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Emily Grossman

No Two are Alike

November 26, 2011 at 10:05 AM

Everyone's hands have different personalities. Since I first ever remember meeting my fingers, they've always been to me a little barber shop quartet, complete with the short little tenor that hits the high notes. Their fingernail smiles are rather sheepish, and widen into goofy grins if I let them grow out. On the other hand, my student Baruke's fingers resemble a team of thugs: muscle-bound oafs built to gang up and finish the job. With a little skill, he will one day dominate the fingerboard into submission--that is, if he chooses to practice. With all the individuality built amongst us, we can't expect our hands to find the exact same relationship with the fingerboard. Our end goal, though is the same. The trick is to find the best way to set up your buddies and communicate to them in a way that lets you find your way to all the notes with lightning ease and grace.

I had a couple of light bulb moments over the last week. One came while watching Nathan Milstein play a moto perpetuo and noticing that, although an incomprehensible amount of notes came from his fingers, they barely moved at all. The shape of his hand remained motionless, and his fingers crawled this way and that, like spider legs. Not a single unnecessary motion kept him from reaching the next note.

The second light bulb happened while watching Menuhin describe the shape of the hand, while demonstrating with Dounis exercises. He told of a general arch shape that one must keep, and that the fingers all widened at the base to span the fingerboard. I watched him place all four of them down with perfect balance and, in a relaxed state, gave each finger a different job at the same time. They all moved independently, like office workers in little cubicles. This was what first got me interested in the powers of Dounis.

Stretching at the base of the fingers, I placed each one a whole step apart, one on each string, and waited until everything became calm. Then came the commands: Okay, finger one and finger three, you go up together. Finger two and four, stay down. When they come down, you two go up at the same time. We'll start slowly...

They looked at me like they were confused. For a moment, nothing happened. I repeated the command. There was some twitching, and straining, and then they slowly obliged. Still, I had my fair share of surprises. Sometimes, I wasn't sure which finger was going to pop up. I'm sure I said finger three, but finger two came up instead.

I tried different commands: Okay, let's focus on the down motion. Forget the up. You two, go down when they come up. You two, down. You two down. They held up their noses at this idea as well. This can't be so difficult! I play this pattern on the piano all the time, so why is it so confusing now?

I thought for a moment. Maybe I need to explain it a different way. Okay guys, you like walking, right? One and two, go on a walk together. Three and four, go on a walk together. Just like that.

I watched their little light bulbs go on, and in a matter of moments, they were marching along like it was their favorite. It's just a matter of time before they'll be running like Kenyans.

The exercises have multiple benefits. After pinning your fingers down and moving one or two in different patterns, you learn how to keep your hand shape the same while covering all the notes in one position. This greatly improves the ability to keep fingers down or barely hovering over the string during fast passages, eliminating unnecessary hand and finger motions. Both speed and intonation accuracy improve.

Nathan Milstien's hands are nothing like my own. Yehudi Menuhin's hands are nothing like my own. But they are nothing like anyone else's, either. Both of them developed an intimate connection with their appendages and learned to find ways to communicate the best path to speed and accuracy. I know, I only just began digging, but I can't believe how much I've gotten to know and converse with my hand this week. The barber shop is open for business.

From Emily Hogstad
Posted on November 26, 2011 at 3:44 PM
Beautiful, as always. The idea about the barbershop quartet with the tenor hitting the high notes...too clever. I'm the same way, my palm is small, my first, second, and third fingers are pretty long, and then there's that tiny fourth finger. And then I'm double-jointed to boot, so I end up using my long third finger for a lot of notes in higher positions the fourth just can't reach without a lot of tension. I've never discussed this with a teacher, but hopefully it's an okay thing to do.

Sorry, am rambling now. Great blog!!

From Emily Grossman
Posted on November 26, 2011 at 8:40 PM
Hey, you do what you gotta do. I use the third finger up in the stratosphere, too. I got away with it in the Sarasate, but it was such a headache trying to work out reliable fingerings when using only three of them.

I can't believe I'm admitting all this publicly. You'd think I couldn't play a scale of thirds. I can. Just not fluently.

From Erica Thaler
Posted on November 27, 2011 at 1:56 PM
What a nice post; an beautiful photo. Food for thought when I practice today. My fingers have a hard time staying down and being put down together....

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