The Cure for Finger Lock-up

finger fingers technique May 10, 2021

You may be suffering from finger “lock-up” and not even realize it.

Finger lock-up isn’t necessarily a physical freeze. It usually manifests itself in the third or fourth finger and it might be troubling you if you’re having trouble with uneven scales or arpeggios. Consider these common symptoms.

You may have finger lock-up if you notice that a finger:

  • Is out of sync with the other fingers. It plays either too soon or too late.
  • Doesn’t play at the same dynamic as the other fingers, particularly if it plays too loudly.
  • Sometimes seems to stick or hesitate before it plays.
  • Feels tighter or tenser than your other fingers.

If you can relate to any of these, you are among friends. This is one of the basic technical issues that all harpists face. Not nearly as many harpists know how to fix it, however, and the good news is that the fix is almost always the same. You need to relax your finger into its arch. 

Our fingers are amazing multi-jointed mechanisms. When those joints are loose and curved, we have the full freedom, leverage and power of the finger working for us. If your finger is over-straightened so that the knuckle locks, you lose flexibility and control. Locking your knuckle is likely to happen if you are double-jointed (take it from one who knows!) or if your fingers are very short or are stretching to reach a large interval. 

The lock most often happens in the middle knuckle of your finger. When this knuckle locks, you lose the ability to control your finger, which is why it might be too loud or out of rhythm or “sticky”. A locked knuckle prevents you from following through after you pluck the string by closing your finger into your palm, This is often a source of tension buildup. 

Contrast this with the physics of an arched finger. When your finger is arched, you have more leverage, so you can create a fuller sound with less effort. (Remember your high school physics?)  When your finger is more relaxed, your tone will be not just louder, but richer and warmer as well. When all your fingers are playing this way, they will sound more even because the method of tone production will be the same. In other words, even fingers and a warm, rich tone start with the arch.

It can be difficult to see if your fingers are arched or locked because our fingers are often out of our line of sight, even on a video. Plus, if you don’t have an awareness of the need for an arch, or the sense of the difference in the way your finger feels when it’s locked or straight or curved, you won’t notice it.  But if you are experiencing any of the symptoms I’ve described, or even if you just want a technique refresher, it’s worth taking some time to try the remedies outlined below.

Check for lock-up.   Place all four fingers of one hand on the strings very lightly. Look closely to see that your knuckles are curved. You can try this with your fingers on adjacent strings like a scale and in a chord pattern too.  Then at a medium dynamic, play each finger individually, observing what happens as it plays. Does the middle knuckle collapse or stay curved?

You may find that your fingers are all arched when they are close together but what when you have a bigger stretch for your fourth finger, it straightens. That’s acceptable, as long as you don’t actually lock that middle knuckle. If you can’t reach or play without locking your knuckle, you may have to shift your hand forward a bit to ease the stretch.

Practice the close. When your fingers play, check to be sure that they close with a full motion from the back of your finger all the way into your palm. Practice this in your technique work so you can watch closely. Don’t worry that you won’t have time to close when you are playing fast music; you need to develop the habit.

Develop your “Spidey senses.” Do you remember how Spiderman’s senses always tingle when he is about to be in danger? You need to develop your own sensory awareness of how your finger feels when it is arched and when it is locked. Close your eyes and try to lock and unlock your knuckle. What does it feel like to close from the back of your finger when your finger is arched versus closing from the first joint when your knuckle is locked? Listen to the difference in the sound too. Can you make all your fingers sound the same? Learning the sensation and the sound difference will help alert you to when your finger is locking.

A few minutes a day of attention and observation is all you need to start freeing your fingers from lock-up and developing the habit of the arch. Then as you practice and play, see if you can begin to notice that your knuckle is locking, and relax it back into the arch. Listen for equal and even sounding fingers, and try to predict how your fingers will sound from the way they feel just before they play.


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