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What is the most efficient way to increase finger strength? (Read 701 times)

Offline claireliii

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Hi,
I am a semi-professional pianist, and I currently find myself struggling with speed of the chopin etudes due to lack of finger strength. (e.g. I am currently working on chopin etude op.10 no.12, and if I go too fast my fingers'd get too tired halfway and I'd mess up terribly)

My teacher told me to be patient since it requires years of practice to get there. However, I AM NOT CONVINCED BY HER THEORY. I think there must be a way to significantly improve my finger strength so that I can excel at this piece. Would you guys share with me if you have any ideas/suggestions?

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Chopin: Etude, opus 10 no 12
piano sheet music of Etude


Online brogers70

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Re: What is the most efficient way to increase finger strength?
«Reply #1 on: May 17, 2021, 04:08:34 PM »
It is possible that lack of strength is not the problem. You may be tensing up muscles that you don't need to use to play and that tension gives you a feeling of fatigue. Here are some things you can try.

1. Play very slowly just the left hand; whenever you put a finger down on a note, stop, leave the finger in contact with the key and wobble your hand as loosely as possible until it feels totally relaxed. Then do the next note the same way, making sure that you hand is completely relaxed after striking each note. This will be very, very slow. That's fine. Don't play the whole etude that way, just one of the LH runs. The point isn't t get through a certain number of measures this way, just to experience relaxation while playing some of the figures in the LH.

2. Play one of the LH runs with a really sharp finger staccato, making sure that everything in your hand, except the active finger on any given note, is as relaxed as possible. That will help you get used to getting off the notes quickly - sometimes the trick to speed is not getting your finger on the note as fast as possible, but rather getting it off the note as fast as possible.

3. Break the LH runs into short groups of notes, 3 then 4, then 5, then 6, etc. Play each group at maximum speed, stopping on the last note of the group and relaxing everything as much as possible for as long as it takes to feel totally relaxed. Then gradually try linking the groups together without a relaxation break between them.

It may still take a long time to get up to the tempo you want, but I think that if you try this, you'll notice progress and feel less frustrated.

I think that focusing on strength building tends to induce one to make extra effort which can translate into tension.

Josh Wright has plenty of good advice on building speed on his Youtube channel, too.

Offline j_tour

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Re: What is the most efficient way to increase finger strength?
«Reply #2 on: May 17, 2021, 04:25:15 PM »
making sure that everything in your hand, except the active finger on any given note, is as relaxed as possible

Can I ask you a bit more on this?  In playing improvised music, it often happens that maybe six fingers or more are "active."

I understand your basic idea, but it might be helpful to say what exactly the "active finger" is.  And it's not inapropos, given the OP's interest in music with many moving parts.

This is not at all a criticism, but just one line that got me to thinking (or perhaps "thinking").

It might be something I can use teaching (or, in my case, just showing people some stuff), a la how to identify what the "trigger notes/fingers" are.

Many cases, it's fairly simple, in just regular, non-legit music, and one might "lean" on a given voice, often to good effect.

Or, equally important, what the audience sees.

The more I learn (and, ahem, get older....and so forth), the more I think some of the live performance elements/showmanship (which even goes between bandmates) might have put some bad habits in my own playing. 

I know the right way to do it, but I also know what gets results, so it's a bit of a dialectic, from zero to one, really.

Anyway, I'd like to hear some more thoughts on this matter of the "active" finger.  Could be interesting.
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Online brogers70

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Re: What is the most efficient way to increase finger strength?
«Reply #3 on: May 17, 2021, 04:28:52 PM »
I had nothing complex in mind with the active finger. I'm thinking simply of scales or scale-like figures in which the "active finger" is whichever finger is hitting a note at the moment. I'm not talking about voicing between multiple fingers in the same hand or anything complex like that. It's just about learning to make a quick, sharp "pluck" with one finger at a time keeping everything else as relaxed as possible.

Offline lelle

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Re: What is the most efficient way to increase finger strength?
«Reply #4 on: May 17, 2021, 05:00:28 PM »
Hi,
I am a semi-professional pianist, and I currently find myself struggling with speed of the chopin etudes due to lack of finger strength. (e.g. I am currently working on chopin etude op.10 no.12, and if I go too fast my fingers'd get too tired halfway and I'd mess up terribly)

My teacher told me to be patient since it requires years of practice to get there. However, I AM NOT CONVINCED BY HER THEORY. I think there must be a way to significantly improve my finger strength so that I can excel at this piece. Would you guys share with me if you have any ideas/suggestions?

I can only speak of my own experience. But finger strength comes from learning to relax and coordnating your movements well. If your movements are well coordinated, your fingers will feel powerful and efficient. If your movements are not well coordinated, the same fingers will feel inefficient. I know this because if I try to play pieces I learned a few years ago when my technique was more tense, I feel weak and fatigued. But if I spend a week or two relearning it with my current technique I don't feel the same weakness or fatigue anymore. Realistically, my muscles didn't suddenly get weak when I played that old piece and then get stronger again during those weeks, while at the same time retaining their full strength in other pieces I learned more recently.

The reason your teacher says it takes time is, in my experience, because developing and refining your coordination to be more relaxed and efficient takes time. Even if you apply yourself very industriously, new habits need to be built and made automatic and this just takes time. Getting to know your body and learning to listen to it takes time. Becoming aware of your inefficient habits an learning how to change them takes time.

Offline j_tour

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Re: What is the most efficient way to increase finger strength?
«Reply #5 on: May 18, 2021, 04:32:19 AM »
I had nothing complex in mind with the active finger. I'm thinking simply of scales or scale-like figures in which the "active finger" is whichever finger is hitting a note at the moment. I'm not talking about voicing between multiple fingers in the same hand or anything complex like that. It's just about learning to make a quick, sharp "pluck" with one finger at a time keeping everything else as relaxed as possible.

Yeah, I follow.

IIRC you began as a guitar picker, which is also an instrument I enjoy.

It's a bit similar to working the plucking hand, I suppose, even though in many respects guitar and keyboard technique are opposites (one instrument is always pushing, the other always pulling:  not much common ground between the instruments, except for the music, of course!)

Yeah, I'd say "active finger" on the keys sort of applies to a lot of folk music, or, really, anything non-contrapuntal.

But, sure, even though one likes to crow about equanimity of the fingers, to be real, there is always one (or some!) fingers that get the most attention.

Maybe not even fingers, but the shape of the hand that leads to an accentuation, however subtle.

My name is Nellie, and I take pride in helping protect the children of my community through active leadership roles in my local church and in the Boy Scouts of America.  Bad word make me sad.

Offline ted

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Re: What is the most efficient way to increase finger strength?
«Reply #6 on: May 18, 2021, 05:10:40 AM »
I am always reluctant to join these technical discussions because twenty years on piano forums have taught me I do things in highly individual and sometimes decidedly unfashionable ways. If brute force finger strength were all there was to it then using a Virgil Practice Clavier on seven ounces or more would guarantee anybody a virtuosic technique capable of playing anything. Early in my life, somewhat to my cost, I found this to be very far from the truth, physically and especially musically. Dexterity, speed and control in as wide a variety of positions and touches as possible have proved far more valuable to me than pure strength. The Clavier is a wonderful device and I wouldn't be playing as I do at seventy-three without it but strength and power ceased to be primary objectives long ago.

I shan't comment about exactly what I do as firstly I have never been properly trained in technique and secondly because I do not understand myself what is going on at either my conscious or unconscious level. However I am confident that strengthening fingers alone is a very long way from the answer. 
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Offline lostinidlewonder

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Re: What is the most efficient way to increase finger strength?
«Reply #7 on: May 19, 2021, 05:30:27 AM »
I grew up on a piano with heavy action, so all other pianos felt so light and easy to play. If you play a tough piece and feel exhausted in such a manner that it negatively impacts on your playing the there are specific technical issues you need to improve upon. If certain tchnical movements are seen for the first time you might have a period of playing with tension until you solve how to do it. I can clearly remember as a child coming across the 1st Mvt Pathetique and the LH octave tremolos always caused me tension with my small hands, a year or so later I solved the difficulty and no longer felt that lactic acid burn.

Doing some light weight lifting also will not harm you and can benefit especially those who are physically meagre. Ultimately we do want to approach playing as gently and lazily as possible.
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Offline mjames

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Re: What is the most efficient way to increase finger strength?
«Reply #8 on: May 19, 2021, 03:54:16 PM »
I grew up on a piano with heavy action, so all other pianos felt so light and easy to play. If you play a tough piece and feel exhausted in such a manner that it negatively impacts on your playing the there are specific technical issues you need to improve upon. If certain tchnical movements are seen for the first time you might have a period of playing with tension until you solve how to do it. I can clearly remember as a child coming across the 1st Mvt Pathetique and the LH octave tremolos always caused me tension with my small hands, a year or so later I solved the difficulty and no longer felt that lactic acid burn.

Doing some light weight lifting also will not harm you and can benefit especially those who are physically meagre. Ultimately we do want to approach playing as gently and lazily as possible.

Did you really solve the problem or did you just naturally build up endurance? After reading a bunch of posts on PS and other sites, I was led to believe "fatigue" in playing ALWAYS meant bad technique and that fatigue isn't a normal part of the learning experience. Then in the outside world, I was told differently. When I wanted more dexterity and less fatigue in fast runs, an old teacher of mine (who was basically a child prodigy) basically told me to just keep playing harder stuff to build up endurance, as there was nothing wrong with my technique. She assigned me Chopin etudes lol.

Had a little bit of fatigue playing Chopin' ballade op. 52, and over the past year I've noticed that the fatigue has completely disappeared. I'm honestly unsure if it's because I subconsciously solved the problem, or if I just built up natural endurance through constant playing.

I'm not even sure if this is relevant at all, but I'm just expressing how frustrating and honestly frightening not knowing if a bit of fatigue in harder sections in difficult works is normal or not. Constantly worrying about proper technique is so exhausting. I don't know man. Lmao




Offline ranjit

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Re: What is the most efficient way to increase finger strength?
«Reply #9 on: May 19, 2021, 06:09:23 PM »
Did you really solve the problem or did you just naturally build up endurance? After reading a bunch of posts on PS and other sites, I was led to believe "fatigue" in playing ALWAYS meant bad technique and that fatigue isn't a normal part of the learning experience. Then in the outside world, I was told differently. When I wanted more dexterity and less fatigue in fast runs, an old teacher of mine (who was basically a child prodigy) basically told me to just keep playing harder stuff to build up endurance, as there was nothing wrong with my technique. She assigned me Chopin etudes lol.

Had a little bit of fatigue playing Chopin' ballade op. 52, and over the past year I've noticed that the fatigue has completely disappeared. I'm honestly unsure if it's because I subconsciously solved the problem, or if I just built up natural endurance through constant playing.

I'm not even sure if this is relevant at all, but I'm just expressing how frustrating and honestly frightening not knowing if a bit of fatigue in harder sections in difficult works is normal or not. Constantly worrying about proper technique is so exhausting. I don't know man. Lmao
It is very confusing, isn't it? I have faced the same question while I've been playing. People seem to say that playing the piano is effortless, and then contradict themselves and say that it takes years to build up the necessary endurance.

I have personally never felt tired while playing the piano, so I'm inclined to believe that it is mostly about coordination -- I started off completely in that camp, believing it was all about coordination. Now, that I see so many high level teachers talking about stamina, I'm not sure what to believe. I still hold on to the idea that all you need is coordination, but it might be possible that for certain pieces, you might need some endurance as well.

Here's a question -- if it's all about coordination, is it possible to play the Revolutionary etude 10 times in a row, without pausing in between, without feeling tired at all? Earlier, when I used a lot of wrist motion, I might have said yes, but I think that if you strive to get finger articulation for the notes which are passing by so quickly, you will have to take a break eventually.

Offline getsiegs

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Re: What is the most efficient way to increase finger strength?
«Reply #10 on: May 19, 2021, 08:04:08 PM »
I'm not even sure if this is relevant at all, but I'm just expressing how frustrating and honestly frightening not knowing if a bit of fatigue in harder sections in difficult works is normal or not. Constantly worrying about proper technique is so exhausting. I don't know man. Lmao

I've definitely had this frustration too, especially since the pandemic started - not only have I been playing more than ever, I also haven't had a piano lesson since March 2020. My "rule of thumb" is to absolutely refuse to tolerate any kind of sharp pain especially if it happens in the same place after the same motions; that to me signals something wrong with my technique. I think a little fatigue is natural though, and it shouldn't cause you injury if you're conscious of it and make sure to take breaks. I mostly only get fatigue in the wrist, especially practicing repeated octaves in Liszt or Rachmaninoff. However, I never spend too long in one sitting on those kinds of sections because fatigue CAN turn into overstress/injury if you're not mindful of it. I don't think fatigue should ever last for very long either - if you practice really hard for an hour, you should feel fine and refreshed if you come back to practice a few hours later in the day.

This perspective is why I'm hesitant towards the OP's desire for finger "strength", since healthy playing also involves fluidity, coordination, other aspects other commenters have mentioned, etc. Like with any physical activity, there's a threshold where if you try to push yourself too far beyond your limits, you'll only do more harm than good. The idea of "strength" here should probably be thought of more as stamina/endurance, and I'm inclined to agree that a little patience can go a long way. Know your limits well enough to reach them, maybe exceed them ever so slightly, and then give yourself time to rest and recover. I hope this made sense lol

Offline lelle

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Re: What is the most efficient way to increase finger strength?
«Reply #11 on: May 19, 2021, 11:01:58 PM »
Did you really solve the problem or did you just naturally build up endurance? After reading a bunch of posts on PS and other sites, I was led to believe "fatigue" in playing ALWAYS meant bad technique and that fatigue isn't a normal part of the learning experience. Then in the outside world, I was told differently. When I wanted more dexterity and less fatigue in fast runs, an old teacher of mine (who was basically a child prodigy) basically told me to just keep playing harder stuff to build up endurance, as there was nothing wrong with my technique. She assigned me Chopin etudes lol.

Had a little bit of fatigue playing Chopin' ballade op. 52, and over the past year I've noticed that the fatigue has completely disappeared. I'm honestly unsure if it's because I subconsciously solved the problem, or if I just built up natural endurance through constant playing.

I'm not even sure if this is relevant at all, but I'm just expressing how frustrating and honestly frightening not knowing if a bit of fatigue in harder sections in difficult works is normal or not. Constantly worrying about proper technique is so exhausting. I don't know man. Lmao

I peddle the view that fatigue is a problem, so let my try to clear up what I mean by that. Maybe it can help.

When we learn to play, it benefits us to learn good technique. Part of learning good technique is knowing what good technique is, else, if you don't even know what you are looking for, how are you going to have a chance to find it?

A component of good technique is that you can play 99.9% of the standard repertoire without feeling fatigued. That playing even the hardest pieces can feel effortless is supported by anecdotal evidence from pianists all over the world. Contrast that to me, for example, who didn't know that ten years ago. I became fatigued in my forearms as if I had gone for the season's first jog from playing just one Chopin Etude - not even 3 minutes of music and not even at full tempo - and I thought it was completely normal.

When I say that it is not right or normal to get fatigued from playing, that's what I am referring to. It's not normal in the sense that with the right playing technique, you should not feel fatigued from playing 99.9% of the standard repertoire.

Playing Chopin Etudes, or any Chopin piece, should not make you tired, in the sense that with the right playing technique they feel physically effortless to play.

However, being fatigued can absolutely be something that happens during the learning process of acquiring good technique, because since you don't have good technique yet, you are bound to get tired by playing things that you are not yet physically coordinated enough to handle effortlessly yet. So in that sense it is normal, but it's still a sign of that a) there are things about your technique that you need to develop (that don't have to do with strength or physical endurance as it has to do with efficient coordination), and b) that maybe you are playing things that are a bit too difficult for you right now, in relation to what level of technique you have so far acquired.

Does that clear things up?


Offline claireliii

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Re: What is the most efficient way to increase finger strength?
«Reply #12 on: July 04, 2021, 06:31:47 AM »
Thank you for your elaborate explanation on this matter. Are you saying that even an amateurish pianist who has absolutely no experience in building up endurance in muscles can easily pull off a fast Chopin Etude so long as he/she has the right technique for it? cuz That sounds kinda unrealistic for me.

Offline ranjit

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Re: What is the most efficient way to increase finger strength?
«Reply #13 on: July 04, 2021, 02:46:56 PM »
Are you saying that even an amateurish pianist who has absolutely no experience in building up endurance in muscles can easily pull off a fast Chopin Etude so long as he/she has the right technique for it? cuz That sounds kinda unrealistic for me.
For what it's worth, I can play a considerable part of the Revolutionary etude without feeling tired, and haven't been playing for that long. I also shifted to playing on grand pianos this year, and I was able to play the first half of the etude within a month after the switch. I had been playing on keyboards and light digital pianos for about five years. I don't really get tired at the piano usually, even feeling lactic acid burn is quite rare for me.

That said, I have asked a pianist about it, and he said he could see that I had finger strength. So maybe I had acquired it over the years. However, I don't think I ever truly felt tired at the piano. And this is coming from someone who used to do 4-6 hour marathon sessions, even near the start of my piano playing journey.

However, when asked, the pianist answered that people who lack the finger strength are unable to play fast without clean articulation. That is, they can play with clean articulation, they can play fast, but not both at the same time, because clean articulation at that speed depends on how nimbly and precisely you can control the tips of your fingers. Which depends on finger strength.

What exactly does it mean? Firstly, I've heard that it prevents your first and second knuckles from collapsing while playing, especially in your weak fingers such as the pinky. I'm slightly double jointed, which is especially apparent when it comes to the pinky and ring finger, which sometimes leads the middle knuckle to collapse backwards while playing something loud with it. Apparently, that gets better as your finger strength improves. Also, I've heard that your flexors become stronger and get better at fast twitch movements.

It's kind of scary for me to think about finger strength, because it seems to imply that there are certain anatomical changes which happen while playing the piano when you're taught at a young age, which can't be learned later (and several people have told me so, in as many words). Thinking about it purely as a coordination issue is more comforting, because that means that it is "only" a matter of acquiring the right movements and learning to not get tense.

It has been my experience as well that the internet seems to reinforce the point that finger strength does not exist. However, most professional pianists I know and have talked to have said that it is very important. And I have changed my opinion somewhat. I've observed that most of the people who talk about only using body weight don't play challenging virtuoso repertoire. That makes me skeptical. It's possible that lack of finger strength only makes itself apparent when you're playing difficult material, and I am inclined to believe that. As I said, one theory I've heard which makes sense to me is that clean articulation at high speeds involves finger strength. I can play fast without issue, but I've generally received the comment that my playing isn't that "clean", the reason being that I don't have, or haven't learned to use finger strength.

Apparently, European schools put more emphasis on finger strength, which checks out in my experience so far. Again, it's not quite clear, but I vaguely hear that it is related either to the strength, or the flexibility of the flexors related to the fingers, and even the interossei. Often, these would be considered to be weak muscles which are irrelevant and approaches which emphasize body weight and ergonomics often completely ignore three small muscles in the fingers. However, I have heard time and again from proponents of finger strength, some of whom are concert pianists, that is simply not possible to use body weight to play very fast passages cleanly.

Check this out at around 1:05. He's provided English subtitles. Basically, he talks about being able to grab the keys as hooks, and this is similar to what I've heard elsewhere. Initially I was very skeptical, but I'm gradually coming around to believing it.

Offline lelle

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Re: What is the most efficient way to increase finger strength?
«Reply #14 on: July 06, 2021, 10:41:38 PM »
Thank you for your elaborate explanation on this matter. Are you saying that even an amateurish pianist who has absolutely no experience in building up endurance in muscles can easily pull off a fast Chopin Etude so long as he/she has the right technique for it? cuz That sounds kinda unrealistic for me.

I can't say for sure, but here's my experience.

I learned the Revolutionary Etude back when I had worse technique and would always feel fatigue by the end of it. Today, my technique is better, and provided I am in good form it does not feel tiring at all. I also know what I used to do that made it tiring, and what I changed to make it not tiring (a lot of it had to do with holding tension in my fingers, wrist, arm, shoulder, and even neck and legs, and breathing poorly). However, if I am not on form, my technique regresses a bit, and I will find it a bit tiring again.

It's perfectly possible that I can experience the following:
Day 1: the Etude feels comfortable to play and it doesn't make my forearm feel tired.
Day 2: the Etude feels more difficult and I start feeling tired somewhere between the modulation to G# minor and the return to the first theme in c minor.
Day 3: the Etude feels comfortable to play again and I don't get tired.

If you think of it in terms of endurance, where did all that endurance suddenly go on day 2? I had, after all, built up enough endurance to play it without feeling tired on day 1.

Chances are that if I look over my technique a bit on day 2, work a bit on the Etude slowly, focusing on being supple and moving smoothly making sure I use my updated technique and not my old technique (which is tense and forceful), I become able to play it without feeling tired again on that same day. How did I suddenly gain the endurance back, if it's endurance?

Each individual key weighs around 50 grams, so there is not much endurance needed. Think about it. Each individual key is super easy to press down, and you can probably play the etude ultra slowly without feeling tired. It's just that when you need to press each key super fast after the other, anything (such as tension) that blocks the efficiency of the movements will hinder you and start building up until you start feeling it as fatigue because when the muscles clench for a long time without getting a chance to relax they can't refresh themselves and do get tired rather quickly.

I find it very helpful to view technique in terms of that you already got what you need to play the piece, the question is, what are you doing to hinder yourself from moving with as much efficiency and relaxation as you are actually already capable of? That can take some time and patience to sort out, but it's well worth it. I'm sorry if I sound vague, I just find it very difficult to explain the "how" in writing.