My fingers have big knuckles, and they’ve always had big knuckles. Tracings of my childhood hands revealed bumps where my friends had little arcs. The third finger of my right hand has developed a particular characteristic. It takes a slight jog to the right at the first interphalangeal joint, the joint that most people use to knock on doors. It has done this for years, but only recently did I realize the true origin of this pattern: writing.
I grew up in the pre-computer age, the time when we took notes and wrote assignments with pens, pencils, and papers. Everything was done that way, from book reports to math problems to short essays. Longer papers were cranked out on typewriters, but usually from a draft written on yellow legal paper. We also wrote personal letters in what we called long hand, and we addressed Christmas cards the same way, not with computer labels. I don’t know how my third finger would be shaped if I had grown up with computers doing most of my writing. I do know that a writing implement fits perfectly in the crook that exists there now.
As a piano teacher, I have a pencil in my hand most of my teaching hours, at the ready to mark errors or suggestions. I trade the pencil out for a pen when I write down the week’s assignment in a practice book. I've been known to demonstrate simple piano patterns with one of these implements still in my hand, a minor gymnastic feat.
When I was growing up, I loved to visit Tony, the Italian shoemaker. Another sign of my age is that we actually did get our shoes repaired in those days, and I was glad to be the errand girl who dropped them off or picked them up at Tony’s shop. I loved the smell of leather and metal, and I loved the conversations Tony and I had about classical music. He was a first generation immigrant who grew up playing the violin and attending concerts. He could tell me about the famous musicians who performed in our local theatre, since transformed into a movie house.
By the time I knew Tony, he could no longer play the violin. He would hold up his hands and tell me that they could no longer move around the fingerboard. They were now shaped like his tools, and they had grown inflexible with age.
This is what happens to all of us. Not only do our hands grow like our tools, but other muscles of the body do as well. Muscles shift effort from one to another with the prime purpose of keeping us upright and mobile. When we are chronically out of balance, our muscles adapt by growing around the imbalance so we can continue to function. Our students’ muscles are growing with their skeletons as well, a process that goes on until they are in their early 20s. Lucky for them, young people are flexible. This is especially true for females who become more flexible after puberty. Still, how they move and work with tools will have an impact on how their muscles grow.
Young athletes are now encouraged to play more than one sport for this very reason. An athlete who sticks to one sport will tend to develop a muscular pattern that is most effective for that sport. An athlete who cross-trains has the opportunity to develop a greater variety of muscular patterns.
Musicians generally specialize, excepting those who learn to play more than one instrument well. For this reason we will tend to develop patterns that assure success on one instrument, and that instrument becomes our primary tool. Pianists adapt not only to the keyboard of the piano but also to the variety of benches. The young girl in the cartoon below is working on a revolving pedestal stool, and she is challenged to fit well on what appears to be a small sitting surface. Replacing her stool with a bench could prove very helpful, as long as she doesn't take her former compensations to the new tool.