How Can the Bowman Piano Playing Method Help Me Play Better As a Classical Pianist?

How Can the Bowman Piano Playing Method Help Me Play Better As a Classical Pianist?
By Marty A Cohn

Strictly speaking, the method that I want to explain below, can apply equally to pianists of all musical styles, but the Bowman method, which is the primary method I wish to write about has been created by a classical pianist who was experiencing many problems, due to muscular injury and tendonitis. I am including a brief history, to impress upon you the tremendous change that this style of playing can have on your ability to not only play, but also on the resulting sound.

It is almost inevitable that any serious pianist, who is practicing around seven hours a day, with complex musical scores, like the Brahms B Flat, or the Rachmaninov Concerto Number 3, is going to experience some degree of muscular problem in their career, as the time spent at the piano is time that the arms are supporting the hands, and the hands and wrists are regularly moving across the keyboard to play the notes. Now, while most of that is obvious, not so obvious is the state of play in the wrists, and hands.

Given that the keyboard spans multiple octaves, and the pianist normally remains seated on one spot on the piano stool, there is going to be a bit of movement, either from the hips to place the body closer to the section of the piano where the hands are meant to be, or there will be a case where the hands are not always at right angles to the piano. This is the first downfall for many pianists. While they are attempting to play across the keyboard, they will need to be sitting left or right, through the loosened movement of their hips, or otherwise, the strain that will come to the hand muscles will catch up at some point.

In the case of Professor Lionel Bowman, it was around his late thirties that the problem developed to a point where he could no longer play. For a serious or professional pianist, that can be a disastrous state of affairs, much like when a footballer needs to have a knee reconstruction. They would be out of the game for the best part of a season. In Lionel's case, it was several months at the least away from the piano.

Naturally, it is far better to avoid a playing style that will lead to this problem in the first place, so it is best to do something about it sooner, rather than later. This is where it becomes a good idea to adopt a new playing technique. In the case of Professor Bowman, the technique evolved out of necessity, sometimes the best teacher. He took the time to really study the anatomy, and realised that he had to modify his style of playing, as the body's anatomical design is not directly compatible with playing the piano. Essentially, part of the problem was the issue of muscle tone, but also, a large part was the problem with the relative angle of the keyboard, needing to be at right angles to the hand at all times. (or at least, as often as possible).

He also found that by strengthening the muscles in the fingers, he was able to deliver the power to play at higher volumes from the fingers, rather than use alternative muscles that allowed the possibility of other muscular injury. He also found the best way to condition his fingers was by practicing on a flat, wooden surface, which required more force to develop the volume required to hear the 'music'.

Whilst this all helped to a degree, there were still numerous exercises that he developed, to actually aid the spacing to grow a little larger between the ulna and radius bones of the forearm. Whilst the difference was subtle, it was the 'window' that allowed him to play more successfully, through the complex passages. He also had smaller hands, which again, made playing the piano more difficult. However, the bonus with his method was that he was able to overcome these seemingly impossible problems, and was able to relax more, and thus concentrate on producing a richer sound, that left him pain free.

That can only be a bonus for all pianists. The method is regarded as a little more complex at first, to get the hang of, but has been reported by many students to make learning, and playing new material easier, in the long run. One reason for this is that the mind subconsciously takes over, on some of the routines. It is rather like driving a regular route home. Have you ever arrived home, after a long day, and realised you did not actually remember the drive. You actually did so on a kind of auto pilot. The same can apply to this technique while playing, once mastered.

Are you interested in overcoming piano injury, for the long term?

You will also gain an enhanced comfort and improvement in your playing, with less stress and injury. To learn more, see the therapeutic techniques that are possible for classical pianists.


What Are Some Of The Best Ways to Improve My Classical Piano Playing?



 Admittedly, this is a question that has way too many variables to answer fully. I will, however, concentrate on some common problems, being the way that a pianist approaches the keyboard, so that they may enhance their physique, and play with less injuries.

The injuries I am most referring to are cases of tendonitis, and muscular strain. It would be safe to say that most pianist have suffered from tendonitis at some stage, through their careers, and this is mostly due to the technique that they will be using to play the piano. In an ideal world, the pianist will always have their hands and fingers at exactly ninety degrees to the keyboard, but this is often not the case. The reasons include the fact there are multiple octaves, and the pianist is typically seated at one place on the piano stool.

To overcome these problems, at least to some degree, the pianist needs to be as relaxed as possible, particularly in the arms and hands, with the strength of the fingers delivering much of the power in the note playing. In addition, the hips need to be as relaxed and agile as possible, to facilitate easy movement of the torso, at least to a point, to adjust the body left or right, to allow greater area where the hands can be as close as possible to right angles to the keyboard. Whilst these techniques will aid any piano player, I can relate to specific experimentation and trial and error by the Late Professor Lionel Bowman, who came up with the Bowman method, after having to re learn a style to play the piano, to minimise the great tendonitis he suffered from, as well as other muscular problems.

As part of his method, the technique includes the right finger and hand positioning on the keyboard, often referred to as the 'cobra' position. This requires the hand to be placed with the wrist near the edge of the keyboard, and the fingers placed on the keys where they can also slide back, towards the pianist, and moving the wrist downward. Doing this, particularly during practice, will give the pianist the opportunity to test various pressure levels, of the fingers on the keys, and ultimately, to deliver a superior sound, through strengthened fingers. In addition to this playing method, it has also been suggested as an important part of practice, to 'play' on the lid of the piano, or other, hard, wooden surface. The reason for this being that you need greater strength, and force in your fingers to produce a sound from a piece of wood, than from the piano keys. In other words, if you can sound the piece from the wood, you can certainly do so from the keys, but not necessarily the other way around. This is a part of the Bowman method for strengthening the fingers.

I am deliberately emphasising the strength issue, as this small improvement will contribute wonders to a reduced strain on the rest of the body's muscular system in the hands and arms. As a general rule, when the strength is maximised in the fingers, and the hands and arms are relaxed, and well positioned, the strength can transfer to the keys, without building up as a tension in the arm and wrist, and aid the reduction, if not elimination of tendonitis. Like most things, it requires practice to master the skill. I recommend learning something completely new, as this will be with a new mind set, rather than trying first to unlearn a particular piece, which can be twice as hard. To prove the point, learn something new, applying these principles, and see the change for yourself.

As a side issue, some pianists have also participated in general gymnasium training, where they have found their improved physique has helped them move with more ease 'around' the piano, with less strain.


Are you able to store your piano performances for future listening? Have you been having trouble recording your piano performances , for the long term? Not only can you record your performances, but also gain an enhanced comfort and improvement in your playing, with less stress and injury. To learn more, see the therapeutic techniques that are possible for classical pianists.

Application of Basic Principles- Double Octaves and Chords

Application of Basic Principles- Double Octaves and Chords


Double Octaves and Chords



If the student has a thorough working knowledge of the principles outlined in Chapter 1 of the Magic Touch, he should have no difficulty in applying them to the following extracts from the standard repertoire.

The first chapter is available as a complimentary download on the right hand side of this page. Please enter your email and name, and it will be on its way to you.




♦ Double octave or chord passages should be learned first of all through the posture of the thumbs. Prepare and release firmness for each octave or chord. Release upward upon sound of black notes. Lower the wrists as far as they will go through sound of white notes. The follow through is essential. Slide hands and arms forwards to play the black notes, and back to play the white. Test wrists up and down often.


♦ Upon sound of every octave and chord, allow hands to rotate towards fifth fingers, and release notes other than those played by the fifth fingers which then support the hands and arms on the key bed. Test the lateral extension and contraction of the hands repeatedly. Employ a legato pedal.


♦ Double octave passages can be practiced as broken octaves, i.e. Thumbs alternate with fifth fingers.



Disjunct Movement



The fear of negotiating risky leaps in double octave passages may be overcome if, at first, one uses the practice of silent finger substitution. This, in effect, reduces the width of the interval and locks the hand into the movement. Later, when these practices have become automatic, one is able to ignore them and play with confidence at increasing speed. The group (a) exercises are devised as a kind of formula for simple interval practice. The derivation of the (b) group compound interval exercises is obvious.








The formulae may be practiced at gradually increasing pace, beginning on any notes, and the range of the (b) group can be extended. Although substitution is not possible beyond a moderate tempo, it will be found that, at speed, the technical advantages remain.

Introductory Basic Techniques for the Magic Touch for the piano





In most of the exercises in this book, the hands play two octaves apart, thus enabling the forearms to assume a natural, comfortable position parallel with one another, at right angles to the keyboard. To maintain this angle, the torso tilts to the left, centre, or right, according to the geography of the passage played. When the hands play in front of the body, one should lean back a little to accommodate the elbows. Commonsense and circumstances will determine when, and to what degree, the angle and the bodily movements must be modified. Where needed, reminders should be written on the score to 'sit left', 'sit right', 'sit back', 'sit forward', etc.

Of course, one will often lean forward or back for other than technical reasons: for example, a forward attitude is generally conducive to playing of a contemplative or introspective nature, whereas to 'sit back' is often associated with a feeling of breadth and expansiveness. The student will understand that there must always be freedom of movement at the hip joints.

We remind the student to be aware of unconsciously raised shoulders and fifth fingers.



The Thumbs



The thumbs have only two joints and are shorter than the other fingers, but, by way of compensation, they have a range of movement more than the other four fingers combined.

They have four main functions. With the palms facing you, they can move:


(a) directly towards you,

(b) away from the hand,

            1. ) right across the hand to the little fingers, and

            (d) rotarily, which is a combination of the above three movements.


            They have capabilities that the other fingers do not have and without their use, the fingers could not function properly because there would be an inadequate grasp.

            The thumbs, as the dominating fingers of the hands, play a major role in the positioning of the hands on the keyboard. They also have a remarkable melodic capability. Students will appreciate some of the essential functions of the thumbs as they progress from the playing of single thumb notes, to double octaves, and chords through the position of the octave, and other chords in which the thumbs have a guiding influence.

            Because of their fundamental importance,we begin our technical studies with the thumbs.




             Thumb Notes



            ♦ Place the limp hands palms down on the lap, as shown in Figure 1. Note that the gap between the thumb and index finger is about the extent of a major or minor third – a natural position. Note that the thumb is turned slightly outwards.


            More details and instructions are available from The Magic Touch by Wallace Tate, in association with Lionel Bowman