A Closer Look at Fingering

...muscles and the mind.

If you have landed on this article specifically to read about fingering rather than just a general read, then I recommend this article first which is similar in theme but different in content.  Once done, come back here for desert.

It is one thing to know your major scales perfectly; you have absolutely authority at the piano musically speaking.  It is another to understand the Mind Triangle and be aware of your Musical Personality; you are aware of the negative impacts of the Ego, how to silence it and how to play You.  It is something completely different to understand the physical machine, the Body, which operates as programmed and instructed.


This is a useful, associated video

Proper maintenance and understanding of any machine, biological or mechanical, is paramount if anything produced is to be at least of the quality expected.  Herein, we look at the fingers' tendons, hand and arm muscles as well as the philosophical notion that one does not possess five fingers on each hand but ten fingers 'in total', to be used as and when are required to fulfil whatever the musical demand may be.

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Despite ultimately playing the piano 'with the fingers', what is in fact happening is that the fingers are actually at the end of a pretty complex line of events taking place simultaneously every microsecond starting, physiologically speaking, from the upper region of the forearm; just below the elbow, in other words.  A collection of muscles, nerves, bones and tendons are all working beyond your conscious control and medical understanding to strike piano keys in multiple ways to produce the sounds you desire so much.

The problem for pianists so often comes from the fact that they want to be in absolute control of every component of every process during every microsecond, even if they don't use these exact words.  The result is frustration and impatience, even physical injury through excessive repetition, because the Ego is simply unsatisfied with the results and time taken.

It must be understood, as any qualified fitness expert or medical professional will tell you, that the only way you will be able to use your hands at all, let alone play the piano, is to maintain muscle strength and tendon flexibility using very regular, gentle exercises.

Pianists are, by nature, using muscles and tendon flexing movements which are uncommon to the non-pianists' daily movements.  Most of us pick up pens, hold handles, drive and type on keyboards, all requiring relatively similar, undemanding muscle and tendon feats but as soon soon as you come to a piano, all kinds of movements, bends, stretches, tilting, alternations and pressures are suddenly required and, through no fault of our own, we have simply never strengthened these muscles or stretched the fingers' tendons in such a way as to achieve what is expected of us at the piano.

Because of this, many pianists have problems playing the major scales using various combinations of fingers, at different speeds, with the eyes closed and simulatenously.  The major scales are beyond compare the most important musical foundation one can ever have.  Do master the major scales; I am not joking.

The infamous fingering problem is two-fold:  physical and mental.  A pianist should by nature be utterly infatuated by the anatomy of the hand and forearm just as much as by the way the mind is able to master technique away from the piano without almost any physical involvement whatsoever.  Strenghtening the muscles and flexing the tendons, learning about the muscle groups and connections all throughout the arm and hand as well as taking some quiet time out every day to enhance the internal piano will produce a formidable pianist indeed.

Some people are born with the fingers on their hands incorrectly located; even numbered.  This poses no problem in playing the piano.  Based on this fact, You, too, must see yourself as having ten fingers.  The fact they are divided five/five is irrelevent.  Each finger must be trained individually, flexed individually and worked up to the level of every other finger so that you have what I often call an army of ten soldiers, whereby each one is prepared for battle (the piece of music) before the battle rather than during the battle.  Each works with every other and not one soldier is left behind.  Playing with the eyes closed both at and away from the piano is the only way this philosophy may be applied to your own benefit.

The piano can be used both musically and unmusically.  By musically, it is quite obvious what is meant but unmusically may be a new concept to you.  Put simply, if you pool together everything that has ever been written on the piano for the past 300 years, you will be able to create so many 'technique groups' and so many 'note combination groups' that no lifetime could be long enough to go through them all.

In those groups, techniques and combinations which are much more common than others would be found such as major scale passages, arpeggios, repetitive notes, chromatic movements, chord inversions and leaps beyond an octave span, not to mention the range of dynamic markings and pedalling instructions!  So... why not spend our time 'unmusically' on just a few random notes, our eyes closed, allowing the fingers and hands to find their most natural way at tackling these demands?

For example, let us say that we pulled ouf of the bag a technique requiring us to alternatthe F# and G with our index and middle finger respectively, with the thumb playing the Eb to the left and the ring finger playing the Bb to the right in the following pattern:  G, F#, G, Bb, G, F#, G, Eb, then repeat as quickly as possible; each time, however, the Eb and Bb notes must be played louder, thus struck with more force than the centre two notes.

If you try this now on the piano, you will either be able to do it quite quickly from the get go or it will take you some time but you will get it eventually... or you fingers will behave as if they have downed a few bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Now, try it in your mind.  If you can play it with ease on the piano, you will find that it is very easy to visualise in your mind; that's because the same part of the brain which stores the ability physically is the same place you are imagining it take place, just minus the electrical impulses to move the fingers required.

If you cannot play it with ease on the piano, you will not be able to visualise it in your mind either for exactly the same reason as above.  However, for both groups, whether you can play it or not, this is not at all about music but about the mental: visualisation ability, and the physical: tendon flexibility and forearm strength.

Of those who can execute this, I wonder how many times and at what metronome speed?  Results will vary wildly.  This is exactly why one would do well to use the piano unmusically, to monitor progress of your daily tendon and forearm exercise developments and your internal piano enhancement.

No matter what your difficult, be it two hands simulatenous or having a particular issue with just one of the major scales, make sure you know it perfectly in your mind and then make sure you have spent a good amount of time working on those forearm and finger stretches.  Only then should you approach the piano unmusically to give a training ground for your fingers and mind to work together upon the keys.  Closed eyes allow you to feel what happens naturally and since every hand is different, comparison is futile.

Then, when it comes to performing a full piece, you will be quite amazed at your power, control, authority and precision.

Remember, the piano is just an empty box of wood and strings; it takes a controlled mind and strong, trained body to give it life.  Of course, it helps if you spend time learning pieces you enjoy, too, and always stay true to your own ambitions without compairing your progress to others.

Michelangelo, the great Rennaissance Master, offers some excellent advice that I advise you to take away from the article if nothing else: "The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark".  In other words, keep striving in the knowledge that you will never arrive; just enjoy the journey as you go.

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