Category: Technique

Chord-playing: ‘shape’ and ‘position’

Playing sequences of chords, particularly when they’re faster, can often be a stumbling block for younger or less advanced pianists. In this post, I’m going to share with you an approach to chord-playing that I think helps, mainly by clarifying the issue and thereby giving us a way into teaching and practicing chords in a more focused and productive way.

Beginner pianists will most likely first encounter chords in some sort of left-hand accompaniment, and they will probably be triads at most. (While I like, for instance, LCME’s distinction between triads and chords, here I’m using the term ‘chord’ to refer to the simultaneous playing of any combination of more than two notes. The approach I describe here does also have a corollary benefit for double notes playing, by the way, but as that is a different and usually more advanced technical issue, I’ll leave it for another time.)

Although broken chords receive relatively short shrift in the UK’s graded syllabuses—less than their usefulness merits, for sure—they are there, and serve as a useful demonstration of the theoretical concept of chordal inversion, and also of the concept I want to outline here. 

Now, when most beginners encounter a Grade-1-style broken chords exercise it will be something like this: 

ex. 1

but the first time they attempt it, it will usually comes out more like this: 

ex. 2

In this case, I would say that the student has grasped the change of position, but not the change of shape.

Let’s make these definitions precise, because precision is, after all, the reason for this article. By ‘shape’ I mean the placing of the fingers on adjacent or non-adjacent keys according to the notes that must be played. So, example 3 presents the three basic triadic shapes that the exercise in example 1 requires: namely, a triad in root position, one in first inversion, and one in second inversion.

ex. 3

Now, the fingerings that might be chosen for this exercise can vary according to the size and flexibility of the hand. Obviously, everyone can move the thumb away from and towards the four fingers; but the fingers can themselves be moved away from one another. This slightly more personally-determined facility that is the deciding factor when it comes to choosing chord fingerings. A basic technical principle should always be to avoid discomfort and awkwardness, because it either introduces or results from tension, which can cause injury. So we should aim to avoid ‘splaying’ the fingers at all times. (It might be argued that it is sometimes unavoidable, but if the music is well written I’d say those occasions are actually very few and far between.)

So, to return to our three chord shapes, an ideal fingering for a small hand might be: 

ex. 4

A larger hand might prefer: 

ex. 5

and in some musical contexts this might be a better choice for a small hand too.

Now, in both of these cases, what is important to note for my approach is that the ‘shape’ is changing because different combinations of fingers are active. So example 6 is also a change of shape.

ex. 6

By ‘position’, I am referring to the placement of the hand on the keyboard. So, in example 6, there is no change of ‘position’ because the thumb remains on the same key throughout. Likewise in example 7 (below), where, although the thumb now moves, the fifth finger remains fixed on G. For a ‘position’-change to occur, both sides of the hand, thumb and fifth finger, must move to different keys. Example 2, then, features a chain of ‘position’-changes,  without the change of ‘shape’ also required by the exercise shown in example 1.

ex. 7

Now, there are several points to make. Chords and broken chords are best trained together. Although different techniques are required, the most fundamental concept to grasp is, I believe, that of ‘shape’, because this is the basis of accuracy—the fingers instinctively find the spatial relationships between the keys required. Movement around the keyboard can be introduced more successfully once chord shapes have been securely grasped.

Let’s look at this in practice, using Schumann’s ‘Wilder Reiter’, from Album für die Jugend, op. 68, as an example. Here, the melodic aspect of the piece mainly consists of broken chords, while the accompaniment is block chords. As I hope to show, the two hands actually move almost in parallel, which makes this an excellent study for chord- and broken-chord-playing, and a superbly clear demonstration of the difference between ‘shape’ and ‘position’.

The A section (this piece is in ternary form) consists of two four-bar phrases, the first three bars of each being identical. The final bar of the first phrase describes an imperfect cadence; this is balanced by the final bar of the second phrase, which describes a perfect cadence.

ex. 8. Robert Schumann: ‘Wilder Reiter’ from Album für die Jugend, op. 68, bars 1-8

As the breakdown of the first phrase in example 9 (below) shows, both hands move in parallel through i-ivc-i and V-ic-V progressions in bars 2 and 3 respectively. While the right hand in bars 0-2 outlines ic-i in broken chords, the left hand remains on a tonic chord in root position. (The omission of the fifth from the first chord is a pragmatic concession to avoid alternations between the right hand and left hand thumbs.) While we could imagine the left-hand chord to be hypothetically in second inversion, which would in fact result in both hands moving in parallel, the left hand would need to move into root position on the second beat of bar 1, a quaver before the right hand, so this muddies the waters more than it helps. (As a purely compositional observation, however, I feel that it is still worth making.) Changes of position and shape are marked.

ex. 9: Rovert Schumann, ‘Wilder Reiter’, bars 1-4, background chord-shapes

This gives us a left hand that remains on a root position tonic triad for the first two bars, while the right-hand ascends through broken tonic triads in second inversion and root position. The brief left-hand shift to a second inversion subdominant chord in bar 2 is a change of shape only (as the fifth finger remains on A). It can be seen, then, that the left-hand has two changes of shape—i-ivc, and V-ic—and one position shift—downwards from i to V. The right hand is identical but for an initial ic-i position shift.

Of course, if we had two right hands, or two left hands, this situation would be simpler! What makes it more complex, and what makes the approach I’m outlining here so helpful, is that parallel motion actually involves the hands playing in mirror image. The significance of this for chord-playing is that in each hand the space between thumb and index finger—both the wider span between adjacent digits and the most mobile when it comes to changes of shape—are at opposite ends of the chord. To see this problem in action, try playing the right hand’s music with both hands an octave apart. The right and left hands really must employ different fingering solutions.

I would strongly recommend that the right hand practices substituting a broken chord fingering of 1-2-4 for the conventional 1-3-5 for root position and second inversion. (This is less valuable for first inversion until or unless the player’s hand is large enough to span four keys between fingers 2 and 4 without strain.) Not only is this valuable preparation for four-note broken chords, but it also prepares a reflex solution for phrases that feature a broken chord that concludes upwards, rather than falling to a note within the span of the broken chord (in which circumstance, finger 5 is the better solution for the top note of the broken chord.) The equivalent for the left hand would be to take root position and first inversion with 4-2-1 instead of 5-3-1. The exercise shown in example 10 (below) shows how we might train these changes of shape and position.

ex. 10. Robert Schumann: ‘Wilder Reiter’ from Album für die Jugend, op. 68, bars 9-16

The most awkward moment is, in my opinion, the left hand in bars 9-10. The shape-change here (there’s no position change if the little finger remains on the F) is from a triad, fingered 5-3-1, to a sixth-chord, fingered 5-3-2-1. There are two separate issues to master: replacing the thumb on C with the index finger, and moving the thumb upwards from C to D. Now, I don’t believe it’s ever too early to develop lateral mobility in the thumbs. Most early training emphasises thumb-passing, but at speed attempting a bound-legato movement around the thumb is actually restrictive. After all, lightness and rapidity in the thumbs are essential for more advanced works, such as Chopin’s Etude in G-flat, op. 25 no. 9, or ‘Reconnaissance’ from Schumann’s Carnaval, op. 9, and a heavy-feeling thumb can also inhibit rapid octave-playing.

Before we get distracted by other technical matters, though, let’s get back to the issue of fingering for chords and broken chords! This lies at the heart of my shape/position approach, because a well-chosen fingering will promote fluidity of movement, but will also reduce unnecessary movement—be that a reorganisation of fingers on the keys (change of shape) or repositioning of the hand on the keyboard (change of position). The benefit of this distinction between shape and position is that it easily enables more focus on the actual demands of the music. A shape-change is a micro-movement; a position-change a macro-movement. Micro-movements involve abductors and adductors in the hand; macro-movements involve the wrist and/or forearm, depending on the size of the required displacement of the hand.

ex. 10: Elementary training exercise for position- and shape-changes within C major triads

This is why things like the staccato C major scale in 6ths in the ABRSM Grade 6 syllabus pose problems. This scale is essentially a wrist-staccato exercise, a preparation for scales in octaves (which themselves never actually make it into the syllabus!) To execute the scale evenly and cleanly, the fingers must hold the sixth shape, while a light vertical bounce of the hand from the wrist coincides with a smooth horizontal movement up and down the keyboard, initiated mainly by abduction of the upper arm. It’s a continuous sequence of stepwise changes of position. The same is true, of course, of octaves, but the wider span requires more strength across the hand to hold the shape, and as a result there is an increased risk of clenching in the wrist. This means that as the wrist tightens the forearm has to take over the vertical movement, and because the forearm is a much larger lever, it’s much less likely that the stepwise motion will be executed successfully. 

So, while it doesn’t necessarily resolve issues of mechanics, many of the problems of moving around the keyboard can be simplified, if not solved altogether, by thinking in terms of the difference between shape and position. Another benefit is worth mentioning, too. Let’s look at the opening of another popular beginners’ piece, ‘Arabesque’, no. 2 from Friedrich Burgmüller’s Études faciles et progressives, op. 100.

ex. 11: Friedrich Burgmüller, ‘Arabesque’, Études faciles et progressives, op. 100 no. 2, bars 1-10b

Now, let’s look at the breakdown of the chordal outline of this section. Again, position- and shape-changes are marked, along with what I consider to be the most practical fingering.

ex. 12: Friedrich Burgmüller, ‘Arabesque’, Études faciles et progressives, op. 100 no. 2, bars 1-10b, chordal outline.

What this shows us is that the right hand consists entirely of close five-finger shapes, the only adjustments are changes of position. The left hand, conversely, consists entirely of shape-changes between triads in root position, first and second inversions, and one seventh chord. Glance through any collection of elementary or intermediate repertoire, and you will see similar shapes and patterns—and, of course, the majority of even advanced Classical repertoire! You will probably have noticed the very similar left-hand patterns in both the Schumann and Burgmüller extracts above. This is no accident; and while not all the pieces that early-stage students will encounter will be quite so similar, or indeed quite so straightforward in their keyboard choreography, I believe there is enormous advantage to inculcating as soon as possible this approach. Firstly, seeing the chordal patterns that underpin melodies and their accompaniments; and secondly, thinking of the fingerings that these chordal patterns require in terms of hand-shape and keyboard-position. Students often struggle because they see what we might call the music’s ‘face’. Faces are fairly distinctive. Skulls are far harder to tell apart. Recognising the ‘skeletal’ features of the pieces we learn—thinking in terms of the music’s bones, not being distracted by the soft tissue—helps us learn faster.

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.

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