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A Pianist's Secret
lies in the palm of his hand

(adapted from my Piano Course - Lesson 2)

  1. Introduction
  2. The Flexor Digitorium System
  3. The Interossei
  4. The aim of good Practice
  5. Fundamental Guidelines

    About the Piano Course


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PS 1 - Introduction

Dr. Graham Williams, my former piano teacher and co-author of our Scales & Arpeggios Book, commenced his Classical piano studies at an early age.   After 22 years of study and performances (including recitals on Australian National radio) he obtained his PhD with a thesis on the piano music of the famous contemporary French composer and (the late) Head of the Paris Conservatoire Olivier Messiaen.

This thesis earned him a 3-year scholarship in Paris to study under Messiaen and his world renown piano teacher wife Yvonne Loriod. After greeting him on his arrival at the airport they immediately took him to the studio, placed him on the piano stool and explained (as Graham years later with a great smile related to me) :

"Now, Graham, the first thing you need to do     is to learn to play the piano !"

"I almost fell of my stool!" Graham confessed to me.
"But you know what?!" he continued, "they were absolutely right!!"

For a full year Graham was confined to the small practice studio and not allowed to make a single performance. During this period he learnt the piano technique developed by Franz Liszt and passed on and kept alive in France through renown teachers like Yvonne Loriod and Germaine Mounier.
The results were nothing less than spectacular : the birth of a rich and beautiful crystal clear tone, an effortless fluidity and a rhythmic capability with which he could master even the most demanding and complex Messiaen compositions.

Years later I myself had the great fortune to learn this wonderful technique from Graham , be it at a much more modest level of expectation and competence. As a relative beginner it took me about 3 years (instead of 1) to develop the technique, with greatly pleasing results in terms of touch, fluency and tone.
Being a creative, research oriented thinker, I could follow and acknowledge the various stages of development I went through and recognise the results. But the question for me always remained : I understand what to do and how to do it, but why is this so ?

For a full year I kept searching for the answer, questioning professionals from the medical and physiotherapy fields and roaming through various books and articles. The answer which I finally arrived at is as simple as it is conclusive.
I have always believed that understanding is the greatest motivator. Once you understand why you should practice this or do that, you become deeply motivated to follow through. This is the basis for both my Piano Technique Course and my Saxophone Course.

For the Piano the secret to a fluent technique and strong, crystal clear tone, lies in the palm of your hand, as I will explain to you below.


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PS 2 - The Flexor Digitorium System

Finger movements are largely controlled by two muscle systems.
The first system, the Flexor Digitorium system, is located in the upper part of the forearm near the elbow. These muscles extend with long tendons that run along the forearm, under the wrist all the way to the knuckles and finger joints.

This muscle system enables us to have a firm hand grip, strong enough to carry a suitcase, or even hold our entire body weight when hanging from a horizontal bar (or tree branch).

This Flexor Digitorium system consists of :

  • the Flexors Digitorium Profundus, which run from the elbow along the lower arm, through the 'carpal canal' under the wrist, to the 1st finger joint (nearest the finger tip) of each finger.

  • the Lumbricals, branch off from the Flexors Digitorium Profundus at a point within the hand palm and run to each knuckle joint.

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Above muscles are used to curve (and close) the fingers of the hand.

To do this however another set of muscles (the Flexor & Extensor Carpi) must hold the wrist firm (therefore stiffen the wrist), otherwise the Flexor Digitorium muscles would roll up the fingers, hand and wrist like a bamboo curtain.

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(The Extensors Digitorium muscles (not shown in above diagram) are used to straighten the finger and knuckle joints, opening the hand. These muscles and their tendons run from the elbow, over the wrist and the back of the hand to connect with the knuckle and finger joints via the Extensor Expansion sheet, that extends over the back of each finger.
More about this muscle system below.)

The Flexor Digitorium muscle system is very powerful and we use it continuously for most of our finger movements.
However these muscles are not suitable for a good piano finger technique, because :

  1. the muscles are located largely outside the hand, too far away from the required delicate finger action.

  2. the key stroke becomes a pushing action rather than a freely rebounding gravity stroke.
    This results in a lack of tone quality, resonance, clarity and fluency .

  3. excessive use of these muscles in piano playing can easily lead to repetitive strain injury (rsi) and inflammation of the wrist.

The critical link : the wrist
The late Claudio Arrau (renown Brazilian Classical pianist), when asked in a TV interview what he considered to be the most important aspect of a good piano technique, he replied :

"The arms and body form the vital link between the instrument and the Soul of the pianist. If any stiffness in the body or body joints occurs this link is severed.".

While saying this he was pointing at the critical point in this link : his wrist.

In theory the wrist should be relaxed when the hand (supported by the downwards pointing fingers) is resting on the keyboard. In reality however this is invariably not the case for beginning piano students. As long as the flexors are controling the finger movements, there remains a degree of stiffness in the wrist.


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PS 3 - The Interossei

The second muscle system controlling finger movement is located entirely within the hand.
It consists of the Palmar and Dorsal Interossei muscles. These are grafted on either side of the metacarpal bone (palm bone) for each of the four fingers and run to the finger bone (phalange) just past each knuckle.

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Used individually the Palmar interosseus pulls the finger sideways in one direction, the Dorsal interosseus sideways in the opposite direction.

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When used simultaneously the Palmar and Dorsal Interossei flex the knuckle joint forward (or, when the hand is in a horizontal position, downward).
Most importantly these muscles are located entirely within the hand palm, and therefore can flex the knuckle joint (and achieve a proper finger action) without stiffening the wrist.

For a good finger action in piano playing we must therefore use the Interossei muscles and flex the fingers from the knuckle joints. This leaves the wrists relaxed and flexible.

There is however a problem
In every day finger movement the Interossei play only a secondary and supportive role in flexing the knuckles.
The prime movers in knuckle flexion are the Lumbricals, for two reasons :

  1. When the knuckle joint is fully extended the Interossei are parallel to, and in line with the palm and finger bone.
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    In this position the Interossei cannot start to flex the knuckle joint forward (or downward).

    The Lumbricals approach the finger bone at a larger angle than the Interossei.
    This means that they can flex the knuckle joint even when the knuckle joint is fully extended.

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    The Lumbricals are therefore the starter muscles for the knuckle flex action.

  2. The Lumbricals, being an offshoots of the powerful Flexors Digitorium Profundus are much stronger than the Interossei muscles.
We therefore rely on the Lumbricals to do most of the knuckle movements throughout our daily activities, including our finger actions on the keyboard.


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PS 4 - The aim of good Piano Practice

It now becomes clear that in order to develop a good finger technique on the piano it is necessary to reverse nature.

You must upgrade the Interossei from weak supporting muscles to become the Prime movers and learn to trust and rely on them in that dominant function.

As this starts to happen the role of the Flexors Digitorium and Lumbricals will gradually diminish to a secondary function involved mainly when special play techniques require this.

To develop the Interossei muscles you must :

  1. Always play with a good hand position.
    The knuckle joint is not straight but slightly flexed.
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    In this position the Interossei can function as starter muscles.


  2. Develop Interossei muscle strength.
    Through regular technique practice as outlined in my
    Piano Technique Course.

Gradually the Interossei will become stronger. You will notice this by a most peculiar feeling within the palms of your hands : the interossei, as they become thicker, are pushing out the palm bones widening your hands.
Once the interossei have become strong enough to support the hand and arm it is time for the flexors and lumbricals to phase out their action. This mental step of trusting your fingers was for me at the time the most difficult process.
Sooner or later however the brain will get the message and gradually diminish and relax the flexors and let the interossei do the work. This then frees up the wrist, enabling the development of tone, resonance, clarity, great evenness and fluency in your playing.

Just playing piano regularly does not necessarily strengthen the Interossei muscles.
But sustained regular practice of the right exercises in the correct way will.


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PS 5 - Fundamental Guidelines

Good piano technique maximises the use of two sets of muscles.

  1. The Interossei, to support the weight of the hand, arm or body and to assist when required to the gravity keystroke.
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  2. the Extensors Digitorium, to lift the fingers off the keyboard after they have played each note.
    (Extensor Digitorium actions do not stiffen the wrist, as the natural weight of the hand prevents any upwards flexing or instability of the wrist.)

For a good finger technique follow these simple guidelines :

  1. Keep the hands always over the keyboard (not in front of it) with the thumbs pointing downwards, so that the weight of the hand is supported by the fingers (Interossei).

  2. Keep the hands balanced on the fingers, with a slight forward pressure towards the piano. (This keeps the finger joints locked in position.)
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    Never pull the hand backwards, for this either causes the fingers to collapse, or, in an attempt to prevent this, will bring the Flexor Digitorium muscles into action causing stiffening of the wrist.

  3. Use the knuckle joints for all finger action.

  4. Use gravity, viz. the natural drop of the finger, hand or arm, as the main source of energy.


It is most useful to have some understanding of the the muscle actions for a good finger technique.
However do not become obsessive about it while practising.
Just follow the simple instructions, lesson schedules and exercises provided in my
Piano Technique Course (at your own pace) and things will fall into place and develop naturally.


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© 2004 Michael Furstner (Jazclass)