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At the moment I am playing a piece that at some instances requires fast consecutive octaved notes in the left hand (I arranged the notes myself, the pic shows the notes in question). enter image description here

I play the notes marked with a red circle with my thumb. After practising the passage for some time, I discovered some kind of pain in the first joint of my thumb (for clarification, I mean the joint which is the first if you begin counting from the tip of the thumb).

Of course I stopped playing that passage, and now I'm trying to experiment with my hand positioning in order to reduce the stress on my thumb in this particular passage. What I observed (and what I believe to be the reason for the sensation I felt) is that when playing with the thumb, the upward reaction force the piano-key acts on the thumb when pressing down the key is not oriented in the plane in which the thumb can bend:

enter image description here

Arrow 1 shows the direction of the piano-keys force. This force is almost perpendicular to the direction in which the tip of the thumb can move, which means that the thumb can't really give in to the force, which is good. It however also means that there are no muscles that could act against this force, because the main part of the muscles only acts in the directions of movement of the tip (I indicated that direction by arrow 2). This means that the reaction force of the key when pressing down the key is, with no backing or protection by muscles, absorbed by the joint of the thumb.

So I was wondering: Is this joint build to withstand such (abusive) force? I'm looking for well-founded information on the subject, if possible statements from human-medical science or comparable research.

If not, what would be the best hand position to minimize the stress on this joint? Is this a recurring topic in the piano-playing world?

EDIT: I don't remember experiencing a sensation like that before, when I played all the 32nd notes with my left hand. I assumed that my hand position was slightly different in that case, putting less stress to the thumb joint in question. The picture indeed doesn't show my hand-position while playing octaves, it just was an example pic to show two directions that forces can act on a thumb joint.

  • why not play these notes with the thumb of the right hand? – Albrecht Hügli Sep 22 at 14:23
  • @AlbrechtHügli I play these special notes with my left hand because my right thumb would have to play another note just a 32nd afterwards. Using my index finger to play this consecutive note requires me to stretch my hand way more than I feel comfortable with, that's why I choose to play the consecutive note with my right thumb, and the one before with my left thumb. – Quantumwhisp Sep 22 at 16:38
  • You could play than this lower 6th as a 9th with the left hand ... – Albrecht Hügli Sep 22 at 20:48
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The reaction force of the key is much to small to cause any damage to your thumb, unless you are pressing down very hard on the key after you play the note (which is pointless). The interphalangeal thumb joint you are talking about should not be "doing anything much" in piano playing - certainly not when playing an octave stretch between thumb and little finger.

Possibly, you are developing arthritis in your thumb (though that is more common in the lower thumb joints which have a bigger range of movement), or you have some other medical condition which is inflaming the joint, restricting blood circulation, or whatever. IMO you need medical advice about this, rather than piano-teaching advice.

Your hand position in the picture looks fine - though of course your hand position when you are playing the octaves might be different from when you are posing for a photo! You might be contorting your hand into a poor shape because (according to the music example) you are trying to play some of the 32nd notes with your right hand - personally I would play them all with one hand, and there is no particular reason not to use your left hand for all of them.

If you play all the 32nd notes with your left hand, the "driving force" should be coming from the rotation of your wrist and forearm, powered by the big muscles in your arm, not by trying to press the note down with only your thumb while your hand is not moving.

  • The reason for using my right hand for the 2nd of the 4 32nd-notes in one such group is that it doesn't limit my tempo: Playing 16th notes is no problem for my left hand, playing 32nd shifting octaves is a problem, if it's more than 2 notes. 2 consecutive notes in my left hand are fine, I can play them at any speed (up from playing them simultaneously) . I get from your answer that stresses on the interphalangeal thumb joint in the way I described are too weak to be an issue when playing piano. If you can confirm and edit that into your answer, then my question is answered by that. – Quantumwhisp Sep 22 at 16:53
  • May I additionally ask where your information comes from that the force is too weak to do any harm? Is it the fact that people seldomly have a problem with their thumb joint in the piano-community? – Quantumwhisp Sep 24 at 16:51
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Hmm

If want you suspect is true then why have you not encountered it before?

I presume that you are an experienced pianist and you must have encountered passages with similar requirements to this before. Many sonatas of e.g. Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn feature repeated octaves like this, often at high speed, in the bass line.

So do you always get this problem or is it just in this piece? If it's always then you may have a bigger problem not related to the piano at all. Might be an idea to go and see a doctor.

If its just this piece then indeed you must be doing something unusual but I don't think its possible to analyse from afar without a lot more info. Talk to your teacher - if you have one - or failing that go and talk to a teacher if you can. Hopefully someone seeing what you are doing should be able to help you.

By the way what is that piece - I don't recognize it?

  • The passage is a selfmade arangement of a metal-song called "Fabric". – Quantumwhisp Sep 22 at 16:45
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You are experiencing pain between the proximal phalange and distal phalange. Your thumb doesn't have a middle phalange. It could be caused by pressing too hard into the key bed and that strain is stretching or tearing the ligament holding the two phalanges together, or, you have already damaged your articular cartilage.

I would take a few weeks off to let your body do what it needs to do without interruption or setback. I hear an ounce of prevention . . . .

I experienced something similar except with my right thumb. My teacher gave me four instructions to combat the problem of me pressing too hard into the key bed.

The first is to learn to play to the point of sound (that little bump you feel when you slowly depress a key without producing a sound (acoustic pianos only)). Don't forget Newton's law that if you press into the piano, it is pressing back with equal force. In a battle between you and the piano, the piano will win. The second was not use the thumb's abductor to play down since it is a weak and sluggish muscle anyway but, to let arm weight or gravity depress the key. Third was to use the pronator and supinator muscles around the elbow to rotate the thumb and pinky. The fourth was to apply a forward shift when you play the key. That is, down and forward simultaneously. That way, instead of the phalanges being strained, you use their alignment.

Imagine taking a stick and holding it to the ground at a forty five degree angle. All your force is going down but because of the angle, the stick will break. If you also press forward, your energy passes through the stick and into the ground.

When you combine all four movements the thumb is effortless, fast and powerful since you are not static loading any one muscle or joint. You won't even use the thumb as all its movement will come from the arm. There are other movements with the elbow and wrist but those first four are the foundation and will take time to rewire your brain.

I'd spend a few weeks with just learning arm weight to the point of sound, then add rotation, then add forward shifting. Most likely the elbow and wrist movements will fall into place.

I would also take ten weeks to do this (ounce of prevention) and you may not be able to play old repertoire for a few years as improper movement is already hardwired into your brain's muscle memory and it will be aching to break free and come back with a vengeance, especially with old repertoire that may have also been hardwired.

Your phalanges require proper alignment and are what give us power. Like a stone arch, with everything aligned properly, they have great power. enter image description here

  • So your statement on the thumb is essentially: "Forces on the thumb in the way described in the question shouldn't be a problem, unless one applies force after the key has already reached its final position". Do I understand you right there? – Quantumwhisp Sep 23 at 5:29
  • Another question: Is your last paragraph with the picture of the stone-arch pointing towards the forward motion you mentioned earlier? I ask because you don't mention anything about the actual alignment of thumb and hand at all, you only say many things about where the force should stem from. – Quantumwhisp Sep 24 at 14:36

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