4. Hand, Finger, Body Motions for Technique¶
a. Hand Motions¶
Certain hand motions are required in order to acquire technique. For example we discussed parallel sets above, but did not specify what types of hand motions are needed to play them. It is important to emphasize from the start that the required hand motions can be extremely small, almost imperceptible. After you have become expert, you can exaggerate them to any extent you desire. Thus during a concert by any famous performer, most of the hand motions will not be discernible (they also tend to happen too fast for the audience to catch) so that most of the visible motions are exaggerations or irrelevant. Thus two performers, one with apparently still hands, and one with flair and aplomb, may in fact be using the same hand motions of the type we discuss here. The major hand motions are pronation and supination, thrust (or push) and pull, claw and throw, flick, and wrist motions. They are almost always combined into more complex motions. Note that they always come in pairs (there is a right and left flick, and similarly for wrist motions). They are also the major natural motions of the hands and fingers.
All finger motions must be supported by the major muscles of the arms, the shoulder blades in the back, and the chest muscles in front that are anchored to the center of the chest. The slightest twitch of the finger, therefore, involves all of these muscles. There is no such thing as moving only one finger – any finger motion involves the entire body. Stress reduction is important for relaxing these muscles so that they can respond to, and assist in, the movement of the fingertips. The major hand motions are discussed only briefly here; for more details, please consult the references (Fink or Sandor, and Mark for anatomy).
Pronation and Supination: The hand can be rotated around the axis of the forearm. The inward rotation (thumbs downward) is called pronation and the outward rotation (thumbs upward) is called supination. These motions come into play, for example, when playing octave tremolos. There are two bones in your forearm, the inside bone (radius, connecting to the thumb) and the outside bone (ulna, connecting to the pinky). Hand rotation occurs by rotation of the inner bone against the outer one (hand position referenced to that of the piano player with palm facing down). The outer bone is held in position by the upper arm. Therefore, when the hand is rotated, the thumb moves much more than the pinky. A quick pronation is a good way to play the thumb. For playing the octave tremolo, moving the thumb is easy, but the pinky can only be moved quickly using a combination of motions. Thus the problem of playing fast octave tremolos boils down to solving the problem of how to move the pinky. The octave tremolo is played by moving the pinky with the upper arm and the thumb with the forearm (combined with the finger motions).
Thrust and Pull: Thrust is a pushing motion, towards the fallboard, usually accompanied by a slightly rising wrist. With curved fingers, the thrust motion causes the vector force of the hand moving forward to be directed along the bones of the fingers. This adds control and power. It is therefore useful for playing chords. The pull is a similar motion away from the fallboard. In these motions, the total motion can be larger than or smaller than the vector component downward (the key drop), allowing for greater control. Thrust is one of the main reasons why the standard finger position is curved. Try playing any large chord with many notes, first lowering the hand straight down as in a gravity drop, then using the thrust motion. Note the superior results with the thrust. Pull is useful for some legato and soft passages. Thus, when practicing chords, always experiment with adding some thrust or pull.
Claw and Throw: Claw is moving your fingertips into your palm and throw is opening the fingers out to their straight position. Many students do not realize that, in addition to moving the fingertips up and down, they can also be moved in and out to play. These are useful additional motions. They add greater control, especially for legato and soft passages, as well as for playing staccato. Like the thrust and pull, these motions allow a larger motion with a smaller keydrop. Thus, instead of always trying to lower the fingers straight down for the key drop, try experimenting with some claw or throw action to see if it will help. Note that the claw movement is much more natural and easier to conduct than a straight down. The straight down motion of the fingertip is actually a complex combination of a claw and a throw. The key drop action can sometimes be simplified by flaring the fingers out flat and playing with only a small claw movement. This is why you can sometimes play better with flat fingers than curved.
Flick: The flick is one of the most useful motions. It is a quick rotation and counter- rotation of the hand; a fast pronation-supination combination, or its reverse. We have seen that parallel sets can be played at almost any speed. When playing fast passages, the problem of speed arises when we need to connect parallel sets. There is no single solution to this connection problem. The one motion that comes closest to a universal solution is the flick, especially when the thumb is involved, as in scales and arpeggios. Single flicks can be conducted extremely quickly with zero stress, thus adding to the speed of play; however, quick flicks need to be “re-loaded”; i.e., continuous fast flicks is difficult. But this is quite suitable for connecting parallel sets because the flick can be used to play the conjunction and then be re-loaded during the parallel set. To re-emphasize what was pointed out at the beginning of this section, these flicks and other motions do not need to be large and are in general imperceptibly small; thus the flick can be considered more as a momentum flick than an actual motion.
Wrist Motion: We already saw that the wrist motion is useful whenever the thumb or pinky is played; the general rule is to raise the wrist for the pinky and lower it to play the thumb. Of course, this is not a hard rule; there are plenty of exceptions. The wrist motion is also useful in combination with other motions. By combining wrist motion with pronation- supination, you can create rotary motions for playing repetitive passages such as LH accompaniments, or the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. The wrist can be moved both up and down, and side-to-side. Every effort should be made such that the playing finger is parallel to the forearm; this is accomplished with the side-to-side wrist motion. This configuration puts the least amount of lateral stress on the tendons moving the fingers and reduces the chances of injuries such as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. If you find yourself habitually playing (or typing) with the wrist cocked at a sideways angle, this may be a warning sign to expect trouble. A loose wrist is also a pre-requisite for total relaxation.
In summary, the above is a brief review of hand motions. An entire book can be written on this subject. And we did not even touch on the topics of adding other motions of the elbow, upper arm, shoulders, body, feet, etc. The student is encouraged to research this topic as much as possible because it can only help. The motions discussed above are seldom used alone. Parallel sets can be played with any combination of most of the above motions without even moving a finger (relative to the hand). This was what was meant, in the HS practice section, with the recommendation to experiment with and to economize the hand motions. Knowledge of each type of motion will allow the student to try each one separately to see which is needed. It is in fact the key to the ultimate in technique.
b. Playing with Flat Fingers¶
We noted in 2. Finger Positions that the starting finger shape for learning the piano is the partially curled position. Many teachers teach the curled position as the “correct” position for playing the piano, and that the flat position is somehow wrong. However, V. Horowitz demonstrated that the flat, or straight, finger position is very useful. Here we discuss why the flat finger position is not only useful but is also an essential part of technique and all accomplished pianists use it.
We will initially define “Flat Finger Position” (FFP) as the one in which the fingers are stretched straight out from the hands, in order to simplify the discussions. We will later generalize this definition to mean specific types of “non-curled” positions; those positions are important because they are part of the finger position repertoire you need to become a complete pianist.
The most important advantages of the FFP are that it simplifies the finger motion and allows complete relaxation; that is, the number of muscles needed to control the finger motion is smaller than in the curled position because all you have to do is to pivot the entire finger around the knuckle. In the curled position, each finger must uncurl by just the right amount every time it hits a note, in order to maintain the correct finger angle to the key top surface. The motion of the FFP uses only the main muscles needed to depress the keys. Practicing the FFP can improve technique because you are exercising only the most relevant muscles and nerves. In order to demonstrate the complexity of the curled position, try the following experiment. First, stretch the forefinger of your RH out straight (FFP) and wiggle it up and down rapidly as you would when playing the piano. Now, keep this wiggling motion and gradually curl the finger in as far as you can. You will find that, as you curl the finger, it becomes more difficult to wiggle the fingertip until it becomes impossible when completely curled. I have named this phenomenon “curl paralysis”. If you do succeed in moving the fingertip, you can only do it very slowly compared to the straight position because you need to use a whole new set of muscles. In fact, the easiest way to move the fingertip rapidly in the completely curled position is to move the entire hand.
Therefore, with the curled position, you need more skill to play at the same speed compared to the FFP. Contrary to the beliefs of many pianists, you can play faster with FFP than with the curled position because any amount of curl will invite a certain amount of curl paralysis. This becomes particularly important when the speed and/or lack of technique produces stress while practicing something difficult. The amount of stress is greater in the curled position and this difference can be sufficient to create a speed wall.
There are discussions in the literature (Jaynes, Chapter 6), in which it is claimed that the lumbrical and interossei muscles are important in piano playing, but there is no research to support these claims, and it is not known whether these muscles play a part in FFP. It is generally believed that these muscles are used mainly to control the curvature of the fingers, so that FFP uses only the muscles in the arms to move the fingers and the lumbricals simply hold the fingers in position (curled or FFP), thus simplifying the movement and allowing for greater control and speed for FFP. Thus there is uncertainty today about whether the lumbricals enable higher speed or whether they cause curl paralysis.
Although the FFP is simpler, all beginners should learn the curled position first and not learn the flat position until it is needed. If beginners start with the easier FFP, they will never really learn the curled position well. Beginners who try to play fast with the flat position are likely to use fixed phase parallel set playing instead of finger independence. This leads to loss of control and uneven speeds. Once these bad habits are formed, it is difficult to learn finger independence. For this reason, many teachers forbid their students to play with flat fingers, which is a terrible mistake. Sandor calls the FFPs “wrong positions” but Fink recommends certain positions that are clearly FFPs (we will discuss several different FFPs below). Trills often require the curled position because of their complex nature.
Most pianists who learn on their own use mostly FFPs. Very young children (below 4 years of age) usually have difficulty curling their fingers. For this reason, jazz pianists use FFPs more than classical pianists (because many were initially self-taught), and classical teachers correctly point out that early jazz pianists had inferior technique. In fact, early jazz had much less technical difficulty than classical music. However, this lack of technique resulted from a lack of instruction, not because they used FFPs. Thus FFPs are nothing new and are quite intuitive (not all intuitive things are bad) and are a natural way to play; after all, the thumb is always played FFP! Therefore, the road to good technique is a careful balance between practicing with curled fingers and knowing when to use the FFPs. What is new in this section is the concept that the curled position is not inherently superior and that FFPs are a necessary part of advanced technique.
The 4th finger is particularly problematic for most people. Part of this difficulty arises from the fact that it is the most awkward finger to lift, which makes it difficult to play fast and avoid hitting extraneous notes inadvertently. These problems are compounded in the curled position because of the complexity of motion and curl paralysis. In the simplified flat finger configuration, these difficulties are reduced and the 4th finger becomes more independent and easier to lift. If you place your hand on a flat surface in the curled position and lift the 4th finger, it will go up a certain distance; now if you repeat the same procedure with the FFP, that fingertip will go up twice as far. Therefore, it is easier to lift the fingers, and particularly the 4th finger, in the FFP. The ease of lifting reduces the stress when playing fast. Also, when trying to play difficult passages fast using the curled position, some fingers (especially fingers 4 and 5) will sometimes curl too much creating even more stress and the need to fling these fingers out in order to play a note. These problems can be eliminated by using FFP.
Another advantage of the FFP is that it increases your reach because the fingers are stretched out straighter. For this reason, most pianists (especially those with small hands) already use the flat position for playing wide chords, etc., often without realizing it. However, such people can feel “guilty” about the lack of curl and try to incorporate as much curl as possible, creating stress.
Yet another advantage of the FFP is that the fingers are pressing the keys with the pads of the fingers instead of the fingertips. This fleshy pad is more sensitive to touch, and there is less interference from the fingernails. When people touch anything to feel it, they always use this part of the finger, not the fingertip. This extra cushion and sensitivity can provide better feel and control, and greater protection against injury. For the curled position, the fingers are coming down almost vertically to the key surfaces so that you are playing with the fingertips where there is the least amount of cushion between the bone and key top. If you injured the fingertips by practicing too hard using the curled position, you can give the fingertips a rest by using the FFP. Two types of injuries can occur at the fingertip when using the curled position and both injuries can be avoided using FFP. The first is simple bruising from too much pounding. The second is the detachment of the flesh from under the fingernail, which frequently results from cutting the fingernails too short. This second type of injury is dangerous because it can lead to painful infections. Even if you have fairly long fingernails, you can still play using the FFP.
More importantly, with FFP, you can play the black keys using most of the large underside areas of the fingers; this large surface area can be used to avoid missing the black keys that are easy to miss in the curled position because they are so narrow. For fast passages and large chords, play the black keys with FFP and the white keys with curled fingers; this can greatly increase your speed and accuracy.
When the fingers are stretched out flat, you can reach further back towards the fallboard. In this position, it requires a little more force to depress the keys because of the lower leverage resulting from the shorter distance to the key bushing (at the balance rail pin).
The resulting (effectively) heavier key weight will allow you to play softer PP. Thus the ability to move closer to the key bushing results in the ability to increase the effective key weight. The heavier key weight allows more control and softer pianissimo. Although the change in key weight is small, this effect is greatly magnified at high speed. Others argue that the tips of the keys give you more leverage so that you gain more control for PP. Therefore, try both methods and see which one works best for you.
The FFP also allows louder fortissimo, especially for the black keys. There are two reasons. First, the area of the finger available for contact is larger and there is a thicker cushion, as explained above. Therefore, you can transmit a larger force with less chance of injury or pain. Second, the increased accuracy resulting from the larger contact area helps to produce a confident, authoritative, and reproducible fortissimo. In the curled position, the probability of missing or sliding off the narrow black keys is sometimes too scary for full fortissimo. Proponents of the curled position argue that the curled position is the only one strong enough to play the loudest fortissimo. This is false; athletes who do finger stands do so in FFP position, not the fingertips. In fact, pianists who over-practice using the curled position often suffer fingertip injury.
The ability to play fortissimo more easily suggests that the FFP can be more relaxing than the curled position. This turns out to be true, but there is an additional mechanism that increases the relaxation. With FFP, you can depend on the tendons under the finger bones to hold the fingers straight when you push down on the keys. That is, unlike the curled position, you need almost no effort to keep the fingers straight (when pressing down on the keys) because unless you are multiple jointed, the tendons on the palm side of the fingers prevent them from bending backwards. Therefore, when practicing FFP, learn to make use of these tendons to help you relax. Be careful when you first start using FFP for playing fortissimo. If you relax completely, you can risk injury to these tendons by hyper-extending them, especially for the pinky, because the pinky tendons are so small. If you start to feel pain, either stiffen the finger during key drop or stop the FFP and curl that finger. When playing fortissimo with curled fingers, you must control both the extensor and flexor muscles of every finger in order to keep them in the curled position. In the flat position, you can completely relax the extensor muscles and use only the flexor muscles, thus almost totally eliminating stress (which results from the two sets of muscles opposing each other), and simplifying the operation by over 50% when pressing the key down.
The best way to start practicing FFP is to practice the
B major scale. In
this scale, all fingers play the black keys except the thumb and pinky. Since
these two fingers do not generally play the black keys in runs, this is exactly
what you want to practice. The fingering for the RH is standard for this scale,
but the LH must start with the 4th finger on
B. You may want to read the
following section (5. Playing Fast: Scales, Arpeggios, and Chromatic Scales) on playing fast scales before going on with
this practice because you will need to know how to play thumb over and to use
the glissando motions, etc. By feeling the keys, you will never miss a single
note because you know where the keys are ahead of time. If one hand is weaker
than the other, this difference will show up more dramatically with flat
fingers. FFP reveals the technical skills/deficiencies more clearly because of
the difference in leverage (the fingers are effectively longer) and the fingers
are more sensitive. In that case, use the stronger hand to teach the weaker one
how to play. Practicing with flat fingers may be one of the quickest ways to
encourage the weaker hand to catch up to the other because you are working
directly with the main muscles relevant to technique.
If you encounter any difficulties playing the FFP, try the black key parallel
set exercises. Play all five black keys with the five fingers: the two-note
group with thumb and forefinger and the three-note group with the remaining
three fingers. Unlike the
B major scale, this exercise will also develop
the thumb and pinky. With this exercise (or with the B major scale), you can
experiment with all kinds of hand positions. Unlike the curled position, you
can play with the palm of the hand touching the surface of the white keys. You
can also raise the wrist so that the fingers actually bend backwards (opposite
to the curl direction), as in the cartwheel motion (e. Arpeggios (Chopin’s FI, Cartwheel Motion, Finger Splits)). There is
also an intermediate flat finger position in which the fingers remain straight,
but are bent down only at the knuckles. I call this the “pyramid” position
because the hand and fingers form a pyramid with the knuckles at the apex. This
pyramid position can be effective for very fast passages because it combines
the advantages of the curled and straight positions.
The usefulness of these various positions makes it necessary to expand the definition of “flat finger” playing. The straight FFP is an extreme case, and there are any number of variations of positions between the totally flat position and the curled position. In addition to the pyramid position, you can bend the fingers at the first joint from the knuckle. This will be called the “spider position”. The critical point here is that the last joint (closest to the fingernail) must be totally relaxed and allowed to straighten out when you press down on the key. Thus the generalized definition of FFP is that the third phalange is totally relaxed and straight. Phalange (also called phalanx; plural is always phalanges) is the name for the small bones beyond the knuckle; they are numbered 1-3 (thumb has only 1 and 2), and the 3rd phalange is the “nail phalange” for fingers 2-5. We shall call both the pyramid and spider positions “flat finger” positions because all three FFPs share two important properties: the third phalange of the finger is never curled and is always relaxed, and you play with the sensitive palm side of the fingertip (see Prokop, P.13-15 for FFP photos). From here on, we shall use this broader definition of FFP. Although the fingers are bent in many of these positions, we shall call them FFP to distinguish them from the curled position. Most of curl paralysis comes from bending the third phalange. This can be demonstrated by bending only the third phalange (if you can) and then trying to move that finger rapidly. Note that total relaxation of the third phalange is now part of the definition of FFP. The FFP simplifies the computation in the brain because you almost totally ignore the flexor muscle of the third phalange. That is 10 fewer flexor muscles to control, and these are particularly awkward and slow muscles; therefore, ignoring them can increase finger speed. We have arrived at the realization that the curled position is outright wrong for playing advanced material. The generalized flat finger position is what you need in order to play at the speeds needed by advanced players! However, as discussed below, there are certain situations in which you need to quickly curl certain individual fingers for reaching some white keys and to avoid poking the fallboard with your fingernails. The importance of the generalized FFP cannot be over-emphasized because it is one of the key elements of relaxation that is often entirely ignored.
The flat finger position gives much more control because the front pad of the fingertip is the most sensitive part of the finger, and the relaxed third phalange acts like a shock absorber. This enables you to feel the keys; in the automobile, the shock absorber not only smoothes the ride, buy also keeps the wheels on the road for better control. If you have difficulty bringing out the color in a composition, using the FFPs will make it easier. Playing with the fingertip using the curled position is like driving a car without shock absorbers, or playing a piano with worn hammers. The tone will tend to come out harsher. You are effectively restricted to one tone color. By using FFP, you can feel the keys better and control tone and color more easily. Because you can completely relax the third phalanges and also ignore some of the extensor muscles, the flat finger motions are simpler and you can play faster, especially for difficult material such as fast trills. We have therefore arrived at a most important general concept: we must liberate ourselves from the tyranny of the single fixed curled position. We must learn to use all of the available finger positions because each has its advantages.
You may want to lower the bench in order to be able to play with the flat part of the fingers. When the bench is lowered, it usually becomes necessary to move it farther away from the piano so as to provide enough room for the arms and elbows to move between the keyboard and the body. In other words, many pianists sit too high and too close to the piano, which is not noticeable when playing with curled fingers. Thus the FFPs will give you a more precise way to optimize the bench height and location. At these lower heights, the wrists, and even the elbows might sometimes fall below the level of the keyboard while you are playing; this is perfectly permissible. Sitting farther away from the piano also gives you more space to lean forwards in order to play fortissimo.
All the flat finger positions can be practiced on a table. For the totally flat position, simply place all the fingers and the palm flat on a table and practice lifting each finger independently of the others, especially finger 4. Practice the pyramid and spider positions by pressing down with the fleshy front pad of the fingertips contacting the table and completely relaxing the third phalange so that it actually bends backwards. For the pyramid position, this becomes something like a stretching exercise for all the flexor tendons, and the last 2 phalanges are relaxed. You may also find that FFP works very well when typing on a keyboard.
The 4th finger in general gives everybody problems and you can perform an
exercise to improve its independence using the spider position. At the piano,
place fingers 3 and 4 on
D#, and the remaining fingers on white
keys. Press down all five keys. The first exercise is to play finger 4,
lifting it as high as you can. In all these exercises, you must keep all the
non-playing fingers down. The second exercise is to play fingers 3 and 4
alternately (3,4,3,4,3,4, etc,), lifting 4 as high as you can, but lifting 3
only sufficiently to play the note, and keeping it always in contact with the
key top (quite difficult, especially if you try to speed this up). Most people
can lift the 4th finger highest in the spider position, indicating that this
may be the best position for general playing. During key drop, play finger 3
louder than 4 (accent on 3). Repeat using fingers 4 and 5, with the accent on 5
and keeping it on the key as much as possible. In the 3rd and final exercise,
play (3,4), (4,3), (5,4), and (4,5) parallel sets, with all the other fingers
fully depressing their keys. These exercises may seem difficult at first, but
you may be surprised at how quickly you will be able to play them after only a
few days; however, do not stop as soon as you can do them, practice until you
can do them very fast, with complete control and relaxation; otherwise they
won’t produce any benefits. These exercises simulate the difficult situation in
which you are playing fingers 3 and 5 while lifting 4 above the keys.
The extra reach, the large contact area, and the added cushion under the
fingers make FFP legato playing easier and different from legato using the
curled position. The FFP also makes it easier to play two notes with one
finger, especially because you can play with the fingers not parallel to the
keys and use a very large area under the finger to hold more than one key down.
Because Chopin was known for his legato, was good at playing several notes with
one finger, and recommended practicing the
B major scale, he probably used FFP.
Mlle. Combe, who was the initial inspiration for this book, taught FFP and
noted that it was particularly useful for playing Chopin. One legato trick she
taught was to start with FFP and then roll the finger into the curled position
so that the hand can move without lifting the finger off the key. The reverse
can also be done when moving down from black keys to the white keys.
You can demonstrate the usefulness of the FFP by applying it to anything that is giving you difficulty. For example, I was running into stress problems with speeding up Bach’s inventions because they require finger independence, especially fingers 3, 4, & 5. While practicing with the curled position only, I felt that I was beginning to build speed walls at a few places where I didn’t have enough finger independence. When I used FFP, they became much easier to play. This eventually allowed me to play at faster speeds and with greater control. The Bach Inventions are good pieces to use for practicing the FFPs, suggesting that Bach might have composed them with FFP in mind.
A discussion of FFP would be incomplete without discussing why you need the curled position, as well as some of its disadvantages. This position is not really an intentionally curled position but a relaxed position in which, for most people, there is a natural curl. For those whose relaxed position is too straight, they may need to add a slight curl in order to attain the ideal curled position. In this position, all the fingers contact the keys at an angle between 45 degrees and 90 degrees (the thumb might make a somewhat smaller angle). There are certain movements that are absolutely necessary for playing the piano that require the curled position. Some of these are: playing certain white keys (when the other fingers are playing black keys), playing between the black keys, and for avoiding poking your fingernails into the fallboard. Especially for pianists with large hands, it is necessary to curl fingers 2, 3, and 4 when 1 and 5 are playing the black keys in order to avoid jamming fingers 2, 3, and 4 into the fallboard. Thus, the freedom to play with any arbitrary amount of curl is a necessary freedom. One of the biggest disadvantages of the curled position is that the extensor muscles are not sufficiently exercised, causing the flexor muscles to overpower them and creating control problems. In FFP, the un-used flexor muscles are relaxed; in fact, the associated tendons are stretched, which makes the fingers more flexible. There are numerous accounts of the extraordinary flexibility of Liszt’s fingers.
The mistaken perception that FFP is bad for technique arises from the fact that it can lead to bad habits related to the incorrect use of parallel sets. This happens because with flat fingers, it is a simple matter to lay the fingers flat and jam them all down on the piano to play parallel sets masquerading as fast runs. This can result in uneven playing and beginning students might use it as a way of playing fast without developing technique. By learning the curled position first and learning how to use parallel sets correctly, we can avoid this problem. In my numerous communications with teachers, I have noticed that the best teachers are familiar with the usefulness of the FFP. This is especially true of the group of teachers whose teaching lineage traces to Liszt, because Liszt used this position. Liszt was Czerny’s student, but did not always follow Czerny’s teachings, and used FFP to improve tone (Boissier, Fay, Bertrand). In fact, it is hard to imagine that there are any advanced pianists who do not know how to use FFP. As proof, next time you attend a concert or watch a video, see if you can spot these FFPs – you will find that every accomplished pianist uses them. However, because of the tradition of teaching mostly the curled position, you may notice that some pianists over-use the curled position. It is gratifying that the most celebrated pianist often chose to ignore his own teacher, Czerny.
If you had been taught only the curl position all your life, learning the FFPs may appear awkward at first because some important tendons have become shortened. Some teachers consider FFP a form of cheating, indicating a lack of curled finger skill, but it is not; it is a necessary skill. Start practicing FFP with care because some finger tendons may have to be stretched for the first time. All tendons must be stretched from time to time, but the curled position does not allow that.
What is the order of importance of all these positions – which is the “default” FFP position that we should use most often? The spider position is the most important. The insect kingdom did not adopt this position without a good reason; they found out that it works best after hundreds of millions of years of research. Note that the distinction between the spider position and the curled position can be subtle, and many pianists who think they are using the curled position may in fact be using something closer to FFP. The second most important position is the flat out position because it is needed for playing wide chords and arpeggios. The third position is the curled position which is needed for playing the white keys and the pyramid position comes in fourth. The pyramid position uses only one flexor muscle per finger, the spider position uses two, and the curled position uses all three plus the extensor muscles during key drop. However, the final choice of finger position is personal, and this choice must be left to the pianist.
In general, you can use the following rule to decide which finger position to use: play the black keys using the completely flat FFP, and use the curled or pyramid position for the white keys. The spider position is versatile if you acquire it while young and can play both black and white keys. Note that if, within a group of notes, you must play both black and white keys, it is usually advantageous to use two types of finger positions. This might appear to be an added complication at first, but at high speed, this might be the only way. There are, of course, numerous exceptions; for example, in difficult passages involving the 4th finger, you may need more FFPs than curled positions even when most or all the keys are white, in order to make it easier to lift the 4th finger.
The above discussions on FFP are substantial, but they are by no means complete. In a more detailed treatment, we need to discuss how we apply FFP to specific skills such as legato, or playing two notes with one finger while controlling each note individually. Chopin’s legato is documented to be particularly special, as was his staccato. Is his staccato related to the FFP? Note that in all the FFPs, you can take advantage of the spring effect of the relaxed third phalange, which might be useful in playing staccato. Clearly we need more research to learn how to use the FFPs. In particular, there is controversy as to whether we should play mostly with the curled position and add the FFP whenever necessary, as has been taught by most teachers, or vice versa, as Horowitz did, and as recommended here. FFP is also related to bench height. It is easier to play with flat fingers when the bench is lowered. There are numerous accounts of pianists discovering that they can play much better with a lower bench position (Horowitz and Glen Gould are examples). They claim to get better control, especially for pianissimo and speed, but no one has provided an explanation for why this is so. My explanation is that the lower bench height allowed them to use more FFPs. However, there appears to be no good reason to sit overly low, as Glen Gould did, because you can always lower the wrist to get the same effect.
In summary, Horowitz had good reasons to play with flat fingers and the above discussions suggest that part of his higher technical level may have been achieved by using more FFPs than others. The most important message of this section is that we must learn to relax the third phalange of the finger, play with the touch-sensitive part of the fingertip, and cultivate finger flexibility. The aversion to, or even prohibition of, FFP by some teachers turns out to be a mistake; in fact, any amount of curl will invite some degree of curl paralysis. However, beginners must learn the curled position first because it is frequently needed and is more difficult than the FFPs. If students learn the easier flat finger method first, they may never learn the curled position adequately. FFP is useful for speed, increasing your reach, playing multiple notes with one finger, avoiding injury, “feeling the keys”, legato, relaxation, playing pianissimo or fortissimo, and adding color. Although the curled position is necessary, the statement “you need the curled position to play technically difficult material” is misleading – what you need is flexible fingers. Playing with flat fingers liberates us to use many useful and versatile finger positions. We now know how to play all those black keys and not miss a single note. Thank you, Johann, Frederic, Franz, Vladimir, Yvonne (Combe)!
c. Body Motions¶
Many teachers encourage “use of the whole body for playing the piano” (see Whiteside). What does that mean? Are there special body motions that are required for technique? Not really; technique is in the hands and relaxation. However, because the hands are connected to and supported by the body, you can’t just sit in one position and hope to play. When playing the upper registers, the body should follow the hands and you might even extend one leg in the opposite direction in order to balance the body, if it is not needed for the pedals. Also, even the smallest motion of any finger requires the activation of a series of muscles that lead all the way to at least the center of the body (near the sternum), if not all the way to the legs and other members that support the body. Relaxation is as important in the body as in the hands and fingers, because of the shear size of the muscles involved. Therefore, although most of the required body motions can be understood from simple common sense, and do not seem to be that important, the body motions are nonetheless absolutely essential to piano playing. So let’s discuss these motions, some of which may not be totally obvious.
The most important aspect is relaxation. It is the same type of relaxation that you need in the hands and arms – use of only those muscles required for playing, and only for the brief instants during which they are needed. Relaxation also means free breathing; if your throat is dry after a hard practice, you are not swallowing properly, a sure sign of tenseness. Relaxation is intimately related to independence of every part of the body. The first thing you must do, before considering any useful body motions, is to make sure that the hands and fingers are totally decoupled from the body. If they are not decoupled, the rhythm will go awry, and you can make all sorts of unexpected mistakes. If, in addition, you don’t realize that the body and hands are coupled, you will wonder why you are making so many strange mistakes for which you cannot find the cause. This decoupling is especially important in HT play, because the coupling will interfere with the independence of the two hands. Coupling is one of the causes of mistakes: for example, a motion in one hand creates an involuntary motion in the other through the body. This does not mean that you can ignore body decoupling during HS practice; on the contrary, the decoupling should be consciously practiced during HS work. Note that decoupling is a simple concept and easy to execute once you learn it but, physically, it is a complex process. Any motion in one hand necessarily produces an equal and opposite reaction in the body, which is automatically transmitted to the other hand. Thus decoupling requires active effort; it is not a passive relaxation. Fortunately, our brains are sufficiently sophisticated so that we can easily grasp the concept of decoupling. This is why decoupling must be actively practiced. When you learn any new composition, there will always be some coupling until you practice it out. The worst type of coupling is the one acquired during practice, if you practice with stress or try to play something that is too difficult. During the intense efforts needed to try to play difficult material, a student can incorporate any number of unnecessary motions, especially during HT practice, which will eventually interfere with the playing as the speed increases. By getting up to speed HS, you can avoid most of these HT coupling mistakes.
The body is used to play fortissimo through the shoulders, as discussed above. It is also used for playing softly because in order to play softly, you need a steady, constant platform from which to generate those small, controlled forces. The hand and arm, by themselves, have too many possible motions to serve as a steady platform. When attached securely to a steady body, you have a much more stable reference platform. Thus the soft stillness of the pianissimo should emanate from the body, not the fingertips. And in order to reduce mechanical “noise” from extraneous finger motions, the fingers should be on the keys as much as possible. In fact, feeling the keys provides another stable reference from which to play. Once the finger leaves the key, you have lost that valuable reference, and the finger can now wander anywhere, making it difficult to accurately control the next note.