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Teaching the Rotation of the Forearm to Young Pianists

Bridget Jankowski

When music education is on a secure somatic foundation, all musicians of the world will be free from pain and injury and will enjoy a lifetime of playing. That means, from day one, teachers must be educating all students – even the very youngest beginners – from a secure somatic base. As a teacher, I encourage all of you to investigate this foundation so that the heart of your teaching is not just teaching the student to play the instrument, but HOW to play the instrument. So important is this that the first attempt by a student to make a sound should be an attempt grounded in accurate principles of movement and no musical or pedagogical point should take precedence over this issue. For even the youngest beginners (I have addressed these issues with children as young as 3) can understand that there can be no music without movement and that there is an easy way to move and a difficult way. If students are taught this way from the very beginning, they will never be limited by pain and injury. Their technique will be effortless and their musical endeavors will be a joyful challenge instead of a frustrating hardship. There will be fewer drop-outs and more adults with a genuine appreciation and workable knowledge of this fine art.

Cultivating a vocabulary that works with young children is most important. Words like soft, light and moveable work well, as opposed to heavy, hard and stuck. Imagery is also most useful. One week I had a studio full of students whose elbows were suddenly stuck. I told them I had a truckload of elbow-jello delivered to my house, and would they please take a case home and eat lots and lots so that their elbows would move easily while they were practicing at home. It was fun, and it worked. Some of them could even use those terms to quantify how much different their movement had become. My six-year old son said while practicing his cello, “I really need some more, mom, because I can feel it starting to get stuck again.”

From the first lessons at the piano the idea of rotation at the elbow becomes a factor. Young children do not naturally bring an easy full rotation to the instrument, as seen when they attempt to play their fifth finger sideways with a karate-chop-type motion. While I do talk about how their arm rotates at the elbow, with the youngest students, explanations and pictures of the two bones in the forearm do not always help. Young children can not relate these pictures to themselves, let alone to how that works when they have to play the piano. Imagery to the rescue. We talk about how their arms and hands can move with their palm facing up. That’s how they would play if their piano were upside down on the ceiling. When they rotate half way, their palm is facing sideways, that’s the way they would play their piano if their piano were on the wall. The complete rotation at the elbow, palm facing down, is how they really play the piano because it is on the floor. They discover the full, easy rotation of the lower arm. Then, when preparing to play a note with their fifth finger, we stop to look at which piano they are ready to play. With a smile, they can free their elbow, complete the rotation and make the correction most easily by themselves.

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