If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a feeling is worth at least double that. For pianists, this is especially true with respect to the physical aspects of our craft.
Take hand shape for instance. How do you describe an ideal hand position?
You could use lots of words, and we often do: curve your fingers. Don’t collapse on your thumb. Keep your hands rounded. Hold an egg/ball/cup.
The descriptions can go on and on.
Inevitably, a picture or demonstration can help to convey and summarize all of the words, but even that’s not enough. Ultimately, what you want is to be able to feel what it means to have a good hand shape and to be able to replicate that feeling instantly.
There’s no doubt that hand shape is important, precisely because piano is a physical activity. Like any other physical activity, you get best results (and avoid injury) when you work with, not against, your body’s natural mechanics. In piano playing, this means playing without unnecessary tension, with sustained comfort, and resulting in an effective technique.
So, how do we find that default hand shape? Here’s an exercise that will show you your hands’ natural shape. Ready?
Sit on a chair or bench. Hang your arms off of the sides so that they are relaxed, hanging straight down from your shoulders.
Now, as if sneaking up on a bird, peer over and peek at your hands. What do you see?
How curved are your fingers? Is your thumb more bent or straight? If you placed an imaginary flat surface under your fingers without disturbing them, which part of your fingers would contact that surface?
You can also do this exercise standing up, hanging your hands by your sides, if that enables a better look.
The beauty of this exercise is that every hand will look slightly different yet exhibit universal principles, the same principles that all of those words and pictures are trying to convey.
Your fingers will most likely not be completely straight. You’ll have a beautiful roundness to your hand. Your wrist will not show any ulnar or radial deviation as Seymour Bernstein discusses in his tonebase lesson on Schumann’s melody.
In short, your hands will seem happy just the way they are. They could hang out here all day. Go grab them a beer, will ya?
To apply this relaxed state to the piano, bend your arms from the elbow and bring up your forearms and hands like a zombie to the keyboard, preserving the hand shape as much as possible. Set them down on the keys, letting your fingers, hand, and wrist settle downwards slightly if needed so that all fingertips make contact.
Now, admire your work! How does it look? How does it feel? Try to memorize all of that. The next time you notice that your hand shape is not doing you any favors, rewind to your hands’ happy place.
I’m not saying that this is how you will play all the time. I’m not even telling you how to play the keys at all. [See Garrick Ohlsson’s tonebase lesson “On Touch” for all of the ways you can play a note. Notice Mr. Ohlsson’s lovely hand shape and the ease with which he plays]. But I am saying that the closer you operate to your body’s default settings, the easier it will be for you.
For you nerds who like to know more about how these things work, I highly recommend the book “What Every Pianist Needs to Know About the Body” by Thomas Mark. It’s an excellent introduction to your body’s structure as it relates to playing the piano.
For the rest of you, the next time you see a pianist you admire, one with a seemingly effortless physicality, note their hand shapes and see how they compare to your zombie hands.
You might learn something, and it’ll only take a minute.