Mastery through Physical Freedom

Have you been watching From the Top? What a show! Sometimes I don’t know why anyone watches anything except PBS. (Well, I can see switching stations for “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under,” but they’re both swimming with the fishes now.)

I’m still thinking about a show I watched about two weeks ago featuring Peng Peng, the teenage piano prodigy from China, and other kids, one as young as ten, performing in Carnegie Hall. (See photo of Alice Burla, the youngest student at Juilliard, below.)

Christopher O’Riley, the pianist/host who graciously introduces and interviews these child prodigies and knows just when to step off camera and let them shine (most of the time,) asked Peng how he had managed to create such VOLUME while playing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Presto from Six Moments Musicaux, Op.16.”

“Oh, that’s easy,” said Peng. “You just relax the arms. The only thing that stays stiff is the fingers. The arms and shoulders are totally relaxed. That way, you have the FREEDOM to play really loudly.”

He then demonstrated the difference between banging on the keys, using force generated by the whole arms and hands — fruitlessly trying to coax big sound out of the instrument — versus letting the arms be free and relaxed, which resulted in some loudly glorious chords.

I paraphrased that quote from memory, but he definitely used the word freedom. And you could see that freedom in his arms.

Inspired, I tried letting my arms be “free” the next day while playing golf. It didn’t improve my score any (that’s impossible – I’m stuck at 90 forever) but it sure made swinging the club more fun.

Recreational tennis players oughta experiment with this principle. And all of us who sit at computer keyboards.

I’m sure professional athletes understand it, though they might not articulate it as clearly as Peng. It’s intrinsic to shooting a basketball — the arms must be free; only the fingers are stiff — but most of us try to muscle our way through sports, and even through fitness activities such as Pilates and yoga.

Martial artisists “get it” too. Their bodies are flexible. flowing. Free.

What are others’ experiences, I wonder, of physical freedom that results in satisfying or even beautiful results?


Girl in blue dress plays piano.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

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