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.


How Can I still Play the Piano After Experiencing Tendonitis and Other Hand Injuries?


It is not uncommon for professional, or serious, regular pianists to experience various hand injuries over the course of their piano playing days. This is particularly problematic for people who may have small hands, and who play complex works, such as the Rachmaninov Concerto Number 3, and so on. However, this problem is certainly not confined to only classical pianists, or even professionals. These various injuries can affect just about any pianist, casual or professional, from time to time.

The most typical injuries include tendonitis, and wrist strain, mostly as a result of either not having sufficient strength built up in their fingers and hands, as well as other playing issues such as correct position at the piano. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a common list of problems, as I have mentioned earlier.

For some piano players, the thought may even have crossed their mind to give up playing, due to the repetitive injuries. Whilst this is an extreme option, there are other ways to reduce the injuries, and actually end up by playing better. One method that has been proven by many students after being adopted is the Bowman method.

Professor Lionel Bowman was a distinguished piano player, at the peak of his career around his late thirties, who had developed very great problems with tendonitis. After having to actually stop playing for a number of months, while his hand healed, he took the time to actually study the anatomy of the hand and arm, and created his own method of playing the piano. His style has enabled him to become a better teacher, and his crowning achievement through this process was that he not only was able to resume his playing, but succeeded in helping others play better, with less incidence of injury as well.

The Bowman method encompasses the strengthening of the fingers, as well as an overall approach to muscle coordination. Far too many people start to play the piano a certain way, and find that, over the years, their discomfort increases, due to the method of playing that creates tension and stress in the joints as well as fingers.

One aspect of the method is about sitting in the right place, with reference to the notes being played. As an example, the hips need to be loose, in that for certain parts of the score, the pianist will need to sit right, or site left, and even sit back, to allow the wrists to become lower then the keys. By moving the hips, so the pianist's body is in front of, and at right angles to the keyboard, will minimise the stress on the wrists as well as muscles of the wrist, and tendons.

It can often aid the pianist to make specific notes on the music score, like sitting right, or sitting left, as this will aid the pianist to achieve an optimum posture and comfort. This comfort will translate into relaxation, and thus, a better overall sound as well as reduced injuries.


This technique needs to be practiced, and actually, it can be beneficial to start learning a new piece, rather than trying to relearn an already known piece of music. The best proof is in the action, and seeing for yourself.



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The Magic Touch by Wallace Tate- Remarks by Cara Kelson

Lionel Bowman

The below remarks are made by Cara Kelson and used in the Magic Touch by Wallace Tate website.

The below remarks were made by Cara Kelson (nee Hall ’47), at the book launch, February, 22, 2003 in Perth, Western Australia

Thank you Wallace, for asking me to speak about Lionel. It has been a real trip down memory lane for me, and I only hope I haven’t intruded myself too much in these remarks. But there were many things we were all experiencing, not just the musical life around us, but the increasingly difficult times we were living in. This was 1938.  

I had arrived in London from New Zealand, ready to start at the Royal Academy of Music in September. Looking back now, I am reminded of what a marvelous age it was for pianists. In those early months, I heard people like Schanbel, Moiseiwitsch, Solomon, Egon Petri, and Rachmaninov. Myra Hess and many others. But there were also many young artists emerging from the Royal Schools and other places.


Almost at once, I met Lionel among the students in Vivian Langrish’e studio. Lionel was 19, well into his academy training, and he took me, a 16-year-old newcomer  – under his wing. Indeed, he became something like a big brother to me. There was, of course, the Commonwealth bond between us.


Professor Langrish (Viv behind his back) brought all his students together regularly, at the practice concert held at his home in Primrose Hill. One’s first practice concert was something of an ordeal, but after that, general camaraderie prevailed with real enjoyment of our music-making together. After playing at a practice concert one could then perform that work at Duke’s Hall

Among all the talented Langrish students, Lionel was outstanding. What I remember most was the brilliance of his technique (he had Horowitz – like fingers) that was coupled with interpretations of deep understanding. His music could dazzle, but it was always satisfying. (I should mention that all the Langrish students had a beautiful singing tone).


In himself, Lionel was full of fun, and very helpful in every way, but when it came to music, he was always very serious. Coming from far away we were often hearing great music for the very first time. Years later when discussing this, Lionel almost shivered at recalling the effect it had on him of hearing the Brahms B flat concerto for the very first time. (I had lots of similar memories, too).

All students were encouraged to sit in on the orchestral rehearsals with Sir Henry Wood, but we could also get free tickets for the orchestra rehearsals at Queen’s Hall of the BBC  and other orchestras, and it was of great interest to hear and see all the leading conductors of the day at work. Lionel had joined the R.A.M’s conductor’s course at the urging of Benjamin Dale the Warden, a class of six run by Ernest Read who also taught aural training.  He had to become acquainted with various orchestra instruments and studied the cello with Cedric Sharp, French horn with Aubrey Brain (whose young son Dennis was already an outstanding  Academy student), and the clarinet with Reginald Kell. He also had singing lessons.


I never saw Lionel in action on the podium conducting the Academy’s Third orchestra, though I do remember one occasion when a nervous young student stood as stiff as a one-armed bandit while Sir Henry Wood tried in vain to get him to use his left arm! Years later Lionel told me with amusement that his moment of triumph came when he played the triangle in the First orchestra at the R.A.M’s annual Queens Hall concert, Sir Henry Wood conducting. However, I do remember Professor Langrish’s comments about the way Lionel’s conducting experience helped to control his rhythmic sense and tempos, and to shape his phrasing, all of which showed up in his own playing. 


But with all the excitement of London’s musical and theatrical life, and our own busy schedules of lessons, lectures, classes and performances, the thought of war hung over our heads –  and war became a reality in September 1939 after Hitler’s armies invaded Poland. Immediately there was a cancellation of concerts, but when the bombs didn’t fall on London, most concerts were reinstated, though often changed to earlier times because of the blackout. Audiences returned and to bring cheer to as many Londoners as possible, Myra Hess inaugurated her wonderful lunchtime concerts at the National Gallery. They were to run right through the darkest years of the war, and into the peace, ending in 1946. 


At the academy, we all continued our studies as intensely as before, with our schedules rearranged where possible to cur down on travel time. Then, in the spring of 1940, the German army moved swiftly, first with the invasion of Norway, followed by the low countries, all falling one by one. The little boats crossed over to Dunkirk to rescue the British Expeditionary Force and those soldiers began to pour out of Victoria Station out into the London streets.


The Academy authorities were urging those of us from overseas to think of returning home. Lionel, of course, was winding up his scholarship. In my case, I was told that my third and fourth scholarship years would be held over until after the war.


The last time that Lionel and I were in Queen’s Hall was in 1940 for the final concert of the academic year, with the R.A.M Orchestra conducted by Sir Henry Wood. The National Anthem, which opened the concert, was Sir Henry’s own arrangement, but this time he had the strings play each note on an individual down-bow which gave the Anthem great emotion and power. At the end, there was a slight pause, and then with a sudden movement of his baton, the orchestra burst into La Marseillaise. The atmosphere was palpable. France had fallen the day before. And it wouldn’t be long before our beautiful Queen’s hall would be reduced to a pile of rubble.


Soon after that final concert Lionel and I met at Duke’s Hall as we had both been recalled for Academy prizes. He was still the big brother with his encouragement and calm presence, standing with me before I went in to play. We were both successful in our sections – for him it was a triumphant end to his student days.

During his time at the Academy, Lionel had won the Matthew Fillmore and Rotter Prizes and was now awarded the prestigious and coveted Chappel Gold Medal. In years to come he would be made a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music. And so we said our goodbyes and were both lucky to voyage back safely to our homelands – though my trip had its dangerous moments, an attack by a German submarine. (The Rangitiki was in the center of a convoy of 46; the tanker beside us was sunk.) Before the Rangitiki was halfway to Panama, the bombs were dropping on London. The Battle of Britain had begun.

I was back in London for VJ Day, and soon the word went around our old circle “Lionel is Back!” During the war years in South Africa Lionel had played with great acclaim in recitals all over the country (many were to raise funds for War Bonds), and as a concerto soloist in brilliant performances of the Liszt, Grieg, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, including first performances in South Africa of Prokofiev’s Third piano concerto and de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain. Now, in post-war London, his career was to expand into an international one.

He was the consummate artist, a brilliant pianist with great sensitivity and integrity, soon to be engaged in a wide range of appearances, recitals, broadcasts, concertos, TV, touring in joint recitals with many international artists, spreading out to play in European countries, the USA and elsewhere. After the first post-war months, it was inevitable our meetings would be less frequent and that finally, our paths would diverge.

It would be some three decades later after I had moved to Perth with my American family, that we would meet again. I was excited to see one day, in a University of Western Australia program, that Professor Lionel Bowman of Stellenbosch  University, South Africa, was coming to the University as Visiting Professor. You can imagine his surprise when I walked into the Callaway Auditorium and the pleasure we both had in picking up our friendship again. There was so much ground to cover! I was distressed to hear that his splendid concert career had to be curtailed because of the physical difficulties and injuries he had encountered with his small hands, – but it was inspiring to learn how it had turned him towards researching and analyzing, ever aspect of playing the piano, every moment that a pianist makes at the keyboard, and which finally molded him into a superb teacher.

I reminded him of something he told me so many years before. I’d played a recital program at the Langrish home, and afterward, Lionel (and he was the only one to do so) told me that one particular work I’d played was really too big for me. He said, “Strange… I could see the danger for you, but not for myself”.

He took me through the exercises he’d worked out, starting with the thumbs. I could immediately see the importance of concentrating, right at the beginning, of relaxing after every single note. (And incidentally, it was only a few days before I found that trilling had become much easier.) As Lionel said, “Sit very still. You prepare, play, finish. Drop the wrists. Test. Relax all the muscles”. And you continue to do the same with all th exercises that follow, — octaves, chords, scales, arpeggios. In this way, the muscles are being constantly released before muscular tension builds. Lionel emphasized, “You work at it until it is patterned into your subconscious and becomes instinctive, automatic”. He liked to remind one that relaxation means control.

Many people will do much of this naturally, but even great artists run into trouble – let alone young students. Look at Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman, and more recently, my own countryman Michael Houston. Many people have written about how to play the piano, but no one has gone about explaining the best way to approach every movement one makes at the keyboard, as clearly as Lionel has done. He liked t say, “It’s all sensation which is difficult to put into words” –  but Wallace has done a remarkable job in doing just that.

Lionel writes that he hopes pianists will find The Magic Touch both an inspiration and practical help on their musical journey. Congratulations Wallace! And thank you for all the work you have done to make this possible.