Every piano player will experience fatigue at some point during their playing. The feeling of cramping or strain in the hands or wrists is not uncommon and can lead to feelings of discomfort or pain. The result is typically that you will need to rest the hand for a few minutes, slow down your playing or need to stop altogether.
Of course, one cannot simply stop playing whilst in the middle of a performance or passage. We often experience fatigue when playing either long or complicated octave sections or fast or loud chord progressions and the reason is usually due to tightening of the hand muscles that sends a burning sensation up your arm.
If this sounds familiar to you and you are looking to improve your piano playing stamina, look no further! Today we aim to break down some easy to action suggestions to help you minimise piano fatigue and improve your stamina, helping you play for longer without being burned out!
If you are experiencing other types of aches and pains outside of your hands, your piano posture may be to blame, you can explore our guide to proper piano posture here as well as our guide to ergonomic piano stools here.
What Causes Piano Fatigue?
In order to firstly understand how to overcome fatigue, we must firstly understand what causes it. Most cases of fatigue can be pinned down to part of your playing mechanism or technique that is accruing tension in your muscles. It may be a miniscule piece of your playing, but if left unchecked, can cause immense levels of strain in the hand.
Tension within the hands is a big part of piano technique and is a skill that takes years and years to perfect. Whilst many out there will advise you to keep your hands as relaxed as possible…this is simply impossible and untrue as if you were totally relaxed, your fingers wouldn't have the strength in them to press the key down and if your entire body was fully relaxed, you wouldn’t even be able to sit and the instrument!
So whilst keeping the muscles free from unnecessary stress and tension is key to minimising fatigue and improving stamina, a far better approach is to consider how you can use tension to your advantage. The most seasoned of piano players will tell you that ideally you want to play with minimal tension to achieve your desired effect and then reset your muscles to their initial state of relaxation and repeat.
The use of tension needs to be strategic and show itself at the right places and times within your playing. As mentioned, this is easier said than done and is part of the reason why playing and learning the piano is a lifelong pursuit.
Understanding The Muscles Of The Hand
Whilst muscles are infinitely more complex than this, there are two key types of muscles to consider when playing the piano, these are: Fast twitch muscle fibres and slow twitch muscle fibres. Fast twitch muscles are great for short bursts of exertion, where slow twitch muscles are what helps build endurance.
The easiest way to envision this is the differences between sprinters and marathon runners, whilst both are working the legs, they are using two different muscle fibres to achieve their specific goal. The sprinter will use their fast twitch fibres to run as fast as possible over a short distance, whilst the endurance runner will be using more slow twitch fibres.
When it comes to piano playing, fast twitch fibres are required during loud, powerful passage work, whilst your slow twitch fibres will help fill the gaps between and maintain playing for longer periods of time.
It is when we use our fast twitch fibres for too long that tension is built up and we become fatigued, this is also what causes the intense pain in the muscles and lactic acid is unable to disperse.
The Solution To Minimising Fatigue
The simplest way to improve your endurance and minimise fatigue at the piano is to figure out how and when to flex and reset your muscles between the motions. The most effective piano playing comes from short bursts of starting at rest, playing with minimal tension, then returning to rest once again. By finding these default reset points and continuously doing small bursts or relaxation, you will not become as easily fatigued and will be able to play for longer.
This being said, there are some passages and pieces within the piano world that are incredibly demanding and are just naturally very fatiguing to play, regardless of your ability. In cases like these, it is all about planning, preparation and most importantly giving your body the opportunity to cool down afterwards to avoid unnecessary strain. This is where a tool such as a piano diary may come in handy to help track your progress and learnings from each practice session.
As pianists, we do have a tendency to try to work through the strain and pain, practising things over and over again, however it is just as important to listen to your body and realise when it needs a break. Learn more about this in our guide to ‘overplaying’.
Self awareness is key to realising your piano playing efficiency. Take note of where and when you are feeling fatigue and use it as a chance to adapt, assess and alter your playing technique to see what you can do to adjust and release tension to remove the fatigue.
Techniques To Focus On:
Of course, playing styles are unique and every pianist will have their own way of doing certain techniques. As such, whilst these tips may not apply to everyone, they are a good place to begin focusing on when adjusting your technique.
Record yourself playing the piece - This will help you realise where you are perhaps going wrong during your playing and noticing any difficulties you may be facing. In turn, you will then be able to pin down the specific passages that are causing more tension in your hands and begin adjusting from there, even the smallest of adjustments can make a huge effect.
Break Each Section Down - It can be tempting when learning a piece of music to try to get up to full speed as quickly as possible, however all this does encourage is rapid playing and tension in the hands. By breaking your piece into many smaller different passages, not only is it more easy to digest, but will help minimise any unnecessary motion. Get used to this and then gradually speed up.
- Release In The Direction Of The Next Note - This is a fantastic little tip that is so easily overlooked. When playing octaves or chords it is incredibly common to see pianists play ‘down’ into the key on both the press on and release. In order to maximise your hand efficiency, instead, try releasing your hand more in the direction of where you are next moving. This will also help your anticipation as you will always need to be thinking at least one note ahead to know which direction to release in.
- Relax Between Each Octave - Another great one to help release hand tension. When we are playing chords or octaves that use repeated hand positions, it is not uncommon to see players lock their hands into a fixed position as they move more, this causes tension throughout the entire forearm and is incredibly fatiguing on the hand. Instead, try to build tiny relaxation movements between the chords. One way of doing this is to relax the thumb as much as possible as most hand tension comes from the muscles linking the thumb to the palm. Again, slow down your playing and make sure that you are leaving at least some room to relax your thumb before continuing.
So next time you are feeling fatigued during your playing or are wondering why you can’t play for longer, consider the above points and ask yourself if there is any room for relaxation within your playing. From slowing the piece right down to checking your hand tension, there are a plethora of ways to try to maximise your piano efficiency. For more tips and tricks, explore our blog, or if you are looking to upgrade your piano or would like to learn more about enhancing your piano playing, contact our experts today or visit our piano showroom!