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The Four Pillars of Piano Technique (A Commentary)

Today I’m doing a video on Dr. John Mortensen’s wonderful video series on “The Four Pillars of Piano Technique”. This is a video request from Patreon supporter Ilay.

His video series is about an hour and a half long, so consider this a brief overview of his ideas, followed by my own ideas on learning techniques like wrist rotation and my own personal experience with it.

Definitely check out his playlist, as it’s both immensely useful and entertaining (he made me laugh out loud a few times!).

But if you’re a complete beginner, please bear with me for the discussion later in this video.

Let’s get started!

The Four Pillars of Piano Technique: Overview

Here are the four pillars as described by Dr. John Mortensen, and then we’ll discuss each in turn.

  1. Structure (basic shape of hand and arm)
  2. Centering – body aligned with what you’re doing – in the moment – at the piano
  3. Rotation – forearm revolves, without moving individual fingers
  4. Grouping and surfacing – when do I stay down, and when do I lift?

Centering

“If it looks awkward, it is awkward.”

The idea of centering is a bit difficult to explain, so I’ll use an example. If you stand up pin-straight, legs side-by-side, someone can come by and tip you over easily. Your center of gravity isn’t flexible. But if you widen your stance, someone can push you and you can absorb the impact. Your center of gravity is flexible and moveable, which makes you much more resilient.

What does this have to do with piano?

There’s this idea that we have to keep our wrist completely straight and press our fingers like pistons on the keys. But this just makes you unbalanced and creates a lot of tension. Instead, if you adopt a “moveable” stance with your hand, where your wrist is allowed to rotate, you remain much more relaxed and balanced.

Hand structure

Hand structure is one of the first postural things I teach. Here’s an exercise to try right now. Take both your hands and put them on a table (don’t do this if you’re driving). Splay one hand out completely flat, and allow the other hand to curve, with the thumb propping up the hand. Which position takes more muscular effort?

Surprisingly, the splayed hand uses more effort. We want a curved hand shape at the piano, because we’re working with a natural arch. John gets into this great discussion on how curved bridges are incredibly sturdy and encourages you to test it out yourself: push your hands against each other, one hand flat and one hand curved, and see which one wins.

Rotation

If you rotate your wrist right now, you’ll notice it raises and lowers your fingers. This is the best part about using wrist rotation in your playing – you don’t have to muster all this energy in your fingers. The way your wrist falls will drive a lot of the momentum in your playing.

An interesting point he brings up is this – which finger is the center of your hand? Rotating your wrist in the air right now, can you tell? It’s actually your second finger, which is your balance point.

A good way to learn wrist rotation is to practice an Alberti bass pattern with and without rotation. He also talks about how rotating the wrist allows our notes to alternate between strong and weak sounds, which is a critical element of playing that’s often overlooked. Instead of all our notes being totally even and equal, it sounds much more lifelike to have the sounds vary. Conveniently, wrist rotation allows us to have stronger notes counterbalanced by weaker notes without having to really think about it.

The biggest takeaway here is to NOT play each finger in isolation.

Grouping/surfacing

The idea of grouping and surfacing is genius, and something many piano players do without thinking about it – I’m glad to finally have a term to hang it on.

You’re basically organizing passages into phases and lifts. Places where your hand stays down, playing the notes, and places where your hand lifts.

John has some colorful and brilliant ways of explaining this, but for me it reminds me of swimming. When you’re swimming, you need to come up for frequent breaths, or else bad things happen. In piano, when we have these epic phrases of endless fast notes, and we don’t use the “surfacing” technique, it’s like trying to hold your breath as long as you can. It’s stressful and tension-inducing.

It’s helpful to our mind to take longer passages and divide them. Too many notes in a row and our brain tends to get all jumbled. But we can think clearly in smaller shapes.

Bringing this down to earth, let’s use arpeggios as an example. Any time your fingers physically need to move is where you “surface”. Or you can think of scales in groups of 3 and 4, any time you need to do a switch between notes.

Aside from being mentally useful, it makes our playing easier. Say you have a 15-note run. If you can think of it as three segments instead of one giant segment, it’s much easier to remember and play.

My thoughts on teaching piano technique

First off, I want to mention that until recently, I haven’t taught any of these pillars to my students. It wasn’t something I was ever taught, and honestly, I didn’t think about it much. I had some ideas about hand tension, rotation, and so forth, just by observing the way different people played piano and by diagnosing tension issues in students.

I took the approach of “it’ll solve itself eventually”. Especially with small children, I find the early stages of piano need to be easy and feel doable. We focus on small wins like learning the notes and playing short passages. There’s just so much to learn in the early stages. If I were to teach these concepts in the early lessons, it could easily overwhelm them. Heck, they’re easily overwhelmed with all of the other many things to learn.

Within the first year or so, once they feel more confident at the piano, we’d start talking about things like awkward flying pinkies in a more meaningful way. Relaxing the wrist, not pressing the fingers like pistons. And no specific discussion on wrist rotation, because it was something I just did intuitively, and didn’t think about it.

Over the last couple years, and especially with my private lessons with a teacher, I’ve been learning more about these ideas. I’ve been trying to decide on how to integrate it into lessons.

I still feel strongly that it shouldn’t be taught immediately with children. They need at least a few lessons to gain some traction and knowledge. They need to have some fun first.

Adult students, on the other hand, can definitely handle the knowledge right away. But with adult students, there tends to be a different problem – “analysis paralysis”. Beginners tend to stuff their heads with a million ideas about piano – theory, scales, how to play, etc. – that it totally overwhelms them when they begin playing. They’re trying to remember 1000 things.

So with adults, too, I would teach these techniques in a more progressive manner. Start by getting acquainted with the keys on the piano, with the notes on a page, with basic rhythm. And THEN figure out hand position.

I worry that if you focus on hand position first and foremost, the actual playing of notes won’t be enjoyable for the first bit. Instead of feeling a sense of accomplishment at learning the notes, an adult student will get bogged down with the concern that they’re “not playing the notes right”.

Barring hideous technique, it’s not going to cause any long-term negative effects to not play with perfect technique right away. I think it’s better to dive in and get started. To enjoy learning a few things without worrying about whether or not you have adequate wrist rotation. That can come.

Learning tends to happen at natural points when we allow it. I observe this daily with my daughter. Sometimes, when I try to teach her something specific, I realize how totally futile it is. I’m usually better off helping her with whatever it is she’s trying to learn.

It was like the other day, when I was trying to teach her the word “fish”, because we had some books from the library about fish. She didn’t seem overly interested in the fish themselves, though she liked the books. But she learned ‘puppy dog’ immediately, because my husband’s sister has a new dog. And now my daughter pants and barks like a dog.

She cared about learning about dogs. She was ready for it. Maybe my parenting lesson is that I should take her to an aquarium or something.

The point being, learning tends to be natural and enjoyable when we follow the waves of our interest and readiness. Without following the waves, it can be a serious grind. Me attempting to belabor the word “fish” would just lead to us both both getting frustrated.

I’m not convinced that the “wave” of learning about wrist rotation and postural details is at the very start of lessons.

In a lesson with a brand-new student, adult or child, we’ll spend about 5 minutes on general posture. Easy stuff. Where to sit on the bench, how far away. Don’t raise the wrists or droop the wrists. This, I think, is more than enough to get going with learning some fundamentals.

Isn’t this how we tend to learn piano? We learn a few notes on the staff, and a few pieces using those notes. Then we expand our scope of notes. And play a few pieces with those new notes. And so on.

Likewise, I think a discussion on posture can be introduced gradually in this way. Depending on the student, I would expect most postural issues to be solved within a year or two. I’m not saying hold out forever. And I am changing the way I teach this (as in, I’m actually teaching it now).

But if you’re just starting, and this is too much, don’t worry about it. You’ll be fine. Come back to it in a few months or a year.

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this discussion on piano technique – definitely check out the wonderful playlist of videos Dr. John Mortensen created, and I’ll link it below. Please feel free to share any recommendations on material like this with me, as I love expanding my scope.

 

-Allysia

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