Hands on a piano

Piano Technique: Make Your Playing Easier

Playing piano with good technique is a must for anyone who wishes to attain a certain level of proficiency at piano, play with good sound, and avoid injury.

There are many different schools of thought regarding technique. Also, everyone’s bodies are a little different. This means you will have to do some experimentation to figure out what works best for you.

Below I’ve written a guide for what I’ve found to be a good starting place for obtaining proper piano technique. You may wish to place a full-length mirror near your piano so you can check your positioning as you practice.

Please note: This is not to replace a teacher. There are some aspects of your technique you might not be able to correct yourself. In such cases you’ll need someone else who knows what proper piano technique should look like to watch you play and help you with any corrections.

That said, if for whatever reason you’re not currently in the position to take lessons, this post can help you. It could also work well as a supplement to piano lessons as something you can discuss and work on with your teacher.

Relax!

Man laying in the grass

The main goal in everything that’s written below is playing in such a way that your body can be as relaxed as possible. Tension leads to slower movement, and possibly injury.

If done correctly, following these guidelines should help you learn to use your body in the most efficient way possible. Therefore, if you’re finding yourself tensing up while trying to do the positions I’ve outlined, there’s something wrong! I hereby give you permission to “fudge” some of this in order to be as relaxed as possible.

Note: I said relaxed, not comfortable. For many people what you will read below will not feel comfortable at first. Your body is not used to moving this way! It’s up to you to notice where there’s actual tension, vs. where you need to just keep practicing the position until it feels more familiar. If you’re not sure, you may wish to find a teacher or an experienced pianist you know to help you troubleshoot.

Find Proper Alignment

Someone practicing yoga tree post in front of the setting sun

Tension appears when the muscles aren’t being used properly. Often we think of our muscles as separate. However, in most cases they need to work together in order to be the most efficient. This means in order to move just one little finger you may find yourself needing to use the big muscles of the arm, and even the rest of the body, rather than putting all the weight on the little muscles of the fingers. To do this there has to be a smooth pathway all the way from the torso to the tip of the finger. Creating that alignment is what I will describe below.

Position Your Bench

Pianist using proper piano bench alignment

One of the most important aspects of technique is the positioning of your piano bench. This is because like a chain reaction it will affect other aspects of your technique. Find your ideal bench position by following these steps:

  • Sit on the front half of the bench with your back straight* and your feet firmly on the floor. There should be enough weight in your feet that you could stand up on them if the piano wasn’t in the way.
  • Move the bench far enough from the piano that when you have your hands on the keys and your shoulders are in a relaxed, neutral position, your upper arms are angled down about 45 degrees and your forearms are sticking straight out from your elbows, perpendicular to the floor.
  • The bench height should be such that your elbows are level with, or ever-so-slightly above, the keyboard. If you don’t have a height-adjustable bench then find something to sit on, such as cushions, books, etc., so that the height is right. A common side-effect of sitting too low is developing a habit of lifting your shoulders when you play, which can be a difficult one to break!

*Because it’s so important to keep your back straight, it’s also important to have a strong core. I often like to do a plank before practicing in order to engage those muscles. I find that my back is less likely to feel tired after a long practice session if I do this.

Position Your Hands

Hands on piano keys

Now that you’ve adjusted your bench properly, it’s time to look at your hands. Follow these steps:

  • Wrists are straight.

By this I mean the bone of your hand which leads to the knuckle of your middle finger is sticking straight out from the line made by your forearm, not pointing to the right or the left. If you find that there’s a “break” here, such as your hands angled outward, you may be sitting too close to the piano. Ideally as you play, the forearm is always directly behind the hand. In order to do this you end up moving your upper arms and elbows, or sometimes entire body, in order to maintain this position as the hand moves across the keyboard.

  • Knuckles are level with, or above, the wrist.

This means that there can be a slight vertical bend of the wrist. (In fact, the wrist will be constantly moving up and down–but not side to side!–as you play.) This allows the fingers to fall gently from the knuckles onto the keys. A good way to find this position is take your hands off the keys, shake them, and let your arms fall to your sides. See how there’s a gentle, relaxed curve to your hand? That’s what you want to find on the piano.

  • Play the piano keys with the very tips of your fingers.

This may require that you clip your fingernails, which I highly recommend.*

*If you’re reluctant to clip your fingernails, let me tell you a little story: When I was younger I wasn’t convinced that it made a difference and was lazy about this detail. A few years into my piano playing I decided to test it. I played a piece I was working on, then went and clipped my fingernails and played it again. It was so much easier to play with clipped fingernails! I made less mistakes and was able to play faster and more evenly! This is all because fingernails get in the way of playing on the tips of the fingers. Unfortunately I had already developed a slight habit of playing on the pads of the fingers to avoid my long nails. To this day sometimes that bad habit still creeps up on me if I’m not being careful! Learn from my mistake and just clip your nails!

Learn How to Use Your Body

Woman flexing her muscles
Photo by Luis Quintero from Pexel

People often think that playing piano uses only the fingers, moving them up and down from the knuckles, similar to typing on a computer keyboard. While this movement is involved with piano playing, it’s rarely done in isolation.

To understand what I mean, try this exercise: Place your hand on the piano so that each finger sits on its own white key. Move one finger at a time up and down, each playing its respective piano key. If other fingers are trying to move along with it, there’s tension! Often when we start our fingers are not strong enough to play the keys by themselves in a healthy way. This is why it’s a good idea to learn how to get other muscles involved to help out.

Here’s a list of ways to do this:

  • Play by moving your entire hand. In this case the hand will move up and down from the wrist and your finger will stay in one strong position relative to the hand.
  • Move your entire forearm up and down from the elbow while the hand and fingers remain relaxed but frozen in position.
  • Play with your entire arm, moving it in one piece from the shoulder.

Generally you will be using a combination of these movements, but it’s important to realize they are all common in piano playing. Sometimes even more of the body gets involved. It’s not unusual to see a pianist stand up for just a moment when playing very loudly in order to harness the power of the entire body.

The best part about these techniques, is that you hardly use any muscles to depress the key; The weight of your arm/body does most of the work! When it comes to moving your body in a relaxed way, it’s often also the way that is the least physical work. However, it can still take a lot of mental work to consciously move in that way. We all have bad habits and are often not moving optimally!

Keep Practicing!

Now all you have to do is practice! If you follow all of these guidelines, you’re on your way to playing with relaxed, efficient technique. Now that you’ve come this far, I want to point out one more thing: Like most skills, playing piano with good technique is a process. Most likely you will not be able to do this right away, flawlessly every time. Please always be patient and kind to yourself, and pay attention to how you improve over time. Happy practicing!

Make Practice Time Easier By Planning Ahead!

Hands playing piano keys with a metronome and pencil nearby

Learn how to plan exactly what you need to do each day to accomplish your goals. Then all you have to do at practice time is sit down and play!

The Piecewise Practice Planner will help you make meaningful progress every time you practice, even with as little as 5 minutes per practice session.

Best of all, it’s completely FREE–to opt in, click the button below!

Heidi has been involved in music in one way or another for most of her life. She studied music composition in college, has taught piano, voice, composition, ear training, and guitar, and has worked as a piano tuner and technician. Before the pandemic she loved playing concerts at retirement communities, bringing the joy of music to those populations. She is currently working on learning more about the connection between music and healing.

Related Articles:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *