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“When I practice this piece, I feel  pain.”

Adult students sometimes experience physical discomfort when learning a challenging piece.  A good teacher will know how to facilitate a student’s practicing so s/he can play comfortably and not incur injury.

Causes

Tension

Some people are not the most relaxed beings on the planet, myself included.  Tension we carry every day is a contributing factor.

New musical material

Big chords
Unfamiliar hand positions
Different range on keyboard

Typical scenario

It’s about the age of the student at the time of piano study.  Children have flexibility that adults do not.  So when an adult begins something new that requires physicality, s/he is already facing at least somewhat of a problem.

The same set of circumstances occurred recently with two of my adult students.

Example #1

In a composition with left hand chords throughout, there are just two causing the problem.  Both chords require an octave reach with additional notes between.  More importantly, the chords are in the middle of the keyboard.

When something like this causes pain, it is crucial to the student’s health for the teacher to stop immediately during the lesson and look at what the causes might be.

In this case, the left hand and arm are in a new position, reaching over in front of the body at an unusual angle.

Example #2

Similarities:  chords; new hand and arm position.

Differences:  one chord is played legato to the next; left hand plays above middle C, making the arm stretch even further and taking the hand out of its area of familiarity.

Ways we can help

Ask the student to Stop.  Slow down.  Relax.  Then notice whether the student’s arms and hands are relaxed.

Look for places where the left hand has to move in toward the back of the keys (i.e. thumb plays a black key), and then begin moving in that direction earlier. (So the “choreography” will be on the diagonal, not a sudden two-inch difference.)

Move the torso ~ lean to the right!  Adult students may never have thought about this.  But maintaining “good” posture ~ back straight, hands and arms square with the keyboard ~ is not helpful here.  (“Good” piano posture is angled at times.)

The elbow should be close to the body, not held out to the side.

Sometimes it is helpful to flatten out the hand.

Look for every possible place to relax, and program that into the practice sessions.  Practicing in that way will take more time, but the student will avoid injury and learn the piece faster.

Remind the student to warm up first every day.  Then start practicing with the difficult passage rather than playing through the entire piece from the beginning just to get there.  If the student is already tired, pain will set in more easily.

In the second example, above, the left hand has a chord or two and then a rest.  Relax during the rest.  After that, there are two chords played legato, two more, etc.  Each two-note group has a phrase mark.  Between all the two-note groups are excellent places to lift the hand, relax (fingers together), then continue.  Just add a quarter rest or more.

Limit the length of time spent on difficult passages.  They need to be alternated with taking a walk, playing something else (different musical style, more comfortable range), practicing the right hand, etc.

Teachers can also help by eliminating any deadlines for when the piece has to be played in tempo.  The student’s health is more important.

A student’s ability to read music and learn pieces beyond his or her technical level is something that can happen with adult beginners.  Ignoring pain is not an option.  We as teachers need to be alert to possible problems and be ready to help.

Have your students experienced pain when learning a new piece?  How did you help them practice?  Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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