Sunday, March 06, 2005

Paws or Claws?

Rachmaninoff's handsAh, Rachmaninoff’s hands. Pianistic hands? People’s hands fascinate me, from quick fidgeting hands to hands folded calmly (“make a bird’s nest in your lap,” a mother once advised me), from absent-minded strumming fingers to palms splayed out jazz-style. Hands can turn me on and just as quickly turn me off. (Note to date: nothing reveals your nervousness more than idly picking up, twirling, and rearranging the tableware!) My own hands receive their share of commentary, all delivered, probably, with good-natured admiration but which causes me to fret nonetheless. ”Oh look at those long fingers!” “My what piano hands you have!” “What’s your span?” “Your hand looks like a fast little crab when you play scales.” Many great pianists do not have my hands at all; theirs are fat, giant mitts with dangerously pudgy fingers. (Dangerous? Yes. Think of all the extraneous notes you might hit!)

Though I’ve never heard him play a lick of repertoire, Chris Brown always inspires me with his piano playing. Now known more as a composer and computer-music pioneer (and professor of music at Mills College), Chris trained seriously at the piano in his formative years. He utilizes his knowledge of the instrument by incorporating it in many of his interactive electronic pieces. I have heard him in that context two or three times and also as an improvisor, both solo and with others. Because he plays in this free improvisation style (even, I presume, when he is reading his own notated scores), he is a very different pianist from me, yet I learn so much about technique when I watch him play. He sits completely at ease at the keyboard and uses his whole hand, elbow, arm, shoulder, and back. The knee-jerk spontaneity of these broad physical gestures translates into seemingly effortless pianistic passagework that is musically delivered, with no pinched off ends. Does his hand look “like a crab” scuttling up and down the keyboard? Or is it more like a paw? A big, plodding, soft paw that, contrary to its design, somehow elicits precise tones and delicate filagree. I look at my narrow, surgeon’s fingers and worry that they might cut a musical idea short or clip what should be a perfect hairpin. Snip, snip. I play as if with little claws, a nimble but rather dicey affair. Hmm. Disconcerting.

Do people with paws have the advantage at the keyboard? Are the best musicians more flesh than bone? Mack McCray and Paul Hersh, two of my teachers at the Conservatory: fleshy hands. Fats Waller and Thelonius Monk: fleshy hands. Fred Frith and William Winant: fleshy hands. Rachmaninoff’s hands: legendary, statuesque. They are huge. They shaped his music (and much piano music written since) and cracked open the true symphonic sound that a piano is capable of producing. Big, huge, fatness of sound. Of course, one ought not agonize over genetic structure. Sometimes I tell myself that claws can articulate where paws can not, and that even by visualizing a pair of soft, plodding paws at the end of my arms I can find a tone production on the other side of my natural inclination. Visualization is essentially the practice of the imagination, a practice beyond mere notes, rhythm, technique and musicianship but just as important. So I must go practice, thinking paws or claws, claws or paws?


I graduated from Illinois wesleyan university with a degree in piano performance in 2001. I found your post very interesting, but I wouldn't fret too much if I were you. I have the hands that you speak of. I am 5 foot 7, and weigh 180 lbs, but I have very thick hands (my friends call me hand-sandwich--a play on ham-sandwich) and my reach is a very comfortable C to G (octave above) It works for me. However, my teacher at wesleyan has very small bony hands. Almost like a female's hands. But has the most beautiful golden tone I've heard since the likes of Alfred Brendel. I think the key is in how you use your mitts, and more importantly, how you excercise them. I grew up on a farm and thus, did a lot of digging, tree planting, etc. so my hands are very large and extremely strong. However my teacher's feminine hands are at least as strong as mine. You can tell just by shaking his hand. If you perfect your touch and think always about the color of your sound, your hands will follow your ears. Consider yourself blessed at least in one way. I can barely fit my fingers in-between 2 black keys. I played Rachmaninoff's 2nd concerto my senior year, and did an ok job, if you ask me, but I heard my teacher play it later, and his much smaller hands made the technical passages seem easy compared to my catcher's mitts that I cary around on the end of my arms. It's not a question of hands. Look at joseph hoffman. Or glenn gould. His hands always looked like spiders to me, and he produced some of the most interesting tones that have ever been produced by a piano, in my opinion. Anyway, good luck in your studies. Nice article!

By Blogger hands, at 6:22 PM  

I agree that playing the piano (as with playing any musical instrument) is more about listening, thinking, visualizing and internalizing than about the actual physical mechanism used to do it, and that if you do the former well, you can to some extent transcend the limitations imposed by the latter. However, I do believe hand shape plays a role in determining ultimately what you are able to do at the keyboard. People always seem to view this measure in the wrong terms; I do not believe that absolute size or weight of the hand matters so much as its flexibility; and here is where I personally suffer, for while I can easily span a major tenth in both hands, the internal spread of my fingers is not what it should be. Think of the Vulcan "live-long-and-prosper" sign': spreading my third and fourth fingers apart like that with any significant aperture is challenging for me. My analysis of the problem is that it has to do with both what you might call "finger-to-palm" ratio and with the relative length of the finger joints themselves; I have short fingers with respect to the size of my hand, and especially short from knuckle to first joint, which means opening my hand to play certain figures typical, say, of Chopin, is not easy. I don't think, for instance, that I could ever be able to achieve the fluidity (speed and legato simultaneously) of Maurizio Pollini in the second movement of the Chopin B minor sonata with my physical equipment, though I do manage to play it, though always with no small effort.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:25 PM  

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