax” is Shivassana, or corpse pose ( I can do this one pretty well). As I gradually learn more about yoga, I am experiencing that even recovery poses that seem to be “relaxation”, are in fact active. If child’s pose is done correctly, there is a continuous and conscious lengthening of the body through the fingertips reaching away from the mat, while moving back and down towards the heels. Though child’s pose might be “easier” than other poses (unless it is held for minutes) relaxation has nothing to do with it, as I first thought.

Piano playing is also not a time to physically or mentally relax. We can feel physically completely at ease, our mind can be clear and lucid, but taking care of tens of thousands of black dots with the aim of near 100% accuracy, while playing expressively, perhaps playing with others, watching a conductor, or from memory, in a live performance, exam or audition….. forget relaxing. It’s not helpful.

So what is so terrible about relaxation? For many people, the term relaxation is imbued with limp heaviness, which inhibits speed, and makes movement cumbersome and difficult. Try moving quickly after relaxing into the couch at the end of the day. All too often, a teacher will observe a student’s tension in their playing, and will instruct them to relax. Now, there are two problems: the physical issue causing the tension, plus the heavy relaxation poured on top of this. For example, if the source of tension is the non-playing finger(s) pulling up in the air, thinking “relax” will not necessarily lead to the solution of all the fingers feeling down towards the keys. 

With sufficient training and access to information, studying the Taubman Approach identifies and removes all tension in the playing, and replaces the physical movements that create tension with coordinate alternatives. This may sound far-fetched to those outside the work, particularly musicians who are in the throes of injury.  Piano teachers often tell me  “Oh yes, I know the Taubman Approach, it’s about reducing tension”, particularly those who have never had a Taubman lesson.  Rather, the Taubman Approach is about developing the skills to completely eradicate tension, among many other components. Through the process of training to become a teacher, one develops an incredibly specific understanding behind the complexity of movement at the instrument and the physically coordinate translation of the musical score.

Very rarely is tension “in the mind” with playing an instrument; there is usually a physical cause. You may be nervous that you will miss that leap coming up, and tighten, but perhaps you aren’t playing nearly in enough towards the fallboard to successfully leap to that 5th finger on a black key.  If a passage is insecure in the practice room, you have every reason to be nervous about that passage in the performance. It would be mad not to be nervous. Thinking “relax” will not fix an awkward movement or moment of choreography, but uncovering why that passage is not consistently reliable will give you physical ease, and also peace of mind.

The language we use is incredibly important, and words have very specific meanings within a body of knowledge.  For example, the meaning of “attachment” to a Buddhist is very different to a social worker discussing “attachment” in parenting. It is critical to have a clear understanding about seemingly innocuous terms such as relaxation and the implications behind them. In the Taubman Approach, let’s speak of ease and freedom, not relaxation.

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