Playing with Flat Fingers

We noted in section II.2 that the starting finger shape for learning the piano is the partially curled position. Many teachers teach the curled position as the “standard” position for playing the piano. However, V. Horowitz demonstrated that the flat, or straight, finger position is also very useful. Here we discuss why the flat finger position is not only useful but is also an essential part of technique and all accomplished pianists use it. We will initially define “Flat Finger Position” (FFP) as the one in which the fingers are basically stretched straight out from the hands, in order to simplify the discussions. We will later generalize this definition to mean specific types of “non-curled” positions, which is a very important concept in piano playing because it is necessary for acquiring some of the most basic as well as advanced technical skills. The most important advantages of the FFP are that it simplifies the finger motion and allows complete relaxation; that is, the number of muscles needed to control the finger motion is smaller than in the curled position because all you have to do is to pivot the entire finger around the knuckle. In the curled position, each finger must uncurl by just the right amount every time it hits a note, in order to maintain the correct finger angle to the key top surface. The motion of the FFP uses only the main muscles needed to depress the keys. Practicing the FFP can improve technique because you are exercising only the most relevant muscles and nerves. In order to demonstrate the complexity of the curled position, try the following experiment. First, stretch the forefinger of your RH out straight (FFP) and wiggle it up and down rapidly as you would when playing the piano. Now, keep this wiggling motion and gradually curl the finger in as far as you can. You will find that, as you curl the finger, it becomes more difficult to wiggle the finger tip until it becomes impossible when completely curled. I have named this phenomenon “curl paralysis”. If you do succeed in moving the finger tip, you can only do it very slowly compared to the straight position because you need to use a whole new set of muscles. In fact, the easiest way to move the finger tip rapidly in the completely curled position is to move the entire hand. Therefore, with the curled position, you need more skill to play at the same speed compared to the FFP. Contrary to the beliefs of many pianists, you can play faster with flat fingers than with the curled position because any amount of curl will invite a certain amount of curl paralysis. This becomes particularly important when the speed and/or lack of technique produces stress while practicing something difficult. The amount of stress is greater in the curled position and this difference can be sufficient to create a speed wall. There are discussions in the literature (Jaynes, Chapter 6), in which it is claimed that the lumbrical and interossei muscles are important in piano playing, but there is no research to support these claims, and it is not known whether these muscles play a part in FFP. It is generally believed that these muscles are used mainly to control the curvature of the fingers, so that FFP uses only the muscles in the arms to move the fingers and the lumbricals simply hold the fingers in position (curled or FFP), thus simplifying the movement and allowing for greater control and speed for FFP. Thus there is uncertainty today about whether the lumbricals enable higher speed or whether they cause curl paralysis. Although the FFP is simpler, all beginners should learn the curled position first and not learn the flat position until it is needed. If beginners start with the easier FFP, they will never really learn the curled position well. Beginners who try to play fast with the flat position are likely to use fixed phase parallel set playing instead of finger independence. This leads to loss of control and uneven speeds. Once these bad habits are formed, it is difficult to learn finger independence. For this reason, many teachers will forbid their students to play with flat fingers, which is a terrible mistake. Sandor calls the FFPs “wrong positions” but Fink recommends certain positions that are clearly FFPs (we will discuss several different FFPs below). Most pianists who learn on their own use mostly FFPs. Very young children (below 4 years of age) usually have difficulty curling their fingers. For this reason, jazz pianists use FFPs more than classical pianists (because many were initially self-taught), and classical teachers correctly point out that early jazz pianists had inferior technique. In fact, early jazz had much less technical difficulty than classical music. However, this lack of technique resulted from a lack of instruction, not because they used FFPs. Thus FFPs are nothing new and are quite intuitive and are a natural way to play. Therefore, the road to good technique is a careful balance between practicing with curled fingers and knowing when to use the FFPs. What is new in this section is the concept that the curled position is not inherently superior and that FFPs are a necessary part of advanced technique. The 4th finger is particularly problematic for most people. Part of this difficulty arises from the fact that it is the most awkward finger to lift, which makes it difficult to play fast and avoid hitting extraneous notes inadvertently. These problems are compounded in the curled position because of the complexity of motion and curl paralysis. In the simplified flat finger configuration, these difficulties are reduced and the 4th finger becomes more independent and easier to lift. If you place your hand on a flat surface in the curled position and lift the 4th finger, it will go up a certain distance; now if you repeat the same procedure with the flat finger position, that finger tip will go up twice as far. Therefore, it is easier to lift the fingers, and particularly the 4th finger, in the FFP. The ease of lifting reduces the stress when playing fast. Also, when trying to play difficult passages fast using the curled position, some fingers (especially fingers 4 and 5) will sometimes curl too much creating even more stress and the need to fling these fingers out in order to play a note. These problems can be eliminated by using FFP. Another advantage of the FFP is that it increases your reach because the fingers are stretched out straighter. For this reason, most pianists (especially those with small hands) already use the flat position for playing wide chords, etc., often without realizing it. However, such people can feel “guilty” about the lack of curl and try to incorporate as much curl as possible, creating stress. Yet another advantage of the FFP is that the fingers are pressing the keys with the part of the fingers with more flesh than at the finger tips. The fleshy part is also more sensitive to touch, especially because there is less interference from the fingernails. When people touch anything to feel it, they always use this part of the finger, not the fingertip. This extra cushion and sensitivity can provide better feel and control, and greater protection against injury. For the curled position, the fingers are coming down almost vertically to the key surfaces so that you are playing with the finger tips where there is the least amount of cushion between the bone and key top. If you injured the fingertips by practicing too hard using the curled position, you can give the fingertips a rest by using the FFP. Two types of injuries can occur at the finger tip when using the curled position and both injuries can be avoided using flat fingers. The first is simple bruising from too much pounding. The second is the detachment of the flesh from under the fingernail, which frequently results from cutting the fingernails too short. This second type of injury is dangerous because it can lead to painful infections. Even if you have fairly long fingernails, you can still play using the FFP. More importantly, with flat fingers, you can play the black keys using most of the large underside areas of the fingers; this large surface area can be used to avoid missing the black keys that are easy to miss in the curled position because they are so narrow. Thus it is a good idea to play the black keys with flatter fingers and the white keys with more curled fingers. When the fingers are stretched out flat, you can reach further back towards the fallboard. In this position, it requires a little more force to depress the keys because of the lower leverage resulting from the shorter distance to the key bushing (at the balance rail pin). The resulting (effectively) heavier key weight will allow you to play softer PP. Thus the ability to move closer to the key bushing results in the ability to increase the effective key weight. The heavier key weight allows more control and softer pianissimo. Although the change in key weight is small, this effect is greatly magnified at high speed. The FFP also allows louder fortissimo, especially for the black keys. There are two reasons. First, the area of the finger available for contact is larger and there is a thicker cushion, as explained above. Therefore, you can transmit a larger force with less chance of injury or pain. Second, the increased accuracy resulting from the larger contact area helps to produce an authoritative and reproducible fortissimo. In the curled position, the probability of missing or sliding off the narrow black keys is sometimes too high for full fortissimo. The ability to play fortissimo more easily suggests that the FFP can be more relaxing than the curled position. This turns out to be true, but there is an additional mechanism that increases the relaxation. With FFP, you can depend on the tendons under the finger bones to hold the fingers straight when you push down on the keys. That is, unlike the curled position, you need almost no effort to keep the fingers straight (when pressing down on the keys) because unless you are multiple jointed, the tendons on the palm side of the fingers prevent them from bending backwards. Therefore, when you practice FFP, learn to make use of these tendons to help you relax. Be careful when you first start using FFP for playing fortissimo. If you relax completely, you can risk injury to these tendons by hyper-extending them, especially for the pinky, because the pinky tendons are so small. If you start to feel pain, either stiffen the finger during key drop or stop the FFP and curl that finger. When playing fortissimo with curled fingers, you must control both the extensor and flexor muscles of every finger in order to keep them in the curled position. In the flat position, you can completely relax the extensor muscles and use only the flexor muscles, thus almost totally eliminating stress (which results from the two sets of muscles opposing each other), and simplifying the operation by over 50% when pressing the key down. The best way to start practicing FFP is to practice the B major scale. In this scale, all fingers play the black keys except the thumb and pinky. Since these two fingers do not generally play the black keys in runs, this is exactly what you want. The fingering for the RH is standard for this scale, but the LH must start with the 4th finger on B. You may want to read the following section (III.5) on playing fast scales before going on with this practice because you will need to know how to play thumb over and to use the glissando motions, etc. Practice only one octave HS for fastest improvement. Keep the fingers close to the keys so that you can feel the keys before you play them. Feeling the keys is easy because you can use the large surface areas of the undersides of the fingers. By feeling the keys, you will never miss a single note because you know where the keys are ahead of time. For playing scales, the forearms must point inward at an angle close to 45 degrees at middle C. This angle is created because of two effects. Consider the RH; the right shoulder is to the right of middle C, so that the forearm naturally points inward (to your left; the LH will point to the right at middle C) if you do not move the body. In addition, the pinky is a short finger so that this angle allows the pinky to reach the black keys more easily when the fingers are stretched out flat. This angle also facilitates the thumb-over motion. However, now the fingers are not parallel to the keys. This lack of parallel alignment is actually an advantage because you can use it to increase the accuracy of hitting the black keys. If one hand is weaker than the other, this difference will show up more dramatically with flat fingers. The flat finger position reveals the technical skills/deficiencies more clearly because of the difference in leverage (the fingers are effectively longer) and your fingers are more sensitive. In that case, use the stronger hand to teach the weaker one how to play. Practicing with flat fingers may be one of the quickest ways to encourage the weaker hand to catch up to the other because you are working directly with the main muscles relevant to technique. If you encounter any difficulties playing the FFP, try the black key parallel set exercises. Play all five black keys with the five fingers: the two-note group with thumb and forefinger and the three-note group with the remaining three fingers. Unlike the B major scale, this exercise will also develop the thumb and pinky. With this exercise (or with the B major scale), you can experiment with all kinds of hand positions. Unlike the curled position, you can play with the palm of the hand touching the surface of the white keys. You can also raise the wrist so that the fingers actually bend backwards (opposite to the curl direction), as in the cartwheel motion. There is also an intermediate flat finger position in which the fingers remain straight, but are bent down only at the knuckles. I call this the “pyramid” position because the hand and fingers form a pyramid with the knuckles at the apex. This pyramid position can be effective for very fast passages because it combines the advantages of the curled and straight positions. The usefulness of these various positions makes it necessary to expand the definition of “flat finger” playing. The straight FFP is just an extreme case, and there are any number of variations of positions between the totally flat position we defined at the beginning of this section and the curled position. In addition to the pyramid position, you can bend the fingers at the first joint from the knuckle. This will be called the “spider position”. The critical point here is that the last joint (closest to the fingernail) must be totally relaxed and allowed to straighten out when you press down on the key. Thus the generalized definition of FFP is that the third phalange is totally relaxed and straight. Phalange (also called phalanx; plural is always phalanges) is the name for the small bones beyond the knuckle; they are numbered 1-3 (thumb has only 1 and 2), and the 3rd phalange is the “nail phalange”. We shall call both the pyramid and spider positions “flat finger” positions because all three FFPs share two important properties: the third phalange of the finger is never curled in and is always relaxed, and you play with the sensitive palm side of the finger tip. From here on, we shall use this broader definition of FFP. Although the fingers are bent in many of these positions, we shall call them FFP to distinguish them clearly from the curled position. Most of curl paralysis comes from bending the third phalange. This can be demonstrated by bending only the third phalange (if you can) and then trying to move that finger raidly. Note that total relaxation of the third phalange is now part of the definition of FFP. The FFP simplifies the computation in the brain because you almost totally ignore the flexor muscle of the third phalange. That is 10 fewer flexor muscles to control, and these are particularly awkward and slow muscles; therefore, ignoring them can increase finger speed. We have arrived at the realization that the curled position is outright wrong for playing advanced material. The generalized flat finger position is what you need in order to play at the speeds needed by advanced players! However, as discussed below, there are certain situations in which you need to quickly curl certain individual fingers for reaching some white keys and to avoid poking the fallboard with your fingernails. The importance of the generalized FFP cannot be over-emphasized because it is one of the key elements of relaxation that is often entirely ignored. The flat finger position gives much more control because the palm side of the finger tip is the most sensitive part of the finger. Another reason for increased control is that the relaxed third phalange acts like a shock absorber in the FFPs. If you have difficulty bringing out the color in a composition, using the FFPs will make it easier. Playing with the fingertip using the curled position is like driving a car without shock absorbers, or playing a piano with worn hammers. The tone will tend to come out harsh or non-legato. You are effectively restricted to one tone color. By using FFP, you can feel the keys better and control tone and color more easily. Because you can completely relax the third phalanges and also ignore some of the extensor muscles, the flat finger motions are simpler and you can play faster, especially for difficult material such as fast trills. We have therefore arrived at a most important general concept: we must liberate ourselves from the tyranny of the single fixed curled position. We must learn to use all of the available finger positions because each has its advantages. You may want to lower the bench in order to be able to play with the flat part of the fingers. When the bench is lowered, it usually becomes necessary to move it farther away from the piano so as to provide enough room for the arms and elbows to move between the keyboard and the body. In other words, many pianists sit too high and too close to the piano, which is not noticeable when playing with curled fingers. Thus the FFPs will give you a more precise way to optimize the bench height and location. At these lower heights, the wrists, and even the elbows might sometimes fall below the level of the keyboard while you are playing; this is perfectly permissible. Sitting farther away from the piano also gives you more space to lean forwards in order to play fortissimo. All the flat finger positions can be practiced on a table. For the totally flat position, simply place all the fingers and the palm flat on a table and practice lifting each finger independently of the others, especially finger 4. Practice the pyramid and spider positions by just pressing down with the fleshy underside of the finger tips contacting the table and completely relaxing the third phalange so that it actually bends backwards. For the pyramid position, this becomes something like a stretching exercise for all the flexor tendons, and the last 2 phalanges are relaxed. You may also find that FFP works very well when typing on a keyboard. The 4th finger in general gives everybody problems and you can perform an exercise to improve its independence using the spider position. At the piano, place fingers 3 and 4 on C# and D#, and the remaining fingers on white keys. Press down all five keys. The first exercise is to play finger 4, lifting it as high as you can. In all these exercises, you must keep all the non-playing fingers down. The second exercise is to play fingers 3 and 4 alternately, lifting 4 as high as you can, but lifting 3 only sufficiently to play the note, and keeping it always in contact with the key top (quite difficult). Most people can lift the 4th finger highest in the spider position, indicating that this may be the best position for general playing. During key drop, play finger 3 louder than 4 (accent on 3). Repeat using fingers 4 and 5, with the accent on 5 and keeping it on the key as much as possible. In the 3rd and final exercise, play (3,4), (4,3), (5,4), and (4,5) parallel sets. These exercises may seem difficult at first, but you may be surprised at how quickly you will be able to play them after just a few days; however, do not stop just because you can do these exercises, practice until you can do them very fast, with complete control and relaxation. These exercises simulate the difficult situation in which you are playing fingers 3 and 5 while lifting 4 above the keys. The extra reach, the large contact area, and the added cushion under the fingers make legato playing easier and quite different from legato using the curled position. The FFP also makes it easier to play two notes with one finger, especially because you can play with the fingers not parallel to the keys and use a very large area under the finger to hold more than one key down. Because Chopin was known for his legato, was good at playing several notes with one finger, and recommended practicing the B major scale, he probably used flat finger playing. Mlle. Combe, who was the initial inspiration for this book, taught FFP and noted that it was particularly useful for playing Chopin. One legato trick she taught was to start with FFP and then roll the finger up to the curled position so that the hand can move without lifting the finger off the key. The reverse can also be done when moving down from black keys to the white keys. If you had been taught only the curl position all your life, learning the FFPs may appear awkward at first, but playing the FFPs is a necessary skill. When you make the switch, you will: (i) Feel total relaxation because of the relaxation in the final finger phalange. This relaxation should feel “good” and can even become addicting. It may be easiest to start practicing this position on a table by using the spider position and pressing down with all fingers until all the third phalanges of fingers 2 to 5 are flared outwards, thus stretching the tendons to those phalanges. The most important consequence of this relaxation is that you will be able to play faster. (ii) Be able to play softer pianissimo because of the higher sensitivity of the fingertips and the extra shock absorber effect of the relaxed third phalange. (iii) Be able to play louder and more authoritative fortissimo because of the larger finger area available for pressing the keys down. No more slipping off from the black keys! (iv) Be able to play with most of the fingers and even the palm of the hands touching the keys for more precise feel and control. Too much “feeling around” can result in too much legato when more agitated playing is appropriate. In such instances, the trick is to quickly feel the key to know exactly where it is, and then to bounce up sufficiently to produce the agitated or forceful playing. Advanced pianists will perform this “feeling” operation so quickly that it is not visible to the untrained eye. (v) Be able to produce better tone color and expression because of the more sensitive control of each finger and each key drop. (vi) Be able to play a better legato -- when playing Chopin, there is nothing like playing legato using techniques that were almost certainly used by Chopin. (vii) Eliminate a majority of mistakes; note that, if you had done everything else correctly, thumb-under and curl paralysis cause almost all of your mistakes. Of course, just playing FFP is not enough for eliminating curl paralysis mistakes; you must learn to feel the keys at all times, not only with the fingertips but also with the entire finger and the palm. This is one of the reasons why quiet hands is so important. In the curl position, it is difficult to feel the keys not only because the finger tip is less sensitive, but also because there is no shock absorber -- either the finger is on the key or off it. In the automobile, the purpose of the shock absorber is not only to provide more comfort, but also to keep the tires in contact with the road. (viii) When you use FFP, wide chords and runs are much more similar; they are both played with FFP, so that it becomes easier to play when both are required. If you use curled fingers, then you have to use FFP for wide chords (otherwise you can’t reach the notes) and then change to curled fingers to play runs. (ix) In music with hand collisions, such as the Bach Inventions, you can play flat FFP with one hand and the pyramid position with the other to avoid the collision. (x) The FFPs are more compatible with thumb-over and cartwheel methods than the curled position. You can demonstrate the usefulness of the FFP by applying it to anything that is giving you difficulty. For example, I was running into stress problems with speeding up Bach’s inventions because they require finger independence, especially fingers 3, 4, & 5. While practicing with the curled position only, I felt that I was beginning to build speed walls at a few places where I didn’t have enough finger independence. When I applied the flat finger position, they became much easier to play. This eventually allowed me to play at faster speeds and with greater control. The Bach Inventions are good pieces to use for practicing the FFPs. A discussion of FFP would be incomplete without discussing why you need the curled position, and some of its disadvantages. This position is not really an intentionally curled position but a relaxed position in which, for most people, there is a natural curl. For those whose relaxed position is too straight, they may need to add a slight curl in order to attain the ideal curled position. In this position, all the fingers contact the keys at an angle between 45 degrees and 90 degrees (the thumb might make a somewhat smaller angle). There are certain movements that are absolutely necessary for playing the piano that require the curled position. Some of these are: playing certain white keys (when the other fingers are playing black keys), playing between the black keys, and for avoiding poking your fingernails into the fallboard. Especially for pianists with large hands, it is necessary to curl fingers 2, 3, and 4 when 1 and 5 are playing the black keys in order to avoid jamming fingers 2, 3, and 4 into the fallboard. Thus, the freedom to play with any arbitrary amount of curl is a necessary freedom. One of the biggest disadvantages of the curled position is that the extensor muscles are not sufficiently exercised, causing the flexor muscles to overpower them and creating control problems. In FFP, the un-used flexor muscles are relaxed and not exercised; in fact, the associated tendons are stretched, which makes the fingers more flexible. The FFP is superior to the curled position in a majority of situations, especially for speed, legato, pianissimo, fortissimo, relaxation, sensitivity, and accuracy. The mistaken perception that FFP is bad for technique arises from the fact that it can lead to bad habits related to the incorrect use of parallel sets. This happens because with flat fingers, it is a simple matter to lay the fingers flat and jam them all down on the piano to play parallel sets masquerading as fast runs. This can result in uneven playing and beginning students might use it as a way of playing fast without developing technique. By learning the curled position first and learning how to use parallel sets correctly, we can avoid this problem. In my numerous communications with teachers, I have noticed that the best teachers are familiar with the usefulness of the FFP. This is especially true of the group of teachers whose teaching lineage traces to F. Liszt, because Liszt used this position. Liszt was Czerny’s student, but did not always follow Czerny’s teachings, and used FFP to improve tone (Boissier, Fay, Bertrand). In fact, it is hard to imagine that there are any advanced pianists who do not know how to use FFP. As proof, next time you attend a concert or watch a video, see if you can spot these FFPs (totally flat, pyramid, spider positions and the totally relaxed third phalange) -- you will find that every accomplished pianist uses them extensively. It is gratifying that the most celebrated pianist often chose to ignore his own teacher, Czerny, as recommended here. It is now abundantly clear that we must learn to take advantage of as many finger positions as possible. One natural question to ask is, “What is the order of importance of all these positions -- which is the ‘default’ position that we should use most often?”. The spider position is the most important. The insect kingdom did not adopt this position without a good reason; they found out that it works best after hundreds of millions of years of research. Note that the distinction between the spider position and the curled position can be subtle, and many pianists who think they are using the curled position may in fact be using something closer to FFP. The second most important position is the flat out position because it is needed for playing wide chords and arpeggios. The third position is the curled position and the pyramid position comes in fourth. The pyramid position uses only one flexor muscle per finger, the spider position uses two, and the curled position uses all three plus the extensor muscles during key drop. In general, you can use the following rule to decide which finger position to use: play the black keys using the completely flat FFP, and use the curled or pyramid position for the white keys. The spider position is quite versatile if you acquire it while young and can play both black and white keys. Note that if, within a group of notes, you must play both black and white keys, it is usually advantageous to use two types of finger positions. This might appear to be an added complication at first, but at high speed, this might be the only way. There are, of course, numerous exceptions; for example, in difficult passages involving the 4th finger, you may need more FFPs than curled positions even when most or all the keys are white. The above discussions on FFP are substantial, but they are by no means complete. In a more detailed treatment, we need to discuss how we apply FFP to specific skills such as legato, or playing two notes with one finger while controlling each note individually. Chopin’s legato is documented to be particularly special, as was his staccato. Is his staccato related to the FFP? Note that in all the FFPs, you can take advantage of the spring effect of the relaxed third phalange, which might be useful in playing staccato. Clearly we need more research to learn how to use the FFPs. In particular, there is controversy as to whether we should play mostly with the curled position and add the FFP whenever necessary, as has been taught by most teachers, or vice versa, as Horowitz did, and as recommended here. FFP is also related to bench height. It is easier to play with flat fingers when the bench is lowered. There are numerous accounts of pianists discovering that they can play much better with a lower bench position (Horowitz and Glen Gould are examples). They claim to get better control, especially for pianissimo and speed, but no one has provided an explanation for why this is so. My explanation is that the lower bench height allowed them to use more FFPs. However, there appears to be no good reason to sit overly low, as Glen Gould did, because you can always lower the wrist to get the same effect. In summary, Horowitz had good reasons to play with flat fingers and the above discussions suggest that part of his higher technical level may have been achieved by using more FFPs than others. The single most important message of this section is that we must learn to relax the third phalange of the finger and play with the touch-sensitive part of the finger tip. The aversion to, or even prohibition of, FFP by some teachers turns out to be a mistake; in fact, any amount of curl will invite some degree of curl paralysis. However, beginners must learn the curled position first because it is necessary for playing the white keys and is more difficult than the FFPs. If students learn the easier flat finger method first, they may never learn the more difficult curled position adequately. FFP is a necessary skill for developing technique. It is useful for speed, increasing your reach, playing multiple notes with one finger, avoiding injury, “feeling the keys”, legato, relaxation, playing pianissimo or fortissimo, and adding color. Although the curled position is necessary, the statement “you need the curled position to play technically difficult material” is a misleading myth. Playing with flat fingers liberates us to use many useful and versatile finger positions. We now know how to play all those black keys and not miss a single note! Thank you, Mr. Horowitz and Mlle. Combe.