Whether a beginner or an advanced player, a pianist should always work at keeping their hands healthy. Human hands (wrists, palms, and fingers) are made of 27 bones, 27 joints, 34 muscles, over 100 ligaments and tendons, and multiple blood vessels and nerves. Since we use our hands constantly every day, we tend to take them for granted, assuming they’ll always be there and do what we want and need them to do. But, like the rest of the body, the hands need tender care and consideration to keep them operating at optimal capacity!
Keeping the hands flexible has several benefits, including preventing aches and strains that can develop into more serious conditions, allowing for more meaningful and expressive playing, and making long practice and performance sessions more enjoyable and less stressful. No athlete would consider going out on the field or the track without some minimal stretching and movement. Why should musical athletes do less?
There are literally thousands of good exercises available to the musician, but they all seem to fall into these categories: warm-ups before playing, stretches for mobility, extension stretches, and keyboard theory/technique exercises. In this article, I’ll cover some warm-ups that all pianists should do before practicing or performing as well as beginning stretches and extensions.
Let’s warm up to warm-ups!
A very obvious yet often overlooked warm-up for pianists is also one of the simplest. Run warm water over your hands or, if possible, immerse your hands in a sink or bowl of warm water. It is extremely important that the water be warm, not hot! Scalded hands don’t move well. At the same time, if you soak your hands in warm water, don’t leave them in there so long that the water gets cool. Cold hands are stiff, inflexible lumps at the ends of your arms.
If you have perpetually cold hands, you might consider wearing fingerless gloves, even when you play. There are even gloves that compress the hands a bit, which can help older players who may have some joint pain due to age.
Performance, and preparing for a performance, can be quite stressful. Some of the mind games humans play (most having to do with fear and nervousness) can be transferred to muscles, causing a lot of stiffness and inability to move comfortably across the keys. However, relaxing can be very hard to do! Just “trying to relax” can cause more stress and muscle stiffness. Spending a little time reminding yourself of the feeling of relaxed muscles is quite important. Knowing how to relax is crucial to controlling dynamics, staccato touches, and even larger leaps across the keyboard. Here are some relaxation exercises that can be done one after the other.
Let your arms hang from your shoulders. As the muscles relax, your arms will feel heavier and heavier, and your fingers will curl toward the palms. Be sure to hold your torso upright as you relax your arms. Think of a rubber band attached to your spinal column that goes out through the top of your head; then imagine someone pulling up on it. You feel a little like a puppet on a string, dangling gently. A feeling of looseness combined with a feeling of muscle control is the aim.
Place the backs of your hands together as the arms hang loosely in front of you. Slowly raise your hands, backs together, past your face and over your head. The hands will naturally separate as they are lifted higher and higher. After your hands separate, let your wrists trace large half-circles as they slowly move back down to the relaxed starting position at your sides.
This exercise was used by the famous 19th century pianist and composer, Franz Liszt.
Take a moment to relax periodically throughout your practice or performance, especially as you are playing. Many, many serious hand, wrist, and finger problems stem from unnecessary muscle tension, and it’s good practice to remind yourself of how you feel when the muscles are relaxed, free from extra tension.
Small moves are best
Here are some exercises that any piano student, no matter the level, can learn and perform quickly before starting to practice or perform. These exercises use deliberately small motions that gently stretch hand muscles to warm them up from the inside, as well as helping young students learn to coordinate the small muscles of the hand.
Place your hands on a table or other flat surface, palms down. Keep the wrist on the surface and pull your fingers up into the classic piano hand position (fingertips and the side of the thumbnail touching the table). Relax the fingers back to their flat position and pause. Repeat this several times.
After moving the fingers up and down several times, stop with the fingers curved. One at a time, gently lift each finger and the thumb up from the table, as high as is comfortable. The fourth finger of each hand will NOT move as high as the others, and you shouldn’t force it. The fingers should remain curved at first. Lift each finger in order (1-2-3-4-5) and also in a mixed-up order (for example, 1-3-2-5-4).
Lift the hands off the flat surface and hold them, palms down, in front of you. Straighten and separate the fingers gently, then close them loosely in a fist. Repeat several times, then turn the hands over, palms up, and repeat the exercise.
Hold the hands, fingers pointing up and palms facing you. Gently and slowly touch the thumb to the base of each finger, then pause before repeating. Turn the palms away from you and repeat. Let the hands relax and close.
Sit at a chair that has arms. Place the forearm along the arm of the chair so that the hands hang down from the wrist at the end of the chair's arm. Gently lift the hands up from the wrist, fingers straight up, and hold to a count of 5, then let the hands hang down and push in toward the chair, again to a count of 5. Raise the hands back up, palms down, and, without lifting the forearms, move the hands in small circles from the wrist, both clockwise and counterclockwise. Usually, one direction will feel better on one hand, and the opposite direction will feel better on the other hand!
There are so many more “gentle movement” stretching exercises that you can find on websites dealing with keyboard technique and also physical therapy for people with hand injuries. With any of these exercises, it is important to remember that pain is NOT gain. No stretches should make the hand hurt. Pain means that the hand is being stretched too far for the physical condition. As more and more flexibility is gained, these stretches can be done a bit farther, but, again, should never cause pain.
Now to the keyboard…
I am a great believer in pianists doing technique exercises, both to promote hand health and to learn music theory. In fact, playing scales, chords, arpeggios, and other common musical patterns is one of the best ways to make them a part of your musical vocabulary, expanding the ability to read music more fluently as well as play it. In the next article, we’ll consider best practices in learning and playing these important musical patterns.
You’ll never regret it...
If you love music and love playing piano, learning how to protect your hands is very important. Once gained, physical prowess at the piano will last a lifetime. In the same way, the possible physical problems that can come with poor hand posture, as well as overuse and misuse of the hands, can last a lifetime. It's much better to take a little time warming up and stretching out to keep the music playing for a long, long time!