In my work as a teacher, I regularly encounter pianists even at the advanced level who ask me for my special exercises to “strengthen” their fingers. Initially they react with disappointment when I tell them I don’t have any such exercises nor do I believe in them, and that their fingers are strong enough already. My job is to show them how to coordinate the fingers with the arm in ways that end up feeling strong, but this has nothing to do with developing muscles.
The Finger School
There is still a strong legacy from the old Finger School in the piano teaching world, which has its roots in the pedagogy of Clementi and Czerny. While their approach may have been just fine for the early pianos with their short keyboards and light actions, it proved less and less efficient as the piano and the music written for it evolved. Teachers kept at it though.
If you were a student at the Stuttgart Conservatory in the mid 1800‘s during the reign of Sigismund Lebert and Ludwig Stark, you would have had to practise a strict regime of finger exercises, preferably with the aid of a hand rail (a device attached to the piano enabling the player to rest their wrists on it). The point was to achieve everything with the fingers and the wrist, the rest of the arm remaining quiet and passive. The elbow was to stay close to the body and only the forearm was supposed to move if the hands needed to move outwards. The basic finger touch was known as the “hammer touch”, where each finger was lifted as high as possible and then slammed into the key fortissimo (with no help from the arm). When the key was released, the finger had to return to its high position. Lebert and Stark’s method book was first published in 1858 (not that long ago in the scheme of things) and was widely disseminated across the world, successful for over a century.
Even though we have evolved since those days, traditional “finger strengthening” exercises remain popular. I especially like Thomas Mark’s words on this subject, they hit the nail on the head.
Saying that we play the piano with our fingers is like saying that we run with our feet. The fingers move when we play the piano and they are the only parts of our upper body that touch the piano. Similarly, our feet move when we run and are the only parts that touch the ground. But a runner who tried to improve his running by keeping his legs motionless and doing foot exercises would be ridiculous. He is similar to a pianist who keeps his arms motionless and exercises his fingers, although what the pianist does has the sanction of tradition. We play the piano just as we run: by complex coordinated movements of our whole bodies.Thomas Mark: What Every Pianist Needs to Know about the Body (p. 3).
If you have ever struggled to play scales, arpeggios and passagework freely, in a coordinated way with a feeling of ease and comfort, you may well be among the many pianists trying to find the solution by drilling those fingers with lots of Hanon and Czerny. Despite this, the playing feels tight and unreliable.
Incorporating Rotational Movements
During my postgraduate training in New York, I had regular lessons with a very great teacher who had studied with Dorothy Taubman. I received some valuable information on how to choreograph passages at the keyboard that were causing me difficulty, usually because I was experiencing tension or simply felt uncoordinated when I hit these spots in the pieces. I was shown how tiny, almost imperceptible movements generated from the forearm could share with the fingers the job of putting down the keys. Along with the rotational movements I also needed to factor in certain other movements that accommodate the long and short fingers on the black-white terrain of the keyboard, involving specific in-out and up-down adjustments. While some of this fell into place immediately, with wonderfully liberating results, other aspects took a while to assimilate because they initially struck me as counter-intuitive or overly complicated. I had several eureka moments on the journey, where things that I previously struggled with began to fall into place.
As my regular readers will know, we have recently introduced a technique library on the Online Academy that will grow and expand. This week sees the launch of my module on forearm rotation, a self-study course that you can take at your own pace. There are over 40 video demonstrations,which provide a step-by-step guide to helping you experience and incorporate forearm rotation into your playing and teaching. I have come up with exercises that have a unique notation system devised specifically to take away the confusion about the movements and illustrate how they work. There are numerous practical examples from the repertoire, including works by Bach, Czerny, Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven and Rachmaninoff.
Forearm rotation (and associated movements) is a way of coordinating the arm with the fingers in very specific and controlled ways. Suitable for all style periods this approach yields significant benefits, resulting in improved coordination, reduced tension and a feeling of greater strength in your playing.
It is important to stress that I am not a Taubman teacher. Much as I respect and admire my colleagues who follow this path, my approach is more eclectic, embracing much from the great Russian and English traditions in which I was brought up.
A Practical Guide to Forearm Rotation is available for once-off purchase here or with an Online Academy subscription. Please click here to find out more about subscription options, or click here to view if you are already a subscriber.