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Resting center: the release of rotator cuff tension

Introduction

The starting point for this article was my own kinesthetic experience that my hands want to move toward the center of the piano and towards my body (upper arm rotation) and the kinesthetic experience of letting them do so while resting down and playing. With this article, I endeavor to show that this kinesthetic experience maps quite logically to the accepted mechanical and anatomical models. What strikes me most are the implications for teaching as it seems to fix so many other problems.

 

It is my hypothesis that the release of rotator cuff tension is an important pedagogical concept which I will call “resting center”. I have observed that most pianists use their rotator cuff muscles to help keep the arm in playing position. This is due to the fact that the “resting position” of the arm is much closer to the body than the playing position. Using the rotator cuff muscles to keep the arm in playing position creates tension, which interferes with natural forearm rotation and hence playing in general. My own increasing awareness of the release of rotator cuff tension has made dramatic improvements in my retraining.

 

“Resting down” is a familiar Taubman concept, described in its various aspects as follows: The weight of the forearm, hand and fingers rest down on the keys. The arm and hand are balanced with fulcrums intact and nothing is holding. The fingertips should feel “sticky” on the keys and the weight on the keys should not be enough to cause the keys to depress. The knuckle and finger joints must not be allowed to collapse. The thumb should be neutral next to the fingers and should not be touching the keys. The wrist must not be allowed to collapse.

 

Although all aspects of  “resting down” as described above have proven to be effective pedagogical cues, it may be helpful to students to introduce an additional concept. In order to clearly describe “resting center” much of the discussion below is mechanical and anatomical. Nonetheless, I believe the presentation to students would need to be simple, movement oriented and kinesthetic.

Resting Center

“Resting center” is defined here as releasing the rotator cuff muscles (infraspinatus and teres minor) and allowing the frictional force of the keys against the fingers to counterbalance the subscapularis muscle’s passive medial-rotational force on the upper arm. In order to understand what I mean by “resting center” more clearly we must first take a look at some basic definitions.

Neutral position versus resting position

The usual biomechanical and anatomical definitions of neutral position and resting position regarding upper arm rotation seem to be incongruous. Neutral position for upper arm rotation is usually described with the elbow flexed at 90 degrees and the forearm straight out (at a 90-degree angle to the plane of the body). This is roughly the same position as opening a door or shaking someone’s hand and also playing the piano one octave from the center of the keyboard. Note: Both lateral and medial rotation are measured in degrees from the neutral position.

 

Resting position is defined here as requiring the least effort (muscle tension/work) to maintain the position. This is not a rigorously defined and agreed on scientific term but should suffice for our purposes. It is my observation that the resting position is roughly 45-60 degrees medially rotated (from neutral position). This is something anyone can test for themselves whether the arm is hanging straight down or the elbow is flexed at 90 degrees. I have tried this with many students and non-pianists and have observed consistent results. When the elbow is flexed at 90 degrees, the arm comes to rest near or against the body.

 

Playing position varies with the requirements of the music. It is my understanding that the most common playing position when beginning to learn the Taubman technique is the neutral position as described above.

 

It is important to emphasize that maintaining the neutral position in the absence of an external force requires tension in the infraspinatus and teres minor muscles. As I will show later, this tension interferes indirectly with forearm rotation by placing the forearm is a less than optimal position.

Forces at work

Probably, the most obvious force is the weight of the forearm, hand and fingers. This weight should not be held up but rather should rest down, hence the name, on the keys supported by the fingers. A little more than half the weight of the unified forearm, hand and fingers is supported at the elbow. The fingers, hand and wrist support the remaining weight.

 

The next force that must be dealt with is the tendency of the upper arm to want to rotate medially (around it’s own axis). This rather weak force is caused by passive stretching tension in the subscapularis muscle in the neutral position. Unless opposed by forces from infraspinatus and teres minor muscles or some external force, the hand will move in an arc from the neutral position toward the center of the keyboard and toward the body. Consequently, the resting position of the arm is much closer to the body than the playing position.

Simple mechanics

A rigorous mechanical analysis of these forces and resultant torques and movements is rather complex. Nonetheless, I hope most people will understand the following simplified explanation:

 

  1. As we reach out to place the hand on the keyboard in the neutral position (regarding upper arm rotation), the infraspinatus and teres minor muscles must balance the force caused by stretching tension in the subscapularis muscle.
  2. As we release the forearm weight to rest down the weight is supported by the fingers. This weight creates enough friction between the fingers and keys to balance the rotational force of the subscapularis allowing the release of the infraspinatus and teres minor muscles. When these muscles are released the fingers want to glide toward the center of the piano. The frictional force is in the opposite direction. I believe this friction is what we feel when we describe the fingertips as feeling “sticky”.
  3. Because this frictional force is acting on a lever arm (the fingers relative to the axis of the forearm), it causes a significant torque (rotational force) in the forearm resulting in additional pronation and even a slight abduction of the upper arm once the end of the range of motion is reached for pronation. This automatically gives us our flat hand and wrist (not tilted) without holding.

So what’s the big deal?

This is what makes it so easy to play! It is the balance between the resulting torque (rotational force) in the forearm and the weight of the elbow, which gives us our wonderful rotational pendulum (the forearm) which, only needs a nudge (preparation) to keep going.

Remarkable Side-effects

A number of factors considered to be components of good technique are indirect results of resting center.

 

  1. As mentioned above, this helps give us our flat hand and wrist with the fingers going straight into the keys. In fact, if it wasn’t for the slight abduction of the upper arm, the forearm rotation would feel stuck and the hand wouldn’t be flat. Note that this abduction is not achieved by the shoulder muscles (deltoid or supraspinatus) which would eventually lead to tension in the levator scapulae and eventually pain in the neck. The abduction is the passive result of releasing rotator cuff tension, which causes the frictional force on the fingers, which causes torque in the forearm in the direction of pronation, which slightly abducts the upper arm.
  2. The frictional force on the fingers will cause slight abduction of the fingers unless balanced by the intrinsic muscles of the hand. This activates the palmar interossi muscles (adductors), which are the “proper” muscles for supporting and flexing the knuckle joints. This also reduces reliance on the flexor muscles for support making it easier to move and hold up fingers, which are not being used.
  3. The frictional force on the fingers will also cause ulnar deviation (abduction) of the wrist if not balanced by the muscles, which bring about radial deviation. These muscles consist primarily of the long abductor and short extensor of the thumb, which when activated in this way place the thumb in the correct playing position. In fact, the thumb not being in the correct position is probably a symptom that the student is not resting center.
  4. The weight on the keys is actually somewhat reduced by the slightly abducted upper arm resulting in what seems to be to optimal “working weight” for playing the piano.

Suggestions for teaching Resting Center

The much used “coming from the side via rotation” concept for teaching resting down (and playing down) may be an important cue in helping the student let go of rotator cuff tension. In addition, I believe that an awareness of the natural tendency of the upper arm to rotate medially will greatly speed the process.

 

We often teach letting go of weight by dropping the hand and forearm into the lap. Resting center can be taught in a similar way by holding the arm in neutral position or laterally rotated and then letting go of the lateral rotation allowing the upper arm rotate freely until the hand/arm come to rest in the resting position. This probably will work best with the elbow flexed at 90 degrees.

Indications that a student is not resting center

  1. Rotation is not free.
  2. Hand is tilted toward extremes of keyboard.
  3. Too much weight—the keys depress when resting down.
  4. Thumb is not in correct position especially if hanging down.
  5. Tension in the fingers.

Indications that a student is resting center

  1. Free rotation and free fingers.
  2. Distal finger joints may appear slightly abducted.
  3. Upper arm abducts (elbow out) slightly when letting go of weight to rest down or play.

Symptoms of injury that may indicate that a student is not resting center

Playing with tension in the rotator cuff muscles can result in pressure on the radial nerve causing tension or pain in the forearm. Also the rotator cuff muscles can cause tension in other muscles connected to the scapula. There are thirteen various muscles connected to the scapula but most likely the rhomboids and pectoralis minor muscles are most affected. Pain behind the shoulder blade is a sign that the rhomboids are being affected. Pain in the arm may indicate that the pectoralis minor is pressing on the brachial plexus (nerves). This condition may be diagnosed as tendonitis and may even contribute to tendonitis by creating tension in the muscles of the forearm and upper arm.

 

Although I have studied the involved anatomy rather intensively for the past year I am neither a doctor nor physical therapist. My explanation here is based on my own injury, as I have understood it. Nonetheless, it corresponds very logically to the anatomy and I believe that many people suffer from the same problem.

Conclusion

Clearly, all of this would need to be tested in a manner that does not jeopardize the student’s progress or well-being. I currently have a number of studnets in retraining. We are cautiously applying this idea with good results.

 

I believe my arguments are sufficiently sound to warrant further discussion and possibly some trials with students. The concept is not in opposition to any accepted Taubman Technique ideas but rather further clarifies the idea of “nothing holding”.

 

© Gregory Urich

Last Update April, 2003