Rudolf Serkin complained once: “how come, before I play the opening chord of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, I have to take the time to prepare my hands and fingers in a certain specific position over the keys, while when Rubinstein does it, he just raises his hands and with no preparation whatsoever he lands on the keys with the most perfectly balanced chord…?”
It’s all in the wrist and in playing with a down movement of the wrist rather than up. That is not to say that playing with an up movement isn’t good. It is good too and serves some specific purposes. However, “default” playing movement should be downwards. Our wrists can move vertically, horizontally, and in circles. Forearms and elbows follow the wrists. Here we’ll concentrate on the vertical movements of the wrists. By “down movement” I mean move the wrist down past and below keyboard level.
Playing with down movement requires less energy. It causes no strain as we simply rest our fingers and hands on the keys. Letting the hand fall is no work; gravity takes care of it for us. The actual work we do is lifting the hand before playing. We also do work when we monitor the hand fall and want to put some breaks on it. The hand fall can be very powerful — the higher we start the more powerful the sound will be. We need to soften the blow of the impact when fingers/hand land on the keys. Here is when our wrists come into play, just like bending our knees when jumping up and down. The wrists act as shock absorbers that are activated once a car hits a bump on the road. Not before the car hits the bump — meaning that the wrists don’t get bent downwards before the fingers make contact with the keys.
Our fingers are like pillars of a building and they need to be strong enough to endure the impact of landing on the keys when starting the hand-fall from a distance above. In my live presentations I demonstrate how I do floor push-ups with only my fingertips instead of the whole palms. Don’t try it at home! Instead, if you wish to strengthen your fingers’ endurance ability, you can do wall “push-ups” (or push-aways) with your fingertips: you start with moderation, pretty close to the wall and not too many times. Over days and weeks increase pressure by gradually standing further from the wall and increasing the number of “push-ups”.
Once you played with the wrist moving down, stay down on the keys if there’s nothing else to do immediately. This will give your hands more resting time and make the sound longer. I have an adult student who is a dog lover and she loves it when I say “stay, good doggie”… You can start implementing this technique with long notes/chords and fermatas in slow or soft beginnings and endings of pieces or movements or phrases. I must also mention that the breathing goes along with this movement: when we move our wrists down we exhale. We start playing while exhaling; we exhale on any long chords and fermatas. Once we decide to let go the keys (in slow/long/soft notes/chords), we should lift the wrist slowly while inhaling.
Here is a short video (starting at 1:48) in which I demonstrate to an adult student in his lesson staying down on the keys and when lifting, not letting go the keys. This down and up movement on a single note/chord I call a “one-note phrase”:
One of the uses of an up movement is the two-note phrase: the wrist moves down playing the first note and moves back up playing the second note. This can be extended to 3-note phrases as well: first note played with wrist moving down, second with wrist moves up a little, and the third with wrist moving further up.
This can be practiced with a pentascale, Hanon first exercise, or any scale.
The following text and photos are from my book The Art of Piano Fingering, where I also tie the movements with breathing and with specific fingering:
“In two-note phrases we lower the wrist while exhaling when we play the first note of the phrase, and we elevate the wrist while inhaling when we play the second note of the phrase. For example, if we play in the RH D with finger 3 and C with finger 2 as a two-note phrase, we will exhale when playing finger 3 (wrist moves down),
and inhale when playing finger 2 (wrist moves up).
Better not to practice it fast as not to be panting like dogs. However, when playing fast, these movements become smaller and the breathing corresponds with larger groups of notes.”
If we sit very high at the piano, bending the wrist to go below keyboard level may not be healthy for the hands. I recommend sitting relatively low — forearms should be more or less parallel to the floor. Sitting this way will not only save stress and injury, but it will also be better for your neck and back as the head won’t need to be bent down as much in order to see your hands and the keyboard when playing without music.
Let your wrists make the music and enjoy!
Wikipedia: Rami Bar-Niv
Books: Blood, Sweat, and Tours: Notes from the Diary of a Concert Pianist, The Art of Piano Fingering
Camp: Rami’s Rhapsody Piano Camp for Adults