Sunday, March 24, 2013

Cans of Word Worms - Hand Position, Part Two

Most pianists learn to play from basic methods that include tunes written in major five-finger patterns. Translated for the non-pianists, that means do-re-mi-fa-sol in a given key. Working from these patterns helps students to hear major and minor scales and chords early in the process. These patterns also help students to learn how to move all five fingers over a variety of locations on the piano.

Notice these words from the above paragraph: patterns, locations, scales, chords, and move. Oh, you already did because I put them in bold typeface?  Well done!

In some method books, the word "position" is used instead of "pattern".  Position is an accurate term for a location on the keyboard.  It allows the student to begin to connect scales and chords with arrangements of whole and half steps and the resultant black and white key shapes they generate. If the student and teacher understand that, no harm, no foul. However, if somehow this word gets linked in the brain with holding the hand over a precise spot in a precise way, the trouble begins.

A more important word is the word "move". Our hands move over patterns every time we play. Our fingers move to play notes in patterns. In fact, the whole body is engaged in movement - small and large - when we play even one note. If our students don't understand that, they will tighten up physically and often musically in an effort to stay in the perfect position.

Teaching desirable hand "position" really means teaching the hand how to move. By matching functional movements of the hand - and body - to the music, we can help our students gain fluid control over their playing. By assessing each student's structural peculiarities, we can help each student find the easiest and healthiest way to play any pattern of notes. Those of us who teach small children are also aware that the development of small muscle coordination varies from child to child.

Elements to consider when teaching hand movement:
  • How the hand and fingers balance over the notes to be played
  • How the hand moves through a series of notes. This is especially helpful when playing patterns with wide skips. Often moving from key to key is easier than straddling the skips.
  • How the whole arm is engaged in moving the hand
  • Where the joints of the hands are and how they move
  • How the keys feel in terms of contact and shape
  • How the whole arm/whole body participate in playing
For resources on the structure of the hand and arm for musicians, visit

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Cans of Word Worms - Hand Position Part One

MS, MRS, KSH, BM, MM, ATI, AE,  No. 27 in the deli line.

Any of these abbreviations could be applied to me, depending on the setting and the reason for the reference. None of them describes me fully. The same sort of problem shows up when I attempt to shortcut an instruction for my students. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

When I first started teaching, I purchased packs of progress reports with shortcut descriptions of desired outcomes. I would go through the list, check off what a student had done well, and make suggestions for improvement. I dutifully put them in the mail to each student's family, hoping they would be able to make sense of the shortcuts, even when I was fudging my own understanding.

I'm re-evaluating them now, starting with "hand position".  I think I'm pretty sure what my hand is, and I hope I'm not alone there! It is a magnificent structure of 19 bones, with tendons, sheaths,  muscles, nerves, and blood vessels. The fingertips have up to 16,000 touch sensors per square inch, and pianists develop remarkable sensitivity thanks to the amount of time we spend touching the keys. Including the wrist adds 8 more bones to the total, as well as some intriguing joint movement options. The word "hand" is clearly a shortcut term for an organic, complex structure.

I'm OK with this. I show my students pictures and models of hands so they understand the options hands provide. I let them play with movements so they feel these options.

Position - not so much.

One of my favorite scenes in "The Music Man" is the piano lesson with Marian and her student Amaryllis.  Amaryllis, like my students, is enthusiastic about playing her "cross-hands piece".  However, Marian advises her charge to "keep the fingers curved as nice and as high as you possibly can." How can this be? How can she make a very large movement like crossing hands (we'll get to this abbreviation later, by the way) while "keeping" her hands anywhere?

Oh, right, it's musical comedy. Suspend your disbelief and all that. Truth is, I've said similar things many times. Truth is, the sheer act of sending down a key is antithetical to keeping any sort of position. And that's just one key, not the multiple keys and movements needed to play an actual piece.

So, what do we mean when we say hand position? Tune in to Part Two for more options.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Cans of Word Worms: The Project

Thanks to Ray Kurzweil and his team, Siri will guide you and your iPhone to the closest coffee shop. Or music store. Or gas station. The Jetson lifestyle is well on its way.

Ray Kurzweil is a genius. He has been an inventor and explorer of artificial intelligence for a good long time, his latest accomplishment being the creation of Watson, the Jeopardy!-playing computer. In his recent Viking Press book,  How to Create a Mind,  he gives new insight into the way the brain processes information.

The basic premise that I find most fascinating is this: the mind is not very good at logic, but it is excellent at patterns. I could have guessed at the first, having been on the planet for a while observing an abundant amount of human behavior, including my own. It is reassuring to hear it from a genius, I'll admit.

Which only goes to show how excellent my brain is at patterns. In my pattern of a genius, there is an assumption of intellectual perfection. After all,  "genius" and "genie" are almost the same word, right? And genies can make anything happen, right? They have all the answers, right?

Only if you believe in genies. Only if you believe in a pattern that may or may not reflect reality.

At this stage of my teaching and learning, I am spending more time exploring time-honored expressions that show up, like genies from a bottle, over and over in piano pedagogy. It gets me in some trouble, I will admit. Rather than magical ideas stored in beautiful bottles, I'm coming up with cans of word worms - squiggly, wiggly, hard to define, the kind of worms that seem to reproduce themselves when cut in half.

This series of posts will take close looks at phrases like "wrist circles", "hand position", and, gulp, the dreaded word "weight". The project is designed to look at these words as representatives of patterns, for good or ill.  If I get stuck, I'll ask Siri, the genie in the iPhone.