Tune Your Body

I’ve worked with thousands of musicians from Rosalyn Tureck, Mstislav Rostropovich and Issac Stern, to Leon Fleisher, Richard Goode and Gidon Kremer. Most of the pianists I have seen have had good training in the mechanics of playing the instrument properly: how to sit… the importance of arm weight and relaxation… and having a nicely rounded hand. Even so, there are many pianists for whom the normal pedagogical training simply doesn’t apply, and yet, regardless of their anatomical make up-whether their hands are large or small, whether they play with straight fingers or curved or hold their hands high or low-they still achieve wonderful results. Vladimir Horowitz often played with almost completely straight fingers. Glenn Gould sat very low and almost seemed to play from under the keyboard.

What was their secret? They managed to be at the keyboard in s position where their muscles and ligaments were working for and not against them. It is possible to play for long periods of’ time without experiencing any tiredness or pain. And to achieve that, the body must be as in tune as the piano.

One of the ways that you can help your body to help you is through active physical exercise. Another is through passive exercise, and by that I mean lying on a table and allowing someone like me to move your body. I will talk more about that but first, here are a few tension-relieving exercises that can be done by any pianist when taking a break from practicing, (hopefully after 5000 minutes at the keyboard). Please note that none of these should be clone with out first having an evaluation by a physical therapist to make certain they are right for you.


1. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent. Hold your torso erect, arms loose at your sides. Shake your wrists, raising them higher with each shake. As you continue to shake your wrists, bring them back clown to the starting position. Repeal this a few times until you feel the relaxation effect.

2. Stand with your legs slightly bent, torso relaxed, arms hanging at your sides. Keeping both feet on the floor, turn to one side, then to the other, in a scythe-like motion. Your arms should swing freely, following your torso, as you turn—one wrapping around your body in front, the other in hack. The point of contact of your arms with your body should get higher with each turn and then lower and lower as you return to the starting position. Keep your shoulders, elbows and wrists relaxed at all times.

3. Stand with your legs slightly bent. Move your shoulder blades toward each other. Lift your shoulders up, and then pitch them forward, as if throwing the shoulders out of joint. Repeat several times if this is comfortable, and then do the exercise in reverse; lift your shoulders up and move them forward, then downwards and back towards your shoulder blades. Stay relaxed.

The next exercise helps release muscle spasms and improves circulation in the hands and shoulders.

4. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, torso and arms relaxed. With a swinging motion, simultaneously clasp under your left arm with your right hand and clasp your right arm and shoulder with your left. Alternate. This is the motion you would make if you were cold and trying to warm yourself up.


1. Stand with your arm bent at the elbow and held slightly in front of your body, your hand at shoulder height. Place a ball in your hand, holding it with your fingertips. Gently toss it upwards and catch it with your fingertips.

2. Stand in the same position with the ball in your fingertips. This time, toss it upward, spinning it at the same time. While the ball is in the air, the hand should return to the starting position so that the fingers can send the ball back up again. Stay relaxed as you do this and repeat as many times as you wish, taking care not to strain the wrist. Repeat spinning the ball in the opposite direction. Then try switching hands, which may take some practice!

3. Elbows bent, hands in front of you, hold the ball with both hands. Stretching your arms forward, toss the ball to a partner. Your arms should feel as if they are flying out of your shoulders. Using the same technique, try tossing the ball or pretend to toss the ball in front and above your head into a basketball hoop.


1. Roll two heavy metal balls (3-3.5 cms) in the palm of your hand using the fingers of that hand. This is a good exercise that can be done anytime, anywhere.


Heinrich Neuhaus, the famous piano teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, whose students included Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels and Radu Lupu, said: “The body of the pianist is supposed to be like the body of a dances:” He referred all his students to the gym teacher at the school. In the Moscow Conservatory and many European Conservatories, the students are required to take physical education for two years or they cannot go through the program. In this country, on the other hand, in many schools pianists are excused from physical education so they can practice more or to protect their hands.

Through my practice in offering physical therapy to musicians, I have seen that pianists are very frightened for their hands. For a musician, the hands are not only to wash your face or make blintzes. The hands are everything. Over the years, I changed how I approach the hand so that the patient will know that I’m riot going to hurt them. But I believe it is a big mistake for musicians to overprotect their hands. You cannot live in the world with only the piano, and have someone else cut your bread. If you want to play the big killers of the hand like Rachmaninoff, you have to have hands that are in good shape. So from an early age pianists should go ice skating, play ball or do anything that keeps them fit.

I spent a lot of time with violinist Isaac Stern, and once on a walk we were talking about the value of exercising. He said to me: “Kreisler and Milstein never exercised.” And I said to him, “Yes, but they played far fewer concerts a year and in between they were sitting in a train or a boat, smoking cigars or whatever. So you must be more physically fit.” For today’s musicians, it is ten times as rigorous as what it was at the beginning of the 20th century. It’s not enough to have a big repertoire or many engagements if you are not psychologically/physically prepared.

Pianist Rosalyn Tureck took great care of her body and was in top physical condition until her late seventies, I worked with Leon Fleisher to help him with the very unpleasant disease of his right hand. But lie took good care of himself physically, which made it possible (Or him to cope with what happened and, in addition to the medication he received, eventually to be able to play with both hands again.

In our fast paced society a lot of injuries occur from active movement like jogging, weight lifting, aerobics and even Yoga and Pilates. We don’t listen to our bodies until something goes wrong. Then we see a doctor who assesses the problem, and checks the biomechanical ability of the body to move-our active, passive, and accessory movement, such as how far a hand or fingers, for instance, can bend in various directions.

Alongside the physician there are those professionals who are equipped to work with the body to help it heal, and even when it is not injured to keep it in tune. Well-trained osteopaths, or chiropractors or physical therapists should be a part of the pianist’s repertoire as much as Bach, Brahms and Beethoven. In New York Cite there are many bakeries. You have to find the one with the bread you like the best. You need, as well, to find the right professional to work with your body.

As far as I’m concerned, calling oneself a physical therapist means having a minimum of 10 years of experience in private and solo practice, and spending a minimum of 40 minutes, hands on, with each patient. Don’t be impressed with the look of an office. Don’t think about the convenience of the location. What is important is a therapist’s knowledge of how to work with your body.

The best physical therapist talks less, explains less, asks the minimum. His results are in the body and not in the head. He needs to find in your body what you are not aware of and try to fix it. Then he must teach you how to behave with your body to minimize the damage you may be doing with every day activities or bad habits in piano playing. The therapist should know all about various modalities and techniques—Alexander, Feldenkreis, Trager, Rolfing—not necessarily to use all of them but to be able to choose which might be helpful for each patient.

Evaluate the therapist’s performance. Lie down on the table and remain quiet and listen to your body as you listen to your piano. Ask yourself “Do I like this touch?” You know what pianissimo is. You know if someone is playing a grand fortissimo or banging on the piano. Fortissimo doesn’t mean someone is breaking the piano. Some pain is not necessarily bad but you must decide. Is this right for me? Do I feel better? If there is some pain it should bring some easing of the body’s problem as it resolves. If it does not and you believe this is not right for you, you must find another therapist.

My success as a physical therapist goes back to my non-success in music. Leopold Godowsky and I drank water from the same well in my village in Lithuania. He played the first recital in Carnegie Hall just before it opened in 1891 and became one of the most popular performers of the 20th century. One other boy from my village was Jascha Heifetz. I wanted to make it to the stage in Carnegie Hall too. But I didn’t. Instead, when I came to the United States, Isaac Stern and James Wolfensohn found me a studio in one of the Towers at Carnegie Hail. And for the last 25 years in America it has been my calling to `tune’ the bodies of thousands of musicians and to help them play without pain.

Whether you are going to be a good teacher or a concert artist you need to be in good health. And to be in good health you need to follow a few rules: have enough sleep; eat nutritious food; and to move. My job as a physical therapist is to help keep your fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders, and your spine in tune. Your job as a pianist is to learn how best to sit at the piano for maximum comfort, whatever your physical make up… and to enjoy exercise, both active and passive for the rest of your life.

Piano Today
By Shmuel Tatz, PT, PhD with Sheila Weinstein