The longer I play piano,
the clearer it becomes that pure finger strength solves many knotty
To play the heavyweight
romantic piano composers such as Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Liszt and Schumann,
you'll need tremendous, almost superhuman strength and endurance.
If you've ever listened
to a great piano piece, and then tried to learn it, you'll soon come up
against a "wall of endurance" past which even the most talented and
well-intentioned pianist may not pass without the right muscle
development. You may know the music but if you're not strong enough to
play the huge pieces from end to end, you're finished.
The only way past that
wall is strength. Talent alone won't take you there.
Three areas must increase
in general strength: fingers, wrists and arms.
While wrist and arm
strength is beyond our scope today, these two are generally increased by
octave studies. Be very, very careful with octaves: you can easily
permanently impair your arm, or at least get an acute case of tendonitis.
Go slowly, and never do octaves unless you are really warmed up.
As to finger strength,
you'll find that the more of it you have, the better all those filigree
arpeggiated runs and scale-like passages sound and feel. In fact, in my
opinion, you'd often do better to increase your strength rather than
repeat those difficult passages over and over.
My method is to do both:
I mix finger exercises with the difficult passages, so that when I become
tired or bored with repeating difficult passages, I can turn my brain more
or less "off" and play finger exercises.
In addition, I
"listen" to my hands and arms: if one hand is tired, rest it
immediately, and do finger exercises with the other hand.
There's a feeling
inside your hand when all the muscles are warmed up, and ready to go.
To pianists, it's the
greatest feeling in the world, like you could conquer anything, play any
difficult spot with ease.
Let's call it the
Strength Zone, for lack of a better term.
The quickest way I know
to the Zone is Hanon, those horrible finger exercises that many students
were forced to endure years ago.
I know many will say,
"Try Czerny, try this or that," but the Hanon "Virtuoso Pianist"
is the only book that ever helped me achieve and maintain real finger
strength. The exercises are so dull that you really don't have to think,
just play and play. The dullness is a virtue. I watch TV during the
In fact, I use an amalgam
of several of the first exercises, which I tailor so that they repeat the
3rd, 4th and 5th fingers as much as I
want. These are the fingers that need the most work, no matter who you
are. For that matter, you can
just play those three fingers endlessly to gain strength.
Your index finger and
thumb don't really need exercises, being the dominant digits of the
I play Hanon one hand at
a time so that I can feel each finger, and keep track of the depth of the
stroke, trying to make each stroke as strong and defined as I can. I find
that two hands at a time is useless, because I cannot pay enough attention
to each finger.
As soon as I become bored
with finger exercises, whoosh, I start some monstrously hard passage and
see how long the strength lasts.
Remember that finger
strength is cumulative: if you do finger exercises every day, your
strength will grow, and as soon as you stop daily finger workouts, the
muscles start fading from the Zone.
Ultimately, it comes down
to endurance, just like an athlete.
Without endurance, you
cannot link all those difficult passages into a whole and make music out
So test for endurance
often by playing through a set piece to see how far you can get.
I use Chopin's G Minor
Ballade as my endurance test so I can gauge the evolution of the muscles
and my strength.
There is no place more
fun at the piano than the Strength Zone, and nothing more difficult to
Strengthen your fingers,
strengthen your mind.
The piano requires lots
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