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 Post subject: 'Bracing' of fingers, a limiting factor?
PostPosted: Wed Jan 23, 2013 1:57 am 
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As a child learning the piano I had always been asked to 'curve my fingers' from the beginning, which was in the teacher's definition, having a fixed position of the hand where the midsection of fingers are constantly bent. Thus I played from the nails. Given the casual nature of my education and my general antipathy to piano during my teenage years, I had never questioned this (and neither did my teacher!) for it seemed efficient and simple enough for ABRSM piano literature (before grade 8). I did feel rather tensed up most of the time, but nothing that really felt like a technical hinderance, other than things like trills and ornaments which could be flubbed (did not really care about musical considerations).

However, problems started to arise when I regained interest in music and moved on to slightly more difficult things, where my fingers did not seem to be as consistently rapid as I willed them to be. The constant tension of the fingers seemed now to restrict my movements, causing frequent slips and a rather poor mileage out of practice sessions (when it came to things like gradually increasing the playing speed of such a piece whose notes are already known). Examples include intermediate literature like the last movement of the Pathetique Sonata, the lead up to the B section in Debussy's First Arabesque, and the stretto of the Chopin Nocturne Op.55 No. 1, where I could not reach the desired tempo without compromising on musical considerations or consistency.

Recently, an acquaintance of mine, who had already gotten an FTCL diploma, commented on the above while we were trying out a 8-handed piece with a few others, saying that such bracing created tension at the back of the hand and was all-around limiting. She advised relaxation of the forearm, a concentration of 'weight' on the wrist, and using the fingers in such a way that there was a straightened finger from the knuckle to the key during an attack, in effect playing from firm fingertips, falling down due to gravity. All of this tension-relaxation stuff was rather baffling and revelatory at the same time to me, since no one had ever told me about this before, nor had I paid much attention to it! And now I'm wondering what to do with the piano, with regards to changing the way I had played the piano for 13+ years.

Has anyone undergone this phase before, from bracing to the above method of playing? Are there any tips for me to make the transition easier? Or is bracing actually 'okay', with the difficulties I feel able to be overcome with time? (thought this originally, but it seems rather unlikely now).


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 Post subject: Re: 'Bracing' of fingers, a limiting factor?
PostPosted: Wed Jan 23, 2013 3:58 am 
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Location: Springfield, Missouri, USA
Affinity,
There are different schools of technique (and pianist examples) regarding this question, and they are valued differently depending where you come from pedagogically. I will tell you that both Joseph Lhevinne, Rosina Lhevinne and Ernest Hutcheson all taught that the fingers should maintain an open natural curve (as if you held a baseball in your hand) where the finger moved ONLY from the metacarpophalageal joints (the BIG knuckles of the hand). This shape (a curve) is naturally very strong, but is not instinctively "natural" and must be acquired with careful training. Other approaches are more instinctively natural and do not fuss with finger shape and movement. (In my training, I had to give attention to the shape of even fingers that were NOT playing, or the path through space that my thumb took between played notes). I introduced a thread on relaxation that you may find interesting at
viewtopic.php?f=18&t=4759&hilit=+relaxation
Regarding "weight" that is demonstrated by dropping of some of the playing apparatus on to the keybed (with gravity), I would only observe that one cannot drop on every note, so the idea becomes more about transferring a "pressing weight" to successive fingers/notes. Personally, I would avoid any attempt to acquire a "straight-finger" technique as misguided. There is allowed only one great pianist per universe who may use straight-finger technique, and that was Horowitz for our universe (Horrible technique, but incomperable ability and capacity despite it.) Or that's my opinion anyway.
Good luck.

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"A smattering will not do. They must know all the keys, major and minor, and they must literally 'know them backwards.'" - Josef Lhevinne


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 Post subject: Re: 'Bracing' of fingers, a limiting factor?
PostPosted: Sat Jan 26, 2013 3:51 am 
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musical-md,

Thanks for your reply. It's somewhat comforting to learn that there are many valid ways of playing the piano, though by watching most pianists that perform they often use the 'open natural curve' technique. Perhaps more general solutions such as keeping the hand and forehand relaxed (as you mentioned) is key enough for the immediate problem.


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 Post subject: Re: 'Bracing' of fingers, a limiting factor?
PostPosted: Sat Jan 26, 2013 4:42 am 
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Well, obviously you need some curvature of the fingers to prevent splayed fingers, or an S-curve (what I call "squashy knuckles" with my young students) in which the smallest knuckle bends backward. But it sounds like you were taught the opposite extreme.

When I was re-trained after an injury (tendonitis and a ganglion cyst due to overuse of the wrong muscles while playing) I learned the "open natural curve" as well. Weight and relaxation were important too. Basically the idea is that your hand is in the shape of an arched bridge where the big knuckles are the summit of the bridge. There is only enough tension to hold the arch in place, no more. Fingers that wish to play should press down, allowing the weight of the hand to rest on the "bottom" of the key through the playing finger(s). Fingers that do not wish to play should remain relaxed in the bridge shape. At no time should the fingers lift. The strongest muscles of the hand, and gravity, are designed to press down, not to lift up, and pressing down is how we play the piano. The action of the piano is sufficient to allow the key to come up when the finger is relaxed and not actively pressing down. If we need to lift in order to create a loud accent or a "drop" onto a key for the sake of articulation, lifting should be done from the wrist or arm, not the fingers.

Tension of any sort is a limiting factor. The same teacher taught me to think of what work I am doing with every movement. Pressing down with playing fingers is useful work because it makes a sound. Tension in non-playing fingers is not useful: it is work that doesn't accomplish anything. Maintaining constant tension in your hand is probably work that doesn't accomplish anything. It takes up muscular energy and it doesn't help make sound. If you can devote the time to eliminating this unnecessary commitment of resources you will find you are freed up to do other things, including moving faster.

This kind of re-training takes serious investment. I spent my first semester of college only playing exercises. Press down one note and then relax.... press down one note and then relax....
But what a fantastic payoff.


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 Post subject: Re: 'Bracing' of fingers, a limiting factor?
PostPosted: Sat Jan 26, 2013 6:45 pm 
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hreichgott wrote:
Well, obviously you need some curvature of the fingers to prevent splayed fingers, or an S-curve (what I call "squashy knuckles" with my young students) in which the smallest knuckle bends backward. But it sounds like you were taught the opposite extreme.

When I was re-trained after an injury (tendonitis and a ganglion cyst due to overuse of the wrong muscles while playing) I learned the "open natural curve" as well. Weight and relaxation were important too. Basically the idea is that your hand is in the shape of an arched bridge where the big knuckles are the summit of the bridge. There is only enough tension to hold the arch in place, no more. Fingers that wish to play should press down, allowing the weight of the hand to rest on the "bottom" of the key through the playing finger(s). Fingers that do not wish to play should remain relaxed in the bridge shape. At no time should the fingers lift. The strongest muscles of the hand, and gravity, are designed to press down, not to lift up, and pressing down is how we play the piano. The action of the piano is sufficient to allow the key to come up when the finger is relaxed and not actively pressing down. If we need to lift in order to create a loud accent or a "drop" onto a key for the sake of articulation, lifting should be done from the wrist or arm, not the fingers.

Tension of any sort is a limiting factor. The same teacher taught me to think of what work I am doing with every movement. Pressing down with playing fingers is useful work because it makes a sound. Tension in non-playing fingers is not useful: it is work that doesn't accomplish anything. Maintaining constant tension in your hand is probably work that doesn't accomplish anything. It takes up muscular energy and it doesn't help make sound. If you can devote the time to eliminating this unnecessary commitment of resources you will find you are freed up to do other things, including moving faster.

This kind of re-training takes serious investment. I spent my first semester of college only playing exercises. Press down one note and then relax.... press down one note and then relax....
But what a fantastic payoff.


Hello, Heather (as this is the fisrt time I write to you after you joined!). You seem to be the only pianist I have met so far who seems to have been taught just what I was taught also. I could always (and still can) for hours and never feel anything whatsoever, except satisfaction. I would add that the arm must also be relaxed, all tension passing from the shoulder staight to the hand. The wight is not only that of the hand that presses down, but of the whole arm. I have also found out that an ever-so-slight rolling (left to right and vice-versa) movement of the wrist helps to gain speed, as this allows the fingers to press the notes without been lifted at all. There is also an arm movement, where the elbow moves away from the body that also helps gain velocity.

I use these techniques for all sorts of things, including typing at the computer and making bread, so I can knead for 30 minutes and feel nothing at all!

I was getting some tendonitis some time ago, but that, I found out, was from pressing the buttons of the mouse!

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Richard Willmer
"Please do not shoot the pianist
He is doing his best."
Oscar Wilde: Impressions of America: Leadville


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 Post subject: Re: 'Bracing' of fingers, a limiting factor?
PostPosted: Sun Jan 27, 2013 3:42 am 
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Hello Richard,

Thanks for the good word. The teacher who retrained me was this genius:
http://new.oberlin.edu/conservatory/faculty/faculty-detail.dot?id=21227
Perhaps your teacher shares a similar background or influences. Or maybe, as with so many things, different people discovered the most efficient way to do something independently of one another. We have the human body in common after all :)

I have not been as attentive to arm movement as to hand and fingers, but I am sure you are right in what you say. My current teacher (I recently restarted lessons in adulthood) says that a return to Czerny is in my imminent future together with some arm "choreography" for each exercise. I am interested to see what is in store.


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 Post subject: Re: 'Bracing' of fingers, a limiting factor?
PostPosted: Sun Jan 27, 2013 9:26 pm 
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Relaxing at the piano is something I struggle with and of which I often need to be reminded. I'm glad you all are talking about it now. :D

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 Post subject: Re: 'Bracing' of fingers, a limiting factor?
PostPosted: Sun Jan 27, 2013 11:38 pm 
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I must say it is a struggle for me to practise that which I was taught, but when I do it is wonderful: there is total control of mind over fingers and the latter will do anything the former wants to and not even thay little devil that keeps whispering, "you are going to hit the wrong note!" only gets as a reply from the little anglel on the other side, "No way!"

My biggest struggle is to keep right pinkie down. It tends to panic in difficult passages and tries to run away (it goes into the air!) and that is where it all goes wrong. I notice it happening even when the daunting passage is in the left hand. If I practise the passage looking at my right hand (which also means memorising it), making sure it stays put, it seems not to recurr.

Heather, I was taught these things by my one and only teacher. She studied at the Paris Conservatoire and I believe that is where she learnt this.

Monica, the only pain which was permissible was a slight one in the muscle opposite the thumb and that commands the fifth finger in passages where the melody is carried by it (such as in Schubert's Improptu op 90/1) and even there it was recommended to stop and start again. After that muscle is strong even it will not hurt.

Another intersting this is " finger-warming". Whenever in class I would say that my fingers were cold I was told, "Very good! that means you are using your wrist and your fingers are performomng the minimum movement possible."

I really need to write down my experiences of this musical Nirvana.

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Richard Willmer
"Please do not shoot the pianist
He is doing his best."
Oscar Wilde: Impressions of America: Leadville


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 Post subject: Re: 'Bracing' of fingers, a limiting factor?
PostPosted: Mon Jan 28, 2013 10:17 am 
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@heather, richard

Thanks for your replies, but how did you manage to curtail the 'bad habits' that you had before adopting this 'open natural curve' technique? If you were to elucidate what simple relaxation exercises you have done while adopting this technique in brief, it would be definitely worth a shot, because from your descriptions this state sounds reminiscent of paradise. Instinctively my fingers tense up while playing passages (especially the fifth) and doing simple things like turning my thumb over or using my third finger rapidly (e.g trills, tremolos, etc., eventually flailing and causing very irritating mistakes.

Perhaps I should have tea with my former teacher and ask her what was up with her teaching of playing by the nails. There might be a good pedagogical reasons, but if there are, she didn't really follow through sadly.

@monica,

Yeah, this relaxation thing is kind of irritating. Learning a piece or a etude through dogged practice can be done with patience, but to deal with such limiting factors that form the core of your piano playing is urgh. I think it's really an essential question to ask for most.


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 Post subject: Re: 'Bracing' of fingers, a limiting factor?
PostPosted: Mon Jan 28, 2013 10:41 am 
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For my part I cannot speak of "before", as this has been my technique all along. I will say, though, that for the fisrt six months I played the piano without a teacher, which was not really long enough to cause any trouble. When I took lessons the teacher did tell me to stop playing for a week and to limit myself to a couple of Czerny exercises and some finger work which could be done away from the piano. These consisted of placing one hand at time on the leys c-d-e-f-g and depressing them, pretending there is a a ball being held in the cup of the hand and then lift each finger 5 times, then lift two fingers in alternation and so on.

In the end what helps relxation is not technique: it is confidence. It helps this confidence when you know your music thoroughly and are free from even the minutest doubts concerning fingering. This is to say that not only is the music memorised (in the head and not in the fingers) but the fingering that you use.

Have you ever tried to play the music in your head, away from the piano? You might notice the same flubs and hesitations will crop up even if your hands are still. Once you cam play it mentally at the speed you want it transfers easily to the fingers, because it is the brain, and not the fingers, who is in command.

Another point to consider is: is the fingering adequate for speed? Very often a perfectly workable fingering will prove impossible at speed, as I have often found out. I find that rapid scale passages where the thumb is involved are at times dubious. I also find that certain types of articulation cannot be payed at speed.

I was practising some Rautavaara, where he asks for a fast passage to be played with a type of staccato. To me it was impossible, so I was curious to see what a pianist who recorded it recently would cope with this indication. Answer: by slowing down the speed.

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"Please do not shoot the pianist
He is doing his best."
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 Post subject: Re: 'Bracing' of fingers, a limiting factor?
PostPosted: Mon Jan 28, 2013 2:25 pm 
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Location: Edinburgh, Scotland
Affinity wrote:
Perhaps I should have tea with my former teacher and ask her what was up with her teaching of playing by the nails.
When you say "playing by the nails" do you mean that the fingernails actually touch they keys? I don't think they ever should (except in glissando), for several reasons and not just because it would make a distracting clicking sound. If only the nails made contact, they would slide around on the polished key surfaces like skates on ice. To prevent this, the player would either make the fingers tense up and rigidify more than is good for them, or change the contact angle to tilt the nails out of the way. Such tensing is certainly bad, and while decreasing the angle is sometimes good, doing so only to keep the nails away can't be a good thing. If both nails and balls of the fingertips touch, the nails will be (somewhat painfully) pushed either up and along the finger (when vertical) or away from it (when slanted). Either way it spoils the tactile feedback. That's why most pianists cut (or bite :wink: ) their nails fairly short. In normal playing, then, only the balls of the fingers should touch the keys.

I think both curved and straighter finger positions have their place; the former is more general-purpose and suited to playing powerfully, exploiting the inherent rigidity of the curvature (as in architectural arches), the latter is apparently (as Chang says in his book) better suited to fast passage work, but should not be over-used since it is apt, particularly when playing powerfully, to degenerate into what Heather calls "squashed knuckles" or what my teacher used to liken to "spider legs".
Quote:
There might be a good pedagogical reasons, but if there are, she didn't really follow through sadly.
Because the straighter position seems more natural to beginners, I guess it's pedagogically better to "force" them to play curved first, since this habit is easier to acquire when you start than later on. Once the curved habit has firmly established itself, a pupil may be "permitted" to straighten the fingers up a little, when necessary.


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 Post subject: Re: 'Bracing' of fingers, a limiting factor?
PostPosted: Mon Jan 28, 2013 3:17 pm 
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rainer wrote:
... or what my teacher used to liken to "spider legs".

I used to be told to be careful with the spider. :D

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"Please do not shoot the pianist
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 Post subject: Re: 'Bracing' of fingers, a limiting factor?
PostPosted: Mon Jan 28, 2013 3:30 pm 
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Jonathan - trills have always been a problem for me too. Some days they go okay, and some days they don't. I know it all depends on how relaxed I am. Difficult passages too. And then of course it also depends on the level of difficulty of the piece. Yesterday I practiced for five hours and I didn't feel tired at all; the pieces are not too advanced.

Regarding curved versus straight fingers....there are times when I have to use a straight finger. It's when making fast jumps down on the low notes, like when playing Gershwin.

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 Post subject: Re: 'Bracing' of fingers, a limiting factor?
PostPosted: Mon Jan 28, 2013 3:54 pm 
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You use a straight finger to make jumps? :shock: Tendonitis, here I come!

You might like to check when you are playing the trills just to make sure you are actually using the same fingering that you practised. This might sound odd, but a lot of the time when the time for action comes any old finger that happens to be loafing around gets drafted.

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"Please do not shoot the pianist
He is doing his best."
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 Post subject: Re: 'Bracing' of fingers, a limiting factor?
PostPosted: Mon Jan 28, 2013 4:16 pm 
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richard66 wrote:
You use a straight finger to make jumps? :shock: Tendonitis, here I come!

You might like to check when you are playing the trills just to make sure you are actually using the same fingering that you practised. This might sound odd, but a lot of the time when the time for action comes any old finger that happens to be loafing around gets drafted.


Yes, if they are loud and fast. I'm thinking specifically about Gershwin's first prelude. I actually use three fingers on that one low key - my 2nd, 3rd, and 4th finger. That's not unusual - I've seen lots of pianists do this.

Trills - yes I usually do know what fingers I'm going to use. It's just a matter of how nervous I am about them and how relaxed I can stay.

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my videos: http://www.youtube.com/user/monicapiano


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