One way of avoiding repetitive stress on the fingers
I believe that the ability of the fingers to move in one plane of action (up and down) is abetted by its being free and able to move in other planes as. Once in a while I’m practicing, when I momentarily run out of ideas what to do, I will, turn my hand upside down and I will extend rather than curl my fingers while trying to make the finger tips cause sounds on the piano. It is but a moment’s diversion.
Another time, I might spend a few moments focusing on the lateral motion of my fingers. Here is the series of steps: 1) lay a flat, closed hand on piano. 2) separate two adjacent fingers, say fingers two and three. 3) have the third finger move laterally in the third knuckle until it can play a note that is located where the 2nd finger is. and vice versa.
Here’s something to try that is half way between a right side up hand and a hand turned upside down. I turn the hand sideways, either pinkie down or thumb down. We’ll take thumb down first. The thumb, which is now the ‘lowest’ part of the hand, is extended downwards toward the keyboard and away from the other fingers, and tries to make a sound on the keyboard. Then I attempt to do something similar with the other fingers. These seconds’ long exercises can be done with either hand as well as with the hand turned pinkie down, so that it is the pinkie that first tries to extend down and away from the other fingers to try to make a sound.
Another way of going about freeing up the muscles in the fingers is to use one hand to hold onto a finger in the other hand, so that the latter finger can move only from the first knuckle; later the second knuckle; or the third knuckle. Usually all three knuckles take part in the flexion of the finger when making a sound (although the first knuckle a lot less than the others); so it is interesting to separate apart these “partial” motions and then putting them back together.
Playing in Extreme Speed
Play a passage slowly, then play it in extreme speed, and you will notice that the motions the body makes have changed. Faced with speed, the body abandons the muscular coordination that worked in the slower tempo. Suddenly, almost instinctively, the body invokes or brings into play other group of muscles that it didn’t previously use.
To discover these alternative motions for speed, it is rarely of use to start practicing the passage slowly and gradually increase speed. The body gives us little prior indication of what it will do in speed when we are playing more slowly.
The origin of an arpeggio, from the point of view of time, is a simultaneous chord and not a sped-up melody.
How to “riffle” through a chord:
Example: to play C E G at extreme speed. First, play it as a simultaneous chord (C-E-G). As before, after playing the chord several times, “tilt” things a little so that the chord, in spite of the pianist’s “best intentions,” (sic) comes out slightly skewed: for instance, with the C first sounding just ahead of the E which in turn sounds just ahead of the G. A slight change of inclination will cause the sounds to come out in the order G E C, or, E C G, or E G C. Regardless of the order in which the notes sound, the important thing is for the pianist to feel that she is playing a (simultaneous) triad. If one holds each note into the others, the result, a moment after the last note begins sounding, is the same simultaneous sounding chord.
The result of this procedure is an arpeggiation that is at an extreme speed, a speed beyond any one that could be obtained by trying intentionally to play the notes sequentially.
The origin of a scale, from the point of view of time, is a simultaneously sounding diatonic cluster and not a sped-up group of single notes.
How to riffle through a cluster:
Example: to play C D E F G at extreme speed (using all five fingers). First play it as a simultaneous cluster (C-D-E-F-G). After doing this once or twice, try it one more time but this time a little more haphazardly so that the notes come out in a quick sequence. The intent is still to play the cluster simultaneously, except one “misses” by a fraction of a second, so that the notes in rapid succession. If one holds each note into the others, the result, a moment after the last note begins sounding, is the same simultaneous sounding cluster.
The intent remains to play the notes simultaneously. Even though the result is sequential the hand retains the feeling of playing the notes simultaneously. The result of this procedure is a scale in an extreme speed, a speed beyond any that could be obtained by trying intentionally to play the notes sequentially. By being this ‘sloppy’ in articulating the cluster, the result is a scale, but one that is so quick that it cannot be matched by moving the separate fingers.
Moral of the story:
Speed is better attained by starting even faster and slowing down than starting slower and speeding up. There is a speed-barrier which resists being approached from the slower side, but offers little resistance to being approached by the fast side. One simply jumps over the barrier.
We always hold between our hands an unchanging sense of a lowest and a highest note
If we take a ‘vertical slice’ through any music score, chosen at any moment in the score, we will find various pitches being held by the hands. Some will have just started sounding, others are in the process of being held after having started earlier. Among this collection of notes, one will have the lowest pitch of the group and another the highest.
If we now advance, just a bit in the score, just one note further on, we can take a new vertical slice, and find that one note is the lowest in the new group and another the highest note. There is a chance the group will be the same as before, but more likely there will be one or more changes in the pitches forming the group.
The hands are by way of a physical constant. The right side of the right hand always remains the right side of the right hand. The left side of the left hand always remains just that. However, when placed on the keyboard, the hands encompass different parts of the keyboard at different moments. One is absolute (the hands), the other is relative (different parts and spans of the keyboard).
This leads to a question we can only answer subjectively.
If the next ‘lowest note’ is different than the one from a moment before, do we feel somehow that the previous lowest note we were playing has somehow been ‘dislodged’ from its position? Has the lowest note moved a certain distance from the previous lowest note? (We can ask a similar question regarding the highest note from one moment to the next).
Seen from the point of view of the hands, the lowest note is always the lowest note (though we project it onto different spots on the keyboard). And the highest note in the hands is always the highest note.
For me, there is something comforting in the feeling, that regardless of where the notes lie on the keyboard, the pinkies* always hold between them an arch of notes. It is disruptive to me if I feel that the solid pillars that form the bases of this arch have to be disassembled and moved to a different place on the keyboard. So, regardless of where my hands are on the keyboard, I know that I always hold not “a” lowest (or highest) note, but “the” lowest (or highest note).
Through time, these two notes never loose their existential identity as “highest” or “lowest.” This identity never changes, although at one moment the lowest note may be a G and at the next an F. One doesn’t change the “lowest” to “even lower.”
Once again… in the flux of hand positions that pass by as we play, there is a reassuring constancy that between the right end of the right hand and the left end of the left hand, we are always holding the arch of notes.
*It may not always be the pinkies that are playing the lowest and highest notes, it may be some other fingers.
The largest possible ambit of motion
The muscular movements used in piano playing, in particular of the fingers which are at the extremities of the body, tend to be limited in scope and range. However there is an advantage to exploring the full range of motion that is possible with every joint – be it a knuckle, a wrist, an elbow, a shoulder, or the body as a whole.
For purposes of illustration, consider the example of the third knuckle of the second finger. We can ask what sort of mobility is available to this finger when the motion of the finger stems just from the flexibility in the third knuckle, unaided in any special way by the other two knuckles.
We find that flexing at the third knuckle allows the finger:
1) to move vertically up and down, and
2) to move horizontally, (touching the third finger on one side and reaching in the direction of the thumb on the other side).
What are the limits to these two motions? Can these limit be exceeded through hyper extending?
What if we combine the linear movements of the finger up and down and side to side, and try to move the tip of the finger around in a circle?
We have no difficulty describing a true circle. A little exploration though shows us that at some points along the circumference of the circle, the body allows the radius of the circle to increase, though at other points in the circle the body will only tolerate a smaller radius to the circle. If, at each point around the circle, we move the finger to the maximum possible distension from the implied center of the circle, the result is a rather erratic looking circle, one whose perimeter bulges and contracts.
Another way to envision this same motion is in three dimensions. The length of the finger sweeps out a three dimensional volume. Instead of a wobbly circle, we get a wobbly cone.
Is it worth exploring the full mobility of a joint when we rarely use it in practice at the piano?
Before using it to play a note, the finger will be at rest relative to the rest of the hand. However, there is a difference in feeling between a finger at rest which is “ignorant” of all its possible motions, and a finger, even while at rest, that feels within it, immanently, all the motions and directions in which it can move.
There is an advantage for the finger to know its full potentiality of motion. If the finger at rest holds its position stiffly, there is little potential of action. If the finger at rest is ready to move in any and all possible directions and degrees, it will respond with the greatest alacrity and control when playing.
We want to cultivate a state of the a finger that, though not at the moment moving, feels that the most vagrant breeze could set it into motion. Just a breeze; just a thought, just a whim, is sufficient to set the finger into motion when, because there is no inertia to overcome before it starts moving. We want as little resistance to motion in any direction.
Though the limit of the range of the finger’s ambit, when it comes time to play, may not be fulfilled, it will retain the feeling of the momentum of the entire potential of movement. This will be a more confident, well directed and energetic finger.
Generalizing to all parts of the body:
What we have said here about the second finger, and its third knuckle, can be applied to every articulation point in the playing mechanism, (including rotational motions*).
Regardless of the part of the body, if it can move, we should actively explore every plane of motion of which is capable, every plane in all three dimensions and to every permittable degree. This is a healthy body part, ready to move, who knows how far, at the bidding of least, vagrant stirring of a breeze of intent.
A genus is more robust than a species:
Every time we flex the finger the same way, we are digging a deeper ditch into which the finger is constrained to move (like a slave only allowed to move only in one direction and to an extent). However, the finger which is no longer being coerced into a single type of motion and can move in all ways, when the moment comes to play a note, will have the freedom to make one choice among many. One choice is a compulsion, two choices is a dilemma.** Three or more is robust and free.
It is like the difference between knowing just one species in a genus, and knowing the full ramifications of the genus to which it belongs. If you know just the species then you have a limited idea of the underlying whole, the whole that is here expressing itself in some individual way. Connecting the species to the genus gives a richer, informed, and liberated identity to the species in question.
At the piano, all motions should be possible at the next instant in time.
* yes, even a finger by itself can rotate slightly around its longitudinal axis.
**thanks to my friend Roy for this interpretation
Practice Procedures: Part 16: The Personal History of a Finger
Ken Burns pioneered the technique of seeing an historical event through the eyes of several individuals. A Civil War battle would be narrated by a General, but also through the eyes of a Private who had no special claim to fame in the battle other than s/he was one of the many who was there.
We usually do not pay much attention to a finger that is not at that very moment pressing down a key to make a sound. However, for certain very complicated passages, there is an advantage to tracing the history of one particular finger, just a “Private” and noting the ‘scenes’ during the passage in which it takes action to depress a key. “Here, in a certain measure, on the first beat, it is playing a B. Nearer to the second beat of the measure it shows up playing a G#.” And so on. It gives us a thread to follow through the intricacies of the narrative. Following the history of just one finger gives us feedback, in the form of check-in points, as to whether we are still on the correct path through the passage.