Hands. They are fairly crucial for pianists. Many will immediately refer to the fingers as being the most significant ‘tools’ in a pianist’s tool box. And there’s no doubt, without fingers, playing is rather tricky. But, over the past few months, I’ve been working with a group of students and we have routinely discussed hands; hand positions are always important, but one aspect causing regular issues (and sometimes anxiety too) is the flexibility and ‘softness’ necessary in our hands at the same time as keeping finger strength and independence.
Whilst we work ceaselessly to remain ‘free’ and relaxed in our upper torso, even once this has been acquired, some find the muscles in their hands are still inflexible and tense. For me, movement around the keyboard (particularly at the moment of impact i.e. depressing the key) is vital. There’s little point in discussing the finer points of interpretation, musicianship or even dynamic range, if you can’t get around the piece and feel comfortable doing so!
Once you have assimilated the feeling of freedom in your wrists (the first point of relaxation), arms and upper body, it’s probably time to move onto your hands. When muscles in the hand itself are tense, octave stretches feel challenging, as do large chords and double note passages. Many complain that they find octave stretches and beyond almost impossible. However, I’ve yet to find a student who really can’t play an octave once taught how to relax their hand (small children are an obvious exception, but I don’t teach little ones).
If you recognise this scenario, then read on! To begin with, you need to know which part of the hand to relax. The photos below illustrates the approximate area to which I’m referring: Photo 1 (above) shows the palm and surrounding areas (especially around the thumb joint); these are normally fleshy and soft (when not outstretched or used to play); they need to stay this way (as much as possible) as and when you play.
Lay your hand flat on a surface (away for the piano), palm facing downwards. Determine how far your outstretched hand can open without feeling tense or uncomfortable. To begin with, it might not be that much. However, note the feeling of the hand when it is fairly relaxed and ‘loose’.
Now play the chords below (first with the right hand, and then the left), and during contact with the keys, with your other hand (i.e. the hand not playing), feel just how your muscles in those fleshy areas respond. You might be surprised by how ‘hard’ or rigid your hand feels.
The trick is to learn to relax the hand as you play. It’s paramount to know how your arms, wrists and hands feel when engaged. These feelings are easy to block out, as we are generally too busy focusing on the music. This is why exercises or scales can be of value, as they have generally less musical content, so you can concentrate on how your upper torso feels in action. When the feeling of flexibility has been digested thoroughly, you will start to feel comfortable and relaxed whilst playing.
Hand flexibility can be challenging to teach, as it requires students to really know themselves and their hands, and lots of patience! I constantly work with pupils on this aspect.
A good way to start is to play a repeated single note (in each hand, separately), As you strike each note, notice how the muscles within the hand respond; ask yourself whether they are tense, uncomfortable or rigid. You’ll need to be honest and truthful about the physical sensations felt as you play. Keep returning to the feeling you learnt when your hand was outstretched but was still pliable and felt completely relaxed. By returning to this feeling time and again during practice sessions, it will eventually become a habit.
Now play the following single note pattern (right hand, followed by the left); starting with six notes apart moving on to an octave (you could move to an interval of a seventh too, before the octave):
As you gently ‘reach’ or rock from one note to the next, encourage the usual wrist flexibility between notes (there are many way of doing this, but I ask students to ‘drop’ their wrist between notes, allowing a ‘heavy’ relaxed feeling (as the muscles loosen), moving the wrists in a free lateral motion). Then, check the muscles in the hand (with the hand that is free i.e. the one not playing), to make sure they feel comfortable and not tight. If they don’t feel relaxed, ‘let go’ of the muscles as you engage the hand. ‘Letting go’ is just another terminology for relaxation. This is the most challenging part. When you learn how to ‘let go’ as you play, at the same time as keeping the fingers in place and firm, the hand starts to release its grip, and muscles feel moveable.
Eventually, octave intervals such as those in this exercise feel relaxed and notes can be played together i.e. to form an octave. If you can do this with ease already, as you play an octave, encourage wrists to drop (it’s awkward and uncomfortable to play such intervals with high wrists), and relax, whilst still holding the notes down. For secure octave finger ‘positions’, the fifth finger needs to be fully functional, and the thumb, light but aiming to keep the shape as you move.
If you play octaves slowly, you can watch and feel the hand and its muscles, ‘letting go’ or relaxing, as the fingers depress the keys. Allowing the hand to attain total flexibility takes time, but becoming aware of the required sensation (or feeling) in your hands is a good way to begin.
For much more information about practising repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece.
If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.
The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.
I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.