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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.


  1. Thanks a lot for this article. After reading this i just feel like i will be a pro in playing this Musical Equipment tonight.

  2. I am so excited to show the motions of curling and uncurling to a particular student. Thank you! Also, the final words about extension of the hand is something I will be exploring for my own use as well as the instruction of my students.

  3. Thanks. Though valuable, the ¡nformation ¡s relative, remember (reader),
    angles are a factor. (As they change the direction of forces in play (vector),
    etc...). Hope that this bit can help you in the finger joint collapse thing.
    Reducionism is a constant risk factor in reasoning.

    1. Indeed. But you've reduced your point about angles to the extent that I have no idea what you are referring to, I'm afraid. What factor are you suggesting that particular angles could play, and which point that I have made might be contradicted? While I'm entirely open to any specific situation that you might consider to be a counterexample I'm afraid your point is reduced to the point of being quite so vague that I have no idea as to what possible situations might be of relevance. Please elaborate, and I'll be the first to take an interest. But it's examples of definable exceptions that disprove rules, not vaguery.

  4. Hello!
    Wonderful post, wonderful blog!
    Unfortunately the link for the paper you mention is broken. Could you provide another one, please?

    Thank you!

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