The most intricately and perfectly coordinated of all voluntary movements in the animal kingdom are those of the human hand and fingers, and perhaps in no other human activity do memory, complex integration, and muscular coordination surpass the achievements of the skilled pianist.
Homer W. Smith, Fish to Philosopher
In Saint-Petersburg, I studied piano under renowned Galina Minsker, famous for her work with playing-related injuries. She introduced me to the work of her teacher Anna Schmidt-Shklovskaya. In my academic research, I explored Schmidt-Shklovskaya’s teaching approach and the work of Ivan Kryzhanovsky, a musician and doctor who Schmidt-Shklovskaya credited for her own healing. I also continued Minsker’s research on the theory of multi-levelled motor control as authored by Russian scientist Nicolai Bernstein.
Building all of this into my playing and teaching practices has led to the development of my unique approach, which incorporates principles of efficient and healthy piano technique and tightly connects them to students’ musical advancement.
Tips on healthy practising habits
Over the last 60-70 years, both musical and medical communities have continued to claim that musicians are underrepresenting the use of the body as a whole. Piano pedagogues still do. We often don’t advise students enough on how to exercise wisely, how to maintain the correct posture, warm-up properly or support the arms and hands using the bigger muscles of the back. Hence, researchers observe a never-ending plethora of playing-related injuries among pianists, such as tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.
Professor John Mortensen from Ohio advises to start the re-training of an injured player from the shoulders, because they encompass a large proportion of the body. I agree that it’s a good starting point because that’s where tension often accumulates without the student noticing it. Even better is to start at the neck and head and notice any tension there. The Alexander Technique proves to be incredibly valuable here, with its primary control and freeing of the neck. The precision of finger work is also controlled from the shoulder joint. For example, the shoulder joint guides the fingers when we need to thread a needle - any tension in the neck and shoulders impedes the freedom and dexterity of the fingers.
In lessons, I offer exercises that help students balance the work of different muscle groups, which ultimately leads to more comfortable and expressive playing.
Small things matter, such as a step-stool under the feet of young children. In some cases, it might take weeks or even months for students to steady their feet or start noticing their back and shoulder posture, but reminders eventually pay off.
Reminding students to switch activities to avoid repetitive strain; reminding them to simply get up every 15-20 minutes and have a sip of water, walk around for a few minutes and swing their arms to replenish the working muscles with oxygen.