“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.”

Friday, June 6, 2014

Stretching Exercises for Pianists: The Topic That Won't Die

One contributor to a music forum for pianists offered a YouTube video of a pianist "stretching" his fingers using the keyboard as his stationary block. He worked his fingers in and out of the black keys and against the rail, claiming that these stretches made him limber. Needless to say, discussion ensued. Some wise pianists—these are the ones who agree with me—observed that such gesticulations had nothing at all to do with piano playing. If that's true, if these stretches are not about piano playing, what might they be about. I say "might" because I can only speculate. I put these "limbering" exercises in a category with other feel-good, possibly therapeutic, activities that are akin to warmup stretches that dancers, athletes and yoga practitioners use.
     I know how good stretches can feel because I do them myself— on a mat on the floor—in order to increase circulation in my limbs and "wake up." I can imagine that this pianist of the video experiences similar feelings of release as he manipulates his fingers. But, no, this has nothing to do with piano playing.
     The size of the hand is determined genetically. Tendons cannot be stretched. This is not to say that we can't learn to use what we have without abusing it. Speaking of abuse, one contributor shared that he derived benefit from Dohnanyi exercises. Do you know the ones? The pianist is asked to hold down certain notes and lift other fingers away from the hand. This pianist feels he derives a "certain kind of overall limberness that's hard to describe." I suspect he can't describe it because he can't relate it to piano playing.
     Another writer felt moved to compare what pianists do with athletic training, claiming that "piano playing is above all else a motor skill." Well, I don't argue against that. But he goes on to explain that the refined motor skills we need at the piano are the same as what athletes use, suggesting that stretching and building strength are also part of the pianist's catechism. He could not be persuaded that athletes train large muscle groups for strength and endurance, whereas pianists train for refined physical coordination.
Alicia de la Rocha
     Alicia de la Rocha, the distinguished, diminutive pianist of the Spanish persuasion entered the discussion by way of support for the idea of stretching. Someone claiming to know whereof he spoke stated that de la Rocha stretched her tiny hand so that it could reach a tenth, enabling her to play Rachmaninoff and other giants. Well, I don't know what she did. But she herself stated that she was blessed with a wide space between thumb and index finger and an extra long fifth finger, enabling her to reach a tenth despite having a small hand. 
   So, don't waste time and energy and risk injury by stretching and pulling your fingers. Use them according to their design in the way that produces maximum results with the least amount of effort. 

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