In the 1998 film “The Legend of 1900,” directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, a piano prodigy born aboard a transatlantic cruise ship faced off in a duel against Jelly Roll Morton, the New Orleans musician who often proclaimed he invented jazz. During the second musical piece of the duel, Morton lit a cigarette and placed it on the guard rail of the grand piano shelf, thus letting it burn as he played a challenging composition of a bluesy ragtime tune he adapted in his own style. By the time he played the closing arpeggio, the cigarette had ashed to the filter but was not fully consumed, and Morton picked it up to take a final drag and show the audience his keen sense of timing.
Morton was a flashy performer who introduced quite a few piano playing techniques that jazz musicians quickly picked up on. His techniques did not adhere to what was considered classical playing during the Roaring ’20s, but the way he held a melody with his right thumb while playing harmonies with the rest of his right fingers sounded as if two players were performing simultaneously. He was truly a virtuoso whose piano playing seemed to be highly improvised; however, the reality of his impressive performance is that he developed numerous techniques that eventually became habits. Many piano teachers will tell you that Morton’s piano playing habits were not the healthiest, but they did foster the structural complexity and sophistication expected of early jazz compositions.
The repertoire of techniques pioneered by Morton were meant to inject the following musical elements into every performance:
Because Morton was a consummate show-off, we now know that the sum of his playing habits amounted to letting audiences know he could sound like a band all by himself. The sounds coming out of his left hand sounded like trombones in a marching band. He was the kind of serious musician who enjoyed studying the work of classical composers because he was interested in the musical habits they developed on their own.
As a parent who is interested in the musical education of your child, there is a good chance you have heard the expression about the piano being one of the easiest instruments to learn but one of the most difficult to master. This definitely applied to Morton, whose virtuosity was first heard in New Orleans bordellos, and who eventually became a masterful musician not only through compositions but also because of the complex techniques he forged.
Healthy Piano Playing Techniques and Habits
The Prodigies Music curriculum seeks to deliver a fun way for early learners to get a good grasp on music theory; this is done through a combination of vocal and instrumental activities that gradually introduce abstract concepts. The Prodigies Deskbells provide 20 colorful notes that serve as a tacit introduction to keyboard instruments. The recorder flute acts as a transitional instrument right before children are ready to begin sitting at the keyboard; in fact, our Level One curriculum of General Music has been adapted for the purpose of providing a more specific focus on the piano.
An important aspect of our Piano Prodigies program, which is suitable for children from the age of four, is to instill healthy playing habits. By healthy we mean proper and conducive to fluid performance; at the same time, we want children to avoid certain pitfalls that can result in bad habits and injuries over time. With some basic piano terminology and a bit of practice, your children can intuitively foster a solid understanding of how to keep their hands and arms healthy while unleashing their musical instincts.
Here’s what parents should know about the early development of proper piano playing habits: Using healthy techniques means using the muscles in the right way, at the right times. We can describe technique as the way the body reacts to sounds and actions, and also the way you position your body while performing. All pianists have a slightly different body and this leads to a different way of playing. There is no single technique that will work for everyone; some of Morton’s contemporaries noted that he slouched excessively, but perhaps they were jealous.
With healthy piano playing habits, performers can:
- Avoid putting unnecessary pressure on the keys.
- Avoid overuse injuries such as tendonitis.
- Become more aware of their posture.
- Enjoy a greater sense of freedom within each performance.
- Become more sensitive to the feeling of the keys.
- Have a greater sense of control.
- Develop overall confidence.
How can we define habits and techniques? Piano technique refers to either the overall way of playing or the various strategies players apply to string notes together. Piano playing habits are what enable you to develop technique. Good habits are pretty standard; technique is highly individual. The techniques Morton used were his very own, but many of them have inspired countless jazz pianists over the decades.
Technique is also the way your body moves and interacts with the keys; this hinges upon development of musicianship. The aim is to develop a technique that is best for you. This means that you play in the way that feels most comfortable to you. Getting to this level requires you to be mindful of good playing habits.
The Fight Against Bad Habits
Guitar and piano are two instruments that are not kind to learners who start off with bad habits. A major aspect of learning to play the piano involves avoiding bad habits that may incorrectly seem intuitive. These bad or poor playing habits eventually become frustrating because students are not able to develop the techniques they are after. The problem with bad habits is that they may feel fine at the beginning, but it does not take long for them to become learning headaches.
Finger number exercises can seem tedious to early learners; this is why our curriculum designers have made them as fun and natural as possible. All piano students must keep in mind that hand positioning is essential for the purpose of playing measures. Numbering has to be learned, encouraged, and enforced through practice and drilling; when students fall into incorrect fingering patterns, steering them back becomes more difficult.
Flat fingers are also the result of badly learned habits. Some avant-garde players use flat hand positioning as part of an eccentric technique, but this is not used very often. Another bad habit involves looking at the fingers as they strike keys; this is a major no-no similar to looking down at your computer’s keyboard while typing. The problem with this habit is that piano students eventually get lost because they try to quickly toggle between sheet music and the keys. After a certain amount of time, they begin to not have enough practice and memorization of the finger numbers, keys, and where each finger is placed, and this makes the process of learning piano difficult.
Keystroke order also causes many problems for students who do not develop the body memory to make the correct ordering and movement of notes. This is not difficult to learn in general, but it needs to be learned the right way so that bad habits can be avoided.
The Bottom Line of Good Piano Playing Habits
As previously mentioned, learning to play the piano from an early age is not so difficult, and it is one of the best ways to stimulate a lifelong interest in music. Mastering the piano is another story; one that can only be told by students who learn the right habits starting with their earliest lessons.
Proper habits are meant to be productive. Piano learning should go beyond looking at sheet music and striking the right keys. Proper sitting posture at the bench and the way fingers are flexed can go a long way in terms of channeling energy to the instrument. Once students become self-aware in this regard, the next step is to start learning various techniques and forming their very own.
For early students, adopting the right piano playing habits is a matter of immersion. When learning is delivered as a game, it is a lot easier for students to absorb concepts such as posture and keeping fingers on the keys instead of floating above them. A lot of this learning is physical; this makes it easier for early learners. When children master good playing habits, they also get to build overall confidence, which in turn results in performance that is more dynamic and expressive.