Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Finger Movements by the Small Muscles

Click on this image to refer to the drawing of the tendon/muscle descriptions in the article.

I came across the book, The Riddle of the Pianist's Finger just within the past year or two.  The author, Arnold Schultz, had written the forward to a republication of Otto Ortman's book, The Physiological Mechanics of Piano Technique.  I was reading that one, and was curious about 'The Riddle.'  It took me some time to find it, but thanks to ebay, I did.  I read it, and it was enlightening for me, and has helped me with my playing.  I came across an article that Schultz wrote for 'The Etude' magazine, only a couple of years after his book was published.  I am going to put it here in full for you to enjoy.  Maybe it will be of help to you as well.  Enjoy!

Pianist, Know Your Fingers!
A New Approach to Piano Technique
By: Arnold Schultz

            Whatever the touch form employed at the piano; whether it be a finger, a hand, a forearm, or an arm touch; whether the movement be caused by “weight and relaxation” or by levered force; whether it starts from the surface of the keys or from a distance above them; the depression of the key itself must always involve muscular activity of the fingers.  They are the final points of contact with the keyboard, the antennae by which the pianist feels out his way to tone.
                        Despite this importance of the fingers, however, theorists have tended to neglect the facts of their physiological structure, placing the stress almost without exception upon their position during key-depression rather than upon the muscles which actually impel their movement.  Yet the facts are of such supreme importance that, once they have been examined, it appears almost impossible for piano teaching to bring about the higher degrees of technical skill unless it takes them into serious account.
            It is our purpose in the present article to sketch certain anatomical features of the four fingers (without reference to the thumb) and to make a number of somewhat desultory notes on the differences these features may make to piano technic.  Lack of space prohibits a complete account of the coordinative possibilities, let alone the pedagogy, by which they may be realized in actual playing; nor can we attempt to refer to the various touch forms as they are determined by purely mechanical differences in joint action.  But even a partial account will make it clear that finger coordination is at the very heart of the technical problem, that our teaching must either make of it a prime consideration or labor beside the chief technical issues.
Anatomy of the Fingers and Hand
            In the accompanying, highly schematic diagram (at head of article) JK represents the forearm; GH, the hand from wrist-joint to hand-knuckle (technically known as the metacarpus); EF, the first phalanx of the finger; CD, the second; and AB, the third.
            XY, the tendon of the extensor digitorum communis, takes its origin in a muscle located in the forearm, just below the elbow, passes over the wrist-joint, the hand-knuckle, and the mid- and nail-joints, and is inserted into the second and third phalanges.  It serves to extend, or from the point of view of the hand in playing position, to lift the finger.
            A’B’, the tendon of the flexor digitorum profundus, takes its origin in a muscle again located in the forearm, passes over the wrist joint, the hand-knuckle, and the mid- and nail-joints, and is inserted into the third phalanx, which it serves to flex (bend).
            C’D’, the tendon of the flexor digitorum sublimis, also originates in a muscle of the forearm, and passes parallel with the flexor profundus to the second phalanx, which it flexes.
            E’F’, a small muscle known as the lumbricalis, takes its origin at the base of the metacarpus, and passes to the inner side of the first phalanx up to what is called the tendinous expansion of the extensor communis, where it is inserted.  It flexes the first phalanx and, because of its connection with the extensor, gives a slight lift to the second and third phalanges, this lift taking place, of course, without contraction of the extensor muscle proper, located in the forearm.  Two other sets of muscles, known as the palmar and dorsal interossei, although they are chiefly involved in lateral movements of the first phalanges, assist the lumbricales in the flexion of the first phalanges.  The diagram does not indicate the interossei, but since they lie entirely within the hand, the line E’F’ may be taken to indicate their downward pull as well as that of the lumbricalis. 

The Finger as Three Phalanges
            It is everyone’s tendency to regard the finger as a unit capable of taking on different “shapes” during piano playing.  Only rarely is it regarded as a collection of three separate levers, each of them having as much claim to separate attention as that given, for instance, the hand, the forearm, or the upper arm.  It is true that there is a marked interdependence among certain muscular exertions of the phalanges; but for that matter, there is a marked interdependence between exertions of the phalanges and exertions of the hand in the wrist joint (a fact made clear later).  Under any circumstances, a study of the interdependence in general yields, as will presently become clear, important clues to a new, direct means of gaining velocity and key control.  The following notes on the muscular system of the finger (and they by no means give a complete account) will indicate some of these clues, and will also reveal, rather amusingly, I think, how little understanding either the pianist or the non-pianist has of the tools he uses almost constantly during his daily life.
            1.  When XY, the extensor, is contracted, it applies upward force to all three of the phalanges.  It is impossible to lift the third phalanx without also lifting the second, and upward movement of the first can be prevented only by the contraction of the small flexor muscles, the lumbricalis and the interossei.  The contraction of the latter can be seen or felt in the tissue between the thumb and the second finger, if the second and third phalanges of the second finger are vigorously extended without movement of the first phalanx.  In other words, a downward acting muscle must contract to keep the first phalanx from moving upward.  A fully extended, perfectly flat finger, accordingly, sometimes advised by pedagogs for rapid passage work, involves a stiffened hand-knuckle even before movement into the key begins; that is, muscles on either side of the joint are contracted.
2.  When the finger extensors are contracted, they apply upward force to the hand.  Movement of the hand can be prevented only by contraction of the hand flexors.  The contraction of one of the hand flexor tendons can be felt, if all the fingers are lifted vigorously at once, through the under surface of the forearm just above the wrist-joint, little finger side.  (The diagram does not indicate this tendon, but it is a prominent one and easily found by a little experiment; so, too, with the hand extensor tendon mentioned in the following paragraphs).  Spread chord positions, which necessitate extremely flat fingers, therefore, also necessitate a stiffened wrist-muscles on either side of the joint are contracted.     
The interdependence of the hand and finger muscles is nicely shown in still another experiment.  If the hand be lifted as high as possible in the wrist-joint, the finger hanging loose, a strong contraction of one of the extensor tendons of the hand may be felt through the upper surface of the wrist joint, thumb side.  Now if the fingers are also raised, the hand tendon will immediately relax: the work of lifting the hand has been taken over, at least in large part, by the finger muscles.
3.  It is normally impossible for the flexor profundus, A’B’, to bend the third phalanx, unless the second is also bent.  The flexor sublimis, however, may bend the second phalanx while the third remains relaxed.  It is this latter coordination which causes the familiar “breaking-in” of the nail-joint during key depression, a movement which is often misinterpreted physiologically, but which is generally, and rightly, condemned.  It is apparent, therefore, that any attempt to separate the actions of the two long flexors is impracticable.
4.  The contractions of the long flexors, since the tendons pass over the wrist-joint, apply downward force to the hand.  The hand extensor tendons may be felt to contract if the metacarpus is kept quiet during vigorous flexion of the fingers.
5.  As the extensor tendons of the four fingers pass over the back of the hand they are connected, one with the other, by bands of tissue called vinculae.  If the extensor muscle, located in the forearm, contracts to pull upon one of the tendons, these bands transmit part of the force to the other tendons, the amount of the force being proportionate to the nearness of the tendons.
An experiment will make the meaning clearer.  If the right arm be laid along the thigh, all muscles relaxed, the extensor tendon of the second finger may be pulled to one side by the thumb of the other hand.  The tendon is found just above the hand-knuckle; and, when relaxed, it may be displaced from a quarter to half an inch.  If the third finger then be raised, the tendon of the second finger will immediately become tight and snap out from under the thumb.  The lift of the fourth finger is felt rather later, and that of the fifth only after the extension has become extreme.
The question arises, then, if the extensor tendon of the second finger tightens when the third finger is lifted, why is not the second finger also lifted?  The answer is that the flexor tendons of the second finger contract, and the swell of their tension can be felt under the finger in the palm.  (Further comment on this sell is contained in Note 6.)  The second finger, in other words, is stiffened-perhaps only slightly, but nevertheless stiffened- while the third finger is being raised.  There is no other way of raising the third finger without also raising the second.
6.  When the long flexors contract, the tendons AB and CD tend to form, of course, a straight line between the points of their origin and insertion.  Because the tendons are bound up only loosely in the tissues of the hand, this tendency is partially realized.  If the second finger of the right hand is pressed hard upon a table while the second finger of the left hand is placed on the right palm immediately below its hand-knuckle, the tendons will be felt to sell and bulge, sagging from a quarter to half an inch.  This distance is extremely significant, for the depth of key descent itself is only three-eighths of an inch.  The sagging means that the muscles lose time in applying their force to the second and third phalanges; it means that the muscles contract through a greater distance than the three-eighths of an inch of key descent requires; it means that the long flexors are at a great disadvantage for velocity.
7.  If the long flexors and the extensors of the fingers are simultaneously contracted; that is, if the fingers are stiffened, also the wrist-joint, over which the tendons pass, must be stiffened.  Proof of this fact can be secured by allowing the forearm to rest upon the knee, the hand and fingers dangling relaxed in space.  If the hand be struck a blow, it will swing back and forth in the wrist joint, its movement entirely free and uninhibited.  If, however, the fingers are stiffened while the hand muscles proper are kept relaxed, the hand will show no movement in response to the blow.  The wrist joint has become fixed by the finger muscles.
8.  In contrast to the long flexors and the extensors, the small muscles apply their force to the first phalanx directly, without an intervening sag.  Moreover, they all have their origins within the metacarpus, and their contractions can have, therefore, no effect upon movements in the wrist joint.

Excessive Use of the Long Flexors
            The sixth of the foregoing notes states that the long flexors show a marked dis-advantage for velocity.  As the part they play in the depression of the finger increases, the velocity disadvantage also increases.  Unfortunately, a coordination one encounters very frequently among piano students involves particularly strong tensions of the long flexors.  I refer to it as the stiff-finger coordination.  If the long flexors and the extensor contract to fix (stiffen) the finger, and if then the flexors contract in excess of the fixation, the finger will swing downward as a unit.  The first phalanx is caught between the opposing contractions; and its own muscles, accordingly, need contribute nothing to the descent.  (The interossei contract, to be sure, to give a lateral (sideways) fixation to the first phalanx as the long tendons provide a vertical fixation- it is impossible to will the one fixation without the other.  They need not, however, contribute to the downward movement.)  The long flexors are strongly contracted; they must contract to a given degree, to provide the fixation, and then a still higher degree to depress the finger.
            The reader may be certain that this stiffened finger is not part of his approach to the keyboard, but the frequency with which the coordination appears can be judged by a simple experiment.  Bring the tip of the relaxed second finger in contact with the edge of a table while the other fingers hang loosely under the hand.  Move the extensor of the second finger to one side, as in one of the foregoing experiments.  Now press the finger tip upon the table.  In a number of trials the probability is strong that the extensor will tighten and snap out from under the finger which holds it.  Some experimenters cannot at first execute the movement otherwise.  With extreme pressures, as a matter of fact, the tightening cannot be avoided.  Very loud playing, accordingly, always involves stiffened fingers.  The use of the lifting muscle during a downward action is explained by the coordinative picture just sketched.
            The coordination is employed, no doubt, because it is easier to lock the three phalanges into a unit than it is to apply individual pulls to each of them; and also because it puts no strain upon the small muscles, the weakest in the playing organism.  It is highly disadvantageous, however, for velocity; it is insensitive to key-resistance and therefore incapable of fine dynamic control (the downward acting muscles are not working directly against the key but are pulling against upward acting muscles); and it interferes seriously, when employed for support, with the velocity and control of hand movements.

The Small Muscles as Determinants of Technical Skill
            The discussion so far no doubt has already implied the overwhelmingly important role which the small muscles must play in expert piano technic.  The three chief aspects of technical skill which they promote are: 1. Dynamic Control.  If instead of the stiff finger coordination, the small muscles pull upon the first phalanx while the long flexors are exerted against the second and third, the force of all these muscles is expended directly against the felt resistance of the key.  Sensitiveness to key resistance, as I have already indicated, is the major factor in control over tonal volume.  This sensitiveness, moreover, is further heightened when the small muscles do most of the work of finger depression, for the muscles are relatively weak and a relatively large number of sensory nerves are stimulated during a given force effect.  The key under these circumstances, feels very heavy, and the finger like a small and delicate tool.  2. Velocity.  As the small muscles dominate in the movement of the finger, the contractions of the long flexors with their impeding effects upon velocity may decrease.  The highest degree of velocity is reached when the small muscles are entirely unassisted by the long flexors.  3. The Control and Velocity of Hand Touches.  When the fingers are used to support hand movements originating in the wrist joint, a dominant use of the small muscles affords the most advantageous coordination.  Contractions of the long finger tendons create a congestion in the wrist joint, which hampers the freedom, the control, and the velocity of the movement.

Example of Small Muscle Dominance
            These three aspects of technic constitute, the reader will agree, almost a definition of technic.  The theoretical exposition is, of course, very incomplete, and no practical instruction in the use of the small muscles has been given.
            In closing, however, we will describe the appearance of a finger-stroke in which the small muscles dominate.  Let the fingers of the right hand be placed on the keyboard in a moderately flat position- the position they take when the arm hangs completely relaxed at the side of the body.  Then depress the finger so that the mid-joint breaks deeply, the nail-joint giving to the movement.  Take care that the break of the mid-joint does not result either from an extension of the finger or from a downward-backward movement of the hand.  Often considerable experiment is necessary before the student has success in producing the stroke.  He can see what is wanted, however, by making the stroke artificially, that is, by pushing down the first phalanx of the playing finger with the fingers of the other hand.  When the movement is made by the finger’s own muscular force, the break in the mid-joint signifies that the small muscles are working harder than the long flexors.
            The objection no doubt will be made that considerable force is lost in the joint movement, and the objection is reasonable, as far as it goes.  The disadvantage, however, is compensated by other advantages, impossible to argue more fully here.  Suffice it to say that the coordination can be observed in the playing of our great pianists and that it constitutes one of the most valuable of the finger touches.  It is curious that no work on piano technic, so far as I know, has ever described the stroke nor analyzed it into its physiological factors.