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Playing with Economy of Motion

In this detailed article, Dr. Hall sets forth his main principles for playing the piano with ease and effortlessness, also known as “economy of motion.”

Economy of Motion: Principles for Effortless Piano Playing

The rise of videos and YouTube culture over the past decade or two (ca. 2005-present) has dramatically changed the way pianists approach the instrument, often for the worst. I say this because what has been lost in the glorification of the visual over aural — “aural” refers to when all we had was recordings before the rise of YouTube and other video platforms — is the art and science known as “economy of motion.” Arguably the most celebrated pianist of the 20th century, Vladimir Horowitz, had economy of motion down to such a science that it often looks like he barely moved when he played even the most intricate and difficult passages. Horowitz’s perfection of economy of motion is well known to most serious piano pedagogues and piano performance historians, yet virtually unknown to the average pianist and the masses of aspiring students who gain most of their knowledge and tips from prominent YouTube pianist/teachers who often do not teach or display in their own playing sound principles of economy of motion. Like Horowitz, the great pianist/composer Sergei Rachmaninoff is also said to have performed like a “dead horse” in that he barely moved at all and always had a boring, dour look on his face. Perhaps my favorite pianist, Claudio Arrau, usually just sat there and played without any extraneous movements or funny facial gestures, yet the control he possessed and sound that he produced were almost without equal. The same could be said of most great pianists of this generation (ca. 1900-1950), which is often referred to as the “Golden Age” of piano. Modern-day pianists have much to learn from pianists of the Golden Age not just in their musical interpretations but in their no-nonsense, no-frills approach to the instrument. The great Golden Age pianists knew and applied the principles of economy of motion much more than today in our video and visually obsessed culture where fancy arm and wrist flourishes, captivating facial grimaces, and elaborate or provocative wardrobe have become the name of the game. Unfortunately, all these attention-grabbing, non-musical aspects of performance have turned economy of motion in piano playing into something of a lost art.

Practicing and performing with sound principles of economy of motion has been at the forefront of my life as pianist ever since around my junior year of college as a music major. My ability to play with very little movement and worldwide renown on YouTube as “you make it look so easy” for many of my performances has been no accident. I am well aware that I make things “look easy” and I am well aware on how I achieve it. After all, I am first and foremost a teacher and analyst and can say with confidence that I have economy of motion down to a science. I wish to convey that science to you in this article. My piano professor when I was a junior music major in college, Thomas Gentry, had the tall and thin stature of Rachmaninoff and his playing looked absolutely effortless as was Rachmaninoff’s. Gentry had enormous hands and very long fingers and could reach a twelfth easily, whereas I have only an average sized hand with rather short and stumpy fingers. I learned through his teaching (I credit Gentry with being the best teacher I had out of all the teachers with whom I studied) that it is not necessarily the size of one’s hand and length of one’s fingers that enable good economy of motion, but rather “how” the apparatus is used. From my studies with Gentry (who had great economy of motion) as well as my own experimentations and observations over my 30+ years teaching piano, I have formulated a list of rules to follow that allow for the greatest economy of motion possible in piano playing. Here is the list along with explanations and elaborations:

  • Avoid playing the thumbs at the edge of the white keys, whenever possible. This is by far the most important rule to follow, yet the rule least often observed, for the optimization of economy of motion. Several of the following rules pertain to the use of the thumbs, which are a direct result of avoiding the thumbs at the edge of white keys. Follow this rule and almost all the other rules pertaining to the thumbs will automatically fall into place. The best way to demonstrate this is to play a chromatic scale (from C to the C above) with the thumbs only. When playing a white key most pianists instinctually move back too far and strike the key close to or on the edge. This naturally leads to the next rule:

  • The thumbs are most optimally placed approximately midway between the edges of the white and black keys. Playing a chromatic scale with the thumbs only shows that the most optimal position for the thumbs is farther up on the white keys, which reduces the distance a full inch (2.5 centimeters). Playing the thumbs at the edges of the white keys one time may seem insignificant, however, multiply this by dozens of times and the total extraneous movement wasted adds up to at least a couple feet (.6 meters). Habitually playing the thumbs at the end of the white keys results in the “forward and backwards” or “in and out” movements that make piano playing look so difficult since so much movement is expended to accomplish so little musically; however, avoiding this habit results in the “you make it look so easy” phenomenon that I learned from Professor Gentry and which all the masters of the “Golden Age” employed. Proper use of the thumbs does not stop here, but naturally leads to the next rule:

  • Avoid playing with flat thumbs, that is, with the side of the thumbs on or near the joint. Instead, always aim the thumbs at about a 30 degree angle striking the key close to the point where the rounded part of the nail meets the straight part. Playing with higher rather than lower thumbs enables one to gain more control of arm weight (which, in turn, controls the fingers), since the arm weight is channeled higher up and can be applied more efficiently. Moreover, holding the thumbs at about a 30 degree angle automatically places the wrists at the proper height. Nothing takes control away more and makes piano playing clunky and awkward than playing with flat thumbs, which unfortunately, is the most comfortable default position for beginners. I have not taught a beginner who does not instinctually play with flat thumbs. Sometimes I have to remind the student hundreds of times, repeatedly, over the course of many months to not play with flat thumbs, sometimes to no avail. I have had students who despite studying with me for several years and hear me say over and over to not play with flat thumbs, habitually still play with flat thumbs. Pianists of all levels can instantaneously experience dramatic improvements in technique and efficiency by always striking the thumbs at about a 30 degree angle. Beginners need to constantly be reminded in every lesson to not play with flat thumbs. It is one of the absolute worst habits in piano playing.

  • The thumbs function as the “anchor” of the hands, which means that if the thumbs are in the most efficient position possible on any given key, then the other fingers automatically fall into their proper places. This does not work the other way around, in that pianists should care more about where the thumbs are placed than any of the other fingers. Unfortunately, most pianists and virtually all beginners tend to treat fingers 2-3-4-5 as first priority which results in the thumbs being placed in awkward and inefficient positions. This can be demonstrated with a D major triad in first inversion (F#-A-D). When played with the right hand with 1-2-5, if 5 is played first and it is played towards the edge of D (as most beginners instinctually do), then the thumb is too far away from F#. Switching this around, however, and playing the thumb securely on F# automatically puts 2 and 5 in their proper positions. Now, when the left hand plays this same chord with 5-3-1 demonstrates the second rule above (i.e., place thumb midway between the edge of the white and black keys). If the thumb is played at the edges of D (as most beginners instinctually do), then 5 is too far away from F#. Simply moving the thumb forward to its proper position (midway between the edges of the white and black keys) automatically makes it easy to reach F# with 5 and puts 3 and 5 in their proper positions. Pianists are virtually guaranteed to be in the proper positions by simply positioning the thumbs approximately midway between the edges of the white and black keys. In the case that chords do not require the thumbs, it is vital to observe the next rule:

  • Do not dangle the thumbs off the edge of the keyboard when not being used. Since the thumbs function as the anchors of the hands, dangling them off the edge of the keyboard automatically sets up the pianist for a shipwreck. When playing any of the other four fingers in any combination with no thumb, the thumb should always be held over the white keys approximately midway between the edge of the white and black keys. This allows the thumb to be in a strategic location in the case that it must quickly play a black key. One of the most frequent questions I get from students is why it is always so difficult, inconvenient, and uncomfortable to play the thumbs on black keys. The answer to this is simple: because they always hold their thumbs too far away from the black keys, and instead, almost always dangle them off the edge of the keyboard. This is one of the worst offenders made by beginners. For example, first play A and D with 2-5 of the right hand (like in the D major chord above) while holding the thumb off and away from the edge of the keyboard. Next, play the A and D with 2-5 while holding the thumb over the white key F in its proper place (about midway between the edges of the white and black keys). Now, imagine if the thumb had to quickly play F#. Dangling the thumbs off the edge of the keyboard puts the thumb about four times farther away from F# as when the thumb is in its proper place. This common technical problem is easily corrected by observing the next rule:

  • The elbows are best kept near the torso rather than farther away. One of the main reasons so many pianists dangle their thumbs off the edge of the keyboard can be explained due to the way they are holding their elbows. Holding the elbows farther away from the body naturally results in the thumbs dangling in mid-air off the edge of the keyboard. Many pianists believe that the elbows are best swung around a lot to put “feeling” into the music, “show off” to their audience, and to help the fingers achieve their proper positions. All of these assumptions are incorrect and highly detrimental and inefficient for piano playing. Great masters like Horowitz and Arrau never swung their elbows around yet played with a lot of “feeling,” which is proof pianists do not need to swing their elbows around. Whenever an elbow is moved outwards away from the body, the thumb naturally moves away from the keyboard thus putting the thumb where it should not be. Conversely, whenever an elbow is kept close to or practically touching the side of the torso, the thumb naturally remains over the white keys and in it most optimal position. When in this optimal position, moving the arm forward just a bit (about one inch or 1.5 centimeters) and/or using a little lateral inwards wrist rotation makes it very easy for the thumb to reach a black key if it needs to. The reason for keeping the elbows close to the torso at almost all times (with perhaps a few exceptions) is to enable the thumbs to efficiently reach black keys at any given time, which significantly improves economy of motion. Many pianists and teachers argue that keeping the elbows close to the body is constricting and tight feeling, which is why keeping the elbows farther rather than closer to the body has become the default position for many pianists. They are, however, mistaken. All one has to do to avoid the constricting and tight feeling is to keep the shoulders relaxed and down rather than tense and high up in the air. If the shoulders are kept relaxed with no tension, then there will usually be little to no extraneous tension in the arms, wrists, and hands. The popular myth that swinging arms and elbows all over the place puts “feeling” into the music is about as fallacious as the popular myth about the use of the wrists:

  • The wrists are better used for lateral rotation rather than vertical up-and-down movements. Many pianists believe that the main function of the wrists is that of up-and-down movements, which if overdone looks like one is playing with floppy wrists. Of course, the wrists must move vertically to some degree, however, the optimal amount is much less than many pianists like to believe. Observe Horowitz, Arrau or most other “Golden Era” pianists and watch their wrists closely and you will discover that very seldom do they move their wrists much vertically. Focusing on vertical wrist movements makes us overlook the most useful and valuable type of wrist movement, which is that of of lateral rotation. The best way to demonstrate lateral wrist rotation is by playing arpeggios where the thumb crosses under a finger at the same time that the wrist rotates outwards. For example, playing a C major arpeggio with the right hand demonstrates that after playing 1-2-3 on C-E-G, the thumb then crosses under 3 while the wrist turns a little outwards while pivoting a little on 3. It is impossible to play this arpeggio without these two elements: 1) the thumb must cross under the third finger; 2) the wrist must rotate slightly outwards. No vertical or up-and-down movements are necessary to play common arpeggios like these. At the time of this writing, there is trend among some pianists and teachers to avoid putting the thumb under the hand and to avoid lateral wrist rotation, however, this is simply a foolish fad. Simple logic makes it clear that to play arpeggios — which happen to be the most frequently encountered technique most piano music — the pianist must put the thumb under the hand and rotate the wrist slightly outwards. In my many years of teaching and observing other pianists, I have discovered that many pianists cross the thumb under incorrectly in arpeggios and scales, which leads to the next rule:

  • Do not cross the thumb under 3 or 4 too quickly in scale and arpeggio passages. This rule is almost never thought about or addressed by most pianists and teachers, but is one of the most violated of all rules that permit great economy of motion. Many students are taught by their teachers to cross the thumb under 3 or 4 in scales and arpeggios as quickly as possible to ensure that the thumb gets to its destination in time and is not late. For example, in playing the first four notes of the C major scale or arpeggio with 1-2-3-1, teachers after drill into their students to move the thumb as quickly as possible under 3. The problem with this teaching is that, although the thumb does indeed need to move quickly when the scale or arpeggio is played at a fast tempo, this “pass the thumb as quickly as possible” rule does not work and is entirely incorrect when the scale or arpeggio is played at a slow to moderate tempo. Actually, simple logic tells us that the thumb should only move as fast as the tempo requires it. In other words, the thumbs should cross under 3 or 4 at a speed proportional to the tempo taken. Fast tempi require the thumb to cross under quickly whereas slow tempi require the thumb to cross under slowly. I have observed that many pianists fail this rule by crossing the thumb under very quickly when playing a slow scale or arpeggio, at exactly the same speed they would cross the thumb at a moderate or fast tempo, thus causing awkward jerkiness to slower playing. This is a terrible technical habit and is almost impossible to break for pianists who have played this way for five or more years. Pianists who violate this rule almost always violate the next related rule:

  • Do not cross the thumb under 3 or 4 too early in scale and arpeggio passages. Pianists who are drilled by their teachers to cross the thumb under as quickly as possible (regardless of the tempo being played), are also often drilled to accompany this with crossing the thumb under too early. For example, playing the first four notes of the C major scale or arpeggio with 1-2-3-1 of the right hand ascending or the mirror image of this with the left hand descending, many pianists instinctually begin holding the thumb under the hand after playing the second finger instead of the third finger. This is a terrible technical habit (just like crossing the thumb under too quickly) and is almost impossible to break for pianists who have played this way for five or more years. The thumb is most optimally moved just after the finger it crosses under and no earlier than this. For example, playing the first four notes of the C major scale or arpeggio with 1-2-3-1 of the right hand ascending or the mirror image of this with the left hand descending, the thumbs move right after playing the third fingers and no earlier than this. I have observed that crossing the thumbs under too quickly and too early is committed by more pianists than we like to think, which has become a virtual epidemic among mostly younger piano students who like to play a lot of fast music. Older, more mature students tend to not have as much of a problem in this area.

  • Avoid defaulting the hands to five-finger positions, but instead, strive to default the hands to octave positions. All beginners are taught exercises and pieces that conform to five-finger positions (also known as “pentascales”), which is the tried and true method for beginners and students up to about the intermediate level. This is all fine and good; however, it is recommended that students graduate from five-finger positions as quickly as possible by learning to mold the hands into larger positions, namely the octave position. This is because the default position is the octave for most piano music that pianists desire to play, for example, virtually all pieces by Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Debussy, Joplin, etc. Many pianists and teachers believe octaves should only be practiced by ultra-advanced students who are bound for the conservatory; however, I beg to differ. I believe octaves should be practiced by all pianists who can reach an octave. Teenagers and adults who are able to reach an octave should start practicing octaves, regardless of level. It is never too early to practice octaves. The easier octaves become, the better one’s potential economy of motion becomes and the better one will be able to play “real” piano music that everyone likes to hear. There are virtually no pieces by Chopin or Debussy that are founded upon five-finger positions. Intermediate-level students who have studied piano for around three years too often fall into the trap of defaulting to five-finger positions all the time and then they wonder why they can’t play pieces like Chopin’s Prelude in C Minor or Debussy’s Clair de lune. The main reason they cannot play these pieces is that they have not trained their hands enough to stretch into octave positions easily and effortlessly. Pianists need to learn to fall into octave positions as easily as gymnasts fall into the splits. In order to do this, pianists should follow the next rule:

  • Do not curve the fingers too much, especially when the hands are defaulted to octave positions. Most pianists are taught from a very young age to always curve the fingers. It is a rule drilled into most piano students for their whole lives. Indeed, having a perfect “textbook” curvature to the fingers is required for five-finger positions and for music that is more scale oriented (i.e., Mozart); however, most romantic-era music that pianists want to play and audiences like to hear feature the octave as the default hand position. This naturally results in less curvature of the fingers and more of a “straight finger” approach. For this reason, pianists need not feel “guilty” as if they are not curving their fingers enough when playing popular pieces by composers like Chopin and Debussy. Actually, the opposite of tradition is more often true, in that pianists should take heed to not curve the fingers too much rather than not enough. In general, hand positions of a sixth or less require much more finger curvature than hand positions centered around octaves. 

Sincerely, Cory Hall (D.M.A.) — January 2018