Please note that posts appear from the most recent first, rather than in consecutive order.

Please click here for a full chronological index of posts

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The fingers- the core of piano technique, part i

In this post, I'm going to illustrate a very simple way of understanding the basic core of piano technique- getting the fingers to perform effective activities without wasting energy or straining. Afterwards, I'm also going to illustrate the fact that the fingers still have an essential job to keep performing after a key has been depressed. Finally, I'm also going to give exercises that will illustrate how ineffective it is to try to achieve things by bracing the fingers, and then demonstrate how much less effort suitably directed intent at movement is- even in arm weight approaches (actually, especially in arm weight approaches!). 

Anyway, first up let's just do a quick preliminary exercise to loosen up any initial tension that might exist in the fingers. There are many ways to do this, but the one I'm going to outline here is based on using one hand to move the other. Firstly flick the fingers quite sharply (but not forcefully!) in both directions. Try to do nothing other than keep the fingers loose and responsive. Note how they automatically jump right back to pretty much where they started, almost immediately after being displaced. The natural muscle tonus draws the fingers back into a slightly curved position. Now try slowly pushing and pulling at individual fingers (within a comfortable range of motion)- trying to notice if any efforts are restricting the ability of the other hand to move the finger smoothly. Try to be 100% passive in the finger and look for signs of resistance- especially at the knuckle. Obviously resistance will be found nearer the edges of the range of motion, but can you feel habitual efforts causing resistance in the middle? Try to release whatever causes it. Sometimes wiggle a finger more quickly, to check for completely unimpeded movability- but always be gentle! By the time you're finished, the fingers should be felt to hang very loosely and effortlessly. This video only gives a very short demonstration for general illustration purposes- but spend a while really exploring the sensations of each finger in depth (for at least thirty seconds or so per finger, say) before moving on. Don't just wiggle the fingers without paying attention but really try to notice what is going on!



Now I'm going to work through the two basic styles of foundation finger movements. With my post on the thumb, I gave exercises that fit into three categories. Firstly, there are those where you feel how to perform the movement in thin air. Secondly, there are those where you interact with another surface. Finally, there are those where you use it to sound a piano key. This particular post will involve preparatory exercises from the first two categories- to fully clarify these two styles of movement (in preparation for a post about applying them to playing).

To be clear, I'm not suggesting anything as simplistic as the idea that there are only two possible movements from each finger. However, the vast majority of useful actions basically fit into one of these two groups. Even then, there's a rather significant overlap between the two categories. Both depend on the most powerful actions of all- those that originate at the knuckle. The first exercise is to perceive a pure knuckle pull..

Point the thumb down and extend it lightly away from the palm. Use the fingers of your other hand to push the knuckles lightly up from beneath (especially on the 5th finger side, which is especially inclined to want to droop down. I won't go into the explanation right now, but keep it raised up!). Then extend your fingers out and slowly move them from the knuckles. Try to notice how far you can move them while maintaining a slight sense of reaching out at the fingertips- but aim for maximum freedom. Try to let go of anything that does not directly contribute to simplicity and ease of movement from the knuckle. Also, try to notice exactly where the movement occurs from (note that if you look at the palm side of your hand, the knuckle joint is roughly a centimetre or two down into your palm, from where the finger appears to begin! Misunderstanding where your finger is joined can make the movement a lot stiffer!). Although this movement can later offer tremendous power, try not to act against any imaginary resistance or to think about "strength"- either in this exercise or any other of those done in thin air. The more freedom and ease of movement you acquire here, the more potential you'll have to employ serious power when there is something of substance for it to actually act upon. Note that this movement is similar to the type of leverage shown with a pencil in earlier posts. The finger acts like a single lever.



Once you're used to what the knuckle can do, you can also try going on to curl up the fingers- meaning all of the three joints in every finger will act inwards (seen in the second half of the prior video). This action needs to be done with even more lightness still. Don't clench- just feel the path of movement, back and forth! When overused in piano playing, the action of curling up the end of the finger is especially inclined to cause injury. It also makes for an extremely indirect line- naturally scraping across the surface of the key rather than aiming the energy directly into it. Although fingertip pulls were used as a basis for old fashioned harpsichord technique, it is not a good default movement with which to control the heavier action and more sensitive dynamic response of a modern piano (I'll go into more details regarding the problems with curling up from those joints in future posts). While awareness of this motion is useful, it's the action from the knuckle that we want to cultivate as the primary source of key movement. Once you've observed what it's like for every joint to be closing inwards, go back to the knuckle action and compare. This purer knuckle pull is the first of the two basic finger actions.

The next quality of movement is based on adding a movement of extension in the weaker joints. That is, you do not start having already extended the finger (as in the first exercise)- but perform a simultaneous act of extension DURING the same knuckle pull. There's only one direction of movement from the knuckles that can possibly get a piano key moving- that which closes the fingers in towards the hand. Reverse the direction of the previous exercise and you'll see that there's no way that opening at the knuckle could ever contribute to moving a key (unless you want to play with upward-facing palms). However when it come to the two joints in the middle of the finger, it's possible for EITHER opening actions or closing actions to contribute to moving the key. This is an important thing to realise, if you hope to capitalise on a wide range of options.

Try keeping the knuckles reasonably still (but not forced into rigidity- note that mine still move a little) and go slowly back and forth with the next two joints (again be careful not to overwork with these more sensitive movements). Notice what happens when you are UNCURLING, this time.



Can you imagine moving a key with that movement? Almost certainly not. This opening movement is not remotely meaningful on its own- until it is used to complement the pulling action from the knuckle. Only do that one once or twice, purely for observation purposes. However, once the two are combined, there are countless benefits that will rapidly become clear. If it sounds like it might be rather complex, to try to involve these two contrasting actions at once, it really isn't. Perhaps have a go though now and see how it feels to attempt both? I presume that it will have felt very difficult indeed- but fortunately there's a simple mental strategy, that gets both elements involved very easily. If you start with a relaxed finger (in a slight natural curve), all you need to do is imagine a straight line- that passes right through both the knuckle and the fingertip. Simply imagine the finger unravelling, until it extends directly along that imaginary line. Here are before and after diagrams (to illustrate the line) kindly contributed by graphical artist Azim Akberali.


And here's a video:




Picturing the movement as an act of moving the finger out into this line should automatically combine the different activities into what the brain perceives as if it were merely one rather easy act. As if by magic, you'll soon find that the knuckle performs the same closing action as before, but that the finger as a whole lengthens out into that line- with the other two joints opening out. Please note that this is simply a guide line (if you'll excuse the pun), however. The idea of settling into this imaginary line is only a means to acquire the general feel. Although I do find this extremely effective as a rather literal premise, don't feel strictly bound to this! If it's between slightly missing that path with a smooth and comfortable movement or hitting it precisely due to stiffness, the former is vastly better. Feel free to explore around the general concept. In particular, don't try to force the finger beyond your comfort level. If it's not fully extended, that's fine. Over time, you will likely increase the range of comfortable movement, but don't try to push it into happening immediately by straining. All of these exercises are about comfortable, low effort exploration- not forcing things!

For the above exercises, start by moving all of the fingers together as one single unit. Once you have become used to the basic feel (and got it almost entirely effortless), go on to try them for individual fingers. This requires even more care not to force anything, due to the impossibility of comprehensively isolating movement of a single finger from the rest of the hand. There are physical connections (notably between the 3rd and 4th fingers) which dictate that totally independent movement can never occur. The danger of trying to 'isolate' a finger exists only when you try to FORCE other fingers to remain still by clenching other muscles (in other words, it's not so much "isolation" of muscles but the clenching up far too many additional ones that is the true problem).

Note how the other fingers follow plenty, in this demonstration of the two actions in each individual finger.



There's nothing wrong with trying to improve upon independence of movement- as long as it is not achieved by active muscular repression of other movements. The ability to cause movement in a specific finger is obviously a basic requirement of playing. Just don't fight against the lesser movements that fall outside of your intention. Focus your direct intentions on the specific action you wish to perform, but also be aware of the other fingers. If instead of fighting them, you merely go a little slower and with less effort, the additional movements will gradually become smaller. Also, consider that the resistance of a piano key enables it to withstand the equivalent pressure to approximately 50 grammes of mass, before it can even start to move. Slight sympathetic finger movements that occur in the air will be often be absorbed altogether by contact with the surface of the keys, unless severely forceful. For this reason, you do not need to actively repress other movements! It is only by noticing and accepting them that you can acquire the greater 'independence' of each finger

Anyway, now I've introduced the two movements, I want to give a practical demonstration of a few significant issues. Firstly, keeping the fingers relaxed, LIGHTLY push at them in the two ways shown here (note that they move the fingers in directly opposite paths to the two basic finger actions):






If they are truly relaxed, they will be moved. Consider now that a depressed key will necessarily be pushing back at the finger just the same as your other hand was there- due to the springs that are trying to return it. A truly "relaxed" finger on a depressed key is simply impossible. Arm weight cannot help either. A genuinely relaxed finger also buckles under pressure from above. The only issue is how efficiently the efforts to keep it depressed are being deployed in the finger. I'll explore this further (in direct relation to depressed keys) in my next post- although the following exercises also relate directly to this issue.

Next up, I want to demonstrate a few objective facts about the idea of supposedly taking the workload off the fingers by using arm pressure. Many people claim it is desirable for a "firm" hand to channel energy from the arm and then relax. Supposedly, this is less strenuous than having to move the fingers. Although there are some who succeed with this subjective illusion, I want to show how objectively flawed the idea of "fixing" the hand is if you fall into the trap of taking it literally. Try stiffening your hand quite firmly and then trying to "surprise" yourself with a slight push from the other hand (be very careful not to strain! If in doubt under-do the push and stop if you feel anything getting tired. If you have any history of injury, just watch my video and skip this altogether). The push from your other hand is equivalent to the reaction force that any arm pressure will cause the keys to send back through the fingers.





Could you stay still? Not a chance! I deliberately kept the force of the push rather low (as I wouldn't want to encourage anyone to hurt themself) but even in the second you can see the fingers giving way a little.You could stiffen as much as physically possible, but you will always give way at least slightly- UNLESS you respond with an attempt to move in the opposite direction to the force that acted on your fingers. General stiffening only reduces the amount which you give way (compared to the extreme give that occurs during relaxation). It never cancels it out altogether- no matter how severe the tensions that you might end up subjecting yourself to. Give in the finger is an example of a negative movement, that reduces efficiency of energy transfer (as surely as a battering ram made of collapsing foam). We cannot ever succeed in eliminating it with general stiffness, but only with an intent at positive movement in the opposite direction (see here for more background to these issues). Now start stiff again, but intend to move when the hand pushes- with our two basic finger movements. Start the fingers moving slightly before the other hand pushes- so you're not having to fight to change the direction of movement after a finger has already begun giving way. Can you feel how intending to move produces vastly more stability against the oncoming force? Can you feel how little effort it takes, to eliminate any possibility of giving way?



Now start completely relaxed and go on to do everything else in the same way. Were the results in any way inferior to when you started with a state of stiffness? If you timed the movement right (to start slightly before the other hand pushed) it should be every bit as effective as when you started out stiff. If anything the added sensitivity that comes with having started at ease should make it even more effective than starting stiff. Intent at useful movement is inherently superior to generic attempts to stiffen something up. Being stiff adds absolutely nothing to the quality of the results at any stage. You don't need to start stiff, you don't need to stiffen during contact and you don't need to be stiff after. You just need to intend to move the finger in an effective path. If you don't try to send the fingertip right back through the force that is sent at your finger, you can never succeed in balancing it out- no matter how tightly you clench! This is why arm weight approaches can be truly damaging to students who do not have an instinct for finger movement. If the fingers do not create movement as a matter of routine, the hand's only choice (other than collapsing into a cluster) is to stiffen up- achieving significantly less, despite far more physical effort. It's not about a moment of "tension" followed by "release", but about employing enough simple movement to balance out the force that would cause everything to give way.

In short- if you don't want a finger to give way, forget stiffening it against anything and instead think about moving it directly in the opposite direction to that in which it would give way. This is the foundation not only of single finger technique but of chords and octaves etc. In styles of playing like that of Rubinstein (where the arm drops the hand down into the keys from a great height) these movements only become more important, not less so. A generically braced hand just isn't anywhere near as effective as one that moves through the force that will try to collapse it.

Postlude
Please note, that I am NOT wishing to encourage anyone to think that the key to technique is based around arm pressure. If anything, quite the contrary. The latter half of this post is intended to illustrate that IF you choose to use arm pressures, they can never "replace" the role of hand movement within an effective technique. They can only add to the sheer necessity of properly involving it. If you truly throw out hand movements, you are going to be forced into stiff hand fixations (no matter how much you hope to "relax") that achieve greatly less. I want to stress that the finger actions outlined here are best developed without the arm pressing down through the hand- which only forces the fingers to be worked harder. Hopefully the follow up posts about putting these activities into practise will come soon but, in the meantime, please be clear that I am not advocating the heavy workload that comes by adding pressures from the arm (at least, not in the majority of playing).