Consider the hand

“The hand should be quiet, tranquil, floating. It is supported by the spine, whose stable strength is cantilevered through the shoulders and elbows, which, in turn, support the weightless and buoyant hand at rest. But in motion the hand channels the torso’s energy, echoing and concentrating the body’s disposition, the heart’s disposition toward contraction and release.” Russell Sherman ‘Piano Pieces’

from ‘The Craft of Piano Playing’ by Alan Fraser

The hand is a complex bio-mechanism, comprising some 27 bones, not including sesamoid bones which number varies between people. The metacarpals are the bones that connect the fingers and the wrist. Each human hand has 5 metacarpals and 8 carpal bones. The anatomy of the hand, and wrist, allows a range of motions, large (gross motor skills) and small (fine motor skills), and the fingertips contains some of the densest areas of nerve endings on the body, are the richest source of tactile feedback, and have the greatest capability for positioning of all the parts of the body.

For the pianist, like the surgeon, the hands are the ‘tools of the trade’, that take signals from the brain and translate those signals into a vast range of articulations, gestures and – most importantly – sounds.

The hands need to be looked after, and many pianists are obsessive about the care of their hands. The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould was famously neurotic about his hands. He would refuse to shake hands with people, for fear of damaging his hands (so he claimed, but I wonder whether this was just another manifestation of his OCD?). He liked to soak his hands in hot water to warm them before he played, and he wore gloves (and scarf and hat!) in all weathers. Professional pianists are often asked whether they insure their hands, but as the British Paul Lewis once said, if one did that, one would have to insure the arms, shoulders, back, neck…. as well, for all these parts are crucial in the production of sound for the pianist. When asked if he did anything special in the care of his hands, a professional pianist I interviewed some years ago while researching a book, replied “no, but weeding it useful”, an activity which offers a range of movements to assist suppleness (I suppose – I am not a gardener!). He seemed very cool about the care of his hands, but for some of us being a pianist means a lifelong fear of carrying heavy things, sharp objects, boiling water……  British pianist Peter Donohoe suffered a serious accident to one of his fingers, thanks to a hotel window, which could have cut short his career (read more about it here). I admit to being slightly precious about my hands, especially if I have a concert coming up, refusing to carry heavy shopping or do DIY; and the cold weather plays havoc with my hands, making the skin dry and sore. I have to remember to take gloves and emollient cream with me whenever I go out, and I always have hand cream by the piano.

As a pianist, one is constantly aware of one’s hands, checking them, massaging them, drumming the fingers, playing a silent keyboard on a table top or one’s knees when away from the piano. We are aware, too, of the arms, shoulders and back. An injury higher up the arm, in the shoulder, neck or back, can affect the health of the hand too (as I found to my cost, and considerable pain, before Christmas when I damaged my left shoulder playing Rachmaninov too energetically). If you’ve had an injury, you become hyper-sensitive to the slightest twinge or ache. In autumn 2007, I was diagnosed with tenosynovitis in my right hand, the result of using an electric screwdriver (a no-no for the pianist: I should have known better!) and playing octaves too rapidly and without the necessary softness and “spring” in hand, wrist and arm. My hand ballooned into a red, painful useless thing and my osteopath ordered I rest it immediately. I spent three months with my hand in an orthopaedic brace, unable to play the piano, frustrated and miserable. When the brace came off, despite seven sessions with my osteopath (and some considerable expense), my hand was stiff, sluggish and unresponsive. The rehabilitation process was slow. I steered clear of music with octave passages, fast or slow, and the slightest extension of the hand – even a sixth – terrified me, in case the condition returned. Then I met my current teacher, a specialist in relieving tension in the hand and body, and through her guidance, I learnt how to relax, how to make the hand “weightless”, how to support it with the arm, shoulders and back, how to sense instant control and softness. And, most importantly, how to warm up properly. Five years on and I’m playing Liszt and Rachmaninov, composers who famously put huge demands on the hands (and the body in general) – pain free and without tension. Now, the hand problem is nothing more than a minor irritation, one I am aware of, but not something I obsess about.

Non-pianists are often fascinated by the idea of the pianist’s hand, imagining that one must have a special shape or size of hand to play the piano. In reality, there is no “proper” shape or size of the hand for playing the piano. Long fingers are not necessarily an advantage, though having a reasonable hand stretch (at least a 9th or 10th) is useful. Rachmaninov had very big hands (he could stretch to a 12th on the white keys), and for this reason many people think his piano music is unplayable. In fact, because he was a pianist himself, his music is so well written, it is not impossible to navigate, and there are ways around some of the bigger stretches, such as splitting them between the hands. Liszt also had large hands and unusually long fingers with very little web-like connective tissue between them, which allowed him to make wide stretches. Meanwhile, Chopin had surprisingly small hands, and had to come up with some imaginative fingerings for his music in order to be able to play it.

The athleticism of the pianist’s hands is also a source of fascination for the non-pianist, and anything involving crossed hands is often thought to be incredibly difficult or virtuosic. (My students love it if I play something with a crossed hand passage; even better if they get to cross their hands!) In reality, crossing the hands is almost never done for virtuoso showiness, rather for practical purposes: a particular passage may simply be easier to manage with crossed hands.

Repetitive stress injuries such as tendonitis, tenosynovitis, carpal tunnel syndrome and focal dystonia, are, sadly, common for pianists and have afflicted a number of well-known artists, including Gary Graffman, Leon Fleisher, Wanda Landowska, Artur Schnabel, Alexander Scriabin, Ignaz Friedman, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Clara Schumann, Glenn Gould, Michel Beroff, and Richard Goode. Fortunately, injuries rarely end the career of a pianist, but they can lead to cancelled concerts and time out for recuperation, in some cases a very long recovery process: Leon Fleischer has only recently returned to the concert platform after many years suffering from focal dystonia. When we play, our hands and fingers are under constant pressure, and are prone to overuse, but we can use various techniques to protect the hands (see resources below). Learning how to relax between notes (especially when playing large spreads, or octaves) is crucial, also ensuring one observes the correct posture at the piano. Take care of yourself, physically (the great teacher Heinrich Neuhaus expected his students to train in the gym at the Moscow Conservatory to keep themselves fit). Perhaps the most important advice is to understand and listen to your body, and never play through pain.

Researchers at the University of Southampton, UK, are engaged in a fascinating project using 3D motion-capture technology to understand the mechanics of piano playing. Led by Dr Cheryl Metcalf, the team hope to build a database of hundreds of piano players to understand the variations in technique, style and playing habits. The information gathered will be useful to understand why and how some pianists develop repetitive strain injuries, and, hopefully, to advise pianists how to better protect themselves against such injuries.

Yoga for Pianists – a sequence of exercises devised by pianist and teacher Penelope Roskell

www.pianomap.com – website of the pianist and teacher Thomas Mark, author of What Every Pianist Needs to Know About the Body

Craft of Piano – website of renowned teacher Alan Fraser, author of The Craft of Piano Playing

Yoga for Musicians – a DVD by my teacher, Penelope Roskell

Stress in Piano Playing

Thoughts on the hand and fingers from pianist and teacher (and author of Piano Pieces) Russell Sherman

And for fun:

The Top 10 pianists showing off their hands

I’m a pianist. Look at my hands – from the perenially entertaining site Awkward Classical Music photos

3 thoughts on “Consider the hand”

  1. A really interesting post and fresh new perspective on the importance of a pianist’s hands as I’d never considered it much before!

  2. Typically fascinating discourse from Fran. I didn’t know about Peter Donohoe’s injury. He certainly showed no sign of it last night as he treated us to a beautiful rendering of Shostakovich, Chopin (3rd Sonata, a favourite of mine), Beethoven, Liszt and Schumann, at the West Wight Arts concert in Freshwater. I sprained my own finger badly in November falling whilst carrying a bag, and a tendon pulled a bit of bone off. My left ring finger is thus permanently expanded in girth.

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