Tricky Corners: Fourth and Fifth Fingers in Chords

Today’s ‘Tricky Corner’ examines those pesky fourth and fifth fingers in chords. A student recently studied the Praeludium from Ludas Tonalis by Hindemith. This delightfully contemplative piece presents a few technical challenges, not least the opening introduction, which must sound improvisatory, and the subsequent Moderato passage (from bar 4), with its copious demisemiquaver figurations. None of this bothered my student. The area which she found ‘tricky’ was from bar 7 – 11 of the final Lento section. This passage consists of chords in the right hand. Here’s the section causing most concern:

Ex. 1

On first glance, it looks quite straight-forward, but my student, who has relatively small hands, struggled to play these right-hand chords without feeling tense and tight. Therefore, we worked in isolation, using several practice concepts. For clarity, I have added suggested fingering above the chords in Ex. 1.

The use of the fourth finger here is important, as using the third finger (to replace the fourth) in this situation can, in my opinion, destabilise the hand, forcing it to twist and turn uncomfortably. Employing the fourth finger for such chords generally keeps the hand in an ‘aligned’ position. However, using the fourth finger in this manner can be a difficult experience for those who have issues with chords, or more specifically, with stretching-out their hand whilst keeping it relaxed. I’ve written about hand flexibility on copious occasions on this blog, but this article might be of interest to some. Hand flexibility, or keeping the area between the fingers and wrist, relaxed and free from tension, will be crucial in the development and utilization of the fourth and fifth finger, and especially in relation to chords.

Whilst keeping the hand relaxed, the following exercises certainly helped my student realign her hand, and move from chord to chord with relative ease.

We began by breaking the chords down, using just the second chord in the first bar from Ex . 1 as an example; we worked on the top two notes of the chord, like this:

Ex 2.

There are two challenges here; the first is to keep the hand relaxed during engagement with the keys, which takes a lot of focused concentration, and the second, is to ‘observe’ the fingers as they depress the keys, ensuring use of the tips of the fingers, and that the joints of these fingers are ‘active’, that is, not collapsing. In order to encourage the necessary ‘relaxation’ of the wrist and hand between the chords, whilst creating firmer fingers, I continually observe and correct my student’s movements; this is a most important part of the learning process, and I strongly recommend studying with a good teacher for this purpose.

We practised the passage very slowly, using the finger-tips, making sure that the finger joints (particularly the one nearest the finger-tip) were not ‘collapsing’ and the finger-key connection was strong:

I observed my student’s arm and shoulder movements at this point, too, as she, like many, has a habit of ‘raising’ the shoulders when movements become unfamiliar or more demanding; to overcome this, I encourage her to continually ‘feel’ the shoulder and arm as it supports the hand, being aware of precisely when they started to tighten; and this is the cue to ‘release’ the muscles, so that the arm, wrist and hand are constantly ‘relaxed’. I call this the development of a ‘sixth’ sense, so that one is able to focus on what is being played and various body movements, simultaneously.

Once the fourth and fifth fingers become accustomed to the hand position, they will feel more secure and comfortable. These exercises must only be practised for very short periods of time, so as not to cause injury.

Next, we employed the following note pattern using the interval of a sixth:

Ex. 3

When playing the top note in each chord, it’s a good idea to aim for a slightly deeper, prolonged touch, particularly with the fourth finger; gently adding a little more ‘weight’ behind the key, by moving the wrist to the right, so that the hand and arm can ‘support’ this finger.

It was helpful to move from chord to chord using the exercises suggested above, ascertaining position changes. By leaving a very slight ‘break’ or gap between the bars before moving to the next chord, as marked by the arrows in Ex. 4, my student was eventually able to relax, or ‘release’, the hand, wrist and arm between chord changes – an important technique for ‘breaking’ tension:

Ex. 4

Finally, we worked at the octaves, and the ‘inner parts’, separately (Ex.5). The octave itself still felt like a large stretch, so we briefly returned to the hand flexibility exercises; these are amongst the most useful tools in my ‘teaching toolbox’! It’s vital to be able to play an octave, and, whilst keeping the keys depressed, release or relax the hand, so it learns to be comfortable in the out-stretched position:

Ex. 5

Once we had worked at these exercises, releasing any tension in the hand, wrist and arm between each chord (which, incidentally, can take time – sometimes a few weeks, or even months), we started to play the whole chord, as written, in isolation. When working at this type of passagework, it can be a good idea to play the outer notes (or octaves) firmly, gently guiding the inner notes into position, so the hand resists the need to tense up. We also practised this an octave higher, followed by one or two octaves lower on the keyboard, to that written; this is useful to ascertain differing key weights.

Ghosting can be a very practical tool; this involves playing two notes of the four-note chord, leaving fingers just hovering over the other two notes, without sounding them. In the photo below, I am playing the G# and B (from the second chord in Ex. 1), whilst hovering with my thumb and fourth finger over the E and lower G#. Again, this should ideally be done with a relaxed, or ‘released’ wrist and hand:

When moving from chord to chord using this exercise,  we aimed to keep the hand as loose as possible, which took a surprising amount of focus and patience. As with most exercises, it’s not about the notes or note patterns, but much more about ‘how’ those patterns are negotiated; focusing on the movement or motion, and the ‘feeling’ of playing the pattern, which will, hopefully, become a habit.

We then concentrated on ‘voicing’ various notes within each chord, in isolation; starting by adding a tenuto marking to specific notes, which draws attention to the finger position, eventually encouraging it to ‘feel’ secure. Adding extra ‘weight’ to notes, such as those played by the fourth and fifth finger will prepare for the passage when played as written with a deeper touch, with a focus on ‘colouring’ or nuancing the top note. A legato approach to the top notes will add a smoother musical line, and even though it’s not physically possible to join the notes, if using the suggested fingering, one can create an ‘illusion’ of legato, by leaving the top notes at the last possible moment, before moving to the next chord.

After approximately a four-week practice period, these exercises significantly improved my student’s performance, and she can now play the chord progression with a relatively flexible hand, wrist and arm.

You can hear the whole work, here:


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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