I was approached by Gratz on Instagram and asked to submit a paragraph and a couple of videos for their feature called Found In Translation. They wanted information on how Pilates helps piano and, after giving this some consideration, I came to the conclusion that a paragraph is not enough. There is so much to say on the subject I could write a book, but that’s for another time perhaps – after I’ve finished my instructor training and have some years of experience as a Pilates teacher behind me. I’ve been teaching the piano for over 20 years, so I have some catching up to do.
Since the age of 5 I have experienced piano playing of all kinds, as a listener, student, performer and teacher and what intrigues me, is the vast spectrum that exists of pianists who appear to do very little and play the most technically demanding music with apparent ease, to those who appear to put in huge amounts of effort, and struggle with stamina, power and on-going injury of varying degrees.
I used to focus my curiosity and observations on what goes on with the hands and arms but always felt it was more to do with the whole body; I just didn’t know what I was looking at or how to interpret it. Since training to be a Pilates instructor, my eye is developing and my understanding of what the whole body does while playing is improving by the day.
I have come to the conclusion that very little of what happens at the keyboard has to do with the activity at the ends of the arms. I can hear pianists everywhere screaming at that sentence after the tens of thousands of hours practised and endured to get to where they are now, but hear me out…
…The problem with our contemporary lifestyles is that our upper bodies are highly underdeveloped. Our back and torso are wrapped in layer upon layer of large muscles that are supposed to support everything our arms to but, because most of us have underdeveloped postural, shoulder and back muscles, our arms and hands end of becoming overloaded and doing the brunt of the work. Our arms are not ‘plugged into’ our backs as they’re supposed to be.
This is where Pilates comes into its own. The method is all about integrating the body and a big part of that is connecting the limbs into the powerhouse, (the body’s centre for control and strength).
Playing the piano is a physically demanding activity and a pianist’s potential can be inhibited by weakness, misalignment or imbalance in the body. These issues often also lead to injury and this happens more frequently than it should. Pilates is one of the most rigorous and successful methods in addressing the development of the whole body and, when practised regularly, injury can be prevented or reversed.
Two of the most important physical mechanisms for pianists are a stable pelvis and a strong connection of the arms and shoulders into the torso. While sitting on a stool with no lumbar support, a pianist needs to have complete freedom in the shoulders and arms to play complicated material whilst also having a strong enough centre to support rapid movements from side to side. Feet cannot be firmly planted because the pedals are being operated, so stability cannot come from the ground up.
The Short Box series and Pull Straps are excellent exercises to help stabilise the pelvis, lengthen the spine and connect the arms into the back. These come together beautifully in the Rowing Series which lifts the spine, stretches the lumbar, challenges the connection of the arms into the back and strengthens the upper back and shoulders. Part of the Rowing Series is demonstrated here on an 80” Gratz reformer.
As a professional pianist and piano teacher with over 20 years experience, I have encountered many playing injuries over the years. Whether pianists suffer from RSI in the wrists, chronic pain or aching in the neck or lumbar or soreness in the shoulder, these issues can be debilitating and frequently inhibit their progress and ability to play.
I have found Pilates to be the most successful method in addressing these issues because it develops the whole body. Two of the most important physical mechanisms for pianists are a stable pelvis and a strong connection of the arms and shoulders into the torso. While sitting on a stool with no lumbar support, a pianist needs to have complete freedom in the shoulders and arms to play complicated material whilst also having a strong enough centre to support rapid movements from side to side. Their feet cannot be planted because the pedals are being operated, so stability cannot come from the ground up.
The Short Box series and Pull Straps are excellent exercises to help stabilise the pelvis, lengthen the spine and connect the arms into the back. These come together beautifully in the Rowing Series, some of which are demonstrated here. I am lucky enough to be an apprentice of Romana’s Pilates at Kinetic Pilates, London, working towards my advanced exams. I now play without pain or lower back compression, and with the pressure taken out of my hands and wrists, my technique has also improved.