Playing (Wide) Chords, Palm Stretching Exercises

We first deal with the problem of playing accurate chords in which all notes must be played as simultaneously as possible. Then we address the problem of playing wide chords.

We saw in section II.10 that the gravity drop can be used to improve your chord accuracy. However, if there is still unevenness after using the gravity drop, then there is a fundamental problem that must be diagnosed and treated using the parallel set exercises. Chords become uneven when the control over individual fingers is uneven. Which fingers are weak or slow, etc., can be diagnosed and corrected using the parallel set exercises. Let's take an example. Suppose that you are playing a C.E chord against a G (in the LH) in octave 3. The C3.E3 and G3 are played with the fingers 5.3 and 1. You are playing a series of 5.3,1,5.3,1,5.3,1, etc., like a tremolo. Let's further assume that there is a chord problem with the 5.3. These two fingers do not land simultaneously, ruining the tremolo. The way to diagnose this problem is to try the 5,3 parallel set, to see if you can play it. Now test the reverse set, 3,5. If you have a problem with the chord, chances are that you have more of a problem with one of these two parallel sets than the other, or you have problems with both parallel sets. Typically, 3,5 is more difficult than 5,3. Work on the problematic parallel set(s). Once you can play both parallel sets well, the chord should come out much better. There is a smaller possibility that your problem lies in the 5,1 or 3,1 parallel sets, so if the 5,3 did not work, try these.

The hand has two sets of muscles that stretch the palm to reach wide chords. One set mainly opens the palm and the other mainly spreads the fingers apart. When stretching the hand to play wide chords, use mainly the set of muscles that open the palm. The feeling is that of stretching the palm but with free fingers; i.e., spread the knuckles apart instead of the fingertips. The second set of muscles simply spread the fingers apart. This spreading helps to widen the palm but it interferes with the finger movement because it tends to lock the fingers to the palm. Cultivate the habit of using the palm muscles separately from the finger muscles. This will reduce both stress and fatigue when playing chords, and provide more control.

In order to test whether the palms are fully stretched, open your palm to its maximum and stretch the fingers for maximum reach -- if the pinky and thumb form an almost straight line, then you will not be able to stretch much more. If they form a "V", then you may be able to reach more by performing stretching exercises. Another way to test this alignment is to place your palm on a table top at the edge of the table with the thumb and pinky down the edge, so that only fingers 2, 3, and 4 are resting on the table top. If the thumb and pinky form a triangle with the edge of the table, you may be able to stretch more. You can perform a stretching exercise by pushing the hand towards the table so as to spread the thumb and pinky apart. Although the thumb-pinky alignment is a good indication of maximum reach, the main objective in stretching is to widen the separation between the bones in the palm. Most people have a slightly larger left hand than right hand, and some can reach more by using fingers 1.4 than 1.5.

Another way to stretch is to place the right palm over the back of the left palm, right arm pointing left and left arm pointing right, with the palms just in front of the chest. In this position, thumb meets thumb and pinky meets pinky. Then push the hands towards each other so that thumbs and pinkies push each other back, thus stretching the palm. In order to stretch the palms without bending the fingers, lock the fingers at the first finger bone at the knuckle (proximal phalange), not the fingertips. Then repeat the same procedure with the left palm over the right palm (photo). The stretch method in the photo is very effective when performed several times every day. The stretching force is created by pushing the hands towards each other (RH to the left and LH to the right). Also, exercise the stretching muscles while simultaneously applying the pushing force. Regular stretching when young can make a considerable difference in the reach when you get older, and periodic maintenance will prevent the reach from shrinking with age.

You can save a lot of time by stretching one hand using the top edge of the piano while practicing HS with the other hand.

When playing wide chords, the thumb should be curved slightly inwards, not fully stretched out. It is counter-intuitive that, by pulling the thumb in, you can reach further; this happens because of the particular curvature of the thumb's fingertip. Some of the difficulties in playing chords accurately originate from positioning of the hand rather than stretch or finger control. Especially for small hands, the orientation of the palm is critical. When playing chords, you generally have to move the hand, and this motion must be very accurate; this is the "jump" motion discussed below. You will need to develop proper jump motions as well as a habit of feeling the keys. You can't just raise your hand high above the keys, position all your fingers in the right position, smash it down, and expect to hit all the correct notes exactly at the same instant. Great pianists often appear to be doing that, but as we shall see below, they are not. Therefore, until you have perfected the jump movement and are able to feel the keys, any problems with playing chords (missing and wrong notes) may not be caused by lack of reach or finger control. If you have difficulty hitting chords, and have no confidence in your jumps, this is a sure sign that you have to learn jumps before you can think of hitting chords.