Piano Playing Technique
Stiff Fingers vs Fullness of Sound

How to make my hands "jump" gracefully while playing (instead of stiffness)?

My piano teacher is always telling me that it looks like I have arthritis when I'm playing my piano songs and that my tone isn't as full and rich because my hands don't move gracefully from one key to another.

Her advice is to exaggerate the finger motions so that I get used to moving my fingers a lot, but it doesn't help that much...

How can I get rid of my stiff fingers while playing?

Maria’s Answer:

First of all, let’s separate the problem into parts since there are different solutions to different problems!

1. A Rich and Full Tone

A rich and full tone is not acquired by nimble fingers; it is acquired by weight balance and by controlling the weight and the connection in between the notes. So “moving gracefully from one key to another”, could be another way to say just that.

It is said that the piano is both the easiest and the most difficult instrument at the same time.

We can press down a key and there is sound, without effort. As a comparison a violinist, for example, has to really work to get that tone sounding right; not to play false, with the right fullness, vibrato, and so on.

I can recommend: The Foundations of Technique, a great book about piano technique for adults, both amateurs and professionals.

So, the piano is "easy". We press down a key. OK. Now what? We can’t do vibrato, we can’t make the note lead to the next by intensifying its sound. Done is done.

This is where the piano gets difficult, since it is exactly between the notes all the magic happens! You can only prepare the note in advance; once it is played it can’t be changed.

And the preparation in advance can only be done- in our mind! We have to imagine and imagine hard, the sound we want before we play!

Here is an exercise I do with students who have trouble getting a nice rich legato sound. You could use scales for this exercise, or the melody in the piece you are working with.

  • First, just learn to play the scale/melody in one hand without mistakes.

  • Then, as you play again listen to what you hear. Do not make any corrections yet. Listen to where it is uneven, or where the legato is not “tight” enough.

  • Now play very slow and very heavy, feeling the weight move from one finger to the next. Focus on the feeling of the shift from one finger to the next. Make sure to let go of the previous finger as you play the next though- no overlaps.

  • I often tell my students to imagine that the melody/scale being played legato is like an electrical cable- it has to be tight and lead the electricity all the way, without breaks. (Yes, I am known for wacky but usually effective metaphors : )

  • Increase the speed little by little but keep listening for what’s happening between the notes.

  • If the piece is very soft, it helps by playing very loud as an exercise. The contrast means that you relax your muscles, and when you play soft again it will be much easier.

  • It is important that you sit with the correct posture as well for being able to control the weight balance. Here is some advice about how to sit with the correct posture.

2. Stiff fingers

Having nimble fingers is another issue, and doesn’t have so much to do with the richness of tone. You can actually have super fast and nimble fingers, and play shallow without any “color” at all. This is actually useful at times, for a “leggiero” sound for example.

Stiff fingers need pure finger exercises like Hanon. Bach’s 2-part inventions are great for loosening stiff joints as well. And yes, I also use exaggerated finger movements at times, to "activate" slow movements. (I say to play with "active" fingers.)

I have written about a great piano warm-up regimen here. These piano exercises will help you get your fingers moving again.

I wish you all the best in your piano practice!

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