Technique 101: Ode to Curved Finger Joy

Whether you’re looking to increase your understanding of piano technique or just want to help your child avoid weekly nagging about their awkward spider-hands, this post is for you!  Read on to find out why we need curved fingers, why so many of us struggle with it, and how you can give your technical skills a tuneup in a few easy steps!


Curved Fingers: The Only Known Cure for Spider-Hands

Beethoven once said, “To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without curved fingers is inexcusable.”  Kidding!  Well, Beethoven said to play without “passion” is inexcusable; I made up the part about curved fingers. Of course, Beethoven was a fellow piano teacher, so I bet he dropped a few pearls of “curved finger” wisdom in his day after all!

Unfortunately, being vigilant about healthy technique often falls low on our priority list during practice time.  It may seem like learning notes and rhythms is more important than having curved fingers, but listen up, flat-fingered friends!  Curved fingers are the cornerstone to all piano technique.  They play a crucial role in controlling sound production and preventing injury.


You’re Only Hurting Yourself (And the Innocent Victims Who Live with You)

Obviously, injuries are bad and should be avoided, but why is controlling sound production so important?  Isn’t that for more advanced students to worry about?  –No way, José!  You may not think it, but even the earliest beginners are sensitive to sound production.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen students struggle as the keys barely produce a whisper, if any sound at all.  I’ve seen tense and out of control fingers drift out of position and collide with wrong notes.  I’ve seen shoulders rise to almost ear-level in the battle against unevenness.  Sure, there will always be some growing pains when learning a new instrument, but what pain could be greater than having the ability to read and understand music, but not play it?  Unfortunately, many beginners fall into this category.  Oh, the frustration!  Who knew you could already be a tortured artist at the tender age of 5?


Attention Parents: Full-time Nagging Positions Available

For a lot of people, playing with curved fingers is easier said than done.  Sure, it’s a piece of cake to form your hand into a curved shape, but it’s quite difficult to maintain that shape while playing if you don’t understand how to use healthy technique.  If you don’t know what I mean, try making a rounded hand shape then quickly and firmly press down on one of your fingers as if to play a note on the piano.

ricochet-fingers

Did you notice how some of the other fingers ricocheted out in a strained and awkward manner?  Yikes!  That is a far cry from healthy and controlled playing.  Unfortunately, this is the default for almost every child I’ve come across.  Without the watchful eyes of a parent, this frightening scene of strained muscles and contorted fingers is likely to persist. Thirty-minutes with your teacher won’t be enough to correct a week’s worth of unhealthy practicing, so why not be a little extra vigilant at home?  I guarantee it will go a long way in helping your child progress!


weird 4Students also struggle with the curved fingers concept because they don’t recognize how important it is.  Have you ever listened to a great piano performance and thought, Wow, I love the sound of curved fingers! – Of course not.  Understandably, it’s hard to get students, especially kids, to put in a good effect with their technique.  Many students are able bulldoze their way through a song with collapsed finger joints, deviated wrists, shoulder tension, and a host of other cringe-worthy habits, and won’t know the difference as long as the notes sound right!

When the process seems difficult or complicated and students don’t understand the benefits, they sidestep the issue.  That is, they sidestep until they are forced to confront the problem during their weekly nagging sessions!  Luckily for you, Dear Reader, I come armed with knowledge, visual aids, and eye-roll inducing humor to help get you past the curved finger….well, hump!  (See, I warned you.)

Let’s pretend you and I are engineers examining the parts that make the piano-playing machine function:


Fingers

The first step to playing with curved fingers is to *gasp!* curve the fingers.  This means bending all three of the finger joints.  Keeping the middle joints curved is usually a piece of cake.  The biggest culprits are the naughty distal joint…

Collapsed distal joint

 

…and every piano teacher’s nemesis, the collapsed proximal joints.  Some teachers refer to these joints collectively as the hand’s “bridge.”  Trust me, musically or architecturally speaking, a bridge collapse is never a good thing!

Collapsed bridge

 


Thumb

The thumb is the greatest enemy of curved fingers everywhere!  Your thumb supports most of the weight of your piano-playing mechanism, so if it doesn’t provide a solid foundation, the rest of your structure could collapse.  Think of it as the arch underneath your hand-bridge.  Like your fingers, the thumb joints need to be curved too.  Unfortunately, joint #3 can be hard to locate.  Take a moment now and try to find all three joints in your own hand.

thumb joints

Now, since those elusive little thumb joints don’t provide us with a solid visual, your best bet is to look for a rounded O-shape between the thumb and pointer finger.  If you see a V-shape like this…

thumb collapse

…then imagine there’s a ball in your hand, or try practicing the “bloom” technique.  To bloom, simply make a tight fist then let the fingers uncurl naturally.  Remember to look for that O-so important O-shape between the thumb and pointer finger!  (Sorry! I have no shame.)

Bloom-and-Perch2


Wrists

Poor, poor wrists.  Why must fingers steal all the glory? Oh, the inhumanity!!!

tenor
[GIF by Tenor]
There’s something magical about a pianist’s fingers that transfixes us.  We’re so obsessed with the image of long slender fingers flying up and down the keys, a pianist might as well be a pair of disembodied hands!  (In fact, that was actually the plot of a terrifying Goosebumps book I read as a child.)   I can’t tell you how many times someone has said to me, “Oh, so you play piano?” while miming wiggly jazz fingers, or “So-and-so has such long fingers; She should be a pianist!”

Well, I’m sure that by now you’ve been anticipating a pretty hefty truth-bomb to followup all this finger ranting!  If you’ve been paying even a little bit of attention, you should know what’s about to drop…

Folks, we need the whole arm!!!

Come on, Engineers, think about it!  Would you rather have an engine powered by the itty-bitty finger muscles or the big ‘ol meaty ones in your upper arms?  Exactly!  Now in order to harness this incredible horsepower from the arm, we’ll need two things: First, those curved fingers need to be nice and firm in order to support our arm power.  Second, our wrists need to stay loose and flexible so that we can transfer the power from our arm-engine to the fingers.  If your engineer brain is buzzing with the word “driveshaft” right now, you’re totally on the money, (and probably a little over-invested in these engineering metaphors, although I dig your enthusiasm).  Now, obviously your machine won’t function very well if there’s a kink in the driveshaft, so make sure your fingers are aligned with the forearm bones.

Wrist-straight

The official term for the wrist kink I mentioned earlier is wrist deviation.  Not only will this sap your horsepower, it can also lead to serious injury.  (Warning, warning! System failure….Ahhhhh!!)

Wrist-deviated

Before we shift this engine into gear, we need to start in neutral.  When in the neutral position, the wrist should hang below your knuckle-bridge at about the level of your fingertips.  Let’s get a sense for what a healthy neutral wrist position feels like by applying what I call the “Goldilocks” method.  (Very scientific, I know.)  Take a moment now to practice positioning the wrist too high, too low, then juuuuuuust right!  Be mindful that you’re only moving your wrist in this step and aren’t forcing the wrist to go up and down with your shoulder power.

Goldilocks-wrist


Elbows, Shoulders, and the Whole Machine!

Now it’s time for us to shift this engine into gear!  You’ve prepped those nice curved fingers so they’re firm and ready to support the power from your arm.  You’ve checked for a supported thumb with a rounded O-shape.  You’ve properly aligned your wrist so there are no kinks, and you’ve done a “Goldilocks” check to ensure it’s loose, flexible, and in the neutral position.  It’s time to watch this baby go!

First, make sure your forearm is at a right angle to the piano.  If you’re new to this piano-stuff, I realize the middle C position is probably what you know and love, but playing directly in front of the body could lead you astray, (i.e. more prone to wrist deviation), plus it’ll be harder for you to recognize the sensations of what healthy technique feels like.  For now, I recommend practicing about one to two octaves outside of middle C.

Next, try to maintain a little bit of space between your elbows and torso.  Locking your arms against the torso impairs your machine’s ability to function and can cause unnecessary tension, so remind yourself to loosen up.  This isn’t the subway, people!  You can take up as much space as you need.  While you’re at it, check that your shoulders are loose too.  A nice shrug up and down should do the trick.

Finally, push your elbow forward toward the finger you want to play.  Since your wrist is nice and flexible, it will rise up and forward in the same direction while transferring the kinetic energy from your arm into your finger.  If you experience the “ricochet” fingers mentioned earlier, it means you’re still using the wimpy finger muscles instead of letting the arm do the work.  To help get a sense for what arm playing should feel like, try letting your non-playing arm do the work by providing a little push from the elbow.

Goldilocks-1

Now, before you start going crazy with your expert-level piano skills, keep in mind every attack must have a release.  Make sure you reset your wrist to the neutral position before performing the movement again, otherwise you’ll start to lose control and accumulate tension.  Long, held notes are the way to go until you really get the hang of it.  Hey, I warned you it would take time and patience, but if you made it this far and are still reading, I think you have what it takes!


Well, why aren’t you practicing already?

Congratulations, Engineers! You’re officially certified to operate your piano-playing machines!  As you master these skills, you’ll start to enjoy playing with a newfound freedom and ease.  In no time, you’ll be reveling in the artistic nuances and finesse achieved through your superior technical control.  I have faith in you!!  Oh, and if your machine ever needs a tuneup, you know who to see.

Happy practicing!

–C


 

 

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