When I was a little girl and just beginning piano lessons, my teacher spent what I considered an inordinate amount of time talking about posture and hand position. At eight years old, I was much more interested in making music than getting posture and position correct.
But when I retired from teaching and began seriously practicing piano again in my mid-sixties, I found that my hands ached during and after practice. I chalked it up to arthritis.
The repeated chords in the third movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata were particularly troublesome. I realized I was tensing my fingers and pounding the piano. But how else could I play that passage?
I was also revisiting the Schmitt exercises, and I found some that specifically dealt with eliminating tension by moving the hand from the wrist, keeping the arms still. Exercise 48 works with thirds and sixths, repeated and scales; exercise 51 works with repeated octaves and scales in octaves. I applied that technique to measures 25-29, 43-52, 121-125 and 138-147 of the Moonlight Sonata, third movement, and it helped.
Over 50% of professional pianists experience play-related injuries at some time in their careers.
I saw a list of famous pianists who suffered from injuries, and Sergei Rachmaninoff was mentioned, which I consider poetic justice. How many pianists were destroyed by the unplayable chords in his Prelude in c# minor? I have small hands. How do you play a full, wide chord without stretching your fingers to the breaking point?
I polled some of my pianist friends on Facebook, and their best suggestion was rolling the hand from left to right, letting go of the lowest note and keeping it sounding with the sostenuto pedal. That’s a new skill for me, and it will take lots of practice until I can do it well. I didn’t even know I had a sostenuto pedal until recently.
Realize that the editor’s fingering markings in your music might not work for you. I’d always assumed they were the only correct way to play the passage. However, it’s subjective. Experiment with different possibilities, especially on chords of less than five notes in either hand.
Playing piano with tension in the body (hands, arms, shoulders, back, butt, legs) causes damage. So does playing while slouching. If you’re having pain, that’s a sign that something is wrong. Stop. Playing through the pain can have long-term adverse effects.
Elizabeth Mueller Grace discusses the role of posture and alignment in preventing injuries:
Beth Grace works with a student to correct alignment errors.
Muscle memory is a boon to pianists, in that it enables us to memorize music; but it’s also a curse, because it makes bad habits in our practice are so very hard to unlearn.
Dorothy Taubman developed an approach to playing the piano that eliminates damage caused by improper alignment. She identified four errors that cause structural damage: twisting the hand, collapsing the wrist; overspreading the fingers; and overcurling the fingers.
An introduction to the Taubman Approach:
I would love to learn the Taubman Approach for playing dense, spread-out chords, but the only way is to take lessons from a Taubman-trained instructor, or to take the Taubman workshops yourself. Or you can stream Taubman Approach videos for $14.99 per month. I have not done any of these, but I’m thinking about them.
Sources and related reading:
http://pianomap.com/injuries/index.html (read all 7 sections)
https://takelessons.com/blog/piano-guide-injury-prevention Scroll down to “Knowing When to Stop: Common Injuries and How to Avoid Them.”