Techniques for the pianist with Smaller Hands: Part One: Substitution

March 20,2017


Let us say, as an example, that the left hand wants to play three ascending pitches, an A, then an F# and lastly a D.  The effect desired is one of legato.

A substitution seems warranted on the F# in the case of the smaller hand.

In discussing the general principle of finger substitution while on a single note, we will not emphasize the action of fingers individually, one of which would act to replace the other on the key surface.

Instead we will focus on the entire hand, or more specifically, the five fingers of the hand.   We first note that the five fingers of the hand can choose to align themselves on one horizontal plane.  Furthermore the fingers can all be touching one another horizontally by eliminating any spaces between adjacent fingers.  The result is that we create a continuous, unbroken mass of flesh running from the thumb to the pinkie.

The lowest note of three, the A, we play with the pinkie.  We create the onset of the sound of the middle pitch, the F#, with the second finger.  At this point the process of substitution begins, first by closing up the spaces among the adjacent fingers in order to produce a single solid object.  In this case, the fifth, fourth and third fingers in particular close up  rightwards and the space between the third and second fingers disappears too.

Now that we have a solid unit formed by four fingers, the interesting part of the process begins.  With the F# still sounding, and without the pedal doing anything to insure that it will continue sounding, we take the relatively smooth lower, horizontal surface formed by the fusion of the four fingers, and move it, as a whole, as if one object incapable of being subdivided, from the left towards the right, guided by the action of the arm.

What will occur, if we look at it in slow motion, is that the second finger, which started out as the only finger on the F#, finds itself starting to share space on the F# key with the third finger, until the third finger alone is in contact with the E key.  Without any interruption in the continuousness of the process, the third finger starts sharing the surface of the F# key with the fourth finger, until the fourth finger alone is in contact with the F# key.   As the object is solid and not in several parts, the sound will continue without re-attacking it.

At this point this one object, made of all the fingers, has moved sufficiently to the right.  For the fourth finger is now situated, passively, on the F# key.  And most pianists, even those with smaller hands, would find it convenient to move from F# to D using the fourth and first fingers.   The stability of the fourth finger on the F# is just a facet of the stability of the hand as a whole, without any extra pressure needing to be applied by the fourth finger itself.

Just to stress the point one more time, our perception while doing this overall process is not one of moving separate finger segments, one finger to the next, because the fingers during this process no longer exist separately.  They are fused together (webbed together if you like ducks) into a ‘part’ of the anatomy of the body that is experienced from within us as single and undivided.  We have simply moved the surface of that undivided part of the body right relative to the keyboard.  If a higher pitch precedes a lower pitch, then the same sort of movement would be, just as easily as before, from right to left.

The final stage in the process is to have the thumb to move rightwards to the D, which involves, if we limit it to the perspective of the fingers, to a gradual opening of the space between the first and second fingers.

A concluding general observation.  Often the lack of fluency sound-wise in a connection between notes comes from trying to think of the physical connection as a single event in time, rather than as a process in time which, though there is no change in the sound yet, there are a series of successive steps blending one into the other.

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