The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Is true independence of human fingers even possible? Pianists and other instrumentalists might be surprised by the anatomical facts of fingers and hands.

March 8, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the most puzzling aspects of playing an instrument – and especially the piano, I find, though others might say the same about a string instrument or, for that matter, any instrument– is fingering.

I find it hard enough to get a good fingering, a right fingering, a fingering that works well and reliable – one that hits the right note with the right force at the right time.

And then I read about professional concertizing artists, like the late Rudolf Serkin (below) or the very much alive Stephen Hough, who actually change fingerings to refresh their interpretation of a particular piece. As if getting one good fingering isn’t enough of a challenge!

Or just maybe it is to adapt to their own hands and fingers as they age.

In any case, one of the most fascinating pieces of literature about how human hands and fingers really work was recently printed in the Science Times edition of The New York Times. It has some basic information that all of us — including typists — who rely on ours hands and especially fingers should know:

It left me wondering: Is true independence of the fingers, even among professional performing artists, even possible?

Do you have stiffness around the base of your thumbs? You’re not alone.

Do you find it hard to move your fourth finger without moving your pinkie finger, or vice-versa? You’re not alone.

I suspect some of these anatomical realities are the basis of such things as the Dorothy Taubman Method and other techniques or exercises to avoid injuries.

And could it be that some great musicians or great instrumentalists – and the two are NOT necessarily the same — just have the good fortune to be “freaks” of nature and have different length fingers (I think pianist Arthur Rubinstein, below, had pinkies almost as long as his middle finger) or better working tendons and ligaments than the rest of us, the same way that great basketball players are unusually tall?

Well, I’m getting into speculation now.

Does this story agree with your own personal experience?

Do you think true finger independence is a dream, an unattainable ideal? Is it just relative or comparative?

What do you think are the best ways or exercises to develop finger independence?

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