F is for……..

F is for Fingers – the pianist’s tools for the job. Crucially, most pianists use all 10 fingers when we play the piano, the thumb being labelled as a finger for fingering purposes, whereas a violinist officially just has 4…and a trumpeter a mere  3 to contend with. The occasional unlucky pianist will have less than 10 available, and even more rarely, a fortunate individual may have more. As with many things in life, it’s not so much about how many you have, it’s about what you do with them.

Fingers come in all shapes and sizes. Slim, long fingers have a natural advantage for finding their way between the black keys and reaching over and finding awkward stretches. Shorter, stubbier fingers have a natural efficiency for playing rapidly and can be more robust in moments of strength and force. Some fingers are straight, some fingers are bendy. Depending on the note to be played, a bendy finger can be a help or a hindrance.

Some fingers sweat profusely in performance. Others remain dry as a bone. Some shake uncontrollably under pressure. Others remain as sturdy as an iron girder. Some fingers fly over the keys in a blur of lofty movement, other fingers gain a similar end result but whilst appearing to glide over the keys with barely a ruffle in the process.

Fingers come in all different shapes and sizes, with different strengths and weaknesses. But with the right instructions, most, if not all can be trained to produce the most beautiful sounds to the human ear.

There is of course a common misconception that we play the piano with our fingers. This isn’t strictly true…… We really play the piano with our brain, of course, which happens to control our fingers. Our fingers are just the final point of contact between thought and realisation of that thought…and a lot happens in between.

So it’s essential that our fingers are kept in excellent shape to ensure that they are flexible, supple and strong enough to do exactly what we ask them to. Finger exercises are designed for this very purpose.

Liszt at the piano

With 10 fingers flying around, the pianist has a serious amount of possibilities on his/her hands. Deciding which fingers to use for a note is an issue that preoccupies many a piano lesson or practise session. Often an individual finger on a particular note will lend itself to creating a particular quality of sound.  A particular finger will, more often than not be dictated by the notes on either side of it. The ‘correct’ fingering is one which encourages both the best effective musical effect and creates the least difficulty for the pianist. Often a pianist will need to make a choice between these two factors when deciding on which fingering to use. Fingering is therefore likely to vary depending on the dimensions and strengths of an individual’s fingers and on what musical effect is intended.

Given how important fingers are to the pianist, they need to be carefully looked after and maintained. Activities such as Taekwondo, carpentry and tree surgery are not recommended for the serious piano student. 

Essential finger accessories for the budding pianist would include a nail file and some leather gloves. (And handcream in the winter – editor)

Warren Mailley-Smith, concert pianist

Warren’s survey of Chopin’s complete piano music continues at St John’s Smith Square. Further details here