“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Why is the Fourth Finger the Weakest? : The Question That Won't Die

  The fourth finger is not weak; it is misunderstood. It can feel just as "strong" as the other fingers if used according to its design. 
No amount of so-called strength-training exercises will produce positive results, but will more likely cause harm. The fingers are not independent agents, but they can sound that way if it is understood how to use the finger/hand/forearm as a unit. Simply put and without going into great detail here, the fingers do not pull away from the hand individually but rather act as a unit,  dropping into the key from above with the assistance of the forearm. This is known as forearm rotation.
   Do not try to strengthen your fourth finger because it is not weak!
    Another student responds:
    "I don't understand how this works in the context of, say, a Bach fugue, where it seems to me that all of the fingers often need to be independent, because there are all kinds of complex situations involving some notes being held while others move. If several fingers need to be held down while others need to play notes, how can you rotate the forearm to make it happen? The very first study in Clementi's Gradus [Ad Parnassum] is devoted to this very kind of thing, and I don't understand how one could play it via the method you describe."

   To which I respond:
   The sort of rotation you are probably imagining is one in which the direction of music changes with each note, as in an Alberti figure. This is usually what people think of first as forearm rotation. The idea is much subtler than that; it is an underlying tool that permeates all of what we do at the keyboard. The first etude of Clementi's Op. 44 is very easy to do using forearm rotation. In fact, trying to do it without understanding rotation is potentially harmful, in that the tendency might be to pull some fingers away from the hand while pressing some downward. That exercise is also unnecessary. As are all such exercises, in my view. In contrapuntal music we aim to make voices sound independent. We do not achieve this by separating our fingers from our hands, that is, by lifting them away from the piano.

   For a more detailed explanation, see other articles in this blog.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Role of the Forearm in Piano Playing: Getting to the Bottom of Things

A student writes:

1. How is it possible to establish the right amount of forearm weight to be used when playing, without falling into the trap of the so called "relaxation"? I mean, starting to loose fulcrums in the shoulder, elbow or other fulcrums.   I very
often experience right shoulder pain, and am not sure if this is due to a break in a fulcrum or not staying down properly on the key bottom.

2.  When we play a key, we do it trough coordinate forearm/hand/finger motion, using the forearm weight to overcome the key's resistance. Then, we balance the weight on the bottom of the key (at the moment very hard for me to balance properly).

Then, when we want to play another key we use the rotation to transfer the weight of the forearm.

My question is: while we do a preparatory swing in order to play, let's say from a "C" with the 2nd finger, to a "D" with the 3rd finger, are we still balancing on the 2nd finger?
When is the right moment to let the weight go from the 2nd finger and swing it to the 3rd?

My answer:

    I don't think I can answer your questions completely without working with you in person, but I'll give you some things to think about. Your first question is a very good one and it is the first issue I deal with when introducing these ideas to a new student. Simply put, you need to find out how much effort it takes to just stand on one note, feeling the connection from the tip of the finger that is playing all the way back to the elbow. Keep in mind that this unit is "like a tennis racket," as Taubman would say, though it is not rigid. The wrist is level, like a bridge between the hand and forearm.  It takes some effort—not much—and this is why the concept "to relax" is not useful. You must get to the point of feeling comfortable with this balance before going on with the transfer of weight.
     Try this: Practice dropping your arm into individual keys, as a unit, using one finger at a time (2-5) landing straight, upright. Stand on each finger for a few seconds and ask yourself if you feel you could stand there indefinitely—not pressing down, but not lifting up. The best analogy I can think of is that of standing upright on your feet at ease, the way I learned to do when I was in the army. The drill sergeant taught is to stand without locking the knees, crucial to being able to stand for a long period of time without fainting.
     You should not experience shoulder pain from
playing the piano. Again, without looking at you I can't really diagnose accurately. However, first check the height of your bench; the elbow should be level with or slightly above the key bed. Then, try dropping your right arm down to your side and notice how the hand/arm unit feels. Raise it up from the elbow and rotate the hand toward the thumb side and place it on the keys, keeping that same, closed and at ease feeling. You should now be in a perfect position to play, with all the fulcra available. It is from this position that you should explore what it feels like to stand on one note. Remember, the hand/arm unit can be at any angle with the keyboard as long as it is straight with itself.     
  Your second question addresses the transfer of weight from one key to the next. I liken this to walking. At some point
when we lift a foot and attempt to propel our bodies forward, one foot leaves the floor and all weight is on the other foot. So, just as in walking, when we swing away from one note toward another note—as in C to D with 2 to 3—at the moment 3 arrives at the bottom of the key, 2 releases, thus having transferred its weight forward. Note that if a finger strikes a key but doesn't actually feel "complete," that is, doesn't really arrive at the bottom of the key even thought it sounds, the arm registers what I call a sort of bump. This is very much like what happens if we attempt to place one foot in front of the other without transferring the weight. We call this a limp and the result of continuous limping can be the involvement of other muscles trying to accommodate the lack of coordination. At the
keyboard, this limp translates as holding, or hovering above the keys and could be a source of shoulder discomfort. 
     So, the simple answer to your question is yes, the weight is still on the 2nd finger until its rotation is complete, and has transferred its weight to the bottom of the next note.