Are You “Built” for Your Instrument?

music miscellany Sep 29, 2014

Here’s a challenge Sherlock Holmes would enjoy:

Take the members of a professional orchestra. Put them in civilian clothes, no tails or black gowns. Line them up. Now try to guess which instrument each plays. There are the telltale calluses, marks, fingernails, etc., that you could use to identify the masters of particular instruments. But aside from those features, the stereotypical images may steer you wrong.

Not all trombone players are barrel-chested men, nor are all flutists dainty, well-manicured ladies. The truth is, all different physical types of people play each instrument.                                                                            

We tend to think that masters of a specialized skill, like world-class musicians, are “built” for their instruments. They probably share some common physical traits, but there are too many exceptions to determine any hard and fast rules.

Consider this: Basketball player Muggsy Bogues had a 14 year career in the NBA and holds team records for the Charlotte Hornets in steals, assists and turnovers. He also is one of the shortest players ever, at only 5’ 3” tall.

Pianist Vladimir Horowitz had long fingers which were well suited to the massive Rachmaninoff works that he played. But Alicia de Larrocha, the great Spanish pianist, was less than five feet tall with small hands, and she played those same Rachmaninoff works with fire and brilliance.

What we often regard as physical limitations on our playing are more likely just difficulties to be solved. Instead of saying that we can’t play a certain way, it is probable that we just need to figure out how to work with what we have.

I’m not talking about overcoming real disabilities. I’m talking about how quick we are to turn a difficulty into an impossibility.

So maybe your problem isn’t your hands themselves (or whatever you’re blaming). Maybe it’s not a question of CAN’T, but it’s a question of HOW: HOW you can use the tools you have to get the results you want.

Here are three common problems I help my harp students conquer, and my recommendations for turning CAN’T into HOW.

1. I CAN’T reach. Short fingers and small hands make it more difficult to reach big intervals and big chords. This is a fact. But it is also true that your reach will stretch over time. And in the meantime, you can roll larger chords, or place them from the bottom up. You can even leave out notes for the time being, if you need to. Do your etudes, and practice chord techniques carefully, staying relaxed and not putting too much strain or pressure on your hands, and you will be soon able to manage bigger chords.

2. I CAN’T keep my fingers curved. I have always been double jointed. My fingers were a mess, and my teacher (who never had these problems) despaired of my ever having a decent technique. But it only took me one dedicated summer of serious attention to my hands and fingers to learn the right habits. You would never know how double jointed I am just from watching me play the harp. And if I can do it, you can too. The steps are simple: practice the Conditioning Exercises (or something similar) slowly, softly and correctly. Train your fingers gently to make the correct motions and keep the correct shape. Gradually add some volume, keeping concentrated on the strength of the arch of your finger. You can do this!

3. I CAN’T play fast. Fast, agile playing

requires a secure technique, some patience and some time. As you try playing at faster speeds, keep your hands relaxed. The faster you go, the softer you should play. You need to get your fingers used to playing fast and staying loose, because as soon as your fingers tighten, they become uneven and clumsy. Once you are used to faster speeds, you can add more sound and dimension to your playing. Scales and arpeggios are ideal practice vehicles for developing speed and fluidity in your playing.

Yes, you CAN! So HOW will you do it?


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