I’ve written before about hand flexibility. A flexible hand can be the key to playing octaves or any intervals or chords requiring that ‘outstretched’ position. As with all piano topics discussed here, hand flexibility is open to personal interpretation, and there are many ways to achieve a relaxed hand. For those with a larger hand, my suggestions probably won’t be of much concern at all (I have a teenage student who can easily span the interval of a twelfth, therefore playing large chords isn’t only instinctive for him, it’s easy!). However, most students aren’t so fortunate; I have a smallish hand and by doing the following exercises (over a period of time, when I was a student), I can now play tenths. As with all technical exercises, nothing should feel uncomfortable or painful.
Hand flexibility is an oft-forgotten topic. Hands can easily become locked and tense, rendering playing an uncomfortable, tight experience. Wrists and arms should ideally feel soft, light and loose as we play, whilst the fingers and knuckles remain firm. But hands also need to be relaxed in order to open and ‘reach’ larger intervals such as chords and octaves. Here are a few ideas to work on flexibility.
- Firstly, become aware of how taut or loose your hand actually is; with your left hand, ‘feel’ the palm and surrounding fleshy areas of your right hand. Does it feel relaxed and soft, or tight and locked-up? When relaxed, most hands are pliable – and they need to stay this way, or at least ‘feel’ comfortable as you play. Learn the feeling of looseness and keep referring to this sensation; this will be important later.
- Lay your hands on a flat surface away from the keyboard, and determine how far you can open them (or stretch out) without feeling any muscle pull or discomfort. To begin with it may not be much, but if you practice this little exercise (just opening the hand) regularly, then your hands will become accustomed to being ‘open’ or outstretched, and they will eventually be able to open out further and further. Keep in mind the feeling of relaxation in the hand at all times.
- Now play a triad (C, E, G in either hand would be perfect). As you play, with your other (free) hand, note how your hand responds when playing – are the fleshy areas still relaxed when you play? If they are tense, revert to playing a single note and as you depress the note (keeping it depressed), aim to release the muscles within the hand (at first this will require focused concentration).
- When you feel relaxed playing one note, play two notes a sixth apart (for example, a C to A in the right hand and then the left). Rock from side to side as you play this interval (from C to the A and back), ‘letting go’ of any tension in your hand as you strike the notes. In between the notes, practise dropping your wrist (lowering it, as opposed to raising it high above the keyboard as you play) freely, again letting go of tension; a constantly moving wrist can help tremendously with flexibility.
- Now play the intervals of a sixth (both the C and A) at the same time (as a chord), again ‘letting go’ or releasing any tightness in your hand muscles, but still keeping the notes depressed. When this feels comfortable, move up to an interval of a seventh and finally, an octave. As the hand gets used to the wider position, allow your muscles to keep releasing any tension. Eventually the hand (and you!) learns to enjoy the outstretched position and its very relaxed stance allows for an easier grasp of chords and octaves, fostering a healthier technique, free of pain and discomfort.
For much more information about how to practice piano 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 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.
You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.