I Can’t Quite Put My Finger On It

Article about finger, hand, wrist connection for pianists.






Non-pianists frequently remark that a good piano player can really “tickle the ivories.” It doesn’t bother them that piano keys haven’t been made with ivory covers since at least 1960 and the correct movement of the fingers while playing is nothing like tickling! Lots of piano students hold onto the wrong conception of just how much the fingers are supposed to flex when playing. What’s wrong here? I can’t quite put my finger on it!

If you play the piano and the tough passages just don’t flow even after you’ve worked out the fingering and practiced them, it’s probably not your fingering. More likely, you may need to rethink your concept of movement! We live in a “digital” age, but excessive motion of your “digits” usually leads to poor execution and unnecessary tension.

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The fingers need the support of their friends, the hand, wrist, and arm to generate speed, accuracy and power on the keys. The power aspect is pretty obvious: consider being slapped by a person flexing just their finger joints into your face and compare that to being slapped in the face by a person putting their whole arm behind it! It’s a little harder to see why speed and accuracy are improved by using the larger mechanisms, but it’s just as important to good piano playing. When just the fingers are pushed downward while the hand, wrist and arm are held still, the flexor tendons and their weak muscles have to do all the work. Try it and you will see the tendons move vigorously on the back of your palm and you can feel the small muscles on the top of the forearm move by placing your other hand on it. If you do that for awhile tension will probably begin to build up in your wrist and arm. This is the same reason that some people who type at the computer for long periods may develop tendinitis or bursitis. Contrast this with two movements made with larger muscles: free downward motion of the hand from the wrist and rotation of the wrist and arm as if turning a doorknob back and forth from about 11:00 to 1:00. Both of these movements can be done ceaselessly for long time periods without fatigue and little chance of injury.

Now, if you play a fast five finger scale with only the fingers flexing you must make five integrated movements equidistant in time using a small motor mechanism. If instead you slightly rotate and bend the wrist while your hand is in position to play, then one large motor mechanism will help you play the entire scale with hardly any individual flex of your fingers. The playing can be faster because it is assisted by one coordinated movement instead of five and it is more accurate because the speed of your rotation is more consistent than the timing of your separate finger thrusts.

I Can’t Quite Put My Finger On It : Some Specific Examples

Hopefully without overstating the obvious, I’m going to give a few examples to show that some musical figurations favor one type of motion over another. You’ll need to instinctively rely upon the correct type in each situation. Any oscillation back and forth from one note to another calls for rotation of the wrist and arm above all else. Try playing back and forth from CE with the right hand on 13 using finger action only and then apply rotation with just about zero finger motion. No contest, right? Rotation should also be applied to Alberti bass patterns, broken thirds (CE, DF, etc.), or broken octave passages. Although it is debatable for short trills, lengthy trills are nearly impossible to play well without incorporating the principle of rotation.

Staccato attacks of scales, chords or octaves depend upon downward motion of the wrist so that the arm does not “lock up.” An extremely fast repeated note staccato is a famous exception, as that technique calls for changing fingers on the same note and finger flexes. A few note combinations use both the wrist and rotation principle together, especially if one arm motion downward plays a note and then another is played on the rebound upward. Check it out with your own experiments on passages that are hard for you, then smile when they become a “piece of cake.”

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