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?

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. I hate finding spelling errors after I have submitted a posting. Oh, well, cyber-space will have its flotsam just like outer space, I guess. MBB
    … I almost let ANOTHER one slip through, in this posting about spelling erros. My typing is slowly going downhill…

    Comment by Michael BB — March 10, 2012 @ 6:05 am

  2. […] Classical music: Is true independence of human fingers even possible? Pianists and other instrumenta…. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

    Pingback by 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. « The Well-Tempered Ear « KeyBordle ING — March 9, 2012 @ 12:52 pm

  3. Finger independence is not only a myth, it is not even desireable.
    The 4th and 5th fingers are anatomically attached by a strong band of ligament that crosses between the two fingers at their base in the palm of the hand, and attach the thumb side to the pinkie side, utilizing the strong band of muscle at the pinkie side as the means to open and close the hand from side to side, rather than the grasping motion.
    Finger Inter-dependence with larger gestures is both an anatomical reality and fully available to any performer, regardless of the size of any physical feature, be it hand, finger or thumb. Elbow and upper arm movements, the rotation of the forearm, and the movements of the entire hand are more literally pivotal than the fingers themselves.
    Read Gyorgy Sandor’s book “On Piano Playing’ out of print, used copies available inline, from Scribner’s in England. He talks about how the old rhyming song of the this-bone is connected to the that-bone is really at the heart of learning the manual skill of piano playing. Utilizing the hand, wrist, forearm, upper arm, torso, right down to your feet, is the real secret of dynamic pianism. Large muscle groups do most of the work of keying the notes, and fingers are only the point of contact for a much more extensive system of energy transfer than any mere finger could be. There is a man whose YouTube channel “pianologist” has a video series in which he outlines many of the principles Sandor championed, not crediting him, unfortunately.
    I have made a study of piano methods and exercises, looking for the ones that most closely reflect this point of view. There ARE none. Brahms’s 50 ex. are useful, but ALL the other old stuff is either superfulous or harmful. Hanon is only useful in the context of this newer concept of inter-dependence.
    A German researcher named Breitkopf has written an excellent summary of the modern physiological and acoustic sicentific research, available from Summy-Birchard.
    The five finger movement is only one of several gestural sets needed to execute the motions indicated in a score at the piano. Sandor teaches one how to read a score in this light, seeing patterns of notes, articulation, and dynamics as indications of what gesture to use, rather than seeing them as primary indications of a desired result. Thus, reading and playing becomes more directly in touch with touch. How often have teachers been asked, ” but HOW do you DO that?” The score can be read as the instruction sheet for constructing a performance, rather than as a mystical document meant to summon up the “depths of your soul,” as Claudio Arrau might say. He and Mr. Sandor would agree that controlling tension and release in the whole body is key to maintaining a healthy stamina for piano playing, in practice and performance.

    Comment by Michael BB — March 8, 2012 @ 10:54 am

    • Hi again Michael BB,
      Thank you once more for your long and detailed reply.
      It has much good information and leads to follow.

      Comment by welltemperedear — March 8, 2012 @ 5:33 pm

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