Category: Piano Practice

The Myth of Weak Fingers

It is commonly supposed among us pianists that the ring fingerour ‘fourth’ finger, ever since the ‘English’ fingering system was by and large superseded by the ‘continental’ system—is the weakest. This has evolved into a separation of the ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ fingers, those further from or closer to the thumb respectively, and the categorisation of these groups as ‘weak’ and ‘strong’.

To be sure, the thumb is larger and heavier, but in terms of pianistics—a magnificent term I first encountered in Cortot’s edition of Chopin’s Études, and which I have since endeavoured to use at least once daily—the thumb really needs to be considered as a different species of digit entirely. But still the idea of weak fingers, most particularly the fourth but also the fifth, persists. Let me tell you, in pianistic terms, there is no such thing as a weak finger, there is only poor finger-use.

Let’s first apply a bit of commonsense before going on to examine why this idea of weak fingers came about, and why it has persisted for so long.

The commonsense: a thing you might have heard of called YouTube offers countless examples of brilliant young pianists playing all sorts of challenging stuff. It would follow that, if sheer physical strength were a pre-requisite for pianism, no child would have the ‘muscularity’ to rattle off a Rach 2 or Tchaik 1, but they do. Even when they’re out of the prodigy phase, not all great pianists resemble 18-stone bodybuilders. Yes, weight might help, especially when you’re trying to make enough sound to fill a large hall, but there has to be more to it than just strength.

So, whence comes this concern with strength, and the corollary dread of ‘weak fingers’?

We need to go back to the early days of the piano, the late eighteenth century, to find our answer. During its infancy, the piano resembled the harpsichord far more closely than it did the modern piano. It was only with the Industrial Revolution and the addition of the cast-iron frame that the body of the instrument could bear the tension generated by the strings that the expansion of the piano’s range demanded; all-wood frames buckled and warped. If the early instrument physically resembled the harpsichord, the digital control of dynamics and attack would surely have made people think of the clavichord, an instrument so small and incapable of projection it was considered suitable for teaching and practice, but not really for performance. The idea of ‘piano technique’ as distinct from ‘harpsichord technique’ had not really evolved, and so the earliest published keyboard tutors—the market for which flourished as the instruments proliferated throughout the homes of the wealthy and not-so wealthy middle-classes in the emerging urban centres of Western Europe—did very little to address the increasingly different technical demands of the piano to those of its predecessors, whose shallower key-beds and lighter actions required no involvement of the body beyond the hand. Of course, an Érard from the 1830s would feel heavy to anyone used to a Walter from the turn of the 19th century. The instinctive response to needing to move a heavier weight is to get stronger. The idea of ‘lifting the fingers high’ and developing ‘independence’ really originates here. The mechanism of the harpsichord is such that the ‘fingers-only’ approach is effective. But as soon as the key has to move further, and there is more action-weight behind the key, the fingers alone are insufficient to the task.

What follows may be taken to summarise what I consider to be ‘neutral’ or ‘default’ technical advice; in certain circumstances due either to physical individuality or musical necessity, practice may of course differ. But for me, the best practice is that which works with the body and the instrument. It is this approach that enables the best playing, because the pianist is as free as possible from strain and tension. It is also the healthiest approach, as it minimises the risk of injury, and permits the pianist to enjoy many hours of work without fatigue.In terms of working with the body, I will restrict the following discussion mainly to the use of the finger and hand, as this post is about the myth of weak fingers (and, you will probably have gathered, the pointlessness of working to strengthen the fingers in isolation).

A whistlestop tour of the anatomy of the top of the hand.

Dorsal view of the right hand, showing muscles(brown), tendons (grey), major nerves (yellow) and blood vessels (blue).

The straightening of the fingers is performed by tendons called extensors: the extensor pollicis brevis, and extensor pollicis longus (1 and 2) work the thumb. They are involved in straightening the thumb, for instance, to reach larger intervals. The extensor pollicis brevis (1) works the metacarpophalangeal and carpometacarpal joints (the two sections of the thumb from the wrist), while the extensor pollicis longus (2) controls the distal phalanx (the nail joint). Lifting the thumb in the same direction as the fingers, however, involves the abductor pollicis longus (10), which lifts the thumb so mimics the pianistic function of the finger extensors. The thumb is lowered by the adductor pollicis (9), which lies mainly beneath the hand (the palmar or volar side), where it divides into the transverse head, which connects to the mid-palm beneath the middle finger, and the oblique head, which connects the the opponens digiti minimi, that lovely big chunk of meat on the palm of the hand behind the little finger. This is responsible for carrying the thumb beneath the hand for legato scale-playing, etc., those movements we collectively refer to as ‘passing the thumb’.

So far, so irrelevant, in so much as, while the thumb is a complex part of the apparatus capable of larger and smaller movements in a very wide range of motion, this doesn’t impact on the so-called weakness of fingers, particularly the fourth. The extensors in question are the extensor digitorum (4), which branch off from the extensor digitorum communis muscle, which lies on the upper surface of the forearm. The index and little fingers also have unique extensors, the extensor indices (3), and the extensor digiti minimi (5), which respectively enable the individual straightening of the index finger, as when pointing, and of the little finger, as when drinking tea from a fine china cup. The little finger is also controlled by the abductor digiti minimi (11), which separates the fourth and fifth fingers, so again helps with wider intervals and larger chords.

Just to complete the discussion of the illustration above, also marked are: the extensor carpi radialis brevis and extensor carpi radialis longus (7 and 8 respectively), which raise the hand, that is, draw the top of the hand towards the forearm; and the extensor carpi ulnaris (6), which serves the same function as 7 and 8, but on the opposite side of the forearm, promoting balance and control of strength, and it also enables adduction of the wrist, that is drawing the ‘little-finger side’ of the hand towards the side of the forearm, resulting in a straighter alignment of the forearm and thumb. The flexor carpi ulnaris (12), wraps around the upper forearm, but is primarily involved on the underside of the forearm, helping perform the exact opposite function of 6.

The entire apparatus is given sensation by the radial and ulnar nerves (13 and 14 respectively).

So, here is why the fourth finger is accused of weakness.

As indicated A above, as well as being organised by the extensor retinaculum (15), a dense membrane sheath that holds everything in place as it travels through the wrist, the finger extensors are also joined laterally by ‘intertendinous connections’. The first and second finger are connected and the fourth is connected to both the third and fifth fingers. The third finger is, in fact, also slightly impinged by its connection to the second. To demonstrate this, make a fist (thumb out of the fingers’ way), and straighten the index and middle fingers only. Now try to return the index finger to the fist, leaving only the middle finger extended. (For cultural reasons, this experiment is best performed alone!) The middle finger needs to compromise its degree of extension before the index finger can return fully.

The reason that the fourth finger is considered weak, while the middle finger isn’t, however, comes from the position of the intertendinous connections. Those between the third and fourth, and fourth and fifth connect to the third and fifth fingers closer to the palm joint, which restricts the independent extension of the fourth finger much more severely than that between the second and third, which is more perpendicular and further behind the metacarpo-phalangeal joint (the knuckles where the fingers attach to the hand.)

Some people also argue that impingement is increased by both of the fourth finger’s intertendinous connections being crossed on both sides by nerve branches, but I am not convinced that this has as significant an effect as the intertendinous connections themselves. After all, the human body is a miraculous jumble of nerves, veins, capillaries, arteries, and so on. While the term ‘muscle-bound’ refers to someone who has developed certain muscles to an exaggerated and unnatural extent, to the point where muscular bulk inhibits the body’s full range of motion—imagine, for example, being unable to place your hands on your shoulders because your biceps got in the way—it would seem to be a gross error of design that the human body can be, say, ‘vein-bound’ or ‘nerve-bound’ by default. That said, the fourth finger, uniquely, is innervated by both the radial and ulnar nerves, so perhaps this makes for a more complicated neurological situation when it comes to controlling this digit in isolation, and this additional challenge to our co-ordination increases our perception of the fourth finger’s ‘weakness’.

Either way, playing the piano is no more an activity for which the human body has evolved maximum efficiency than is body-building. The human hand is naturally best at grasping, because grasping is vital for many survival skills. The thumb is opposable for a reason; but there is no evolutionary need for it to have an equal range of motion in the opposite plane.

And here is why it doesn’t matter.

All of the above has discussed, primarily, the extensors, those tendons responsible for straightening and lifting the fingers and hand. Playing the piano, however, involves depressing keys. Pianists don’t straighten our fingers, we round them. We use flexors, not extensors, and flexors have no intertendinous connections. Strictly speaking, there is no need for us to lift our fingers beyond the height of the key; and if we permit relaxation and the weight of the action to lift the key after we have pressed it, there is no need for us to lift our fingers at all.

Yes, for the anatomical reasons discussed above, if we are trying to lift each of our fingers ‘high’ above the surface of the key and use each with total independence from the others, we are going to feel weakness, particularly in the fourth finger. Independence is a foolish idea, as if each finger were not connected to the same hand, wrist, arm, and brain; never mind that some fingers are literally connected to each other. Yet even as great a pianist as Liszt began his technical exercises with various combinations of resting and active fingers in various combinations.

Now, I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath-water; and I don’t believe Liszt didn’t know what he was doing. There is a purpose to finger isolation exercises, but it is not the development of physical strength, rather of strengthening neural pathways. Making sure that only the correct bit of the mechanism gets the message. To quote the neuropsychologist Donald Hebb, “neurons that fire together wire together”. Practice is as much about the mental as it is about physical.

As I described above, the tendons that control individual fingers all connect to one muscle, the hands and fingers are innervated by ever smaller and finer divisions of two main nerves, the ulnar and radial. Larger mechanisms of movement divide into smaller units, but everything is connected. Although I have described above the main functions of each part of the apparatus under consideration, almost none of them work in total isolation. Especially in complex movements, like playing the piano, smaller parts will work in tandem with larger parts; our aim is only to involve each to the extent that is necessary. To say we play the piano with our fingers is like saying we run with our toes. Just as the upper body contributes as much to running as do the legs and feet, pianism requires the co-ordinated involvement of the entire body. All the finger-strength in the world won’t help you if you’re trying to play Rach 3 sitting sideways to the piano and cross-legged!

I said at the outset that there is no such thing as a weak finger, only poor finger-use. This is not the place to go into what constitutes good finger-use, especially as I would say that means good use of the hand, wrist, forearm, elbow, upper arm, shoulder, and back. I’ve gone on long enough already for now! Let’s save something as straightforward as what makes the perfect piano technique for next time… Suffice it to say, though, that if your finger, wrist, and forearm are aligned—most importantly, that the arm-weight is behind the active finger—no finger will feel weak. A practical fingering helps enormously; good finger-use depends on good fingering.

A word on alignment.

Before signing off, a brief word on alignment. I said that if your finger, wrist, and arm are aligned, that if the arm-weight is behind the active finger no finger will feel weak. What I mean by this is you should aim to make a straight line from the elbow to the active finger. Take a five-finger exercise, and try it two ways. First, holding the wrist still, trying not to clench, and using only the fingers from the palm joint. Second, allowing the wrist to swing laterally to find a straight alignment through the arm to the active finger. At slower speeds, you might feel little difference, according to your level of proficiency; but as you accelerate, I guarantee that the second way will feel stronger and more in control. This will actually reduce the amount of work required of the fingers, as the weight of the arm will be engaged to move the key, the fingertip becomes the point of contact through which that weight is transferred into the piano action. When the mechanism is not aligned, the finger not only has to do more work to depress the key, but is also working against the misplaced arm-weight—just as we change our gait when we carry a heavy backpack, in order not to fall backwards.

Finger isolation exercises do have their place, as I said, but their purpose is to strengthen co-ordination, not to strengthen the finger. They are best done with good alignment, as in fact are any technical exercises. Let’s forget all of that old-school ‘penny on the back of the hand’ nonsense! If you stop fighting the fingers’ interdependence, find the most ergonomic means of deploying your playing apparatusin short, work with your body and with your instrument—you will achieve a better result with less effort.

Perfect Practice

One of the greatest pleasures and privileges of my career has been to work with dancers. For anyone interested in how to achieve excellence—perfection in dance being a platonic ideal strived for but never quite attained—a lot can be learned from time regularly spent in a dance studio.

The following idea I attribute to the glorious Valerie Aitken, although she may well have picked it up elsewhere. I heard it from her, so she can take the credit, and uncertain origins lessen neither its wisdom nor its enormous potential benefit to anyone striving for excellence in any field at all, although here I will explore specifically what it might mean for pianists. 

So, what is this insightful pearl? It is merely this:

“Only perfect practice makes perfect”

Clever, right? We’ve all heard, doubtless more often than not with the kindly intention of soothing our frustration, that “practice makes perfect”. Just keep at it, and eventually you’ll get it. But what if you keep keeping at it, and still don’t get it?

Practice makes how you practice. Imperfect practice, therefore, only makes imperfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.

For anyone who, like me, is interested in practising as efficiently as possible, this must be the mantra. So often my efforts at the keyboard remind me of John Wanamaker—you know, he who said “half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” For money, read time; for advertising, read practice. Lucky indeed the pianist who has never felt that no matter what they do, or for how long, it’s just not getting better.

At this point, I should point out how important it is to recognise when this feeling is in fact because further improvement isn’t actually possible. “What!?” you may cry, for surely “you can always be better!” In high school I had a biology teacher who refused to give full marks. Answer ten questions out of ten correctly, he’d give you nine point five, because “something about your answers can always be better”. Well, actually, no. Sorry, but that’s just stupid. If you want better answers, ask better questions. Some things absolutely are ‘a-hundred-percent-able’, depending on the goal, the piece, the level of the player, and so on, of course. We can never stop striving for beautiful tone, for more variety of colour, technical ease, sure, but some things are absolute. The desired tempo can be reached and maintained; semiquavers can’t be more even than even; chords can’t be more together than together; hands can’t be more synchronised than synchronised. Yes, semiquaver passages can be shaped differently, more expressively, with different articulations; chords can be voiced in a myriad different ways, pedalling can be argued over for days. Here, perfection is, if it can be defined at all, a moveable feast at best. These are questions of nuance, which depend on taste and also to some extent personal preference, and are not only individual, but subject to variation on a regular basis. Nonetheless, in some matters, a hundred percent is attainable, and cannot be exceeded. Any teacher that tells you otherwise needs to grow up.

Leaving aside for a moment the matter of what makes practice ‘perfect’, let’s just appreciate the implications of this statement for our approach to what we do. For practice to lead towards ‘perfect’, we must understand what ‘perfect’ is—not in the abstract, but in the immediate context of our work. If it’s a practical issue—synchronising hands, training a fingering pattern, securing leaps, maintaining tempo, achieving fluent passagework, or whatever—we must be able to imagine what ‘perfection’ will sound like, and what it will feel like under our fingers. If you can’t imagine it, you won’t recognise it when it happens. The importance of ‘visualisation’ has long been appreciated, but I—and I doubt I’m alone—often find it’s easy to get caught up in the physical aspects of practice and forget the mental work that is at least as important, both for overcoming technical difficulties and for consolidating ideas about the music which will end up informing, at least for the time being, our sense of what ‘perfection’ means for the less concrete aspects of our playing. 

So, what is perfect practice? My understanding of this is primarily that the means should be appropriate to the desired outcome. If you want to play fluently, you must practise fluently. Hesitant practice leads to hesitant playing. Untidy practice leads to untidy playing. And so on. This all sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But there is, of course, an impediment: awareness, or rather, a lack of awareness. To practise perfectly, you must be a good diagnostician. Sometimes problems are not audible or palpable, their symptoms are; and it is easy to misdiagnose symptoms as problems. Here is where Mr Wanamaker comes in. 

As an example, let’s take a semiquaver passage from a Classical movement, some variation or rondo by Clementi or one of that lot. It’s uneven, sounds lumpy, your fingers feel too long or too short, the tempo suffers, notes go awry. It’s a total catastrophe. In such dire circumstances, the ‘athletic’ practiser will say “okay, this sucks, I need to practise more!” Kind of like training for a marathon, it’s just a case of running, and running some more, until you can run far enough without passing out. (I admit, there is almost definitely more to preparing for endurance events than that, but these people wouldn’t prepare for a marathon any better than they’d practise Clementi, so I stand by my analogy.)

This approach—slinging loads of mud at a wall until enough of it sticks—will likely lead to some improvement, simply because doing it more usually means eventually doing it better. But it will never be perfect and, in some cases, can be detrimental, even permanently injurious to practise ‘blindly’ and without sufficient awareness of what you’re doing. And at best, of course, it’s a waste of time.

Let’s treat the nasty semiquavers as a symptom, and think of some possible causes. Lack of familiarity with the notes or understanding of their patterns, mental uncertainty and hesitation. Poor fingering choice, or awkward positioning or shaping of the hand, which may or may not be related to the fingering. Uneven strength or control in fingers, poor alignment in the wrist, or poor seating position or posture. Tension from trying too hard; looseness from trying to relax. Accumulated tension because of any combination of any of the aforementioned issues… and yet more besides. Given this minefield, it’s little wonder so many people opt for the wall-mud-sling! approach.

But we’re aiming higher, so let’s persevere. Our hypothetical pianist’s wrist is starting to ache, so he takes a break. While he’s waiting for the coffee machine to heat up, he thinks “golly, every time I hit one of these extended semiquaver runs, it’s as if my fingers are made of wood… I need to practise more…” Without realising it, he’s diagnosed his issue. This passage isn’t unique: all his Classical runs suffer from the same problem, which is that his fingers “feel like they’re made of wood”. So, we haven’t hit the nail on the head, but we’re circling the right hardware store.

We might be able to rule out certain context-specific issues, such as unfamiliarity with the notes, or poor fingering. These might indeed be the cause of the same problems in other similar contexts, but those issues would likely cause more general faults because they are indicative of sloppy preparation. We’re more likely to be dealing with a general technical issue such as tension in the hand, itself possibly caused by trying to ‘squeeze out’ the fast passage (often the sign of an ‘athlete’). 

Let’s say, having had a lesson with an appropriately experienced teacher, our hypothetical semiquaver-mangler has been advised to free up his wrist, maybe by ‘shaking’ on each note, working in hand-groups at a slow tempo, to resist the urge to squeeze, and to do some conscious press-release practice to eliminate unnecessarily prolonged pressure through the finger. This is starting to work so, encouraged, our crash-test dummy tries to increase the tempo only to find that everything seizes up again. In desperation, he emails his teacher who explains that this is, in fact, progress, because it proves that the tension is a result of trying to achieve velocity in the wrong way, so the way forward is to work at the fastest tempo possible that doesn’t result in cramping. The teacher goes on to explain that the countless hours of practice have trained a reflex tightening that needs to be untrained by careful, focussed practice, before any such passage will be easy at the appropriate tempo. Reading this email, our pianist finally admits to himself “I shouldn’t have done so much practice”…

Before considering the possible failure of this first diagnosis, let’s just pause to think about what perfect practice would be, and what it would have been. Had our eager beaver spent all those hours ensuring his technical approach was appropriate, his fingerwork would probably have been sparkling by now. In such a case ‘perfect practice’ would be about musical shape, tone-colour, consistency. But given the ingrained nature of the problem, ‘perfect practice’ will look very different, because the goal has changed. It’s no longer about “getting through the passage as best I can at all costs”, but about “ensuring every note is played with only the correct amount of pressure and that the hand, wrist, and forearm remain as relaxed as possible, and only at a tempo at which this is achievable”.

‘Perfect practice’ requires that you know how you need/want to play, and how best to achieve this. In this way, the time you spend reinforces good musical intentions with good technical habits. And like perfection itself, therefore, perfect practice is constantly changing.

Let’s return now to our poor, bedraggled example, and consider the possibility that this newly-suggested practice approach doesn’t yield noticeable results, even at a slow tempo. The passagework is still ungainly and leads almost immediately to debilitating tension. (Of course, it may be that the solution is correct, but just that it will take more time to undo years of habituation to the wrong approach.) But let’s say it gets even worse. The cause of the problem is unlikely to be this tightening reflex after all, so it would then be necessary to explore other possible causes and try other solutions.

Here is another implication of our maxim, indeed possibly the most useful, and most easily disregarded: if practice is perfect, it works. So, if you’re practising and not improving (assuming you’re working towards other than ‘100%-able’ goals), your practice isn’t perfect. Whatever it is that you’re trying to achieve, what you’re currently doing won’t get you there. So stop doing it, and try doing something that better addresses the issue.

Considering this is not easy; nothing valuable ever is. To be a good self-diagnostician takes a great deal of understanding—of the body, of the piano, of music—and a level of self-awareness that requires years of experience and training to achieve. A teacher can help, in most cases, because an outside set of eyes and ears, ones not involved in the real-time mechanics of playing, often notices things that less advanced players themselves cannot. But even when a good teacher recommends practice approaches specifically to address those perceived problems, the pianist is ultimately the person who must learn that approach, understand the problem and why the chosen approach is a good solution, and apply it patiently and appropriately in their practice sessions.

Learning to practise is, essentially, learning a repertoire of possible solutions to potential problems that you’re likely to encounter regularly, and some perhaps less often, and learning when and how to apply those solutions as the problems arise. It is also a matter of learning to recognise the cause of the problem, to differentiate it from its symptoms; it is a matter of learning to listen and feel with the utmost awareness. Some of these solutions are of a general technical nature, others are thrown up by specific contexts, or particular composers, works, or styles. The most frustrating situation for any of us is to meet a problem that we can’t overcome, not matter what we try; a problem that unyieldingly exhausts all means of improvement known to us. This process of learning to practice lasts for as long as we play our instruments.

Ask yourself: how much of my practice-time is wasted? Do I know what problems and challenges I face in my playing? Do I have the approaches to tackle them effectively, safely, and in a time-efficient way? How focussed on solving my problems are my practice sessions?

Only perfect practice makes perfect. What that means for you will vary constantly, as your playing evolves, and as new repertoire comes along and presents new challenges. But please, take this mantra to heart. Repeat it to yourself each and every time you sit at the piano. After all, time is finite, and wasting years of it practising badly… well, that’s just sad.

Problem-Solving Problems

(for Ted Hill)

Sometimes things get better with patience, practice, and time. Sometimes, though, they don’t, and more extreme action is required. While medical metaphors are probably the last thing anyone wants to contemplate as we all emerge blinking into the blinding post-Covid light without even so much as a mask and a litre of hand sanitiser standing between us and seemingly inevitable doom, the relevance is undeniable. Aegrescit medendo, said Virgil, in an adage which is translated approximately as ‘the treatment makes it worse’, or even more approximately as ‘the remedy is worse than the disease’.

If you Google ‘ibuprofen side effects’, top of the list is ‘headache’. The universe is indeed an ironic place, my comrades. I have said elsewhere that sometimes, practice can do more harm than good, particularly if it is actually contributing to a problem or engraining a fault, rather than leading to improvement. One solution to such a situation is, as it were, radical intervention, the deliberate creation of an acute problem in order to alleviate a chronic one. Surgeons do this all the time. Under most circumstances, having an eight-inch gash in your abdomen with various internal bits and bobs hanging out through it is not a good situation to find yourself in. It’s possibly even an emergency. But if a bit of you breaks or malfunctions, these awesome knife-wielding maniacs who take an oath to do no harm will cut you open, take out the faulty part, slice it up, chop it off, replace it with a plastic bit, or even a bit from another person, or whatever, then pop it all back in and sew you back together, all under the watchful gaze of an anaesthetist who ensures you’re unconscious enough that you don’t notice any of it, but not so unconscious that you’re dead.

Despite what overly-excitable radio presenters sometimes imply, pianism is rarely a life-or-death situation. While it’s nice to get it all pretty much right, no-one, at least as far as I know, has ever died as a direct result of a split note or some blurred pedalling. Daunting as the Hammerklavier might feel as you sit there contemplating what Beethoven will be putting you through for the next three quarters of an hour, you are not, please remember, cutting open a living human being and cradling their still-beating heart in your hopefully-not-trembling hands. Given the blissfully safe environments in which we prepare and practise our craft, I am often amazed at how reluctant many students are to take out their metaphorical scalpels and dissect.

I encountered this situation recently working with a student on Les Cyclopes from the D-major suite from the second book of Rameau’s Pièces de clavecin (1724). Despite him flying through most of the piece with a facility that an uncharitable person would describe as obnoxious, but which I will merely call brilliant, the semiquaver flourishes in bars 7 and 12 were disruptive, despite the student having practised the offending passages fairly diligently for someone at his level.

Rameau, Les cyclopes, bars 5-14

After various experiments and suggestions, we arrived at the following distribution and fingering, the second phrase exactly repeating that of the first. (My personal preference would be for the first two semiquavers taken by the left hand to be 2-4 rather than 1-3, but each to his own.)

What was coming out, despite numerous hours of work, however, more closely resembled:

The left-hand thumb-passing was all just too fiddly, and as a result not only was what should be a mercurial flourish coming out turgid and sluggish, it was also negatively impacting the tidiness of the answering phrase. The solution to both of these problems was firstly a change of fingering, and secondly the introduction of a ‘problem-solving problem’, an acute fault to cure a chronic one, namely a deliberate break between bars 7 and 8, like this:

As soon as the emphasis was changed, that is, ensuring lightness and speed in the semiquavers, and making a clean start to bar 8, rather than getting all the way through the left-hand arpeggio down to the low D in one fell swoop, everything worked more effortlessly. Noticeable improvement was immediate, and with subsequent practice the issues seemed never to have existed at all.

Obviously, this did leave a great gaping hole in between the two phrases, but eliminating that is actually a relatively straightforward matter of acquiring security and speed in jumping from the A to the D below with the fifth finger, then taking the five left-hand notes in one sweep, adding the right hand at bar 8, and then working backwards, prepending first the downward arpeggio in both hands, then the little ‘pickup’ before it. It might also be useful to insert a similar deliberate pause after the rising phrase of bars 5 and 6 to allow for good organisation and a little bit of mental preparation before beginning the semiquavers. Again, that is preferable to taking the semiquavers via a slight crash-landing into position, which will only result in a flustered effect. Likewise, as everything is organised both physically and mentally in practice, over time the passage will become more comfortable, and the pause can be reduced and eventually removed without consequence. (You won’t even see a scar.)

So, what can we take from this little discussion? Some specifics, of course, but also a couple of general points that I find myself repeating to students time and again.

The first of these is that practice is the process of making sure things go right; rehearsal is the process of making sure they never go wrong. These processes require different approaches. Repeating something over and over is not practice, it is rehearsal; and therefore if you are repeating something that needs fixing over and over without actually fixing it, you are rehearsing faulty playing. The second point is that fingering is ultimately more fundamental to success than anything else. A fingering choice that in one context might be ideal can in another context turn out to be wholly inappropriate. No matter what you try to do, there is no greater barrier to progress than poor fingering.

And a couple of more specific observations that underlie my thinking for the advice above. The first is: everything is a preparation for everything after it. The other is: there is no harm in dissecting your piece into chunks, isolating areas that need specific work. Quite the opposite, in fact. Not every part of each piece is either equally challenging, or challenging for the same reason. The approach that works most effectively for one phrase might not be equally effective for the next. It might be about finding a new position on the keyboard, changing the way you use your hands, arms, or fingers, or adjusting co-ordination. These technical transitions often coincide with musical transitions and sometimes they don’t. A passage like the one above exemplifies all of this. Moving from single-finger alternating-hand repetitions ascending to spread-hand arpeggios descending requires a different technical approach, and in this case a repositioning on the keyboard. These arpeggios are themselves a preparation for the scale with which the answering phrase begins without interruption. So, if the arpeggios are dodgy, so too is the preparation for the answering phrase, making the answering phrase itself more difficult to execute elegantly.

Introducing moments of extra time during practice allows you to process these changes, and prepare to execute each separate element effectively. If each element is executed successfully, they can be recombined into the required rhythmic relationship far more easily than if each is individually slightly insecure. Once your technical approach to each element has been fixed, so that it is habitual, transitioning from one to another can actually happen more quickly and fluently, so the reduction and removal of these ‘staging posts’ is rarely problematic.

Of course—as always!—this relies on you understanding which approaches are required for which element, and how best to switch from one to another, and when. This diagnostic ability is fundamental to efficient pianism. It is not easy to acquire, but any effort expended in this area is richly rewarded.

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