Tension in a Pianist Hands

Updated: Jun 15

Posture and body awareness is one of the most important aspects a beginner pianist can learn. It is common misconception that pianists (or any instrumentalists for this matter) utilizes only the fingers.


In actual fact, it is the technique of connecting larger muscles in the arm to control strength and touch at the fingertips. Being aware of how your shoulders, neck, arms, and feet (to get grounded) feel can greatly improve one’s execution of technical finger work and performance of a musical piece.


There are many pedagogical approaches to coaching beginners in this subject, and they all lead to the same objective of training this foundational skill. I have a few of my favourite go-to phrases to use during lessons:


“Remember to keep the shape of our ‘goose hands’. Honk, honk!”

“Let’s try not to crush the little bunny in it’s home.”


“Keep holding that imaginary stone in your hand.”


"Let us check those heavy lion paws!"




Here's a simple check you can do for yourself (or your child). If your thumb is spread sideways when another finger is pressing a single key at the instrument, your hand is in too much tension.


When the hand is relaxed, the thumb and it's tip is naturally resting behind the pointer finger. Naturally, when you play large intervals or octaves the hand is in expansion so the thumb will stretch out. This check is for when your hand is in contraction and it is important for it to be relaxed as you move stepwise up and down.


If you are familiar with scales on the piano, try playing a scale with your thumb extended a little. You will feel an awkward, unnecessary tension, which lends to difficulty in achieving a smooth flow ascending and descending the scale. With this tension, speed and an even tone in becomes very challenging. In addition, notice how restricted the wrist feels.


When your hand is relaxed, the wrist will be very fluid moving to create movement of the forearm to always line up behind a finger that's pressing a key. If you are an experienced pianist, you will notice how your wrists are painting imaginary circles as you move up and down a scale. the more relaxed you become, the more fluid and smooth your flow.


Young children, especially are still learning this awareness, however it doesn't mean adults are less prone to these posture issues. All skills to be mastered comes with consistent practice and awareness (self or guided correction) at the instrument.


I have used many activities to assist students in executing finger movement with relaxed arms and hands. This is where learning some rote pieces are very helpful in training foundational techniques. The child is able to focus on how the upper body is feeling when doing the excercise. When reading notation is introduced and counting and technique, it can sometimes overwhelm the student as they are only trying to concentrate on one thing (which is usually the reading aspect).


Sometimes, I would have a student practice playing just with a loose fist and finger 2 extended. This enables the child to feel the natural, relaxed hand shape and use the larger muscles of the arm for movement. I have also had students put their hand on my hand, and lining up their forearm with mine, to feel what it means to be tensed and relaxed as I play a passage of music. It may seem trivial, but this is what eventually lends to a beautiful legato articulation of sounds at the instrument.

During home practice, listening and watching your child practice is the best way to engage your child in their learning. Success can begin from the home when reinforced consistently after lessons. It is crucial to understand the correction will not occur overnight, and these experiences do take time to learn. As educators, we must start the process from Day one to instill good habits at the instrument.


Too often, we tend to chase after quick successes indicated by a student's ability to complete playing a music piece(s). However, we have to tread carefully. If the foundations are not set in place, the student can experience a plateau early on, and soon be frustrated with learning as advanced pieces require the right technique to execute.


A common misconception is to assign lots of scales work for the student. Practicing blindly (without goals or intent) or teaching scales to a beginner too early can cause injuries if not shown the proper technique on how to practice. Even though, scales and arpeggios are the backbone of music, the fundamentals behind how to execute them correctly is just as crucial.

It is definitely worth while to always take time to revisit posture. Spending a couple minutes doing simple hand/arm stretches, shoulder/wrist rolls, finger excercises away from the piano prior to practicing pieces can be very rewarding in the long term.


Just as a dancer or a gymnast learns how to stay grounded with proper posture, the same applies for musicians when it comes to expressing sounds at the instrument.