A Potentially Bad (Yet Highly Popular) Bit Of Advice About Your Fingers

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

-Mark Twain

The words above are especially true when it comes to musical pedagogy. There are lots of myths out there (often in the form of simple advice) that are based on a misunderstanding between cause and effect. These myths often prevail because they seem, on the surface, quite logical.

And that’s where the problems begin.

The one I’m talking about here specifically is this: To play a woodwind instrument (though I’ve read/heard the same thing about string instruments and piano, as well) with optimum speed and efficiency, you must train your fingers to stay close to the keys.

On the surface this seems logical. For you to play passages rapidly and with control, there needs to be an efficiency of movement. Ideally your fingers need not move any more than necessary to open and close keys.

And more often than not, if you witness a musician playing with great speed and control, this is what you’ll notice in the fingers. Like a well-trained athlete…economy of motion.

Lately I’ve seen several videos online where very good saxophonists are advocating this idea, even giving specific instruction on how to train the fingers in this manner. As much as I respect these musicians, I don’t at all agree with their advice in this area.

Here are  four reasons why not:

First, there is a misunderstanding of what actually leads to the efficiency of your fingers. When you see somebody playing with the fingers flapping up and down like crazy while playing, what you are witnessing is excessive muscular tension. The fingers are going too high, for example, because the player is tensing them (over-extending) to bring them there. As they come back down to the keys they often do so with a thud (again, too much tension as the fingers flex).

You see, efficiency of the fingers (staying close to the keys) is a result of the balance between tension and release. The fingers flex lightly to come toward the keys, and release to come off of the keys. As they release they don’t move very far. Sometimes they even keep in light contact with the keys. So get rid of the excess tension, and the fingers do no more nor less than what they need to do.

Second, by trying to hold the fingers close to the keys and limit their movement, you’re mostly replacing one type of unnecessary tension with another. (Please note that the operative word here is “hold”, as in “hold the fingers and not let them be free to respond and move“.)

Third, this over emphasis on one part (the fingers) divides and disintegrates your attention as you play. It also takes away from your ability to sense how each part is related to the whole. For example, if you see a saxophonist playing with stiff and high flying fingers, you can also notice that there is a chain of habitual muscular tension on display: stiff fingers connected to stiff arms, connected to stiff and narrowed shoulders, connected to a stiff neck. This whole pattern really needs to change in order to support economy of motion in the fingers.

Fourth (and perhaps most important), this kind of practice (trying to hold the fingers closely to the keys) can lead to other troubles for some musicians. As an Alexander Technique teacher, I’ve had students come to me with three specific types of problems that have been exacerbated by their obsession with over-managing their fingers as they play: Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Elbow Tendonitis and Focal Dystonia. Part of what I help these musicians with is to strike a balance in their attention as they practice  in order to expand and include more of themselves (and their external environments) into their music making habits.

I have no doubt that the saxophonists I refer to above sincerely believe that they have been helped by their approach and their specific remedies (everything from holding pencils between the fingers while playing, to attaching the fingers to the keys with rubber bands).

To them I would say this: you play very well despite doing that. And to be honest, as I watch them play, I don’t see a huge amount of unnecessary tension in the rest of their bodies (thought I certainly see areas that could improve!)

But I don’t know what they were doing with themselves before they started to practice this way, so it’s impossible for me to know the improvements (and potential harmful habits) that have been gained.

I do know this, however:  Your fingers move most efficiently when you leave them alone to do so. If you have clear intentions about the music, a good sense of time and a nice balance of tension and release in your body as you play, your fingers will do the right thing easily, without self-concious effort.

So if you notice your fingers moving “too much” as you play, stop and observe. Are you raising them through release or tension? If you notice that you’re tensing your fingers, trace that to what your arms, shoulders, head and neck are doing. If you’re finding lots of tension in these areas, it just might be the right time to find a good Alexander Technique teacher 😉  You’d be amazed at how much more efficient and effortless the entire music making process can be.

Comments

  1. Anders Swanson says

    Right, if fingers are over-extended, then the root problem is elsewhere. Correct ones posture and one will correct the first problem. Thanks for writing!

    • Bill says

      Anders, so great to hear from you! Yes, as you said, “the root problem is elsewhere”. Sometimes when we go directly after what we think the problem is (the effect), we lose sight of the cause. For that reason, we need to be aware of taking a broader perspective and approaching some things indirectly. Thanks for dropping by!

  2. says

    Bill,

    I’m very glad I discovered your blog. I am one guilty of having advocated the idea that fingers need to stay in contact with the keys, but never to the extent that you mentioned with the rubber bands.

    The confusion seems to come from mistaking the observable characteristic as an end goal, much like someone excelling in a career they love earning a great living. The “rewards” are really a by-product of doing things right.

    I look forward to exploring more of your posts. Thanks!

    Tim

    • Bill says

      Hi Tim,

      I’m pleased that you found the article useful! I really like how clearly you’ve defined the problem: “The confusion seems to come from mistaking the observable characteristic as an end goal…”
      As an Alexander Technique teacher, I encounter so many musicians who have confused themselves in this way, leading themselves into discomfort, mal-coordination and injury (well meant advice about embouchure and breathing come immediately to mind here). Thanks very much for your comments! Hope to hear from you again. Best wishes!

      Bill

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