By Mary Anne Andersen
Cedar City Arts Council
The young man’s hands rested easily on the keys. The fingers were curved, drawing the thumb up in line with the fingers, the wrist relaxed. He played the things I asked——scales, chords, “Happy Birthday”——with confidence and competence. I complimented him and told him he needed to continue learning and playing, because his hands just looked right.
See, the thing is, Eric is not a music student. He wants to be an architect, and took the piano class because he likes music and wants to learn how to play it. He was quiet, sitting in the back row in a class of 20 electronic pianos, not talking much or volunteering to play. He had had very little piano experience before this fall.
But his hands were right. It was obvious to this experienced teacher that he had an affinity for the keyboard, knowing instinctively how to move across the keys, how to use the digits on his hands to their best advantage to manage 88 keys with only 10 fingers.
Alas, such is not always the case. Some students’ hands seem totally unsuited to the topography of the keyboard. One student tried to play on the tips of her fingers all right, but with the wrist elevated and the fingers popsicle-stick straight. She poked at the keys, fingers splayed in all directions, unable to get her thumb in place when she needed it, trying to cross her 3rd over her 4th finger. No matter how much I tried, she never learned to control those stiff fingers to a degree that she could play a legato phrase. She quit after one semester.
I am very aware of hands, since they are the means of my livelihood. Some are so small, even in adults, that they can barely reach an octave. Other hands are so large that they can’t get the 3rd fingers in between two black keys, a necessary arrangement sometimes. One girl had to contend with the last joints in her 5th fingers (pinkies) bent crookedly toward her thumbs. Another girl had very high webbing between her fingers, constricting her hand, making it difficult to spread out for large intervals or octaves.
Fingernails are a real source of irritation. For proper piano-playing technic, the nails have to be short enough to allow the tip of the finger to touch the keys. Enter the teenage girl who just paid $40 for a manicure. Her attempts to play with flat fingers were less than successful. In exasperation one day I told a college student she would have to choose between her nails and me. I lost.
I look down at my own hands, knobby, bent, gnarled after over 65 years of being at home on those keys. I never play a note that doesn’t hurt. But somehow my fingers know what to do, how to find their way even without my looking. I wish I could always successfully pass the joy of that skill on to others. Short nails are such a small price to pay.