Hands

You can’t be a pianist without [at least one] (http://nicholasmccarthy.co.uk/). But what do you do if you are a small-handed pianist (barely an octave in the right hand, and that just at the edges of the keys) and want to play Chopin Op. 53 (the “Heroic” Polonaise”)? Your teacher looks at you with consternation, and then tells you that you must learn Chopin Études in a certain order, and that it will take a couple of years.

Fast forward two and a half years; my right hand span is now a centimetre longer than it was at the beginning of this saga. That single centimetre has been enough to allow me to play an octave right on top of the keys, enabling me to get a lot closer to the Op 53 ambition. I still can’t play the piece, but I can now play all the notes. It’s taken a lot of patience and trust in the sometimes non-intuitive ways of breaking down the Études; for example, I spent a couple of months practising the right hand of Chopin Op. 25 No. 9, shaking out my wrist after every half bar, to learn the feeling of playing octaves without stiffening my wrist.

I am well over the age that people stop growing, so the improvement is entirely down to the practise regimen. The increase in ability is not just down to the increase in span, but also increase in flexibility of all the fingers. When I play chords spanning an octave, I can now get the fingers out of the way that aren’t playing anything, avoiding hitting extraneous notes. I am not familiar with hand anatomy, but it feels as though the ligaments inside the palm have had to stretch the most.

As I progressed through the different exercises, I have felt my hands and arms up to the elbow ache in strange places. I am fortunately quite body-aware so have never done any damage; if the ache persists in the same place for a few days, I stop and work on something else until it goes away. (Incidentally, my typing speed has increased considerably, and I can now take dictation in almost real time.)

It’s tremendously motivating and every few months I take out a couple of octave heavy favourites to retry – every few months I am able to play big chords that bit more cleanly. There are no short cuts and this slow and steady progress feels more satisfying than if I were to magically be able to do it overnight, because I know that it is sustainable.

Mentally, it’s required the ability to trust that the practise will bear fruit, and to stop when it starts to hurt- not to push through to the point of damage (Probably a useful skill in any physical endeavour).

Obviously, my fingers aren’t going to grow any longer, but I hope that this will offer hope to other small-handed pianists. But a word of caution: It’s probably a bad idea to embark upon such a programme without the supervision of an experienced teacher, so as not to end up like Schumann.

Petra Chong
Petra Chong is a computer programmer as well as a pianist and so is perpetually bashing keyboards of one form or the other. She is a student of Marina Petrov

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

“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