Energize the first three minutes of your piano lessons with warm-ups that encourage great posture, focus the mind (yours and your student’s) and set the mood for learning.
Perhaps in your studio you have students who don’t need reminders to sit with good posture or relax tension in their shoulders, arms or hands, or to keep their feet still. If you do, you’re lucky. In my experience, my junior students need frequent little reminders.
However, in my teaching philosophy I believe that if something is well-taught to begin with, it won’t require remedial work later on. When I had to remind a student to place his feet firmly on the floor and keep them still, and another student to lift out of a slouching posture, it was too convenient to think it was because they had not learned what I had taught. Instead, I took responsibility and determined that I had not taught them well enough. I then developed a short routine for my students that focuses on the lesson ahead and helps teach posture awareness.
I have made it standard practice for my whole studio to begin each lesson with a warm-up. If you try it, too, you will experience the amazing benefits of taking a quiet moment to prepare the body and focus the mind.
Invite your student to stand facing the piano with the bench behind them in playing position. (There’s more on bench placement at the bottom of the post.) Stand adjacent to them beside the piano, also facing forward, so they can see you in their peripheral vision.
Take a slow, deep breath, yourself, and let it out, letting go of your day or your previous lesson/student. Focus your thoughts on this lesson with this student, here and now. Clear your mental slate and renew your energy. As you model each stance and movement, ask your student to do the same. When you speak, keep your words slow and your voice calm.
Stand with your feet about hip-width apart and have a slight bend in your knees, with your upper body and head stacked and balanced above. Ask your student to do the same.
While you hold the pose (keeping a slight bend in the knees), let your arms hang freely at your sides, motionless. With a gentle, slow voice, invite your student to take a deep breath with you. You might say, “Let’s take a deep breath. Just let everything go that has happened so far today, and let’s just focus right now on the music we are going to make together. We don’t need to think about anything that happened in school. We don’t need to think about the week or the trip to your lesson. Let’s just focus our thoughts on this moment we have together, right now, to make music.”
You and your student will both notice your legs becoming energized from the pose. Bring your student’s attention to it, “You might start to feel energy in your legs. While we’re here I want you to feel your feet becoming grounded down into the floor. Feel the pull down. All four corners of your feet are sinking, growing roots like a giant tree. And as your lower body feels the pull down, let your upper body lift upwards slightly, like a tree growing gently toward the sun.”
This dual energy, the lower body feeling down, upper body up, is excellent preparation for sitting at the piano with grounded, settled feet and a lifted upper body. We teach this body awareness first while standing, and want the student to remember the feeling and carry it over to the sitting position.
The slow pace of Mountain Pose makes it both energizing (in the legs), and freeing (in the breath and upper body). In all, you and your student may hold Mountain Pose for a minute and a half. All the while, keep your feet hip-width apart with a slight bend in your knees.
Mountain Pose plus shoulder rolls
Next, (while continuing mountain pose) guide your student to take a deep breath with you and with the in-take, roll your shoulders in a circle from the bottom, forwards, then up, and as you breathe out, back full circle and down into the rest position. You might add before the second cycle of breath and shoulder roll, “And as we roll our shoulders and breathe a second time, I’d like you to think about something you’re looking forward to playing today.” This should help release any tension in the shoulders and back and encourage a good uplifted posture. You may also want to take this chance to turn your heads and look around to eliminate any tension in your necks.
Next, as you invite your student to slowly lower on to their bench, lower onto your chair beside them. They will need to reposition their feet slightly from standing to sitting (keeping the feet hip-width apart), but say, “Once your feet are comfortable, see if you can keep the feeling of Mountain Pose; keep the feeling of energy in your legs and of being grounded.”
With their arms relaxed at their sides in any position, do one more reverse shoulder roll, timed with breathing in and out. By this time, all tension should be gone.
There are four remaining warm-up poses, which I pick and choose from depending on the student’s needs and our available time.
Bench warm-ups – Tripod Pose
Sitting at the piano should feel a bit like a tripod, with one point of support from the sits bones (your bum), and two other points, your grounded feet. At no point should your feet feel uninvolved. Support your weight evenly between these three points, your leg muscles actively engaged in holding up your posture.
Like in band or choir, the seated posture at the piano should be lifted and with a slight forward bend. While sitting, you may say, “Imagine the piano is a magnet pulling you forward.” This forward lean puts the energy in the best direction for good sound.
Model pivoting and leaning the upper body towards the piano. Keep the torso lifted and pivot only with the hips. You may demonstrate how not to do this: don’t lean forwards by collapsing with slumped shoulders into poor posture. Ask your student to feel the hinge in their hip joint and to pivot from there.
This exercise energizes the hands, arms and fingers. For Flashlight Pose, you and your student will stretch your arms straight out, fingers reaching forward with great energy, like the beams of a flashlight. As you do, breathe in deeply. Hold for a moment, and as you release your breath, squeeze your hands tight.
This pose combines opposites. Stretching the hands outward creates pushing energy, while the simultaneous in-breath stretches the diaphragm away and down. Then the hand-squeeze pairs the sensation of tension with the opposite feeling of released breath. Repeat two-to-three times.
Continue a forward lean and slide your hands down your legs (keeping a tall back) and ask your student to do the same. When your hands reach your knees, cup your knees gently and draw your student’s attention to how relaxed and natural that hand shape is. You might add, “If while playing you ever find tension in your hands, return them for a moment to your knees to get this feeling back.”
Finally, fresh from the knee, ask your student to breathe in and place their right hand on the middle white keys in a comfortable, poised hand position. Ask them to breathe out as they slide their fingers down the keyboard in a slow, silent glissando to give their back a deep twist, then breathe in and do the opposite with the left hand starting in the middle of the keyboard and while breathing out, sliding silently up the keys to twist in the opposite direction. This warm-up also shows the student how far their reach is on the piano, and that both hands can play nearly all the way up and down the piano keyboard.
We always start with a lengthy tree pose, then finish with one or more of the remaining poses. This is not true yoga, but has been adapted for the development of piano posture and body awareness at the piano. My students agree that these warm-ups awaken our muscles and presence of mind and set us up for productive lessons.
I hope you’ll try it with your students. Please go to the Printables section, here, to download a page with words to guide your Piano Wellness Warm-ups.
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Bonus: More on bench position
Unless taught where to place the bench, students have a tendency to pull the bench too close to the piano. The added bonus of these warm-up exercises is that Mountain Pose is practiced standing between the bench and the piano. If the bench is in the proper position, there will be enough room for the student to stand freely. Mountain pose will help the student remember where the bench belongs when they play.
Judo chop knee check
The bench will be adjusted for each student, depending on their size. The tip of each student’s knee will be directly under the front edge of the piano. To measure, do a vertical judo chop from the bottom of the piano (directly under the front edge of the keys) to their knee. If they are too close, your hand will come down on their thigh. If they are too far away, your hand will miss their leg altogether.
The reason this measurement works for all students is because the length of the femur bone (the longest leg bone, from thigh to knee) corresponds with the length the forearm requires for a comfortable playing position. The longer the leg bone, the more distance from the piano the arm also needs for the development of a good, comfortable playing posture and technique. This is an accurate measurement for every child, even as they grow, for as the arms grow and need more space for playing comfortably, the leg bone also grows.
Bench placement is so important that I check it at the beginning of each student’s lesson, at every lesson, plus every time they sit at the piano thereafter (if the bench is ever moved for other activities). When a student learns a good sitting posture at the piano, it shows when they perform in recitals and in music festival. I can always spot these young performers when I adjudicate.
Please be aware that all poses, especially the “key twists” (spinal stretches) need to be exercised with slow movements, with a lifted posture and while breathing. The piano teacher’s first promise to our students, like the Hippocratic Oath medical doctors make to their patients, is: first, do no harm.unsplash-logoJay Castor