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Your Aching Back: Does Your Piano Technique Help It or Hurt It?

by Bruce Siegel on December 21st, 2016

My back never hurts or gets tired while I play, but it wasn’t until recently that I understood why: since I play using arm weight, my hands rest on the keyboard, supporting me and helping me to stay upright. The result—my back does a lot less work.

Without question, back discomfort is a problem for many pianists. If you’re one of them, and you’d like to do something about it, this post’s for you.

When I was a music major in college, practicing many hours a day, my back would often become fatigued and begin to ache terribly. It was a real problem, one which I was never able to resolve. At least, not while I was in school.

However, a year or two after graduating, the pain suddenly disappeared altogether—though I had no idea why. It was strange. I was still playing for long hours at a time, yet never once did I experience the slightest twinge of discomfort or fatigue.

Just one of those mysteries, I told myself, and thank heaven for it.

Now—here’s the other part of the story. During those same post-college years, I was beginning to discover the importance of allowing the weight of my arms to produce tone, instead of relying solely on the strength of my fingers. That led to a revolution in my playing. Suddenly, I was more relaxed, because the focus was now on releasing rather than pressing. (As an important side note, it was so much easier now to control dynamics, because I was simply measuring out weight release, rather than placing the burden on the much smaller muscles that power the fingers.)

So you might assume I would make the obvious connection, right? I’m more relaxed, so of course my back feels better. It stands to reason.

But somehow, that answer never satisfied me. After all, regardless of whether or not I was being kinder to my fingers, I was still having to sit upright. I mean, my back still had plenty of work to do (I assumed), so why was it never getting tired? Some part of the puzzle was clearly missing.

OK. Fast forward about forty years to a few months ago. On this recent occasion, I was experiencing one of my occasional bouts of lower back pain, a problem that began long after the period to which I’ve been referring.This is a pain that rarely bothers me, thanks to a daily regimen of stretching and strengthening exercises that keep me feeling great.

But every once in a while, if I slack off on my routine or lift a heavy weight carelessly, this lower back pain will pop up, and that’s what happened on the day in question.

Key point: the lower back pain I’m now referring to has nothing whatsoever to do with playing the piano. How can I be certain? Because if my back is hurting, and I begin to play—the pain goes away! At least while I’m playing.

And now we’re getting to the heart of the matter.

On this recent day of enlightenment, my lower back had been hurting, and I was marveling, once again, at the fact that playing the piano was about the only thing I could do on that pain-ridden day that felt 100% comfortable. “Why?” I wondered.

And suddenly I knew: since I use the weight of my arms while playing, my hands are resting on the keyboard much of the time. Without my even thinking about it, they literally support my back by doing much of the work of keeping me upright.

Are you getting this? You don’t need a piano to observe this principle in action. Just sit at a table, and notice how much easier it is to sit up straight, when your hands are positioned in front of you, resting on the table. That’s what I’m talking about.

And there it is, folks. A mystery cleared up for me, and perhaps a lesson that resonates with you. If it does, keep in mind that a relaxed, gravity-based technique is at the heart of my courses, and I teach it, in one way or another, in many of my videos.

There’s a free introduction to it here. And the rest of that two-part lesson is included as a free bonus with Play & Sing.

So, my piano-playing friends, the message of this post is as simple as it is kind: let the weight of your arms do the work, and give your back a break!

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