Pianist and Pedagogue

Benjamin Steinhardt

Benjamin Steinhardt

Pianist and Pedagogue

Recent Posts

MTNA SPOKANE (A Diary)

MTNA SPOKANE (A Diary)

Each year the Music Teacher’s National Association (http://www.MTNA.org) hosts a convention. There are presentations, exhibitions, masterclasses, competitions, and concerts. I’ve attended State and National conferences before but this year I decided to apply to give a presentation for the first time. Thankfully, I was accepted! […]

Exploring the Repertoire: Kabalevsky

Exploring the Repertoire: Kabalevsky

“You must compose for children the same way you write for adults, only better.” – Kabalevsky after Maxim Gorky Since 2015 I’ve hosted a series for piano teachers called, “Exploring the Repertoire” at The Art of Piano Pedagogy on Facebook. 3-4 times a year we […]

Giving up guilt: Strategies for average to small handed pianists

Giving up guilt: Strategies for average to small handed pianists

The piano offers a richer and more varied repertoire than any other solo instrument. We can play as many notes as our ten fingers allow, which gives us an enormous range of sounds and colors. Unfortunately not every pianist’s hand is large enough to physically reach some of the intervals that have been written for us. But this does not need stop us from practicing and performing the full range of the keyboard repertoire.

I. Keyboard size:

Historically the width of an octave has varied considerably on keyboard instruments, from as narrow as 125 mm to as wide as 170 mm. Octave width became more standardized in the 19th Century, with the keyboard being tailored to the needs of large-handed (and mostly) male virtuosi. While this allowed for greater sound projection in big concert halls, it put pianists with average to small-sized hands at a disadvantage. It has also contributed to near epidemic numbers of professional pianists with RSI injuries. My own suspicion is that it plays a significant role in fewer women winning major competitions despite so many staggeringly talented women graduating from major conservatories and universities.

There has been a movement to make smaller sized keyboards more widely available, but the challenge remains that playing on a piano other than your own will likely involve a standard sized keyboard. The focus of this post will be to discuss approaches to playing virtuoso repertoire without hurting our hands while still projecting the composer’s intention.

II. Inner fingers:

Much of the discussion of hand size usually involves the distance between thumb and fifth finger but it is often the distance between inner fingers and outer fingers that causes the greatest problems. 5-2 in particular can be a major stretch for a small hand. Whenever possible I recommend avoiding this fingering over the distance of a major 6th or larger.

A. Choose fingerings that avoid stretching whenever possible:

This exciting passage from the Brahms Handel Variations features a string of the 6ths cascading up and down the keyboard. Editors will often make great use of 5-2 in order to make a legato connection.

 

 

As a result the fingers are unecessarily stretched and the incisive, weighty sound that Brahms was looking for is compromised. By altering the fingering not only is the passage less stretchy but the sound is better because each interval is supported by the forearm.

 

 

 

In this passage from Beethoven’s Sonata in Ab op. 110, many editors suggest playing Beethoven’s sparkling passage work in one large hand group. By having such large distances between the fingers they remain unsupported and control of the sound is affected. Also, it’s really uncomfortable.

 

 

Using the thumb to create two hand groups reduces the stretching and allows for greater control.

B. When re-fingering is not possible:

There are some situations where using too many thumbs, thumb crosses, or changes of hand position in a row becomes onerous. Strings of melodic 6ths as are found in the Chopin Berceuse are a good example.

In these places the use of a scissors-like technique can allow for greater distance between the fingers without the stretch.

To do this the hand needs to adjust its balance by tilting to the side. Dorothy Taubman taught this technique but was cautious about giving it to students for fear that it might cause injury if misused. Be sure to regain the balance of the hand and forearm so that the palm faces the floor as soon as the passage is over. The fingers should feel easy and soft throughout. This solution should be used sparingly.

C. Take advantage of the space between 1 and 2:

The widest distance between consecutive fingers is 1 and 2. Take advantage of this distance whenever possible. For younger students I call this “mitten hands.”

D. Add a “sixth finger”

Pianists are often afraid of replaying a finger for fear that the passage will not be legato. Playing a finger twice in a row can feel like adding a sixth finger to the hand and avoid awkward shifts and uncomfortable stretches. By shifting the weight of the forearm from one key to the next a legato sound can be maintained.

 

In this passage from Samuel Barber’s Sonata both a double fifth finger and a double thumb are recommended to avoid stretching.

III. Octaves and large intervals:

For many small handed pianists even an octave can be a stretch. When playing an octave:

a. Play towards the inner edges of the key to minimize the distance

b. Play near the edge of the key when possible where there is less key resistance.

This may require some careful planning when it is necessary to move in towards the fallboard for a thumb on the black keys.

c. Allow the hand to return to a comfortable position in-between octaves.

 

Dr. Teresa Dybvig calls this “open but unstretched.” Our muscles are designed to alternate between contraction and relaxation and these alternations can be measured in micro-seconds. Even in the fastest octave passage there is time for a moment of release. Just be cautious of not overdoing this movement or it will become too athletic. Most adult hands will feel unstretched at the distance of a 6th or 7th.

D. Only use the fifth finger for octaves

Most standard editions alternate 1/5, 1/4, or even 1/3 on octaves.

For an average to small sized hand this is not only stretchy, it causes the hand to deviate at the wrist towards to the fifth finger.

A legato sound in slower, cantabile passages as in this excerpt from Schumann’s Kriesleriana, can be achieved by staying at the bottom of the key for as long as possible and playing slowly into the key. If you find this stretchy let go of one of the voices. In double note passages only one voice needs to be legato to create a legato effect.

E. Wrist height:

The smaller the hand the higher the wrist will need to be when playing large intervals. This is due to the main knuckle group becoming too flattened to act as a fulcrum. A higher wrist is needed to bring stability to the hand. Find a height where you feel you can get the keys to descend without extra pressing of the fingers. A wrist that is too high is also problematic so be cautious of not going higher than necessary.

 

(Yuja Wang’s octaves)

IV. Interpreting a score without guilt:

This is the segment of my blog post that may get a bit controversial. In the 20th Century a philosophy of music-making arose between the World Wars in which the score was treated as biblical text. In a world that was violent and chaotic treating written texts as unalterable and unquestionable gave a feeling of stability. This led to some wonderful music making by artists like Claudio Arrau, Artur Schnabel, and Rudolph Serkin but it has also caused a fair share of problems, particularly for pianists who do not have their large hands.

If we view the score not as an instruction manual but rather as a visual representation of sound we can achieve results that stay faithful to the composer’s vision while also protecting the health of our hands.

Legato: Often pianists mistake connecting finger to finger for legato. But a connected finger will not necessarily create a legato sound. A legato sound can also be created without a physical connection. Re-conceiving legato not as solely physical act but as a quality of sound can be a revelation, but it requires giving up some of the guilt that we may have internalized as young musicians.

A. Plan when to disconnect

In passages where a legato sound is wanted we should play physically legato whenever possible. Playing non-legato unecessecarily leads to a feeling of hovering and does not produce the desired sound quality. However, strategically picking places to release allows the hand to maintain a neutral posture while still creating a legato effect. In this passage from Chopin’s Nocturne op 27. n. 2 most editors choose a fingering that looks torturous for all but a Rachmaninoff-sized hand.

By separating the low pedal tone from the rest of the figuration the hand is free to shape the musical line. A more legato effect can be created by feeling when the passage descends a legato connection between the fifth fingers through use of the lateral motion of the forearm.

 

 

 

B. Tone and pedaling:

Another sitiuation where pianists often develop feelings of guilt is when a long note plays over inner voices. To assuage their guilt they hold the long note as long as possible creating weak, unsupported sound and fatiguing the hand.

As soon as a sound is produced on the piano there is nothing we can do to alter it other than engaging the dampers. If we produce a rich tone on the long note we can use the damper pedal to carry that tone for us while we let go and play the inner voices as can be experienced in Schubert’s Gb Impromptu.

 

C. Rolling and breaking chords and intervals:

For situations in which a chord or interval is too large for the hand either rolling or treating the bottom note/s as grace notes can be an effective solutions. Again, some pianists feel guilt doing this but it was common practice to roll and break chords all the way up through the early 20th Century. In fact, many musicologists have argued that when large interval is encountered in Romantic period repertoire not only was it permissible to roll/break, it was expected.

Rachmaninoff, despite having enormous hands, often rolls and breaks in his beautiful recordings as can be heard here.

 

We can hear two approaches to climactic nine note chord of the Chopin A major Prelude. The first is the small-handed Alicia De Larrocha who chooses to break the chord here at 8:19.

The second is the large-handed Moritz Rosenthal (a famed student of Mikuli and Liszt) who chooses to roll it here at 3:46.

d. Redistribution:

I had an excellent undergraduate professor but he was tall enough to be a basketball player and had the hands to match. I can remember feeling enormously uncomfortable in this passage from the Chopin Barcarolle and him asking with a smile, “you can reach this can’t you?”

 

He said it in a kind way but I came out of the lesson believing that stretching the hands as much you can was what was expected. When entering my graduate program my professor Janice Weber (who eats Liszt and Godowsky for breakfast) worked with me on the Prokofiev 7th Sonata. I was pleasantly surprised when she showed me several brilliant hand redistributions. “If the other hand is free you might as well use it.”

 

A few months later I attended my first Taubman seminar and was pleased to see this solution to the Chopin in the example book:

 

Excepting a few places in the repertoire (perhaps the openings of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata or op. 111?) there is rarely a good reason for sticking to the way the notes are laid out on the page if redistributing will lead to greater technical and tonal control. Often composers notate the way the do simply because it looks neater on the page and it better distinguishes the voices. What matters in the end is how the music sounds or, to put it another way: the proof of the pudding is in the eating.                                                                                                    .

e. Leaving out notes/re-voicing: This is perhaps the most controversial suggestion I have to offer but if you have an average to small hand, in certain situations, it is a must. There will be places, particularly with composers like Brahms, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff, where it is not possible to play all the printed notes. One solution is to simply not play these compositions but I believe that great music should be played, not left on a pedestal.

In graduate school I took a wonderful Schenkerian theory course. There are some limits to Shenkerian analysis but what it does teach is the understanding of music in terms of line and voicing. Without getting into too great a level of detail, the art of this approach is gradually taking the foreground (the score) and reducing it to its barest essentials (the background). In working this way it is possible to understand which notes are most essential to the line and harmonic progression and which are there for color and sonority.

Fortunately you don’t need a graduate degree to make smart choices about which notes to leave out. A good ear is all that is required (although some knowledge of 4-part chorale writing and species counterpoint won’t hurt!)

Some tips:

-Look out for stretches, especially between 1-5 and 5-2.

-If a voice is doubled it is usually expendable.

-Another doubling can be added to help maintain the sonority and registration if it does not alter the function of the chord or the direction of the line as can be seen in this excerpt from the Brahms Handel Variations:

 

V. Special thoughts on working with children:

With children it is best to avoid assigning pieces with intervals larger than a 6th until the hand has grown. Fortunately there is a wealth of great music out there written for students. Unfortunately, some editions written specifically for students still choose fingerings that are meant for adult hands. Scores should be re-fingered to meet the needs of the individual child. Schumann’s “The Happy Farmer” is often giving to elementary aged students who do not have large enough hands for the large stretch of a broken 2nd inversion chord with the root doubled.

Crossing the thumb keeps the hand in a natural shape. Notice also the double thumb which avoids stretching and too many changes of hand position in measure 3.

One important things to watch out for is many methods have children stretching over a five finger position, one finger per key.

 

For an adult hand this may not feel like a great distance but for a small child this can be equivalent to stretching over a 6th or 7th. Practicing non-legato with a neutral hand alignment can help students to avoid unecessary stretching (you can read more about this in my blog post here). So can playing pieces that make use of the whole keyboard rather than gluing the fingers to the keys.

I hope you have found this post informative. This has been intended to be a broad overview and each situation will require a unique solution. As a rule of thumb: if it feels good in the hand it will sound good too.

Special thanks to Teresa Dybvig with whom I have worked on many of the pieces used as examples.

I’d love to hear your own experiences and the experiences of your students in the comment section.

A Thousand Images: Effective use of touch in the piano lesson

A Thousand Images: Effective use of touch in the piano lesson

Playing the piano is fine motor skill requiring a complex set of coordinations between large and small muscle groups. For most students verbal descriptions and visual demonstration are not enough to convey the complexities of physical movement and a kinesthetic experience is necessary. This is […]

“A Thousand Different Sounds”: Tone Quality at the Piano

“A Thousand Different Sounds”: Tone Quality at the Piano

      The question of tone quality comes up amongst pianists regularly. It is often said that no matter what the pianist does all that matters is the speed of the hammer when it hits the strings. This is partially true from the point […]

The Point of Sound or, Why an Acoustic Piano is Not Interchangeable With a Digital

The Point of Sound or, Why an Acoustic Piano is Not Interchangeable With a Digital

A question that frequently gets asked by parents and pianists alike is whether a digital piano is interchangeable with an acoustic for learning to play the piano. The answer, with rare exceptions, is no.

Often it is believed that if there are 88 keys and they are weighted that is all that is required to imitate a piano. But an essential feature missing from all but a few high end digitals is the escapement mechanism. It is the escapement that allows us to draw out an seemingly endless range of nuances from the instrument and it is the escapement that does much of the work for us in technically challenging passages.

1.What is the Escapement Mechanism?

For a detailed explanation of all of the parts of the piano and its action check out Christopher Smit’s “The Piano Deconstructed” page. But here’s a brief summary:

A. Bartolomeo Cristofori and the Single Escapement Action

When Cristofori invented the piano in 1700 his most important innovation was the piano action. In earlier keyboard instruments like the harpsichord, the keyboardist depresses a key and a quill plucks the string. This allows for considerable overall volume in public performances but regardless of how slow or fast a key is played, the dynamic level remains the same.

 

Sound at the clavichord is produced by small metal blades called tangents which strike brass or metal strings from above. Until the player lifts their finger off the key the tangent stays in contact with the string. The clavichord can create many dynamic nuances and even vibrato, but the overall volume of the instrument is so soft that it is only suitable for home use.

With the invention of the pianoforte, the keyboardist had an instrument that could play both loud and soft on a single key and produced enough sound to be used in public performance. This was thanks to the escapement action. When the pianist plays the key, the hammers strike the string rapidly. Unlike the clavichord, the hammer immediately rebounds off the string while the key is still depressed. The slower the pianist plays into the key the softer the sound. The faster into the key the louder the sound. Degrees of volume are created by velocity, not force.

B. Sébastien Erard and the Double Escapement

Invented in 1821 by Erard, the double escapement made it possible to rapidly repeat a key. The addition of a repetition spring and other components meant that the hammer could “reload” allowing for multiple hammer repetitions without fully releasing a key. Composers of the Romantic era exploited this capability filling their music with repeated notes and chords, octaves, double notes, and tremolos pushing the limits of virtuosity at the keyboard to its extreme.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PAKtfkh0C1M

2. Tonal nuance

Near the bottom of the piano key there is a little bump. This is the escapement level at which point the hammer strikes the string. Dorothy Taubman called this the “point of sound.” After the sound has been produced there is nothing we can do to alter it.

On a well regulated piano the point of sound should be about a pennie’s width higher than than keybed.

Past the bump there is a little bit of space called the ‘aftertouch.” Ideally the pianist aims for the point of sound and then follows through the aftertouch to the bottom of the key.

All tonal control is a result of the pianist’s relationship with the point of sound. Hindemith said that “it makes no difference on the piano whether it is touched with the tip of an umbrella or with the finger of Arthur Rubinstein.” But this fails to take into account how sensitive the instrument is. Even on a single note, an enormous range of volumes and tonal qualities can be produced.

As Thomas Marks notes in his book. “What Every Pianist Needs to Know About the Body“: “Volume of sound is not the only thing that changes: as the hammer goes faster and faster or slower, the mix of overtones shift also, so the quality of the sound changes as well as the volume. ”

If the finger plays too fast into the key a harsh sound is produced.

Too slowly, none at all.

 

3. Helping students find the point of sound

To find the point of sound depress the key slowly until the bump can be felt and then play to the bottom of the key. Often young students are impatient and will take a few tries to drop slowly enough to feel the bump. Once the student has found the point of sound they can practice dropping faster or slower into a key to change the dynamic level.

Avoiding keybedding: The hallmark of virtuoso playing is minimal effort for maximal effect. A poor habit common to pianists is pressing against the keybed after the sound has been produced. This is true amongst children who believe that volume is created by force. But it is also true among professionals, particularly when they are emotionally involved.

As Tobias Matthay wrote, “the keybeds are not like ripe fruit out of which sound-juice can squeezed.”

To help the student feel how much effort is necessary I use a trick shown to me by Dr. Teresa Dybvig. I depress the keys and have the student play on top of them. If there is a “thud” I know they are working too hard.

 

Renowned hand therapist Dr. Caryl Johnson often recommended pianists practice on a table top to avoid using excess force.

4. Rebounding off the key

In addition to tonal nuance the double escapement has to ability to rebound the hand in staccato passages, octaves, and chords much like bouncing on a trampoline. Gravity takes care of the down, the rebound the up. Without an aftertouch the pianist is forced to use the fingers to depress the full weight of the hammer and has to lug the arm around the piano rather than allowing it to be bounced from place to place.

Poorly regulated or nonexistent escapement is a major cause of injury at the keyboard. Playing without an escapement mechanism is equivalent to jumping on asphalt rather than a trampoline. I can play for hours on an acoustic piano without fatigue but I often find I’m sore after playing a gig using a digital keyboard due to the lack of a point of sound.

5. Helping students to rebound

Helping students to rebound off the key is similar to finding the point of sound:

a. The student feels the ‘bump’;

b. The student rests on the bottom of the key;

c. The student slowly rides it to top as if it were an elevator.

Gradually the speed can be increased. If the student’s finger-hand-forearm unit is balanced well over the key, the repetition lever will do all the work for them. It is not even necessary to leave the surface of the key when practicing this.

This skill is essential for any non legato touch including octave, repeated notes, chords, and staccato.

Having students clap their hands together or pretend to dribble a basketball will further reinforce this image of the bouncing finger-hand-forearm unit.

6. Special effects using the point of sound

The most efficient way to play a key is to aim for the point of sound and follow through with the arm to the bottom of the keybed at which point all downward motion stops.

However, there are places in the repertoire where a bell-like sound can be created by playing only to the point of sound. This is quite effective in impressionist music like Debussy and Ravel as in the ‘Bells” of Ravel’s “La Vallee des Cloches”

or for the wedge notes in the opening of Beethoven op. 110.

 

Brilliant passages like rapid alternating octaves can also benefit from this approach.

7. Acoustic or digital?

I hope I have made a case for the necessity of a well-regulated escapement mechanism during all stages of piano study. It is only fair to note that there are a few hybrid digital-acoustic instruments on the market which have a hammer action modeled after the piano. I haven’t had the opportunity to try them all but if you are in the market for a digital instrument I would only recommend purchasing one of these.

The action on an upright is a little different than a grand. Most do not have a double escapement but rather an additional spring to mimic the action of a grand. In general, a grand will have a better action with faster repetitions, but a high quality upright is preferable to a poor quality grand.

If you can’t find the point of sound on your acoustic or the aftertouch feels too shallow or too deep it is worth contacting a certified piano technician.

 

Please let me know if you enjoyed this post. Questions and comments welcomed!

Junior Virtuosos: Dropping into a key

Junior Virtuosos: Dropping into a key

In my previous “Junior Virtuosos” post I described strategies for helping young students to find a natural hand position. This week I would like to a focus on the next essential step to developing a healthy technique: Dropping and balancing into a key using the weight of […]

“But my fourth finger is weak”- the myth of finger independence

“But my fourth finger is weak”- the myth of finger independence

  I recently had a new adult student come into my studio wanting to learn Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” I teach the piece often and suggested an effective fingering for a passage she was struggling with. She expressed horror upon seeing it because my fingering […]

Junior Virtuosos: What is a natural hand position?

Junior Virtuosos: What is a natural hand position?

One of the most common questions piano teachers have is: how do I help my student to develop and maintain a good hand position? To answer this question we first have to define what a good hand position is and what it is not.

1. What Is A Good Hand Position?

A good hand position is a hand that is in its natural alignment. To find it is simple enough. Drop the arm loosely by the side of the body and voila!

 

 

When hanging by the side of the body our fingers have a gentle curve, the main knuckle is prominent, there is a little space between the fingers, and the hand and forearm are in one piece. The thumb acts as an extension of the forearm. The ‘look’ of the hand will vary a bit from person to person but these features remain consistent.

To help the student become familiar with this alignment a mirror is useful. I like to begin each lesson by taking a moment to check the students seating and reminding them of their natural alignment, dropping the hand by the side of the body and bringing it to the keyboard exactly as it is.

Another trick is have the student flip over the hand palm up

and then place it palm down on the keyboard in the same alignment.

There are various images you can use such as: “bless the piano,” “hold a cup of soup” etc. I find “hold a cup of ice cream” works best because when students are asked to hold a cup of soup they often squeeze their fingers together to stop the soup from spilling out.

2. What Is Not A Good Hand Position?

The trouble teachers often run into is our language is ambiguously descriptive. The most common example of this is instructing the student to play with “curved” fingers. But one person’s curve is another’s curl. A student with long fingers is going to look quite different than one with short fingers. Our own lax hand is the perfect model of what our hand should look like at the keyboard.

In many old method books the student is instructed to hold a ball, or an egg, or a bubble.

 

The problem with these images is they encourage the student to curl the fingers overworking the flexors. There is nothing natural about curling the fingers. The only time we might do so walking down the street is if we saw someone scary walking by.

3. Common Pitfalls

The most common pitfall for students is our human desire to be “neat and tidy.” Students will often try and line their fingers up, one per white key over a five finger position.

In doing so the fingers are abducted (spread apart) causing unnecessary tension in the hand. For a young child their hand will only cover 3-4 keys. Even most adult hands will not cover more than 4-4 1/2 keys in their natural hand alignment.

 

I find it useful to have students practice bringing the hand to the keyboard with their eyes closed to avoid this problem. Most are shocked how few keys the hand covers.

Another “neat and tidy” issue is the common desire to straighten at the wrist. When our hand is hanging by the side of the body neither side of the hand is in a straight line with the hand, nor is the hand angling towards the side (as if pigeon-toed or Charlie Chaplin’s feet). No particular finger should line up with the forearm. The image I most commonly use for the hand is a “tulip and its stem.” (Thanks Teresa Dybvig for the image and Lauren Sonder for the tulip drawing!)

 

 

If I find a student is getting out of alignment I will ask them to take their hand away from the keyboard, shake it out a bit, and bring it back exactly as it is. A word of warning about the word “alignment.” Students, including adults, will often hear “line” and proceed to make a straight line with parts of their body.

The other common pitfall is what a colleague calls negraclaviphobia (“Fear of the black keys”). Students are so afraid of having their fingers in the black key area that they curl them in avoidance.

 

Some old method books even advocate making the finger tips into a straight line (eek!) to avoid the black keys. It’s hard to imagine a more unnatural use of the hand. For a young or small handed child the fingers will be near the black keys. For an older or larger-handed student the fingers will be in the black key area if the thumb is playing.

(Martha Argerich’s gorgeous hands)

The key is lighter the further away we get from the fallboard. When the thumb is not playing it is preferable to have the thumb off the keyboard provided no black keys are to be played in the near future. The intricacies of moving In and Out in relation to the fallboard will be explored in a future post.

This brings us to another pitfall: dangling thumbs. The intrinsic muscles of the hand at the base of the thumb are the heaviest in the hand. Students will often allow the thumb to drop down below the keyboard causing the rest of the hand to collapse.

 

 

In addition to reminding students of their natural alignment, I enjoy the image of the thumb tip being a “ghost with a flashlight (or laser beam).”  The light can go up or down, side to side, or shine at an angle but it should always shine on the fallboard when not playing.

4. Developing Awareness

Even more than knowing how the hand should look at the keyboard we need to know how it should feel. The body awareness of children is generally quite low. If you ask them the lift their elbow many will lift their shoulder instead. Two effective approaches to developing awareness are moving in and out of the mid-range of motion and asking questions.

Moving in and out of the mid-range of motion: Our range of motion (ROM) is the motion allowed by the joint’s shape and surrounding soft tissue to allow a specific movement between bones. When the hand is in its natural alignment the joints of the hand are in the mid-range of motion. We can develop awareness by moving in and out of the mid-range. I like to begin by having the student move towards the end-range of motion and back to neutral. For instance:

Curling the fingers and then returning to neutral

 

Straightening the fingers and returning to neutral

 

Spreading the fingers and returning to neutral

 

Squeezing the fingers and returning to neutral

 

Angling the hand towards the thumb (radial deviation) and returning to neutral

 

 

Angling the hand towards the fifth finger (ulnar deviation) and returning to neutral

 

Dropping the hand at the wrist and returning to neutral

 

Raising the hand at the wrist and returning to neutral

 

 

Over time you can make these movement smaller and smaller so the student becomes aware of when they are using unnecessary tension. Regularly asking the student to verbalize how their hands feel will help them further increase their awareness. At first they may not feel much of anything but the more times you revisit these movements the greater their awareness will expand.

5. Opening The Hand For Larger Intervals

With young beginners there is rarely an occasion in the elementary repertoire to leave their natural hand alignment. Gross motor skills come before fine, arm before hand. I make a point of avoiding legato playing until the student is capable of maintaining a natural hand position and using their arm weight by lifting and dropping the hand-forearm as a unit from the elbow joint. For a beginning four or five year old this might take a year or more.

As the student progresses they will be asked to play increasingly varied figurations including large intervals, leaps, and chords. Our muscles were designed to alternate between tension and relaxation. When playing a large interval like an octave (or for a young student a 6th) the hand does not need to return all the way to the size it would be in when hanging by the side of the body. But it does need to beclose enough to release excessive tension . This is what Dr. Teresa Dybvig calls “open but unstretched.” When the hand is open but unstretched there is a greater distance between the fingers but the abductors are not activated.

 

 

To help the student feel this place gently open the students hand for them (always ask permission before touching) so they can feel what it is for the hand to open passively. Alternate between having them actively stretch open the fingers and having them opened passively. In my adult male hand this is somewhere between a 6th or 7th depending how my body feels that day.

 

6. One Additional Thought

I began by using the term hand “position” but in actuality the goal is not to find a fixed position at all. Rather, when a student is aware of their natural alignment they have a healthy neutral from which to depart from and return to allowing for maximum freedom and ease of movement.

Please let me know if you enjoyed this post. Questions and comments welcomed!

Congratulations to composer Marc Chan!

Congratulations to composer Marc Chan!

Congratulations to composer Marc Chan and pianist Rob Haskins on receiving a rave review for their new album “My Wounded Head 3” in the San Francisco Chronicle! “Marc Chan’s entrancing piano opus “My Wounded Head 3” is not the musical slasher flick its title might lead […]