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Sunday, 24 August 2014

Tonal control, efficiency and health (lifting the lid on the most fundamental and indispensible ingredient of simple, controlled pianism- minus strain, tensions or impact)

n.b. Although the diagrams illustrate virtually everything necessary, I will add some videos of the exercises within a couple of days.

I've already written one post on this subject, but I wanted to come back to the same issues afresh. Although it's not intended as an outright replacement for the previous article (which features some additional thoughts that are worthy of consideration) it is more a case of wiping the slate clean and going back to the beginning, than of continuing onwards from the last post. At the time I was still getting to grips with major issues that (to the best of my knowledge) no existing piano methods have attempted to directly define. I was certain that I'd observed something important (namely, issues that seemed to suggest that what lies at the core of fine technique has very little to do with the tension/release model that almost all modern methods are founded on) and was taking the first steps at trying to categorise a completely different way of seeing things. Having since spent additional time on these matters, however (both in theory and in terms of practical experiments) I can now give a more complete and definitive explanation of that premise, but in a much more concise and direct form. I've also found a perspective that enables a rigorous proof (all via simple logic, which does not demand notable understanding of physics). For anyone who was baffled by my previous post on the issue, I hope that this version will be extremely easy to digest and that the new diagrams (kindly contributed by Azim Akberali) will assist.

Before getting started, I want to briefly clarify why these issues are quite so important. Perhaps most importantly of all, your level of control over the sound of every key that you depress is governed by details in the foundation of how you pass movement on to the key. When looking at the surface there are many different ways to get excellent control and there are many ways to get lumped with erratic and unpredictable results. This post is not about scratching at the mere exterior and it doesn't matter whether you prefer to sit high/low, say, or if you subscribe to armweight/finger schools or whatever else. It's about the underlying similarities between the qualities of movements that objectively CANNOT offer reliable results but, above all, about the consistent factor at the root of all styles that CAN give scope for the most precise level of musical control- so your fingers have the best chance to pass on the exact tonal intensity that you intend to each note. Later in the post, I'll offer a simple but concrete proof of why what I call "positive movement" offers more control over tone than what I call "negative movement". Before going further, however, I'll stop to detail how spectacularly simple this concept actually is, right now, via an ultra-concise "idiot's version" of the entire premise, plus illustrative diagrams.

i) If a finger operates as a single lever from a lengthened position, the effectiveness of the movement is determined by whether the knuckle is getting higher or lower, relative to the contact between fingertip and key. Letting the knuckle drop down is a "negative movement", whereas drawing  the knuckle upwards is a "positive movement".

 before and after negative movement

 before and after positive movement

ii) If a finger starts with any curvature, any shortening of the distance between fingertip and knuckle during key depression counts as a "negative movement". Any expansion of the distance is a "positive movement". 

 before and after negative movement

before and after positive movement

Note that the digrams are intended to illustrate whether the distance between knuckle and tip is shrinking or growing . This is the primary issue while moving the key- and not whether the hand directly emulates these exact positions.

Negative movement reduces the control over the energy transfer and the amount of speed that reaches the key. This typically sends excess energy into increased levels of impact at the keybed and unconsciously prompts straining in anticipation of such impacts. Positive movement allows for extreme efficiency and precision of energy transfer. This means a wider range of musical options and more control over tone. Positive movement doesn't always need to be significantly exaggerated. But slipping into a mere trace of negative movement can be enough to have a significantly detrimental effect- which is why it's easier to develop a healthy technique by exaggeration of the positive, rather than by aiming to scrape together a bare minimum. The tension/release model is a very poor model for technique- as the premise does nothing to encourage positive movement. Should positive movement be absent, muscles have to work significantly harder. However, even the most severe tension can only reduce the intensity of negative movement. Positive movement eradicates the problems of negative movement outright with less physical effort.

Following up from those basic ideas, the most concise summary of the basic methodology for curing physical problems in pianists is thus:

As most tensions are the result of straining to reduce negative movements in the hand (nb. I appreciate that this is as yet unproven, although the rest of the post will offer evidence), the first step is to learn not to fight. For a time you should embrace negative movements, by gently letting them occur to a very notable degree. This needs to be done sensitively and without intent to control, but rather to put physical release first and observe the results. This breaks the habit of using tension (that can run back through the whole arm and further) as a standard means of trying to limit negative movement. After this has been achieved, you merely have a cleaner slate- but no alternative means by which to prevent negative movement from taking the control out of your sound! At this point, you need to wipe out the harmful effects of negative movements altogether, by using a directly opposite positive movement- rather than any form of fixation. Without achieving this, the tensions will be sure to return. Although radically inferior as a solution, tensions are the only possible alternative for a pianist who has not developed positive movement- should they wish to have any sense of control. Without instating positive movement,  it is a certainty that numerous muscles will tense and overwork in a bid to retain some semblance of control over the sounds being produced.

At its core, it really is that straightforward. The rest of this is primarily clarification of those statements plus proofs and demonstrations of why they effect tonal control. Note that this post is largely aimed at setting a background foundation, so future (and more heavily practically oriented posts) can follow up from directly from that short and simple premise, in a highly practical fashion. However, I will show how to start feeling the sheer significance (of an issue that is relevant to every note you will ever play) at the keyboard. Even a tiny amount of negative movement can wreak havoc in your playing. Think of it as being a little like dog turd in your bowl of ice-cream. It's significantly better if there's very little, than if it's piling up all over. But you're not exactly winning unless you've made sure that there's simply none there at all.

If such the basic summary as of those two categories sounds too simple to explain such wide issues as musical control and physical ease, then please just keep an open mind. I don't expect many people to read something quite so simple and just accept it at the drop of a hat, without seeing some half-decent evidence. Quite frankly, if you really are willing to accept the truth of that analysis without demanding concrete reasoning, then you shouldn't be willing to trust on such a casual basis (especially given how much misinformation is out there about technique). Anyway, have you ever had that feeling where you thought you moved quite intensely (and perhaps felt a fair old whack into the keybed) but for some strange reason hardly any sound came out? I suspect that virtually all pianists have experienced this baffling sensation to at least some degree, at some point. Or have you tried to play a note extremely softly- only to find that the key didn't sound at all? Both of those are symptoms that result from the destructive effects of negative movement. 

In order to definitively prove why this deceptively simple premise plays such a key role, we need merely look at speeds. A great many pianists have spoken of how volume is defined by the key speed. Personally, I have always hated the simplistic idea of trying to play louder by striving to move "quicker". If it were actually that straightforward, the people who strive to move quickest should logically make the loudest sound with the most ease. This is simply not so. To use the analogy of my previous post on this matter, it's a case of telling someone with a large hole in their bucket that they should put more water in next time- rather than showing them how to stop wasting so much. Tell someone who struggles to make a big sound to try to move keys quicker and you'll likely see them spasming and straining like crazy but achieving an aggressive yet often shallow tone, for their efforts. Yet a great artist may move seemingly slowly (and may very well advise against trying to move "fast" into the keys for loud playing) while getting a huge resonant sound with an effortless quality.

As I said in a previous post, this is not necessarily an illusion. There's a very simple rational explanation. The person who tries to move quickly may visibly jerk parts of their body into very fast speeds- but there is no guarantee that they will transmit that same level of speed into the key itself! The pianist who moves their arm quite slowly may actually be generating a faster motion in the key, despite the lack of outwardly visible speed or effort. Remember that the only speed that affects tonal volume is that which is passed to the key. This speed  is defined by the speed of the fingertip. This is a matter of indisputable objective fact, regardless of whether that is generated solely in the finger itself, or if the finger merely passes on movement from an arm-weight based drop. It's still the fingertip that adminsters the key speed. When other parts of the body move fast but fail to transmit that to the point where fingertip joins with the key, speed that only occurs elsewhere does nothing to help generate tone. As I'll prove later, what it can do is contribute to increasing impact and strain when the key lands.

Although I used to hate talk of tone being defined by keyspeed (due to the awkward jerks and seizures that tend to be provoked, when people try to move "fast" without any deeper awareness), I've since realised that looking just slightly below the surface can turn it into something of practical benefit. If we look not merely at a single speed but instead at relationships of speeds between different areas, it actually becomes very easy to understand how to generate more key speed with less effort. The ultimate result is that you no longer need to try for a "fast" movement. Analysis of relative speeds clarifies how to pass on your existing speed with so little wastage, that extreme absolute speed is simply not needed.

Anyway, that's enough of the more general background. From here on, I'll be extremely specific and straight to the point about the two categories of positive and negative motion and get on with proving the role they play in what is possible. The principle is not restricted to pianism alone, but also relates to any situation where you pass movement on from one body to another. Firstly imagine hammering in a nail. Now, clearly, I don't want anyone imagining piano playing is similar to brutal or insensitive motions. Just consider how speed is passed on in the situation, for now, and you'll soon discover the relevance to how effectively a finger can pass speed on to a key (in a far more sensitive and precise fashion).

Try hammering a nail as seen in this diagram, with a loose grip.

and you'll get a very poor result- something like this.

That's because speed is generated at the wrong end. The hammer is only moving quickly at the point where you hold it. Upon arrival, the head is moving the nail very slowly (if at all) at the point of contact marked x. How about if we just hold the hammer more tightly, to stop the end falling down like this? Okay, now we're passing on some speed, if we can be both stiff and forceful enough. The hammer head is repelled less severely thanks to the stiff grip. But we're working absurdly hard and that nail certainly isn't going to pop in without amazing strength of effort. This is a spectacularly inappropriate way to hope to solve that "negative movement". Pianistically, the sad truth is that a huge number of pianists are trapped in a dichotomy between allowing a destructive movement or overworking to fight it. They try to stop a movement that interferes with their task by stiffening unhealthily against it, just as in that example. Would attempting to work that way be alright if you were to relax after? Of course not! It would be absurd to assume that might do the first thing to prevent injury. To get a better result, we must forget searching for any magic compromise between clenching and relaxation and instead think how to generate MORE movement- but not in the problematic direction. We must generate more movement in the opposite direction to the problematic type of movement.

This time we will swing in a circle around the elbow:

However, on contact we will then let the end of the hammer begin to RISE instead of fall.

With a loose grip, a reaction force will now cause this to happen just as contact occurs. The speed can now be passed on effectively all the way through to the business end- without any need to grip tightly or brace the arm. Furthermore, allowing the point that is being held to rise a little (in response to the natural reaction) also takes the impact out of the landing- by allowing a run-off for remaining energy, rather than an abrupt stop upon collision.  If you pause to consider what impact actually is, it can best be defined as an excessively sudden stop (nb. strictly speaking, it's actually a sudden "change of momentum", which is why you can be killed when standing still and getting hit by a speeding car, but in pianism we will only suffer from abrupt decelerations). Jump off a skyscraper on to a concrete pavement and you will die for the simple reason that your momentum stops so violently when you hit the ground. Land into a thick foam mat that has plenty of give, however, and the deceleration is gradual enough to keep you safe. Swinging the hammer in a circular path without allowing that little bit of upward movement would work, from the nail's point of view. But from your body's point of view, it would make for totally senseless impact (which is made damaging by the stiffness of the muscles, during a sudden stop). It's simply unnecessary to fight the roll forward and up, as energy can still flow very efficiently. Note how the central pivot is marked in the diagrams by "x". The initial approach involves a circular motion around the elbow. But in the instant of contact, we allow further circular movement to occur around the point where the hammer contacts the nail. Allowing this sudden "change of ends" for the pivot is vital to the possibility of a soft landing!

Apply this to the piano and we have almost comprehensive equivalence. This is a very direct analogy regarding the nature of energy transmission, not a flowery metaphor. If we start with a run up, we have the equivalent arc around the elbow.

When moving the key, positive movement must again occur around the new pivot, ie. around the point where finger connects with key. Regardless of whether we descended from a height or started from contact, positive movement occurs in this path:

Just like with the hammer, the change of the centre of movement is vital. The vast majority will try to fight the new arc of movement with needless tension, rather than embrace it. However, the arm should be free enough to allow positive movement to start to occur around x- with no stiffening or shoving straight down! Although the word "hammering" is typically used to refer to the most stiff and insensitive pounding of a piano, consideration of how to take the impact out of hammer blows into a nail actually tells us a lot about how to play the piano more safely. Ironically, I suspect that many who habitually charge into horrific impacts by "hammering" the piano might be rather better at softening landings if they practised using an actual hammer- given quite how much it hurts if you don't allow it to rebound freely. That level of pain can be quite a fine deterrent to fighting against positive movement with stiff muscles. Bringing in a free rebound from good hammer technique would actually teach them to stop digging in so coarsely and instead land more comfortably at the piano, too.

Anyway, at the piano start with an extended and flattened finger, that acts as a single lever by staying at constant length (nb remember that positions involving curvature or movements in the mid joints work quite differently and will be separately covered by the second category). If the knuckle is falling, it is moving substantially faster than the fingertip and the key will thus be moved weakly. Try this, without actively intending to even move the key. Just swing the knuckle down and observe the pathetic, flaccid connection to the key and the weak tone it achieves. A key is a lot more willing to move than a nail, but it's almost as inept as the result was when letting your end of the hammer down. Try at different speeds and see just how little scope there is to control the sound. Now start aiming for a range of specific tonal intensities while always keeping the finger at length and simply letting the knuckle down passively. Even if you try to start pulling from the knuckle at the same time, you'll realise that it's simply not in a position to have much more meaningful control over the result than when you merely flop. If the knuckle is rising a little as the finger pulls, however, it can be generating significant key speed from a substantially slower movement. As long as the finger stays at length and the knuckle is going in the right direction, speed can be passed on just fine. Whether we look at hammer and nail or finger and key, if the end of the lever through which energy is flowing through should be falling even slightly (within this type of circular movement around a point of contact) then you simply will not be able to pass on speed effectively. As I said, I call this "negative movement". If this point is allowed to rise slightly through the duration of contact, however, speed can flows into the place where it counts. We have illustrated here, in practise, exactly what I stated earlier:

Achieving some movement in the positive direction eliminates any need to try to fight against the ill effects of negative direction of movement, via tension. Fixation no longer serves a (superficially) useful purpose and only serves to limit the transfer of movement.

Of course, there are still many ways to get it wrong when seeking positive movement and there are all kinds of issues regarding the rest of the body which should also be brought into a big picture. However, this particular issue is not so much the "tip of the iceberg", but rather the most fundamental core of generating sound. When you understand what is needed at the business end of events, you can link the rest of the arm and body as part of a coherent and unified mechanism. With many methods that speak little of the role of finger and hand, you risk looking at everything other than the gaping hole in the bottom of a bucket. Tensions that are carried by a person about their daily life can be a slightly different issue that can require alternative approaches. But the kinds of tensions that arise specifically during the act of piano playing usually exist due to the need to combat negative movement. Shoulder and arm fixations may have little to no possibility of being solved in a lasting way, until a foundation in positive movement connects the hand and arm meaningfully. I'm a firm believer in thinking from shoulder down to fingertip some of the time (so the finger may even feel like a mere extension of the arm at times)- but the opposite perspective is also vital. Positive movement starts at the fingertip and runs backwards. Nothing else in the body can make up for missing out.

Anyway, the principle of positive movement applies the same whether you started with a "run up" or not. If you start from the key, the knuckle should be given room to rise a little as you pull on the key. If you start by dropping the arm from a height, by the time you are moving the key you must have SWITCHED from a falling knuckle to one that is allowed to be rising, in order to pass on speed effectively. Carry on dropping it like a stone and you get a poor speed transfer. Try this on the piano and see. It's just like the hammer example. No matter how you got there, at the time when the key is moving the knuckle should almost definitely not be going down (or stiffening to fight that)- but moving slightly in the opposite direction. Again, the tension/release model is no good. However, if we  look at good quality hammer technique (in which, rather than drop the arm like a stone, we lighten slightly to make room to run into positive movement), we have an ideal model for taking the impact out of piano technique. Note also that, in both cases, if you approach from a circular path, rather than drop straight down, you're less likely to progress into negative movement. As long as you allow the centre of the circle (as marked by the X in the diagrams) to switch from the elbow across to the fingertip or hammer head, positive movement is almost guaranteed. (n.b. only "almost" though- I won't go into notable detail right now, but letting the thumb up as you land can still allow the knuckles to droop down into negative movement. In my next post I'll address this more directly).

Negative movement is almost always detrimental, but I'll just show one exceptional type of situation where I use the first category of negative movement deliberately, for a musical effect. When playing chords, swinging the knuckle down gives a very uniformly neutral and empty sound. Extremes of voicing are out of the question. If that's typical of your technique in general, don't expect many people to be interested in hearing such monotonous and limited sound production. However, in this example from Schubert, I actually like to make an unusually "dead" sound for the surprise harmony. It's possible to make the unexpected chord sound special via more conventional means of voicing (example 1). However, executing this particular harmony by swinging both the wrist and knuckles down (example 2) brings out an unnervingly chilling quality. When moving positively in the fingers, it can actually become hard NOT to play with some kind of musical warmth. In this case negative movement actually becomes an effective tool for an effect. 
For the second scenario, we don't need to limit the finger to acting as a singular lever, so this covers a much broader range of possibilities. It can start in any curve desired and it can move as you please. There is a very simple dynamic which governs how speed is passed on. As I already stated, if the distance between knuckle and fingertip is getting smaller we have a problem of negative movement. If that distance is shortening due to a descending knuckle, then the knuckle is travelling faster than the fingertip. Thus it is again certain that the fastest speed is not passing into the key.

To feel negative movement in practise, start with relaxed curved fingers and keep them as loose as can be. Then gently prod them against the other hand and watch the speeds. The tips are quickly slowed by the collision but the knuckle continues travelling towards them at a faster speed. Now stiffen a little and do the same- purely to see how ineffective this is. Note that you could strain like a mad man (not that I advise doing so) but they ALWAYS collapse at least a little, regardless, when contacting resistance (even that of a piano key, which gives way) . Even skycrapers sway very notably in a strong breeze. Not only is it unhealthy to clench but all it does is reduce the wastage of speed- as the knuckle still gains a little on the fingertip. Either relaxed or stiff, negative movement of this kind will fail to accelerate a key optimally and sends the wasted energy into impact.

Again, getting trapped into a quest to find the right balance between the severe tension and the even grooser ineptitude of literal relaxation is a dead end strategy that misses the necessary premise for solution outright. The only meaningful answer is to at least try to move a little. Many have tried to claim that pianism requires a fixed fulcrum at the knuckle (notably including Otto Ortmann- who blackened the reputation of approaching technique scientifically by making such silly errors as to render many of his conclusions grossly misleading). They are plain wrong, I'm afraid and there's not a single positive about operating under such a terrible misapprehension. Letting the knuckle down is a big problem, but encouraging a strategy of muscular fixation to fight that is a horribly misguided attempt at a solution. Just as with the hammer example, the only effective answer is to be willing to go up, if that's where the reaction is taking you- not to stiffen the muscles in a futile bid to stop movement from being possible in any direction.

Think how swimmers are told go with a riptide in the sea- rather than try in vain to swim right against it. Some things are too powerful to be worth an unnecessary fight. Note that in many instances, the knuckle may stay in the same place (satisfying the definition of positive movement by getting further from the fingertip- due to the key going down, rather than by the knuckle moving up in space)- but that's not to say it's "fixed". If you were in a squatting position and someone were about to press down on your shoulders, would you want to just stiffen for stability? It wouldn't be the best answer. In order not to be crumpled up further, you couldn't either fixate or relax. You'd need to try to move upwards slightly before they start pushing down on you. In such a situation, you may actually end up balanced in once spot- but you best achieve that by trying to move in the positive direction- and not by trying to find a way become as rigid as a statue of steel! Ortmann tried to be scientific, but he made a truly shocking practical blunder by failing to be aware of the significant objective difference between keeping something in one place via generic rigidity of muscles, compared to sensitively tuned balancing of one movement against another. It's like suggesting that we'd have to "fix" joints in our legs whilst walking in order not to fall over. We don't. The reason our knees don't buckle is because we're lengthening the legs out while walking over them- not because we're stiffening the knees to fight collapse. Balance is fluid in a way that constantly changes and adjusts in subtle ways. Even when the outward appearance is of relative stillness it doesn't logical follow that anything has been "fixed". This is why positive movement should always be aimed for, in at least some quantity, and why simply striving to "preserve" a static finger position is a pretty hopeless premise for technique.

As the phrase goes: "Attack is the best form of defence".

So, now be increasing the distance between knuckles and fingertip (ie lengthening out the finger) very gently, just a split second before contacting the other hand. Also roll a little forwards as you do so. Colliding directly into your hand could still give a tiny bit of impact (compared to the cushioned keybed of a piano) but you can reduce that by rolling forwards and over just enough to avoid an abrupt stop. Collapse is now off the radar entirely even with a very low effort movement- but you must start slightly in advance with the fingers and not wait until they are already facing resistance. Allowing negative movement to come first would wipe out the chance to enter positive movement- just as surely as starting in the act of positive movement tends to wipe out the possibility of slipping into negative movement. Again, the productive manner of movement eradicates the problematic type of movement in a way that clenching or relaxation cannot offer- and with far less effort than when we stiffen hard, yet still make a loss. Not only can we now pass on the full speed of a moving knuckle to the key, but the expansion means that the fingertip is travelling faster than the knuckle. Instead of losing speed in the transmission, we are gaining extra speed, due to the finger tip getting further ahead of the knuckle!
If you're still not clear why this is such a vital issue to health, take a truly relaxed finger and put it vertically over a key and descend, letting it give way entirely. Do you feel the bump AFTER the sound occurs? It's hard to turn off your instinct about piano playing but don't do anything but flop down. You have to learn to let go of the instinct to fight negative movement and just try to observe it happening to the full. If you are passive enough, your whole arm will plop into impact after the finger made a flimsy sound. It's the same way a train would concertina together in a head on crash. The energy doesn't hit all at once, even with a hard train. With a collapsing finger,a rather pathetic amount of energy passes within the period in which you are determining the sound and then the best part of the energy merely gives a useless aftershock. This is a very extreme example, but this concept perhaps explains why some pianists have a very ugly tone quality. Movements with ANY collapse have some level of wastage and an aftershock that compresses down after sound (and remember that tightened muscles provide terrible shock absorbers, compared to loose muscles). Positive movements do not only keep muscles supple while sending speed through tthe key, but they also push any extra energy safely up and away rather than down into a compressed impact. At the highest volumes in the thickest chords, you get a much purer tone from positive movement, with far less additional noise effect. I assure you that when you play loud into an open pedal, the big thuds associated with negative movement can be notably audible (nb. I'll write a post in future about the idea that science ever "proved" tone to be impossible- which is a complete myth). When you are trapped in trying to find a balance between fixation and collapse, you must hit the piano a lot more forcefully and stiffly to get a big sound. Positive movement enables a much purer loud sound, not only thanks to the mechanism for  absorbing excess energy, but also thanks to the fact that less energy needs to be employed, in the first place, to achieve volume.

Now, I did earlier state that it doesn't matter whether you come from an armweight school or a finger school. I stand by that statement- as these are universal truths and not something that can be side-stepped by any "other" issues. So be aware that if you do come from a school that is weighted chiefly towards the arm, these proofs of the importance of the hand's constant role have major significance. There are ways to use the arm that can encourage the fingers to open into positive movement, which I'll detail more in future posts. However, these are VERY specific (as a preliminary clue, picture casting a fishing rod or cracking a whip- you actually have to slow down your arm, just before the whip/line will be able shoot out properly into motion). For the vast majority of situations, using notable arm weight creates a situation that actively contributes to squashing the hand and makes the need for positive movement all the greater. Arm weight was exactly what caused all the negative movement in the prior exercise. If you are negligent about generating some positive movement in the hand, looking to the arm for all the energy can easily inspire impact and all the other associated problems- ironically placing more stress on the underperforming hand, rather than relieving it of work. Arm weight methods are only truly effective where they involve some positive movement in the hand- not where they try to replace it. The same is true with rotation practise- as per Taubman method. If there is no positive movement in the finger, you can only either land stiffly or collapse significantly. Frankly, on their demonstrations it indeed looks rather stiff and often loaded with impact. The sound also tends to be punched out unmusically. I didn't find any lasting benefit from the method until I learned how to use rotation to complement slow but positive movements in the finger- which finally turned it into a source of freedom, ease and musical control (nb. I usally have to expect tonal control when doing this type of rotation practise, if I want to gain from the experience). In other words, the way I had to adapt it for it to become profoundly useful could scarcely be more different from the abrupt crash landings seen in this at around 7:00 in:

In fairness, if your arms are typically locked solid, the method can greatly reduce the problems of an extremely faulty technique and completely liberate the forearm. In line with what I said near the start, for a little while you could rotate and observe negative movements in a very limp and passive hand- purely for the sake of taking out any tensions that have become a habit. But what I see there looks tight, stiff and jerky! I'd either intentionally let the fingers sag floppily and do it purely to inspire a foundation of relaxation, or I'd already be involving slow but deliberate finger movement to remove the need for any hand tensions. What I see there is moments of stiffnening in the hand, followed by stopping into a slightly stressed position. I don't see fluid and supple movements that are fit for sophisticated pianism. Due to the neglect of the finger's key role of movement, it's really not a model for real world technique unless we complement the basic idea with awareness of the significance of positive movement. How curious that after digging into the rotational movements with inactive fingers, she then lightens up and uses a simple positive quality of genuine finger movement to breeze across the scales in the last minute of the film. She really didn't learn the final quality from the coarse way that she punched at keys in the slower tempo (without moving the fingers positively or senstively). The only thing from the rotation work that remains is the freedom and good alignment of the arm. The rest only works via an evolved quality of finger movement- which is not likely to evolve to a high standard, unless you find a way to integrate it deliberately into the slower rotational work.

Anyway, I'll talk more directly about the secrets to doing rotation and arm-based strategies effectively (ie with comfortable fluidity in both sound and movement) in future. However, it's often said that a chain is only as strong as its strongest link. In pianism, if the transfer of movement between finger and key is anything less than your finest link, no other strong links can compensate. It's true that moving the fingers without linking to the whole arm makes for a lot of problems, but no amount of attention to the arm can replace the hand's consistent duty to generate at least a trace of positive movement. With any arm method which preaches that the arm passes energy through fingers that merely "support", the only way to truly succeed is to "support" it with introduction of positive movement- not by an instant of tension followed by an instant of release. Likewise, the idea of using "relaxed" fingers to pass on arm weight is simply not grounded in physical reality, in any respect. That's what we did for real the exercise where you let your finger collapse into a cluster, not a means of actually playing.

Relaxation is just tension by proxy, as it can't do the job. Any premise of either passivity or fixation in the hand can only ever mean impact and stress (no matter how vociferously the advocate might claim that the weight of the arm might supposedly work on the hand's behalf), UNLESS the pianist in question is lucky enough to unconsciously discover the superiority of some subtle levels of positive movement- with which to phase-out losing battles against negative movement. If they don't, they'll use tension. My big problem with the Taubman school and many other modern methods is that they scarcely address the important link in the chain. They neither define nor give any real clues as to the issues that I had to discover for myself, before finding success. If anything, they arguably throw a lot of red herrings- by portraying extremely subjective ideas as if they were universal "rules". Many of these purported rules actively discourage the development of positive movement. Rotation can be extremely valuable, but I don't believe in leaving the finger down to chance. I didn't profit from it at all until positive movement in the finger became the primary goal, with rotation being a secondary enabler- that helps maintain freedoms and a whole body connection, while moving the finger. For some baffling reason, Taubman puts rotation first (even though it is reduced to the point where it cannot account for moving keys) and does very little to explain the finger's role.

Finally, why does negative movement reduce control over sound? Well it's very simple to prove. Basically if two bodies are in contact and one is accelerating the other from behind, as soon as the one at the back starts to slow down a little, the other will escape on its existing momentum and coast away. At this point you have given up your means to manipulate it any further. Even if you should catch up again, merely by bobbling in and out contact you have already lost the simplicity and directness associated with staying in touch continuously.

To give a practical equivalent, imagine standing still behind a line and pushing a supermarket trolley into motion (without being allowed to take any steps forward, beyond the line). Let's say there's a target a certain number of metres away and you hope to roll it into stopping there, or at least come as close as possible. It's not a miniscule distance but it's not especially far either. Is it easier to prod it sharply or is it easier to connect with the trolley and then gradually push through until it releases? Well, the greater the distance during which you stay in steady contact, the more control you have over the amount of energy applied (I won't bore you by detailing the proof through physics or associated graphs, but any physicist worth their salt will affirm to you that this is true with reference to "impulse"). So, for control, you should push continuously over a longer duration, rather than apply an identical level energy through a short, sharp jab. 

Another example I used before is golf- where all good golfers aim slowly but surely through the ball for short putts- and never hold back or slow the club when it reaches the ball. The simple reason is that slowing down during the movement, rather than accelerating, means there is collossal margin for error. Nobody could succeed with a technique that is objectively unfit for the purpose of achieving a high level of accuracy. This isn't subjective preference. If you care to do well, you need to use a technique that gives you decent odds of success. If we only wanted to move the trolley by 2cm then a tiny stab might be more accurate- but only for the reason that a longer contact would necessarily apply too much energy and overshoot the target. Remember that even the softest pianissimo playing must swing the hammer all the way to the strings. No note that sounds involves the barest minimum. Silent key depressions are the bare minimum- and those are really not something we want when we're supposed to be producing tone! By analogy we're not in a situation where prolonging contact will automatically mean overdoing it. Moving the key too fast is the only way to overshoot your intended volume. Staying in contact adds scope for control of tone, but does not in any way mean sacrificing softness.

At the piano, either pecking at a note and then pulling the finger right back (rather than aiming through, to stay in contact with the hammer for the full distance) or allowing a finger to buckle into negative movement will tend to allow the hammer to escape from your influence sooner, just the same as if you prod abruptly at a trolley. When you stay in contact over a big distance by starting gradually and accelerating right through to release, you have more scope to judge exactly how much energy and therefore tone you will pass on. It's important to note that the piano has a point called "escapement", after which the hammer always gets released from your direct manipulation. However, while you can't stay in contact beyond that point, what you could very well do is lose influence before that point is reached- should your fingertip start slowing down rather than accelerating. This is why you should NEVER think of making the fingers more passive or floppy for soft playing. Fingers with give mean you cannot accurately predict how long you are manipulating the hammer for- and thus you cannot predict how much acceleration you'll get to provide before it escapes you. But don't stiffen them either! You can achieve all the "firmness" you need by preventing negative movement in the same way that you always should.  Reliable control comes when you bond with a hammer by starting very slowly against the key's resistance but then use positive movement- so you are always accelerating the fingertip through subtle resistance until the hammer is set free. The acceleration will be more slight of course, in soft playing, but you have to stick with it until the hammer is already gone. Avoid pulling back with any repression and use positive movement throughout. It's easier to judge the result if you slowly increase a gentle force, over a longer time, than it is to attempt a larger force for a shorter duration.  The great pianist Josef Llhevine spoke of the need to ground every key even in soft playing. Although this doesn't advice doesn't quite convey all the nuances looking to clarify here, I have no doubt that it was his way of prompting this positive quality of prolonged contact. Once you appreciate the concept, looking to finish grounding every key ensures that you're staying positive.

This is why so many great pianists are known to have liked practising soft passages loudly first. They were achieving a consistently positive quality of motion, that was not infected by any trace of repression or give in the fingers. Remember that these are what prevent the long and sustained interaction with the key and hammer. The easiest results come when the finger moves every bit as positively as in louder playing, but simply at a far slower speed.  It's a deliberate movement done more slowly- not a fast movement done in a shorter and more repressed stab. At this point, the less specific concept of "positive thinking" is actually closely intertwined with the more specific notion of positive movement. Mental confidence is much more inclined to assist with achieving positive movement. With a sense of being even a little mentally tentative or restrained, negative movement is almost certain to be a problem. I like to think of fingers moving slowly but with extreme power (as if they could slowly but effortlessly cut through a brick wall, if need be) for soft playing- so nothing in the mindset implies anything less than movement with intent. In the long run, feeling generically mentally positive can start to look after the physical side- provided that you've already ingrained the more specific quality of the physical habits, of course.

Incidentally, the issue of staying in touch with the key's resistance is another reason why I still greatly dislike the idea of moving a key "fast" for even loud playing. Any golfer, cricketer, tennis player (or other sportsman who uses their body to transmit movement to another object) will not achieve the biggest distance by merely trying to swing as "fast" as they can. To transfer energy effectively, you still have to pace things so the acceleration increases through contact with the resistance. If you don't achieve acceleration right there, a reaction force starts to slow you down, so you lose contact too soon to apply serious impulse to your target. Any good sportsman knows this (in instinct, at least, if not necessarily always in analysis) but, sadly, a lot of pianists really don't have either knowledge or "feel" for this. Some misguided methods even encourage things which are likely to obstruct the process of acquiring that feel, if taken at face value. Rather than be slowed down upon connecting with your target, you need to be able to accelerate the fingertip right through the full distance- so it doesn't escape from your manipulation prematurely. Even in staccato I've recently discovered this to be important. In fact, perhaps especially in staccato- where it's very common to lose exact control over the intensity, by backing out prematurely. An excellent comparison is the screw shot in snooker or pool. Although your average pub pool player stabs at the ball to achieve backspin, top snooker players will aim low but cue straight through the ball- in line with the same principle of prolonging contact rather than shortening it. Just because you want to allow the damper back to the string, it doesn't mean you should be thinking about trying to back out before you've even finished moving the hammer. Finish the job properly with one simple and unpolluted positive intention (the reaction to which should automatically bounce the finger straight back up anyway) and you'll have vastly more control over the tone than when you "peck" at the keys with needless anticipation of pulling back out.

Anyway, back to the very loudest playing. If we return to the trolley example and picture trying to get the biggest distance- would you rather swing a a baseball bat as fast as possible (and see it bounce straight off a short and unpleasant contact) or use the same technique of smoothly accelerating your hands through the trolley in a prolonged contact? I know what I'd do. Although I used reference to speed as a basis to prove that negative movements waste energy on impact, I simply don't think of moving fast to play loud. I think of feeling the key's resistance clearly and then staying in touch with it as far as possible- by continuously accelerating into the escapement (the level at which the hammer necessarily leaves your control, even when accelerating smoothly). I then smoothly continue the same action, so my hand evolves further into a place of openess and comfort. When I'm playing at my best, I know that the process will feeling surprisingly long, slow and effortless during the biggest sounds- not like a short but violent stab. With suitable use of positive movement, there's nothing to relax from- because your movements are taking your hand towards increased freedom from the very outset, rather than compressing it into a hard impact and than releasing.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Collapsing fingers- a simple illustration of why they occur, why they are harmful and how anyone can quickly learn to prevent them (via the action of extension)

(Nb. I wanted to get this issue dealt with in order to avoid the need for any digressions about how to avoid the problems of collapsing joints, within my next post in the series about core piano technique. For anyone who sometimes suffers collapsed joints, this is an essential precursor to the upcoming post. However, I am deliberately ensuring that it can equally be understood as a standalone post about this important issue, without any need for external context) 

Collapsing fingers are a classic pianist's problem. Particularly with the second finger, it's extremely common to see the joint nearest the fingertip abruptly give way and double back on itself, to form this type of shape:

(many thanks to Azim Akberali for kindly producing all diagrams)

All too commonly, this is put down as being an issue of strength (particularly in young children)- a defeatist attitude that suggests that the answer is simply to ignore it and merely hope that matters will change of their own accord, given time. However, following some recent experiments with a number of students, I've become quite certain that the real issue lies in the coordination of muscular activity and that it's almost entirely about the basic manner in which movement is conceived. Before I go into any further detail about hows or whys, try this potentially very revealing exercise (please read the descriptions before following the video examples):

Firstly, ground a key gently with a lengthened thumb, in order to help the arm gain a touch of support (without either feeling in any way clamped or forced down against the point of contact). Just once or twice, draw the fingertip lightly back towards your palm in mid air (these are the most sensitive joints of all so I have to stress the importance of being gentle- rather than truly "gripping" against perceived resistance). Here, your joints are closing inward. Then attempt to do the same, when sliding the fingertip lightly and easily across the surface of a depressed key, in towards yourself. Do this with absolutely no sense of digging down through the finger with arm pressure. If you feel the key starts blocking your path, lighten up your arm and make room to continue more gently, without getting squashed down!. Note that the knuckles are given room to drift up and become the highest point- which is important for avoiding any sense of burden. Definitely don't do this with the knuckles squashed down!

So, did the tip double back on itself or did it successfully curl in on itself as it did in thin air? Ideally, line up a mirror beside the piano so you can observe yourself properly. Recently, I saw no less than four students who found this task almost impossible, even when being extremely gentle indeed. Instead of curling inward, on each occasion that final joint would abruptly give way and fold considerably back on itself. Logically, this might seem to suggest muscular weakness- given that they were actively attempting to close the finger tip, yet were incapable of doing so? Well, it might seem that way, but now try example two. 

Here, the finger starts curled and the same two joints perform the opposite action of opening out forwards. Again do it in thin air just the once or twice and then experiment with how it feels to gently slide along the surface of a depressed key- initially starting nail down (but again with a sense of a high knuckle), in order to feel the whole range of movement. Of all these four students (who doubled back severely when they tried to grip their finger tips inwards), not a single one experienced that same sudden collapse! They could easily go from a curled position all the way to a very open one (where just a slight curve of the fingertip was still present) without any sudden jerks or any loss of stability. Within a very wide range of angles, there was simply no danger of collapse at all, any more- as long as the student was allowing the finger to lengthen out freely and easily, without the arm jamming it down hard against the point of contact with the key. Now, I don't want to say this will definitely apply to EVERY case of collapse. However, I'd stress that each one of the students who I speak of here had highly flexible joints that had formerly been so "weak" as to instantly double back into positions so extreme that I'd literally have to break my own bones to even begin to recreate the shape. As soon as they replaced the concept of gripping with that of lengthening, their hands started to find positions that looked as effortlessly "strong" as any hand.
This could easily seem plain bizarre- and (in spite of having previously thought about these issues in depth) I was actually rather surprised to see these formerly "weak" fingers consistently becoming so capable at once. Why on earth would it be that trying to perform an action that usually closes each individual joint of the finger would uncontrollably collapse the tip in the very opposite direction? Why would the action that lengthens the finger (ie which moves the fingertip away from a rounded position and in the direction of the position seen in collapse) be readily possible without risk of triggering that extra step into collapse itself? The whole thing seems to be completely the opposite of what common sense might dictate, but actually there's a very simple mechanical explanation (simple enough that it can be given purely in common sense terms and without any need for mechanical jargon). 

Obviously, when we perform the curling action in thin air, the finger closes. The problem is that it's not so simple when we're interacting with a piano key (and the more the arm is pressing down through the finger, the less simple it becomes). Consider, firstly, that the joint which acts to close in the finger tip cannot typically be moved separately from the action that causes closure at the finger's middle joint (except by a tiny percentage of people).

The impossible movement of the tip seen there could only be effective at preventing collapse IF it were possible to execute it without the finger's middle joint also getting involved. As you'll almost certainly see if you attempt what is seen in the diagram, however, the middle joint of your finger will begin to curl up too. Consider now what happens if the arm presses down while this is going on. The fingertip is now effectively fixed against a certain point on the key. That means that if the mid joint starts closing up, it is dragging the final joint backwards and towards collapse. If we depict the finger tip and its middle segment as isolated levers it should be completely clear, from these before and after pictures, that any pull from the upper lever is dragging the joint towards our classic collapsed finger position.

Let's translate that back to the fingers themselves  in these diagrams:

and it should now be abundantly clear why the action that might usually close up the finger (away from the piano) will instead be trying to drag the fingertip into collapse. The middle joint and fingertip joints will function just the same as those two levers had. Once the middle joint has started pulling you towards collapse, the more you try to grip from the weak joint that controls the fingertip (in a bid to keep it rounded) the more you ALSO engage the stronger middle joint that is destabilising it. This creates a vicious circle where the harder you should to seek to oppose the collapse, the more actively you contribute to causing it- by working directly against yourself.

Consider now the lengthening action, seen here in a before and after:

(Note that this action still involves the act of closure or 'grip' at the knuckle joint. The difference in what I am speaking about exists exclusively in whether the middle and fingertip joints complement that by opening or by closing. In standard human grip, all joints close in. In this action, the two lesser finger joints instead open out, while the knuckle alone goes into a more closed position. If that sounds complex to you, simply imagine the finger lengthening to match the blue line, or see this post on the finger actions for more information on how to develop a "feel" for this.)

When you are familiar not merely with the hand's most standard gripping action, but also with this complementary lengthening action, it quickly becomes possible to learn to balance on a depressed key without fighting against yourself. By alternating between the action that slips towards you and that which slips forwards, you start to discover a direction of action that exists somewhere between the two. The line of force is actually a touch forward (rather than perfectly straight down), yet not so much as to make you slip or to cause any feeling of instability. Sometimes it's as simple as getting the student to experience both forwards and backwards slides first and then simply allowing them to discover what feels right, without too much rationalising. However, if a student's habits are strongly based around desire to move keys by pulling the fingertips backwards, it may take some time before this rather different conception of movement becomes fully habitual. If so, I advise spending some trying to consciously perceive the slight sense of aiming finger activity forwards, even whilst keeping a key depressed. The feeling is not that you're not actually going to slip, but that you're ALMOST doing enough to cause the finger to start to sliding slowly but steadily forwards. Given time, this slight forward action will start to feel normal and instinctive and the student will stop accidentally retracting the tip in a way that causes collapse. In the end it may still feel like the finger is acting forwards or it may simply feel come to feel "right", in a more abstract and non-analytical sense. Whatever the case, it's worth coming back to explore both directions of the exercise, from time to time (and for each finger- not just the 2nd, that I used to illustrate). Willingness to slide smoothly but freely in either direction gives a wide sphere of experience to your senses and allows various muscles to let go and stop trying to force stability. When you go back to a regular balance point, it often turns out that you can be more than stable enough without actually bringing back those efforts. 


What I've written so far will hopefully have both given a rather comprehensive summary of the objective background to collapse and provided a means of conquering it that is both simple and direct. However, I'd also like to follow up with a few additional points regarding some of the issues that have arisen here. One part of this is extremely significant for pianists with small hands. But, firstly, even if you don't have any collapse issues, consider this- are you certain that your middle joint isn't placing a burden on your last joint, by needlessly pulling back at it while you play? Just because a finger doesn't collapse, it doesn't mean that an inner battle isn't going on between conflicting actions of the two joints- if you happen to employ the type of gripping action described.

With that in mind, the exercise is equally worthwhile for those who never experience collapse but who may be hooking themselves too forcefully into the key. If the finger is typically gripping back in towards you during regular playing, the arm tends to have to press down for the sake of stability. This can really burden the tendons and I strongly suspect that a conception of movement that is exclusively based on trying to grip inwards at the tip can contribute directly towards tendinitis.When you add a capacity to lengthen these weaker joints to the more common desire to grip from them, there's vastly less physical effort. Many people speak of curled fingers as being a cause of tendinitis, but I think this is a very misleading simplification. Curled fingers that are acting to curl up further will become burdened. HOWEVER, curled fingers that are gently lengthening in the last two joints (ie uncurling outwards) need experience no such burden. You have to consider both the position and the type of activity that is in progress, to get to the bottom of these issues. Neither gives the whole picture, without consideration of the other.

Consider what happens if you reach this type of open position (as is commonly seen by the likes of Rubinstein, Richter, Gilels and many other great artists- none of whom ever experienced any physical problems that I ever heard about)

Any use of inward grip from those two secondary joints will cause the fingertip to be dragged virtually horizontally, as shown by the red arrow. Unless the arm is forcefully digging down to create friction, that will cause phenomenal instability when the finger moves and compensatory tensions. From such a position, it is far healthier to appreciate the action that lengthens out the very same joints. This completely eliminates any need to hook in via strong arm pressure. Remember that both actions involve the stronger closing action of the knuckle itself. It's just that one also involves a significant burden on the weaker joints, whereas the one that involves lengthening them out makes for a vastly lighter workload (plus a more productive line of motion).

One point of interest to consider is that many pianists and teachers still actively preach the value of drawing the fingertip in towards the palm. While I'm on this topic, I'd like to illustrate how I'm personally 100% convinced that the efficacy of such advice actually depends on the student taking this as a springboard to something altogether different. This paper speaks about fingertip grip in relation to a pianist's health.

Also, there is an Irish pianist called Roy Holmes who used to have various Youtube videos that claimed that all finger technique should involve aiming to draw the fingertips back towards the palm (I don't know if the fact that they have been withdrawn might suggest that he's since had a rethink). Firstly, if taken precisely as detailed, this approach would be quite functionally impossible for anyone whose fingers collapse easily. Rather than being healthy, it would frequently encourage the joints to slip out into their extremes of motion, via jolting collapses. Some hands just will not suit the approach, due to their individual characteristics. Even for someone whose joints do not collapse, it could still be hard work, for the reasons already detailed. So how could such a thing be promoted in the name of "health"? 

Consider this- if you pull back into a position that is still curved, what happens next? Do you really keep gripping from the fingertip while keeping that key down? If you did, you'd have to hook in for stability against slippage, as illustrated by the last diagram (and the line of attack would also tend to drag the wrist forward and trap it into an uncomfortably bunched up position). I don't believe this could possibly be wise as a baseline for technique. BUT- consider this: what is the most natural thing to do once you've found a curled position? It's to switch to the lengthening activity, for ease of balance. Perverse as it may sound, I believe that approaches which are founded on preaching the importance of gripping from the fingertips work specifically because they create a position where you may start to feel that it's unnatural to grip any longer (ie. the advice actually describes an action that is potentially dubious, yet which prompts you to move into a position from which you may instinctively begin to a get a feel for the totally different action that suits the situation!).

If you can do it without collapse, try sliding your fingers along the keys like in exercise 1 again. After having had the experience of working at both drawing the tips backward and lengthening out forwards, can you feel an instinct that makes you want switch over to the lengthening activity, for balance- in the instant that you decide to stop sliding? If not, try it even more gently against a table top. If you don't perceive it on the piano, it should at least be possible to detect this change on the table top. At this point, either you could hook in by pressing the arm and work pointlessly hard or you can stop gripping from those joints and instead keep the balance via a much more subtle lengthening action (that keeps the key down and preserves the shape of the finger). This is perhaps what some people mean by "and then relax"- which might be more accurately translated to- "and then switch to a different style of finger activity, in order to find easy balance" That may sound wordy by comparison, but not every one will get this on instinct, merely as a result of indirect (or arguably even "contradictory") instructions. I believe that any deeper benefit of the "carezzando" idea is dependent on whether fingertip stroking triggers a position in which literally the opposite activity has to kick in, as part of a major muscular reorganisation. If you're equally used to finger lengthening actions and willing to go on instinct, you may well find a simple and easy balance without thought. However, if you get lost in an artificial premise that your fingertips are "supposed to" grip and devote all attention to doing so, you may very well place an unpleasant and unhealthy burden on your fingers- especially if you attempt to execute rapid-fire semiquavers with these highly indirect scraping actions. The more successfully you should literally adhere to the advice, the more uncomfortable you would likely find yourself- unless you should begin to perceive a change-over, by which the activity switches to the alternative manner of finger activity.

Although I am totally convinced that actions that involve extension are literally essential to the possibility of advanced pianism (and suspect that you could theoretically flourish with virtually no deployment of active fingertip grip), by looking at it from both angles you can learn a great deal. As I said, allowing slides teaches you how to let go of some unwanted efforts. In that respect, the "carrezando" idea can likely have benefits- (as long as you genuinely do it lightly and without "scraping" hard across the keys or "hooking" forcefully into them). What I am not particularly keen on, however, is the danger of implanting a person's mind with the misapprehension that fingertip grip might be one of THE standard ingredients behind pianistic actions, without drawing any equal attention to the important alternative. Unless a person is lucky enough to stumble on a "feel" for the fact that balance is vastly easier via an opposite activity, they may get themselves into all of the problems that are often associated with "curled" fingers- by using both a curled position and further curling activity. Grip is second nature to most humans already- which is probably one of the reasons why children so frequently collapse their fingers by gripping from the fingertip. In most of life, that's our default hand-action. What we are less inclined to have any immediate feel for is the vital role which lengthening actions can play.

On the subject of health, I want to illustrate one further issue, that demonstrates a powerful reason to appreciate why the lengthening action is extraordinarily important for small hands (and which further illustrates why it's a very bad idea to approach pianism solely in terms of the gripping actions, without reference to opening of joints). Lengthen your fingers out as shown before and then practise gripping lightly inward in all joints. Watch your knuckles this time. Do you see the fingers closing in towards their neighbouring fingers when you grip inward in all joints? Do you see how the space opens when you combine the slight lengthening of joints with a knuckle grasp? Here's a demonstration of both (followed by a demonstration of the fingers purely being drawn inwards and outwards, independently of other motions. This is a great exercise for freeing up any long term tensions that may be lurking there).

If you fancy trying to keep that space between adjacent fingers open while gripping, do you feel the sheer level of conflict inside your hand? Muscles are fighting to contradict the action of your very own muscles. All it takes it to add some degree of lengthening in the lesser joints, and you can eradicate this senseless fight (which is exactly what is going on when most pianists strain to reach big chords).

Ask yourself, even if you have a big hand, do you really want to be limited to actions in which you are actively making your hand smaller with every movement you make? Could that honestly be healthy, if taken as a regular pianistic action to default to? Or does it make overwhelmingly more sense to depend chiefly on an action that actively opens your hand out and frees you while you use it? I don't think it's any coincidence that my reach between 2 and 5 has increased from an awkward 7th to an easy octave since I willfully introduced lengthening actions to my technique.  I'm certainly not looking to try to ban actions involving fingertip grip from pianism outright. However, given the compelling evidence in favour of actions that instead utilise extension (which stacks up way beyond the particular collapse issue that this post started out on), this alternative strikes me as the single most worthy action of any studying pianist's conscious attention. I feel certain that those pianists with smaller hands who flourish (unlike the unfortunate many whose fight to reach chords is all too easy to detect in their sound) do so specifically because their technique regularly involves the lengthening action. In my opinion, pianists whose attention is drawn exclusively to the actions of closure are more likely to be hampered by that advice than to stumble on the alternative- and overwhelmingly more likely to suffer injury via the internal battles. When pianism is approached in terms of both qualities of movement, students are vastly more likely to find their own feel for what works.