Leaning In or How I’m Learning to Be One with My Piano
By Linda McCloud-Bondoc
“Use your arm weight on the keys, use your whole body,” the instructor said. “Lean in.” I was at the Calgary Arts Summer School School Association(CASSA) summer music camp, and as an adult student who played at (barely) level 3, the instructor’s words confused me. I couldn’t use my body weight! I’d break the keys, wouldn’t I? I wasn’t sure what would happen if I “leaned in”, but I knew it was something disastrous. What could she mean?!?
Up until that point, I’d always carefully leaned OUT from the keyboard, touching each key as if it were a delicate piece of china that might break. I’d use the tips of my fingers and let go almost as soon as I pressed the keys. But the CASSA instructor had other ideas. “Play right to the bottom of the keyboard.” She demonstrated by booming out a chord in the lower registers that made me practically leap off the bench. It was then I realized: I was afraid of the piano. And not just the one I was playing at that moment. I was afraid of all of them, even my own.
Don’t get me wrong. I love pianos in general and mine in particular. I love the sounds that they make whether they are turning out honky tonk or a Chopin waltz. I love the way they can sound like a crying woman or a cannon firing. I love them all. That’s why I wanted to learn to play.
But that was true, I was also afraid of my piano, and as I dug deeper into the “why”, I realized I was treating my instrument like a stranger, someone I might address with careful politeness, but whom I kept at a distance. If I understood the CASSA instructor, though, I needed not only to lean in, but to become more intimate with this big, hulking piece of furniture. As my own piano teacher was fond of saying , I should work at “becoming one with my instrument”, making it an extension of myself, just as all musicians do.
But how to do that? Bass players literally hug their instruments and violin players tuck theirs under their chin as cozily as a hen tucking a chick under a wing. But a piano encourages an arm’s length relationship. You sit on a bench and only your hands make contact—it’s more like shaking hands than a hug. The question was: how to create a more intimate connection. And being a practical person, I began to look for exercises that would help me to learn exactly the right technique.
But it wasn’t as simple as that, and I soon realized that the first step was not a practice or technique but a shift in thinking. I had to start seeing my piano as a friend, an intimate, someone I could get to know and have both friendly and deep conversations with—a friend who would forgive my mistakes. And with that realization, I discovered that pianos, just like violins and basses, respond in dialogue with the player.
Sometimes this new intimacy means using the technique of “arm weight” that that instructor spoke of. When I got home from the CASSA camp, I Googled “using body weight” to find out just what that meant. Much to my surprise, I discovered that I actually had to move when I played and not just my arms. And when I tried it, my piano liked it, that is, the tone it produced in response was richer and fuller.
My piano and I are still early in this relationship. Sometimes I do remember to “lean in”, but more often, I still hold the keys at arm’s length, especially when I play on an unfamiliar instrument or if I’m practicing a difficult passage that I am trying to get just right. Then, I hunch my shoulders, tense my fingers, and imagine that if I just maintain enough control, I will make my piano sound the way I want it to.
But that’s not how you treat friends, and it seems the more I learn to relax, as I might with a good buddy over a cup of coffee, the more my piano responds with the right note and a beautiful tone. It helps, too, to remember that all good relationships take time to develop. And although I haven’t yet reached that level of intimacy, I now know it is possible, and I’m looking forward to the day when my piano and I can make beautiful music together.