© Richard Beauchamp 1996 — Revised 2003/2015
I have often taken on pupils whose fingers are so tense that they seem barely able to move them. From many years of teaching and an interest in anatomy has come the firm conviction that one of the main causes of stiffness in the hand and wrist is the insistence, by some teachers, on actively curving the fingers and "gripping" the keys with the finger tips. I don’t disagree in principle with a curved hand position — it serves the player well as a basic shape — but it is the attempt to "clench" the finger tips whilst playing which results in stiffness. The reason for this is that the muscle which flexes the finger tips, the flexor digitorum profundus, (a big muscle lying along the underside of the forearm ending in four tendons which attach to the tips of the index finger, middle finger, ring and little fingers) tends to move the fingers together as a unit, because of the way its tendons are tied together by areolar tissue and tendinous slips as far as the palm, making it difficult to move them individually. In nine cases out of ten, the tendon for the index finger escapes this connection, or is only partially connected.
(In the accompanying illustration the superficial muscles are peeled back to show the tendons of the flexor digitorum profundus (FDP). It can be seen that those that go to the middle, ring and little fingers - above the metal rod - are so joined together that they look rather like one solid tendon. The tendon lying next to these - under the metal rod - goes to the index finger and is normally separate throughout).
It follows that, if the pianist is actively curving his/her finger tips, at least three, and sometimes all four of the digits, will try to move together. When this happens, the player will automatically try to lift the ‘unwanted’ fingers out of the way to prevent them from interfering, causing even greater stress; not only from the attempt to separate the tendons of the FDP, but also because of the way the extensor tendons (which lift the fingers) are connected to each other.
The muscle which lifts the fingers, known as the extensor digitorum, runs along the forearm on the opposite side from the flexor digitorum profundus and divides into four tendons which cross the back of the hand and attach to the relevant four digits. These tendons are joined to each other by the tendinus interconnexus or ‘connecting tendons.’ (See picture on the left - courtesy of Primal Pictures Ltd). The index finger and (usually) the little finger have additional extensor tendons of their own and can lift independently of the middle and ring fingers (hence the index finger's ability to point), but these latter can only be raised with difficulty if any of the other digits are held down — depending to some extent on the amount of ‘slack’ in the connecting tendons of the individual.
Let us suppose that the pianist is holding a note with an actively curved fourth finger. The third and fifth fingers (and possibly the second) are being pulled downwards by the action of the flexor digitorum profundus. The player can lift the second and fifth fingers out of the way without too much trouble, because of their separate extensor tendons, but in trying to hold the third finger out of the way, is actually trying to lift the fourth finger as well, due to its connection to the other extensor tendons. To put it another way, the pianist may be trying to play and lift all four fingers at the same time. Not only does this cause tension in the hand, but the action of the two big opposing muscles which cross the wrist lead to stiffness there as well.
The solution to this problem is to start with the fingers at least slightly curved and allow them to extend a little as they play. (I prefer the word ‘lengthen’ — borrowed from the Alexander technique — but this word is perhaps less clear form the purely mechanical point of view). It is important that the fingers are not consciously straightened, but rather allowed to unbend, if the appropriate muscles are to be called into play with the least tension.
This action of the fingers — similar to writing, or (as many of the anatomy books say) to threading a needle — uses the interosseous and lumbrical muscles, which flex the fingers at their first knuckles (metacarpophalangeal joints) and extend simultaneously at the second and third (proximal and distal interphalangeal joints), because of the way they connect both to the base of the first phalanges and, by sending extra tendons around to the backs of the fingers, join the extensor mechanism as well. With the exception of the first dorsal interosseous (between the thumb and index finger), none of these muscles are attached to more than one digit each and all of them are completely independent of each other, thereby making it possible for us to move the fingers individually without encountering undue tension from opposing muscle groups. They are also capable of great speed, and their rich nerve supply makes them very sensitive to differences in key weight.
The interosseous muscles lie between the bones of the hand (inter-osseous) and are also responsible for the lateral movements of the fingers. The lumbricals, because of having their origins in the tendons of the flexor digitorum profumdus and their insertions in the extensor mechanism, have the power to alter the balance between the flexors and extensors. (This is possibly a contributing factor to the feeling of ‘allowing’ the fingers to lengthen rather than actively pushing them out). A change in balance from what feels like a flexor biased touch to one which feels more extensor biased can make all the difference between a stiff technique and one which feels loose and free.
It can take a long time to help a pupil to acquire the new sensations necessary for this kind of change in technique, or it may take only a few sessions — depending on the individual.
I am not suggesting that this is the only way to use the fingers, there are many techniques which suit individual players and various styles of music — the use of the FDP, for example, is important in loud playing of chords and octaves. It would also be simplistic to suggest that one could use isolated groups of muscles exclusively — they work together in a highly coordinated way. What I am suggesting is that this is a healthy general approach, particularly in rapid fingerwork or double note technique, and should, of course, be used in conjunction with other good technical principles.
Richard Beauchamp, Head of Keyboard, St Mary’s Music School, Edinburgh.