Teaching any subject at any age comes with a great deal of responsibility. Teachers of children, in particular, need to adopt strategies which will not only impart knowledge of the subject they teach to the child, but also help the child grow more confident, capable and healthy, taking great care to not injure their often fragile psyche.
When teaching a physical activity, this responsibility extends to their physiology. The piano, as all musical instruments, has been linked to certain injuries, mainly tendinitis, associated with the repetitive nature of using a keyboard.
This is mainly an issue because many people, at times even piano teachers, are unaware either of the connection between piano playing and tendinitis, or of the correct technique which will prevent such an occurrence. Piano technique is often considered an “advanced” student issue, one connected with the ability to tackle a more demanding repertoire, rather than the basic of sound production in general. Teachers who follow this school of thought focus their teaching on learning many pieces, in order to create a sense of achievement in students and their parents, ignoring hand and arm behaviours which are extremely damaging, thinking that these behaviours will either sort themselves out or that they have time to teach their students better technique later.
The truth of the matter is that it is hard to teach proper technique. The younger the student, the more boring they consider any kind of work associated with their positioning, arm and hand relaxation or natural movement. It is not easy to explain how to achieve relaxed movement and 4-year-olds, for example, don’t really care (why would we expect them to, anyway?)! However, it is absolutely crucial that the way they first learn to play is actually the proper way, since quite a large component of piano playing is habit. The more a child plays, the more they get used to playing the way they do.
The reason that tendinitis is serious, is that once a tendon is injured, it never really heals. You can alleviate pain, usually by rest, but you are forever prone to further injury. It can be a career-ending injury for pianists, but it is also a real nuisance in any aspect of one’s life. Which is why proper technique which will prevent it should be the first and foremost concern for any piano teacher.
The harder our muscles work, the harder our tendons have to work to support them. Using force to strike a piano key makes our muscles work hard. As advanced pianists can strike keys up to around 200 times a minute, it is self-evident that using force to strike keys will be detrimental. Force is not our friend!
The first thing to do, then, when we teach young students is to teach them how to control their movements so that each one is relaxed and unforced. Small children do not possess great control over their muscles, so we need to begin with larger muscle groups in their arms before moving on to the smaller muscles of the hand.
The way to do this is not to explain all of this to our little students. Remember: they don’t care! This actually is one of the things they can learn later. Talking about it doesn’t do much good at this stage. However, if we make it fun and entertaining, we can get them to relax quite easily. Using imagery and analogies, like their arms being the feathers of big birds flying slowly in the sky or leaves hanging from a tree, play some music and make a little game out of it, they can quickly absorb the idea. Using the same strategies of imagery, analogy and gamification we can also train their hands and fingers to adopt this same relaxed, natural behaviour, preventing injury from ever occurring. This way of playing has a seriously wonderful side-effect as well: a beautiful, rich sound!
It is said that music is the mother of all arts. It is also said that the piano is the king of all musical instruments. I have dedicated my life to the music of the piano. I have studied -and practiced- how to play it, how to teach it, how not to teach it, as well as the physical, mental, emotional and cognitive effects it can have on the human brain. I now feel it is time for me to share all I have learned. I am Eleni Zeniou and I am a piano teacher.