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Piano Exercises for Finger Independence

piano technique

Question: Hello Albert,

Firstly, many thanks for the positive feedback you have given me to my questions which is a tremendous help.

My question today relates to technique, working the fingers in a proper way to enable them to become supple, strong, thus enabling the student to tackle difficult music passages.

We know that practicing scales daily is one way, but what about alternative exercises for the hands and fingers?

I was reading a book the other day which stated that as the hands and fingers are so intermeshed with muscles, tendons and ligaments that playing only scales is not the way to work the entire wrist, hand and fingers as most or many of the muscles, tendons and ligaments are not exercised at all, thus preventing the student from performing properly even though they could read the music well.

As a personal example, if one sits in front of a table and places their hand in position like they would at the keyboard, with fingers curled on the keys, then to raise or lift each finger in turn, I find that the 4th or ring finger does not travel or lift much. I find that this makes playing broken chords very difficult. Is there something which could be done for this please?

What are your thoughts on this and do you have any suggestions please?

I am very interested in purchasing your CD when it comes out. Will there be a DVD as well? I prefer to see the person who is playing. Please advise me when they are on sale.

Many thanks again Albert for your help, most kind of you.

Best regards,

– Brian (Colombia)

Albert’s reply: Thanks for your kind comments and excellent questions. It’s really impossible to give detailed technical advice remotely, since this is really the domain of one-on-one work with an expert teacher who needs to see and hear you play in person.

A general remark I can say about piano exercises is that the best one, beyond scales and arpeggios, is to “exercise” caution. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of mechanical playing as a result of focusing on exercises at the expense of music.

A further danger is injuring the hands via repetitive stress, which is most often the result of not working properly, and less often of just plain overwork.

Moreover, how we perform the exercises is decisive – not only which exercises to practice. Often what happens is that piano students will subconsciously find some way to play the notes in time, even if it’s not necessarily the optimal way. In that case, the wrong muscles end up trying to do more than their share of the work, and the fingers are not independent.

Speaking of which, the fourth finger will always be the weakest. The reason for that is that the middle and ring fingers share a common tendon.

Finger independence is more important than finger equality. Chopin used to say, “five fingers, five colors,” meaning that the natural strengths of the individual fingers can be used for tone color.

One simple exercise for developing finger independence is indeed just what you’ve done on a table: lift the fingers in turn, without affecting the other fingers.

Another exercise is a slow trill on the fourth and fifth fingers, with and without holding the remaining fingers.

Finally, double notes (especially double thirds) are some of the best exercises of all for developing finger strength and independence, though this is quite advanced work.

Let me add that many of the 51 exercises by Brahms are extremely effective at both strengthening the weak fingers and developing finger independence. Most of the patterns are easy to learn, and while they’re not masterpieces for the concert hall, they are more musical than mechanical.

I’ll announce the availability of CDs and DVDs once they’re released. The Alkan will be available on CD only though: I wanted to do a DVD performance, but the added complexity of the production is enormous, and the label releasing it is a CD label after all. I am recording piano lesson DVDs, however… I’ll announce the details to key-notes subscribers.

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