Joe's Blog

Notes on the Thumbs

November 21, 2021

The thumb has always been my bete noire. Always a problem to me.  Short, stumpy, ‘unworthy’ to join in with the other fingers, as in scales and chords. I’ve spent many years trying to come up with one solution after another to cope with the shortness of my thumb, “short” of, that is, putting my thumb on a rack and stretching it.

Here is what I have come up with today in the next chapter of my ongoing question to tame the thumbs.

I started the day with Brahms’ Second Piano Sonata, Op 2. An incredible masterpiece in its own individualisitic way. A lot of momentary glimpses of the later Brahms that don’t resurface until  quite while later in his opus.

It all began with the double octaves in the first movement (four notes at once).

I suddenly got the idea, more of an inner, physical urge on my body’s part, that I should let the part of my thumb that lay in between the its second knuckle and its third knuckle, along within the surrounding mound of flesh that is adjacent to it in the palm, “leak” … “ooze” … “flow”, in an amorphous way, en masse, in the general direction away from where the pinkie lay in the hand, and towards the key that the it was about to play in the octave. In other words the thumbs did not start positioned on their target notes in the octaves, but were in the ‘process’ of expanding away from the pinkies, only secondarily happening to reach the key in the octave. I wanted the thumb to ooze onto the note it was to play in the octave. It wasn’t the specific key or destination of the thumb’s motion that interested me, it was feeling, within that area of my hand, that it was in a continuous
process of being capable of oozing, extending itself, away from the pinkie. Perhaps like the pseudopod of an amoeba: still part of the amoeba as a whole and yet somehow not a part of it. I liked what happened. The thumb came alive, felt like it had a more vital role to play in the octave including its sound.

Next, I started extrapolating from double octaves to more general situations on the keyboard.

Even if it is not the thumb being asked to play a next note in the score, thus fleshy part of the thumb-mound in the palm can start moving, arbitrarily, sideways, away from the rest of the hand.

It even seemed to help if what I wanted to do was open one hand as whole; to bring the pinkie of that hand further away from the thumb, through the motion the thumb and its mound of flesh, in the same hand, moving in the opposite direction than the pinkie, trying to leave the pinkie behind.

This was useful if timed to the very time the pinkie was being asked to play a note.

This ‘motivating’ dynamic and impetus to motion, worked just as effectively on behalf of the pinkie of the opposite hand than the one whose thumb-area was in motion.

One thumb can help the other thumb by oozing and spreading over the surface of the keyboard away from the pinky in the same hand. This can occur in the helping hand even at moments when the helping hand is itself busy sounding notes.

Again. If I’m doing a trill with, say, the second and third finger in one hand, both hands should feel their thumbs oozing towards each other while spreading away from their respective pinkies.

In general, my thumb had been too sessile. I wanted to give it a general role role that would infleunce what was going on in both hands and all the fingers. I wanted the thumb to always be exploring the territory adjacent to where the rest of the hand was currently situated on the keyboard (and always in the opposite direction to where the pinkie in that hand was).

As a consequence of this sideways motion of the thumb-mound in the palm the hand, as a whole, tends situate itself closer in altitude to the surface of the keyboard. The fingers don’t curve as much. I’m not sure yet whether this a plus or a minus in general to the flexibility of the hand.

More miscellaneous thumb actions.

#1. Brahms Handel Variations: Number 3 : beginning:

When i go to play the first note, c5, which will be pushed down by the right pinkie, that can definitely be accompanied by, or actually become part of,  what happens to the hand if the thumb area oozes leftwards away from the pinkie. As if the latter is the motion that would cause the production of the sound of the c5.

#2. Scales:

Let us say that we are playing a descending scale in the right hand.

Many years ago, when learning Mozart K. 488, I discovered that I could smooth-out a run or a scale in the right hand by keeping pace with the notes by repeatedly flexing the fourth finger of the left hand. Today I realized I could do an analogous motion with the thumb of the left hand. In the midst of this process the left thumb can migrate over to the thumb side of the right hand at the moment that the right thumb is playing a note of the scale, and add its action to that of the right thumb so that they are both involved in pushing the note down, after which the left hand can migrate away from the right hand again until the right thumb is due to play its next note in the scale, and repeat the process.

An extension of this idea is, if the left hand is free, it can tag along near the left side of the right hand, as the latter pursues its way down the scale, as if the left thumb would play every note for every finger in the right hand.

#3. All the fingers can ‘ooze’ away from each from all the others:

A carry over from today’s nexus is that: as the thumbs ‘oozed’ and got further and further away from the pinkies, it meant secondarily that I was adding more space between the pinkie and the thumb. This was a side effect, though, rather than the original intent which had to do with the fluidity of the thumb. But now, an hour after I started practicing, what i’m trying to do is to get any two fingers, wherever they are located in the same or two hands, whether they lie adjacent within one hand, when they are currently being used to play two consecutive notes, feel ‘that’ degree of remoteness in space, as the pinkie and the thumb felt.

This reminds me of a meditative blog entry I wrote a number of years ago about how a pianist might relax the hands and fingers. In particular of the final stage in the process.

What follows is a reprint of that blog entry.

[begin insert of earlier blog]

“We begin by sitting in a relaxed state, hands on the knees, palms facing upwards (but without any rotational strain). Curl the fingers slightly as a way of letting go of some of the residual tension in the fingers.

Close the eyes. Sit calmly for several moments and then direct your inner attention to the presence of your fingers. Try not to have an image in your mind’s eye of the fingers and how they attach to the hands. Try to experience the fingers from ‘inside’ themselves.

When you are comfortable with this sensation, make a sudden shift of attention away from the fingers and ‘into’ the spaces between the fingers.

Over the next couple of minutes keep the awareness focused on the spaces between the fingers as against awareness of the fingers themselves. It is as if we lent consciousness to those spaces rather than to the fingers. For some it might help to borrow an analogy from the artistic term ‘negative space’: the unplanned and un-sought-for shape of space between two intentionally shaped objects.

There is nothing to do during these next few minutes except to stay aware of the empty spaces between the fingers. There are certain sensations that are apt to occur naturally as you remain focused on these inter-digital spaces. Without purposefully seeking this sensation, you may feel as if the fingers rather than being immobile are, of their own accord, separating further and further from each other; moving further and further into the spaces between the fingers.

We have shut the eyes, there is no visual perception to remind us that there is a quantifiable limit to how far two fingers can move from each other. We can turn off our proprioception – the ability to sense, even when our eyes are closed, the relative position of different parts of our body in one homogenous space.

One might term what we are doing here as self hypnosis or deep meditation. This may well be.

At some point, due to cessation of proprioception, we may forget what the fingers are attached to anatomically. We may be aware of our fingers, and/or be aware of our hand, but be without any geometric sense of how far apart they may be. The fingers, no longer necessarily attached to anything else, may feel as if they are islands unto themselves. Un-tethered from the spatial necessity of being attached to the hands, they may start feeling like they are floating free in space.

We no longer know how far apart they are from each other. It can as easily true that they are inches apart or feet apart. My right thumb seems to have drifted so far away from my mind that it has exited the room and is now situated outside in my garden.

Both by being without visual images and by stilling the sensations of proprioception, there is nothing to prevent us any longer from sensing
that our fingers are always in the process of moving further and further apart from each other, flowing into an inexhaustible, internally sensed space, and that there is no limit to this process in time or in space.

Throughout this all, the fingers continue to feel as if they are drifting apart from each other.

Three steps remain.

#1

When I am ready, and not before, I open my eyes, but stay focused on the sensation I had when they were closed. I am no longer a prisoner of my eyes ‘view’ of space. My fingers still are still receding from each other in an internally perceived space. If this is not possible yet with the eyes open, close the eyes and try again in a minute to open them.

#2

Like a puppet being manipulated by an unseen puppeteer, my hands rise upwards until they are about at the same level as the piano keyboard.  They may even be resting on the keyboard – but without any of the train of sensations that we immediately experience as pianist for being near the keyboard. I am still feeling the sensations of a minute or two ago, uninterrupted, despite my eyes being open, despite my hands being close to an object shaped like a piano keyboard.

#3

I start playing. There is no change to the inner state of my hands and  fingers. No action that I perform by playing the notes has the power to distract me from the continuance of this sensation.

With most students, especially more advanced students (I.E. those more inured to the physical states of playing) there is a striking difference in the sound they produce, the ease of flow of the sounds through time, and a general sense of astonishment on their part at how easy, how effortless, creating the piece has become.”

[end insert of earlier blog]

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