Harpists, how strong are your fingers? How strong do they need to be?
It seems instrumentalists of all sorts try to develop stronger fingers and not just in recent times. In 1836, Henri Herz patented the Dactylion, a mechanical contraption designed specifically for pianists. Schumann was reputed to have ruined his fingers trying to strengthen them with a finger strengthening machine he made from a cigar box.
A quick internet search will show you hand exercisers and finger stretchers and grip strengtheners that aren’t very much different from those of 200 years ago. It’s surprising that despite the awareness we have of the dangers of overuse, we are still tempted by the notion that a machine can help our fingers do what practice won’t.
There are exercises which will help the flexibility of your hands and perhaps strengthen your fingers too. But the risk is likely to outweigh the reward and be costly in terms of money, time and your harp playing.
There’s a smarter way.
First, it is crucial that you are mindful of how vulnerable your fingers, wrist and hands are to injury. They are complex, delicate mechanisms and an injury can mean a long recovery or rehab time, time that you won’t be practicing or playing. In every moment of your playing, you should be alert to the warning signs of overuse like pain, numbness or tingling. Your hands and body would be relaxed, not tense, while you play. Never play through pain.
Bear in mind too that the strength you want in your hands and fingers is specific to the harp. Every instrument makes different physical demands on the player and the strength you need to play the harp not the same as any other instrument. Just ask a pianist who begins to learn the harp and finds the technique more demanding and challenging than they expected. We harpists ask our fingers to move in a very particular way to produce our sound. General strength training may help, but training your hands at fingers at the harp is significantly more beneficial.
The key to our finger strength is the arch of our finger. The curve from where the finger joins the hand to its tip must be an arch. The structure of an arch - any arch - allows pressure to be distributed evenly across the arch. When your finger is curved in an arch, the pressure of your finger on the string is conveyed back to your hand so your finger has less work to do. This is critical for a relaxed agile finger and a rich sound. If your knuckle collapses under the pressure of playing the string, you lose the strength and coordination in that finger and your sound will change as a result.
The arch also allows you to close your finger fully. Closing your fingers all the way into your palm creates relaxation and a full sound, even at a soft dynamic. Many students believe incorrectly that they don’t have enough time to close their fingers. The fact is that if you train your fingers to close, you will always have the time to do it.
Since our harp strength comes primarily from our finger arch and our closing, the question then is how can we train our fingers to maintain the arch and to close? The best way of course is to train them at the harp.
Dedicate some of your technique practice time to slow practice where you can watch your fingers and focus on the arch. Playing a very slow scale or arpeggio, playing a series of chords, or even playing a passage from a piece very slowly is fine for this.
If your knuckles tend to flatten out and collapse, you will have to play very softly, putting almost no pressure on your finger until you can play without collapsing the arch. Close your finger fully into your hand to complete the motion. Listen to the sound. You might want to compare the sound your finger makes when you don’t close to the sound you get when you do close. Learning to hear how your finger function changes your sound will help you not only develop your technique but make your playing more musical.
Remember to train your fingers slowly and very gently. As you work on these exercises at the harp, you can add pressure gradually, increasing the dynamic. When you see your knuckle collapse, go back to playing more softly.
This is the safest and most effective way I know to make your harp fingers strong. I should know. My fingers are extremely double-jointed, and when I was young my teacher wasn’t sure we were ever going to be able to train them to play with a dependable arch. The steps I outlined for you here are exactly the ones I used to make my fingers strong. And 50 years of harp playing later, I can say it was a lasting fix!