The physical technique of the piano

The position of the body facing the instrument

Careful observers of the engravings, paintings, photographs and videos of famous pianists will be surprised at how varied the position of pianists in front of their keyboards is. Franz Liszt seems to us to dominate his keyboard from its full height, sitting quite high, his fingers stretched out, planted like knotted roots in his keyboard, while Glenn Gould sits almost below his keyboard and pushes his head into his shoulders. The conclusion is obvious: it is up to each pianist to find his or her own position, the one that is comfortable for him or her and allows him or her to express himself or herself as he or she wishes.

For beginners, the search for the ideal position is not easy and requires experience. This is why we often recommend a reference position that would correspond roughly to the following criteria:

  • whole body base: feet flat, (sometimes one foot goes behind the stool to get a special sound, force displacement);
  • sitting well on the edge of the buttocks, one does not sit facing the piano as if facing a desk.
  • back straight but not rigid, feel like a column in the belly and kidneys ;
  • elbows at keyboard height;
  • shoulders free and supple;
  • arms free and supple;
  • wrists in the extension of the elbow;
  • wrists at keyboard level not broken down;

For each style of music there is a corresponding seat. In any case, your teacher, if you are taking piano lessons, will be able to give you all the information you need..

Thus, when playing music that predates Romantic music, one plays rather close to the keyboard, stool low, slightly below the keyboard to play with precision with the fingers (Glenn Gould technique). On the other hand, for Romantic music, one will rather play above the keyboard so as to have the weight of the arms on the hands in order to be able to play the sometimes very strong nuances of this type of music (Liszt style). Nevertheless, as each person is different, some composers like Chopin advocated low seating as opposed to the high seating of "those piano breakers" as he himself said. In the same way, the romantic position is specially designed to allow the performer to move his or her body at the same time as the music: large movements etc.

The body and the piano :

When playing the piano, the important thing is to feel the body as a whole. From the feet to the head, the muscles and joints must be in place so that you can play exactly when you want, exactly how you want. In our brain, in our ears there is the piece of music and it must go from the unfinished state to the finished state. It has to pass from the spiritual state to the material state: sound. Concretely, it has to be played. Playing means: on the keyboard, in the correct way, according to what you want to make come out as sound, with your fingers you have to press keys.

There must be no nervous tension left.

But all this technique is not an end, it is only a means. Certainly the greatest pianist of all time and one of the greatest piano technicians, Liszt said, "For the virtuoso, technique is only a means to other worlds."

The flexibility

For any style and any era, the pianist must be flexible in order to optimize the sound quality of the piece through his actions on the keyboard. Lack of flexibility makes the piece lose its musical value.

Flexibility is above all a physical sensation.

In order to acquire this suppleness, one must always begin by sitting comfortably at the piano. See box above.

The fingers

It is noticeable that great pianists place their fingers on the keyboard in different ways: flat or rounded, curled, extended, others seem to use their wrists or arms a lot, the fingers being of lesser importance. Technical explanation: rounded fingers can have greater precision and make the sound output sharper, even dry, in the great pianistic strokes we call this "beaded, shiny play", fingers flat on the piano or slightly over-inclined make the sound output clearer, louder, and more colorful1.

The finger technique is used to pass a weight, an attack to the fingerboard and create a sound. It is important to know clearly what sound you want to achieve in order to use the appropriate finger technique. As for fingerings, Debussy says: "It is up to each person to choose his or her fingerings to play as comfortably as possible".

The pianist must be careful to look at his own fingers before looking at which technique he will use to play. For example, Vladimir Horowitz and Franz Liszt had large hands and very large fingers that influenced their technical choices. Chopin, based on the peculiarities of the five fingers of the hand, built a particular finger technique, especially for the index and ring fingers which are harder to feel than the others. The fourth finger has an original suppleness.

You also have to know how to adapt the way you play to the type of music you are playing. There was a time when there was a finger technique.

The finger technique at the piano comes from the harpsichordist's technique in the first place, harpsichordists, although also playing on a keyboard, do not use the fingers in the same way. Bach, Couperin, Rameau, Mozart, Haydn, Scarlatti... the baroque and the classics in general because of the particular keyboard they used: lighter, smaller, shorter keys did not use the same technique: it's all in the articulation of the metacarps and the feeling of the fingertips. You could say that it's very minimalist.

With the improvement of the piano during the Romantic period and the invention of the double escapement, the keys were lengthened, enlarged, made heavier; the keyboard became larger, and composers made full use of the new technical possibilities with large chords, ample movements of both hands, the fingers alone hardly follow and the members of the trunk are even more needed: chest, shoulders, arms, wrists.

It would be absurd and ridiculous to use Liszt's technique to play Mozart because they did not use the same instrument to compose, hence their different technical habits, just as one does not use one's fingers in the same way to play Brahms and Debussy.

In general what is recommended is to feel an arch in the palm of the hand at the metacarpals. The wrist should be level with the keyboard, with the metacarpals higher than the wrist to allow a better feeling of the arch which starts at the base of the little finger and connects to the thumb. The fingers must be laid down and play rounded, the finger hits the note thanks to the rapid articulation of the metacarpals and not thanks to the lowering of the wrist.

The lowering of the finger on the keyboard is called an attack and is actually a tension of the muscle in the palm immediately followed by a relaxation. Depending on how one wants to attack the key, the finger will strike the key from a high or low point, playing in the bottom of the key to make pianissimo or raising the wrists to have a light touch. For the virtuosity passages, the main thing is to work by feeling with the fingers the positions and by staying glued as close as possible to the keyboard.

To develop and link this article on the fingers with the pianistic technique in general, we have seen that it is also a question of sensations and a matter of the whole body and therefore the fingers must also benefit from the help of the wrists which pivot laterally and vertically. Chords are often played with the weight of the shoulders to play a full sound. But again, it all depends on the sound you want to bring out.

The hand

The beginner learns, from his first class, that his hand must form a "vault" as if he were holding a ball. Thus, the fingers are automatically rounded, an indispensable position for the beginning of the learning process (the expansion of piano techniques, especially the flatter fingers, will come later). In order to keep this arch, the teacher invites the student to find the position by himself by embracing his knee with his hand. Position that one has naturally: let your arm swing along the body and you will notice that the fingers are not stretched but rounded, the hand forming the above-mentioned arch.

The wrist
The wrist plays an important role when performing a piece of music. Together with the arm and the shoulder, it is the wrist that will guarantee the flexibility of the movements and the fluidity of the music. Thus, according to its position the note will not sound the same way: it is said that one gives a colour to the note.

So the wrist must be supple in three ways: lateral (from left to right), vertical (from bottom to top) and rotational (the wrist pivots on its axis).

The arm

As for the arms, they follow the movement of the wrists, they accompany them.

The shoulders

Shoulders play an important role in overall flexibility. They must be in a low position, to favour deep breathing (a little like the singers'), relaxed, to have flexibility in the elbow and wrist. They are also used to give power to the chords and fortissimo passages that can be played slightly bent forward (back always straight) and by transmitting all the weight from the upper body to the arm through the shoulders.

The upper body

The upper body should generally be stable and upright. But, in the heat of the moment, in the middle of the action, it can move. However, care must always be taken to ensure that these do not interfere with touching.

The foot

Although it is thought that feet are used for nothing else at the piano but to press the pedals, feet are the basis of everything. Sitting firmly and firmly on the floor when playing the piano is a way to feel good, both physically and mentally. Indeed, the movements of the body require that one is well anchored to be able to bend over and so on.

When playing pieces that require you to play strong chords and nuances you should place your left foot under the stool, on the toes so that you can press and give strength without losing your balance and thus play these passages easily.

Likewise, being well anchored every time you play is important for public performance. First of all because it reflects a confident image of the pianist, but also because this habit allows one to return to the usual working and playing conditions. To put it simply, one can say that one feels at home. It takes away a weight of stress.

Muscle relaxation

It is very important to release all members when playing. A wrist that is too tight can cause pain in the elbow and even in the shoulders. Raising the shoulders is also a very common bad reflex among pianists. It causes pain in the hollow of the shoulder which takes time to calm down.

It is important to stand up straight.

A relaxed wrist and playing from the shoulder allows a more pleasant touch of the keyboard.

Something that is not talked about enough is also the relaxation of the jaw muscles, or more simply of the jaw, which some people tense from the difficulty of a piece tend to contract too much, creating tension, which has a bad effect both on the performer and on the music he or she is playing, because he or she is not completely relaxed.


Apolline is an art school, offering music lessons (drums lessons, piano lessons, guitar lessons and singing lessons) and visual arts lessons (Manga lessons, academic drawing lessons), based in Lausanne, Switzerland.