I once zoomed in on Peter Serkin’s hands with binoculars from the balcony of Carnegie Hall. He was playing an extremely virtuosic contemporary piece that had his hands running all over the keyboard. As usual in watching any great instrumentalist, I sat there stunned – not only by the sheer feat of extraordinary coordination, but by the musical magic his hands were creating.
But I was also looking for one specific thing about how he used his hands. And I wanted to see if it was the same thing that I do, and that I teach my students to do.
I was looking to see if his fingers were up or down—that is, if the non-playing fingers were raised above the keys while other fingers were busy playing, or if they were simply resting on the keys until they needed to play.
As I expected, those fingers were down. How else could they be ready to play a split second later? And how else could his muscles be minimally engaged, to keep tension to a minimum, so that he could play so fast and so easily? It looked so fluid and effortless.
When we look closely at the hands of a performer who has mastered their instrument—whatever that instrument may be—we can gain inspiration for our own practicing. It shows us what is humanly possible, and how beautiful our technical equipment could be.
Watching such mastery can also be daunting for someone who is just setting out to acquire a fine technique, or who wants to take their technique to a new level. But you can actually transform your technique amazingly if you have four essential things: 1) a clear example, 2) a factual explanation of the technique, 3) mental clarity, and 4) a step-by-step process.
Let’s look now at those four essential things.
A Clear Example
A lot of learning happens through imitation and osmosis, and music students rely on watching their teachers’ hands. This video clip can give you a quick closeup of my hands on the keyboard. You can see that in all the passage work, my fingers rest on the keys when they’re not playing—except in two particular situations, which I will explain later.
Now that you’ve seen this example, here is the primary reason for keeping the fingers down.
The Factual Explanation
Whatever instrument you play, your hands are obviously of major importance in your technique. Even if you’re not a pianist, looking at these two photos of my hand can help you understand something crucial about how to use your hands.
In the first photo, you see my third finger putting down a key while the other four fingers are relaxed and resting on the keys.
This is the way Peter Serkin’s hands looked through my binoculars. And it’s also how I teach my students to use their hands.
In the second photo, you also see the third finger playing a key, but this time, other fingers are raised above the keys.
The problem here is that when your fingers are raised above the keys, you’re using muscles to hold them up. Those muscles are in the topside of your forearm. And the muscles that bend your fingers, to play, are in the underside of your forearm. So if you bend and lift at the same time, as in the second picture above, you are contracting both sets of muscles in your forearm simultaneously and creating unnecessary tension. Doctors call this co-contraction.
That extra tension is enough to create a constriction in your forearm, which inhibits both speed and expressiveness. And it happens to be the single most common cause of injuries among pianists.
Take It from a Trumpet Virtuoso
Non-pianists also benefit from learning to relax the fingers they’re not using at a particular moment. Trumpeter Stephen Burns describes it this way:
“Keeping the fingertips connected to the top of the valves brings more color and depth to the sound of the trumpet. Similar to piano technique, when fingers are held above the keys, the tension in the forearm inhibits resonance and communication between brain and body.”
Stephen’s mention of the powerful connection between the brain and the body leads us to the next essential thing you need for transforming your technique.
The first challenge in working with physical details while practicing is that there are so many other things going on. We can get overwhelmed by the complexities of the music, by our emotional responses to it, and by our anxiety about meeting the deadline of a performance, lesson, or audition. In the middle of all that, it can be hard to even notice how your hands feel. In fact, many musicians get so caught up in practicing, and in pushing for results, that they don’t even realize how much tension is in their hands and arms until it builds to the point of injury.
So in order to begin working with your instrumental technique, you first need to clear your mind of other issues that are screaming for your attention. If you can manage to slow down the racing thoughts in your head, and ease up on your tendency to drive yourself too hard, you can gain enough presence of mind to clearly observe the delicate, precise movements of your hands, and you can find solutions to technical problems more quickly and easily.
And as Stephen Burns mentioned, you can even notice how your sound quality improves as you train your hands to move in a freer, more refined way.
Such presence of mind is also known as mindfulness. Mindfulness is actually an innate ability we all have, and in a previous article, Grandma’s Recipe for Space, I described a simple exercise for strengthening your natural mindfulness. Part of this recipe is called mindfulness of breathing, and doing it for even two minutes can turn a totally frustrating practice session into a highly productive one.
Here’s how to do it.
The next time you’re feeling frustrated during practicing, stop practicing for a minute or two, sit comfortably upright, and take two minutes to do three simple things: 1) breathe, 2) notice your breathing, and 3) when you realize you’ve stopped noticing your breathing, simply start noticing it again.
If you’re like everyone else I know who’s tried it, you’ll come back to your instrument feeling more clear-headed and ready to practice with more focus and enjoyment.
Now that you’ve cleared your mind, you’re ready for the last of the essential things you need to take your technique to the next level.
A Step-by-Step Process
Nearly every new student who works with me for the first time has this habit of keeping their fingers raised above the keys, to at least some extent. Many of them know it’s not a good habit, and have even had teachers who advised against it. But they don’t know how to change their habit. Others were instructed to raise their fingers as a kind of calisthenics for the hand—an approach that doctors agree is destructive and potentially injurious.
A habit is like a code in the spinal cord. In order to change that code, you need to put your brain in charge and deliberately do something differently, repeatedly. Even ten minutes of slowly and carefully making sure that your fingers are down will make it more automatic—you will already begin to feel that the old habit is starting to weaken, and the newer one is starting to take hold.
Most people who have never taken the time to focus like that are surprised by how much mental energy it takes. Often I ask them how their hand feels after a few minutes of playing in the new position, and they answer that they are so busy focusing on doing it the new way that they don’t even notice how different the physical sensation is. But usually they quickly realize that it feels better, and they describe it as “more relaxed,” “less strained.” “Easier.”
So acquiring physical ease takes mental work.
Three Transformative Micro-Steps
The key is to follow this little sequence: For every single thing you do with a single finger, you actually do three things: 1) Put down a key with one finger, without using any arm movement. 2) Check the other four fingers to make sure they’re resting on the keys instead of being raised above them. 3) Let your mind relax for a brief moment before you think about playing the next note. (This releases mental tension along with the physical relaxation you’re accomplishing.)
You need to practice this with one hand at a time until the habit is set.
Each time you complete these three tiny steps—of moving a finger, checking the rest of your fingers, and letting your mind relax before you play the next note—you’re strengthening the part of your brain where your natural mindfulness operates. Neuroscientists have actually located this part of the brain, in the prefrontal cortex—behind your forehead. And they’ve observed that as people practice mindfulness, the cells in the prefrontal cortex multiply, strengthening this natural mental capacity.
As you practice using your hand this way, remember that the fingers are not designed for power. The arm is designed for power, and the fingers are designed for sensitivity, precision, and refined control. So don’t try to get a big sound. In fact, even if a finger isn’t yet strong enough to produce any sound, just put the key down with minimum effort. Don’t force anything—you will gain strength within a short time.
Then, once your fingers have learned how to relax on the keys, you’ll have the necessary foundation of sensitivity and precision in your technique, and you can easily add arm movements to the mix, bringing physical power and a sense of flow to your playing.
A Bit of Guidance
It helps a lot if a teacher guides you through these steps during one or more lessons and catches where little things are obstructing your progress: If your wrist height changes too much, your knuckles collapse, your shoulders hunch or roll forward, or your hand remains in a stretched position longer than necessary, it can hamper the process. And most people need someone else there to catch the times when their focus slips and they fail to notice that a finger is working too hard, is unnaturally curled or straight, or is sticking up in the air.
But if you follow these steps for ten minutes at a time over the course of a week, playing with one hand at a time, and without playing anything else during that week, you can succeed in changing your habit of raising your fingers above the keys—at least 95% of that habit will be gone, and your hand will work with wonderful new ease and efficiency. Even one or two ten-minute sessions a day can be enough to accomplish this goal in a week’s time.
Of course, there are other factors that come into play—like adjusting the bench to the right height so that you have optimum leverage with your fingers and arm. And aligning your torso and arms for maximum efficiency. But that would take too many paragraphs right now. If you’re interested, you can read all about it in the chapter called “Basic Mechanics” in my book, The Art of Practicing.
What About That Left Thumb?
You caught it! Yes, my left thumb is momentarily above the keys in the video when my fifth finger is playing the bass notes. That’s because I’m using a particular arm movement to bring out the bass line and to create momentum in negotiating the arpeggios, and the angle of my arm in this movement results in my thumb leaving the surface of the keys. But the thumb is still relaxed, just hanging from my hand instead of sticking up.
And That Place Where Your Right Hand Hits Keys from the Air?
That’s something called forearm rotation. Too much to go into here, but basically, in this case, it allows you to momentarily throw your hand to the side, which gives you enough arm power to bring out certain notes in certain kinds of patterns.
It may all sound very complex, and it is. But once you know how the different hand and arm movements work together, and you get used to doing them, it feels simple and natural.
Mindfulness Brings Heartfulness
The word mindfulness may sound very cerebral, and you may think that practicing with this kind of attention to detail will take you away from your heart connection to the music and to your instrument. But the opposite is true.
When we clear our mind and take time to focus on one detail at a time, something magical happens: Our heart opens. We start to develop a new appreciation of each small thing we’re doing and experiencing.
Practicing is indeed extremely complicated. But when we slow down and deal with one thing at a time, it becomes a series of simple moments. These moments gradually come together into complete phrases, and finally into a whole piece that has integrity and beauty. Your attention to detail results in a performance that flows freely, naturally, and from the heart.
I invite you to come home to the natural clarity of your mind and perceptions, and to the natural warmth of your heart, by practicing with mindfulness. Practicing doesn’t have to be a struggle or a chore. If you understand the facts about how your hands work best, you can master the details of using them by slowing down enough to notice their amazing ability to move gracefully, and to touch your instrument with ease, sensitivity, and love.
It’s worth the time it takes.
Special Opportunity for Pianists
And if you’re a pianist and you’d like to actually experience this kind of work, I invite you to apply for my upcoming Transformative Piano Master Class Series, starting June 1. We still have 2 spots open for pianists to play in each of the six classes, and 4 spots open for general participants.
Here’s to more expressive freedom in your performances!