One thing I've been thinking lately (and it's related to my "Bone Ropes" -thread and latest "How To Practise Scales Slowly" -video) is about hyperextended fingers. Alan teaches here and there that we should be practising (and sometimes even playing) with straight fingers and even hyperextended fingers. I think I understand the basic reason: idea is to empower MCP movement and give our brains a strong stimulus about that activity. But most of the time in real playing we still are supposed to have a slight curve in distal joint for example with scales, right? Just a small amount and still main power/movement coming from MCPs. So why would we actually need this preparatoty phase of playing with hyperextended fingers (for example scales)? Should we go instead to straight to most efficient way? I am asking this because I am allways little worried about doing something "wrong" and then de-learn this old way and then learn the new "correct" way. I know there are players who are learned to overuse to curving fingers and practically aren't using MCPs at all. Perhaps for them this therapeutic way is good starting point. But how about those of us who are allready playing quite well but want to empower our elasticity and structure? Should we go straight to slightly curved fingers and still try to get this MCP power to our playing. With slightly curved finger I basically mean the form of the finger which you have when you do absolutely nothing, finger is totally relaxed.
What do you think?
Here's my interpretation of what Alan might say.
What kind of sound are you aiming for? Because once you have the tools, the different ways of using the fingers will create different sounds. With the flat, hyperextended fingers, they tend to be used for a strong cantabile, whereas when you progress more and more towards the tip you get a more precise sound. In short, it depends what kind of musical result you want to create.
I agree with you about different musical needs and tools for creating those different sounds. But what I am thinking here is kind of a very basic way of playing, if there is one. In general I believe that if (over-)curving fingers isn't very healthy way of playing, locking joints to outmost position isn't either, if overdone of course. So I am wondering here that should a piano student first carefully practise (a) to play with relatively straight fingers and same time (b) keep finger joints not locked or hyperextended. All of us who teach will probably know that weak standing (or arch) is typical but also the problem of "leaking" joints. Especially distal joints tend to "jump" back and forth.
In Alan's teachings there's for example an exercise where your fingers 1-4 are in fist and you slide your hyperextended 5th finger towards your hand. This is perhaps a powerful way of awaken your sleepy 5th MPC-joint, but to actually play like that is quite an extreme way. In fact I've had little trouble to transfer this exercises benefit to "normal" (slightly curved) way of using 5th. So I started to question that is this actually the best way to practise standing up with 5th...? One possible exercise might be starting with strongly curved 5th and then standing arch up with straightening the 5th. This way you'll get same strong knuckle rise but also keep 5th not locked or hyperextended.
Basically I have yet no opinion what's the best way to practise and what comes first etc. I am just curious to hear others opinions and output about this...
EDIT: To be clear, I am not against hyperextended fingers or bone ropes, but I am just thinking that maybe more attention should be put to keeping fingers relatively straight but same time not locking joints as a basic way of manipulating keys. In other words keeping fingers in their natural shape. This is shape is easy to find but not so easy to maintain, you know. There are countless ways of making sound: hyperextended fingers and hooking with fingertips are kind of extremes on this spectrum. Completely different muscle groups are involved in these two extreme ways. Somewhere in the middle is perhaps the "basic way" which I am talking here.
Ah I see what you're getting at.
Have you read Alan's first book, Craft of Piano Playing? There's a chapter in there called "Natural Finger Shape" which is closest to your idea of a basic way of playing. If I recall correctly, there's a bunch of exercises aiming to not disturb the natural shape of the hand and fingers when playing. The natural shape is achieved by hanging your hand by your side and maintaining that shape when you bring your hand up to the keyboard.
In general with the body, the middle range tends to be the most comfortable and the end range the least comfortable. A basic way of playing would focus on one's sensation of comfort and this will be within a comfortable mid range of movement.
Here's a story of my experience with something related. As I was working my way through Craft of Piano Playing, I emphasised the action at the MCP joint very much which resulted in hyperextended fingers. It didn't cause me any pain but I realised by right hand little finger was hypermobile and was concerned that playing too much in this way might cause me problems later on. Then as I was going through this website there was a lesson with Hanno (?) where Alan showed him to curl the distal joint and follow all the way through with the arm, so that the curling results in a fist. I followed along with the video and it seems to have helped wake up the curling action in my fingers. I'm not perfect, but I have far fewer collapses of my distal joints now.
As for what a piano student should practise it depends what their weaknesses are. If they had weak curling action like I did then it would be important to emphasise that but at the same time the flexion of the MCP joint, the Russian Arch, must always be present. Then after some time if they are tending towards locking themselves rigid with excessive muscular action, I would consider collapsing the Russian Arch and playing with hyperextended fingers. In order to learn, the brain needs to perceive differences and going to the extremes makes the differences really clear. Once the difference is noticed, then you can move more and more towards the middle, refining your approach.
As for your trouble with standing up with the fifth finger, I too had trouble with that exercise. It was too extreme for me, especially for my hypermobile finger. I generally feel my fifth finger flexion is good enough and playing chords/octaves where the fifth finger has to sing is good exercise for it. Another way to stand on the fifth is, like you said, to extend the finger rather than flexion i.e. Seymour Fink's extension from claw position. It is an unusual way for me to play, I haven't done it so much but I suspect people who think that any effort that doesn't make the piano key go down would use an undifferentiated mixture of extension (especially for the 5th finger), flexion, and curling.
Anyway, hope this helps,
Hello PLaine and Simon.
The following Q&A video will put PLaine's original question into perspective:
Also, when the hand is hanging loosely at your side, it is not FUNCTIONING. When you are playing the piano, your hand is FUNCTIONING, so why expect it to look the same, or to behave the same?
Hope this also helps.
Thanks for the link, it really clarified the question here. Now when I saw it I actually remember seeing it few years ago...
I also think that we all are quite close what comes to the subject. Choosing finger shape, touch or exercise depends on many things. Like Simon said, flat or hyperextended fingers aren't perhaps best way if you have hypermobility on those finger joints. Then it would be probably wiser to learn to control those joints carefully to not overbend them. On the other hand, in the video Alan says that many of his exercises are "remedial" and he is not meaning to say to actually play like that. My original question was kind of a personal speculation that how much I need this "remedial" stuff or should I practise more "real playing". Now it seems quite clear to me that there's no simple answer to suit everybody or every music style or musical situation. I still hold my position that sometimes it's difficult to transfer these remedial exercise's benefit to normal way of playing. 5th finger sliding (exercise talked above) is perhaps an example of that difficulty.
Kemal often uses completely flat fingers, even splayed. He calls it the "one-boned finger." It is not just a practice technique but often used to play big, sonorous singing lines or clangorous chords. This may even be seen as his basic touch, which is then modified to include various degrees of finger curling depending on the musical inflection needed.