What is It?

Flowology is my name for the collection of approaches I use to teach piano technique. I think it’s a much better name than “piano technique” because of its sound (all those long vowel sounds instead of those choppy consonants!) and its meaning (“the study of flow”).

If people played the piano with flowing, effortless, and rhythmic movements, then the study of Flowology wouldn’t be necessary. But this is not the case! We often play with tension and occasionally even pain, so we need techniques to bring us into that state of effortless flow where we can play for as long as we want, as fast (or slow) as we want, and as evenly as we want.

Why Flowology?—My Story

As any pianist knows, playing the piano requires fine motor control and intricate coordination. Who do you know that has enough of that?

I struggled with the physical part of piano playing from the time I began formal lessons at the age of fifteen until I quit piano six years later out of frustration. While my mind could quickly grasp the intricacies of musical notation, my body could hardly begin to play a nursery tune without making halting, jerky movements and abrupt stops.

When I was studying music at college, I played a piece by Alberto Ginastera for my end-of-year jury. The piece was essentially seven pages of rapid-fire octaves played by both hands. It’s an exciting, macho piece and I loved it. But I butchered it. At the jury, I broke that piece into a hundred jagged little pieces, and I was so tense that my arms screamed with pain. I barely made it to the finish line despite the fact I had worked long and hard on every note and every measure. For my efforts, I was given low grades. Shortly after that, I quit college, and soon I quit the piano too. It looked like the end of a great love affair!

When I returned to college at a different school a year and a half later, I noticed that the practice rooms in the music building had well-kept Kawai grands in them. So, late at night, I began developing friendships with those pianos. At first I played only for my enjoyment, but then I became determined to figure out how to play in the effortless way that concert artists did. It became my quest.

For a long time, I didn’t play anything I knew. I started over with a clean slate, willing to trust my intuition. I turned out the lights and played in the dark, just improvising freely. My only goal was to focus on the sounds I was making and the feelings in my body, and to play everything with grace and flow. I didn’t care so much about which keys I was striking, as long as I was touching the keys with ease and continuity. Over time, my playing changed radically. Everything began to flow in circular and effortless ways.

Eventually, I knew it was time to return to playing literature. Could I play Chopin in the same flowing, effortless way? I began to read the books of Abby Whiteside, a piano teacher who had undertaken a similar quest back in the 1950’s. She had written a book called Mastering the Chopin Etudes and that book helped me make some breakthroughs. Whiteside made a number of astonishing and challenging observations in her book such as, “All technical problems are, at root, rhythmic problems.” It is interesting to note that the word “rhythm” means “to flow in measured way.”

I later studied yoga and some Feldenkrais movement therapy, and this helped me become aware of the chronic tension I had been holding in my body, tension that had repeatedly undermined my best efforts. Over time, I began to consciously understand the principles of Flowology, and I invented exercises and improvisations that would help my students also develop effortlessness in their playing.

The Two Basic Principles of Flowology

When I am teaching, my students sometimes ask me, “Am I doing it correctly?” I usually answer by asking, “How does it feel?” If the playing feels effortless and flowing, then the technique is probably correct.

On the purely physical level, there are two basic principles underlying Flowology. These principles are based on the rather obvious fact that piano playing requires movement, and all movement is a result of muscles contracting (tightening) to move bones around.

Flowology is, in essence, about discovering the right balance between tension (contraction) and release (relaxation).

We need both. If we have only tension, we quickly become paralyzed. If we have only relaxation, we will be able to make a loud sound by dropping and flopping the arm onto the piano keys, but not much else. But to play artfully, we have to learn to direct that falling weight into the desired keys. For this, we need to contract finger and hand and arm muscles so that the weight of the arm can be transferred into the desired keys.

Flowology is the study of how to accomplish greater effects with less effort, heading toward a remarkable economy of movement where we are able to play for as long as we like without feeling any strain.

This leads us to the two basic principles:

  1. Every movement can be done with less tension. In other words, the desired result can be achieved using less muscular tension, particularly if the “mechanics” are just right.

    So, on the downward movement, as we are striking the key, we find that some positions of the hand require us to be very tight in the hand to transfer the arm weight into the keys, while other positions require much less muscular resistance. Our task is to find that position where the bones do most of the work, requiring very little muscular action.

    And so, the first step is to discover the dynamic positions of the arms, wrists, and hands that allow for the least amount of muscular effort to achieve the desired result.

    Another way to reduce the muscular effort is to not keep pressing into the keys after we have struck them and launched the hammer toward the string. Any pressing beyond that point creates unnecessary tension.

  2. Every tensing action must be answered by a releasing action. Otherwise tension builds up and inhibits free and flowing movement. So, much of Flowology is concerned with creating movements that release the tension caused by contracting muscles.

    It is absolutely necessary to contract (tense) our muscles in order to move. The problems occur when we don’t release that tension. Every inhale needs an exhale, every day needs its night, and every tensing action needs a releasing action.

    And so, when we lift the arms up and away from the keyboard, as we prepare for another drop, this is the time to release the tension in the hands and arms.

The Foundation of Flowology

The pianist who learns to use the least amount of tension on the downward movement and learns to achieve the most release on the upward movement—this person can flow!

This means that the foundation of an effortless flowing technique is the capacity to feel the difference between degrees of tension, and also being able to feel the difference between tensing with releasing and tensing without releasing. Practicing a discipline such as yoga sensitizes us to this very thing—I know that my playing has been profoundly benefited by over twenty years of regular yoga practice. Once we learn to tune in to our body, it is shocking to discover how much chronic tension we habitually burden our nervous system with!

And so, to develop flow, we must first tune in and feel the quality of our movements. We must feel the difference between when we tense a lot and when we tense a bit less. Also, to feel the difference between when we release after tightening muscles and when we don’t release. Developing this sensitivity is the secret of a flowing piano technique!