Floppy Fingers? Develop Strong Fingers the Smart Way

No harpist ever had floppier fingers than I did. 

I had been playing the harp for eight years, and still my fingers were all over the place. Every knuckle bent the wrong way. My double-jointed thumbs slid off the strings. I didn’t know how to fix them, but it was clear to me that unless I straightened my fingers out, my dreams of being a harpist were going to stay merely dreams. To play at a higher level, my fingers would have to be stronger.

Eventually I was able to strengthen my fingers with a combination of determination - possibly desperation - concentrated practice and expert guidance from my teachers. Now as a teacher myself, I hear from many students, particularly adults, who want to strengthen their fingers and don’t have any idea how to do it. Unfortunately, those who try to develop stronger fingers the wrong way can develop serious hand injuries instead.


Defining Finger Strength

What does it mean to have strong fingers? It means that a harpist’s fingers play using the most efficient position and action and do it consistently. This produces a rich tone, even articulation and agility. 

Harp fingers are strong when they play with: 

  • Fullness, not force.
  • Motion, not muscle.
  • Precision, not pulling.

Simply put, strength doesn’t involve muscling your way through your music or plucking the strings harder. It comes from using your fingers’ natural structure to produce the sound you want with less effort. 


Structure and Shape

Any physics student can tell you about the strength of an arch, how it distributes pressure equally across the structure. Your finger is a natural arch with each knuckle being a segment of that arch. Keeping your knuckles curved will allow your finger to be at its strongest. 

A curved finger will also allow you to use the leverage of your whole finger to play the string. When a knuckle is collapsed or bent inward, you shorten the effective length of your finger to the length of that knuckle. When all your knuckles are curved, you are using the entire finger to produce your sound, and you get a full sound with relatively little effort. Training your fingers, then, to play with curved knuckles will allow your fingers to play with a consistent, even tone and relaxation. 


Training Techniques

Training your fingers takes time and patience, but the results are worth the effort. While you can learn to play fairly well with bad technique, as I did for a while, eventually it takes a toll in terms of fatigue, strain and possibly serious injury.


Note that you are training your fingers, not straining them. I do not recommend the use of spring-tension or weighted grip strengtheners like ones you might buy in a sporting goods store. They may give you the hand power to open a pickle jar, yet not develop the kind of strength you need for harp playing. Even worse, they may lead to injuries of your delicate muscles, joints or tendons. The smarter way is to strengthen your fingers at the harp.


Away From the Harp Techniques

  1. Practice closing your fingers into your palm, making a complete motion. Feel the motion of the entire length of your finger, from the knuckle at the back of your hand to the tip.
  2. Feel the strength of your finger arch. Press each finger in turn lightly on a tabletop. Watch to be sure that none of your knuckles collapses. 
  3. Pay attention to how you use your hands and fingers away from the harp. Can you keep your knuckles curved and your hands relaxed?


At the Harp Techniques

  1. Play each individual finger slowly at a very soft dynamic, putting no pressure on your finger. Keep each knuckle curved as you play. Increase the dynamic gradually, making certain that no knuckles collapse and that your finger closes from the back knuckle, using its entire length.
  2. Play a very slow scale in each hand. Can you keep each finger curved and close it fully?
  3. Practice one of your tricky spots with a focus on your fingers. Play softly with curved fingers, closing fully, then gradually add more sound, maintaining your finger arch.


How to Ace It

Here is a simple way to remember the key points of finger strength; ace it!

A: Arch. It’s all about the arch.

C: Close completely. Use the entire length of your finger.

E: Easy. Don’t try too hard. Take it easy!


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