At the party on Sunday, one of the guests, a friend of mine who is a regular companion at the Wigmore and other concerts, was talking about Alfred Brendel’s habit of protecting his fingertips with sticking plaster. He’s been doing it for years: my mother, who was a bit of a Brendel groupie years ago, remembers seeing his bound fingers at concerts, and I noticed it while watching a tv programme of him playing at the Aldeburgh Festival the other year.
I have always felt that Brendel’s sticking plaster is a virtuoso affectation, and I know I am not alone in this view. I cannot believe that his fingertips are so fragile that five or six hours of daily piano practice can really do that much damage. It’s true I have skinned a fingertip, playing glissandos (incorrectly, as it turns out) in a piece by Debussy, but I have never practiced so much that my fingertips actually bleed. Maybe I am not practising enough?!
What also puzzles me about Brendel’s sticking plaster habit is that so much of piano playing is about touch, particularly through the sensitive tips of the fingers, through which we draw information about weight, tone, quality of sound, transmitting this back to the brain which in turn processes it, enabling minute adjustments in touch to be made all the time. At my lesson last month, my teacher actually made me play the opening of the Poulenc Suite in C with my eyes shut, forcing me to concentrate on touch (and quality of sound). So, if Brendel’s fingers are bound in plaster, how does he collect information from the keyboard? Or is he so supremely confident in his art that he does not need to?
Practising the aforementioned Poulenc this morning (8.30 am, definitely the right time of day for Poulenc!), I was aware of my fingers tingling after I’d been playing for about 40 minutes. It was not unpleasant; rather, it was akin to the sensation in my legs when I have been running for about 10 minutes, a pleasing sense of physical exertion. The sensation remained after I left the piano to get a drink of water, but it had passed by the time I started work on Chopin at 9.30.
The Chopin Etude, however, makes my hands and fingers hurt. I have to be careful with my right hand as I suffer from chronic tenosynovitis, which can flare up at a moment’s notice if I have been playing octaves or not allowing my hand to return to its natural position, and can keep me away from the piano for days or weeks at a time. In the “dreaded sixths” passage, my fingers and hands ache, which makes playing the remainder of the Etude much harder. Sometimes when practising this piece, my hands feel like claws: tense and hard. I have discussed this at length with my teacher, someone with a special interest in hand health and flexibility, and she said I would probably have to live with it. The notes in this Etude do not always lie comfortably under the fingers, probably a deliberate ploy on the composer’s part. It is meant to be a study after all – and one which tests the strength and sensitivity of the fourth and fifth fingers of the right hand throughout.