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This is a piano question.

I’ve identified a left hand exercise that is very hard for me and I wanted to ask:

  • Whether it’s healthy to try doing it
  • Whether it’s useful to spend time on

The exercise is simple: I put all my fingers of left hand on the D major scale, pinky on the D, thumb on A, and the rest on all notes in between (this leaves middle finger on F sharp), and depress all of them.

And then keeping those fingers depressed, I play eighths with pinky, then eighths with ring finger..

This exercise is well known on the white keys (C major), and I can do it ok there. On this D major it’s a disaster! My whole hand tenses up. I’ve tried this for two mornings now, hence I wanted to ask whether trying to focus on removing this tension is a good thing.

My goal is to be better at left hand - also musically and rhythmically.

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    I'm not a pianist, but I had a similar problem when playing some weird chords on the guitar, where I could simply not physically put my fingers in the requested configuration without it straining badly. Note: it was highly uncomfortable, but didn't hurt or anything. The solution was to keep gently trying it. I tried the chord each day at the start of my practice session and didn't strain my hand too much, just a couple of tries. After a few weeks, I can now hit the chord, and can even reach beyond the chord because of the flexibility I attained. Hth, maybe you just need some more time :-)
    – Zimano
    Commented Aug 18, 2022 at 14:40
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    The ring finger in particular is not built for this. I can perform this exercise with all the other fingers on both hands relatively easily (not that I ever do so - I was just testing after reading this), but lifting the ring finger while the others are held down is very difficult - fortunately there's almost never a reason to do it in real piano playing... Commented Aug 19, 2022 at 13:42

4 Answers 4

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Is it healthy? No. Even the C major version I would never do and would never suggest a student to it. The exercise reinforces isolating the fingers, which is not how one plays the piano, and it focuses on lifting the fingers, which is also not how one should release keys.

Is it useful? No. A better, similar exercise would be to let your fingers gently rest on the surface of the keys while using your entire arm, hand, and one finger to gently play one note in rhythm. My belief, however, is that rhythm is best practiced away from the piano: clapping, dancing, ..., movement in general is the best way to develop a feel for meter and rhythm.

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Just tried it, and it was no problem! However, I'm not sure what it achieves. Exercises (and studies) should be designed to pinpoint technicalities in playing that may cause difficulties when encountered in real pieces.

There's never going to be a situation when you're going to play four fingers held down, on consecutive notes, and use just one to play eight notes. Might hold two from a chord and play the third.

Yes, it will mean you develop use of each finger separately - an excellent thing to be able to do on just about every instrument, let alone piano. There really should be no tension while playing this exercise, if you use the weight of your hand/arm to keep the keys down, but a better one would be to rest those fingers on the keys rather than keep them depressed. That would more reflect 'proper' piano playing.

If there's still tension then, you need to address what's causing it. Could be height you're playing at,(raise/lower the seat), or your position left/right, (move l/r). Could be your hand/fingers just can't cope (nothing to do about that). In which case, don't do it!

Like any new exercise that works muscles in a new way, there will be some pain/discomfort, but if that's too much, there's thousands of other exercises that are waiting to be tried instead. But always ask yourself (or your teacher)- will this ever be useful in future playing?

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    Yes, "separation" is good, in general, but... I seem to recall that Robert Schumann had a gadget supposed to increase separation, and injured his hand sufficiently that his virtuoso piano days ended. Doing more natural exercises is better: trills, trills in thirds, are plenty. Commented Aug 19, 2022 at 0:24
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Is it healthy to try? That depends on how you define "try". How hard are you going to try? Are you going to spend hours pushing through the pain?

Is it useful? Ernő Dohnányi has exercises that will provoke a similar type of anxiety, and lots of good pianists swear by his book: Essential Finger Exercises (Dohnányi, Ernő)

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First, never isolate a finger. They are interconnected and isolation causes strain. I know, most of us are taught to isolate fingers and many silly exercise books condone it. Well, it is wrong. Believe me or don't. In forty years you'll think back and think "Malcolm was right." but by then it will be too late if it is not already.

Technique comes from moving properly, not moving more or from some exercise. If you can't do something it is either because you have improper movements or not the correct ones. It is possible to have both. More practice can't fix that, only proper practice can.

If you walk knock kneed for a few hours and your knees begin to hurt, walking knock kneed more isn't going to make things better, stop walking knock kneed and walking properly will. Likewise, practice doesn't make perfect, perfect practice does. What you should really do is find a better teacher who knows physics, anatomy and ergonomics. Piano playing is 99% in the arm, not the fingers. The fingers are a conduit of the arm. Like casting a fishing pole, you cast from the feet, knees, hips, abs, shoulders, elbow, wrist then fingers with copious amounts of contrary motions. Every motion must have an equal and opposite motion. It is the law. The fingers are important but power and control comes from all the other fulcrums and contrary motions combined with the laws of physics and your anatomy. If you poke someone's eye out of course your finger does the poking but it is initiated from the shoulder and elbow. Piano playing is the same but we also use gravity and arm weight combined with rotations, in, out, up, down, shifts and tilts. The arm places the fingers. Like playing hopscotch, the feet don't jump from square to square, the calves, quads, knees, hips and shoulders contribute to unweighing your body and they all place the feet where they need to be. The feet don't drag the body. Then fingers don't drag the arm. The arm places the fingers.

As far as it being a waste of time, if you never play anything like that in real repertoire, is there a need to be able to do it? For example, if you live in the city where the speed limit is 30 mph, why own a sports car that can go 130? All the technique you need you can get from your repertoire. I am an organist and rarely play stride or octaves so I don't have a need to practice them. However, once you learn to move properly, most everything comes easily and one just needs to figure out the proper movement.

Tension is bad. It means you are doing something wrong. It must be corrected because further improper practice augments and amplifies the strain and also hard wires the improper movement into the brain or "muscle memory" where it will haunt you forever. Tension is caused by muscular co-contractions or dual muscular pulls. Each muscle pulls one bone in one direction and we have multiple muscles which can pull on one bone each in their own directions. When you activate two muscles at the same time you pull the bone in two directions simultaneously and that strains one of the tendons connected to the bone and muscle. It is a tug of war and one of them will lose. This is the major cause of median nerve entrapment (carpal tunnel syndrome) because we strain our long flexor tendons which run through the carpal tunnel and the strain results in inflamed tendons which then press on the median nerve. The cure isn't drugs, splints, rest, more practice, injections or surgery, it is learning to move properly so the inflammation can go down. It can never go down if one continues doing what is wrong, no matter how much rest, drugs or surgery you have.

Here is a simple example. With all 5 fingers together, slowly wave bye bye. It should be effortless because all 5 fingers are moving in the same direction at the same time. Some call this "tapping." Now abduct your fingers (spread them out) and wave bye bye. Feel the strain? It is because you are using both your flexors/extensors and abductors at the same time. Hold all 5 fingers extended and wave bye bye with just one finger: Strain? Those pulls not only damage our tendons but they also hinder technique because you are trying to play in one direction and another muscle is pulling you into an opposite direction resulting in mistakes, uneven playing, tension or bad tone.

Find a better teacher. Your current one might be wonderful but what they don't know can hurt you or, sentence you to a career of mediocrity.

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  • Regarding "if you live in the city where the speed limit is 30 mph, why own a sports car that can go 130?": I'd rather own the sports car just in case I ever need to go on the highway (say my family wants to go to the neighbouring city).
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Aug 19, 2022 at 11:45
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    This is so inaccurate on so many counts. -1.
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 19, 2022 at 18:12

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