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Piano Finger Strength

Piano finger strength is the solution to playing difficult pieces with ease. Without finger strength, you are at a disadvantage in the classic literature. To play the heavyweight romantic piano composers such as Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Liszt and Schumann, you’ll need tremendous, almost superhuman strength and endurance.

Listen to a great piano piece, and then try to learn it. You’ll soon come up against a “wall of endurance.” You won’t get past the wall even if you are the most talented and well-intentioned pianist. You may not pass the wall without the right muscle development.

Fingers, Wrists and Arms
The only way past that wall is finger strength. Talent alone won’t take you there. Three areas must increase in general strength: fingers, wrists and arms. Wrist and arm strength are generally increased by octave studies.
Be very, very careful with octaves. You can easily permanently impair your arm, or at least get an acute case of tendinitis. Go slowly, and never do octaves unless you are really warmed up.

Filigree Passages
As to finger strength, you’ll find that the more of it you have, the better all those filigree arpeggiated runs and scale-like passages sound and feel. You’d often do better to increase your strength rather than repeat those difficult passages over and over.

I mix finger exercises with the difficult passages. When I become tired or bored with repeating difficult passages, I can turn my brain more or less “off” and play finger exercises.

In addition, I “listen” to my hands and arms. If one hand is tired, rest it immediately, and do finger exercises with the other hand.

Using Hanon
I use Hanon, but one hand at a time, and I arrange the exercises quite differently, so that the 3rd 4th and 5th fingers are thoroughly exercised. I call it “Hanon for Crazy People,” but it is very effective. You can make up bizarre combinations of Hanon, using the black keys, and you will greatly strengthen your fingers with this method, the “black-key Hanon.”

Warmed Up And Ready To Go

There’s a feeling inside your hand when all the muscles are warmed up, and ready to go. To pianists, it’s the greatest feeling in the world, like you could conquer anything, play any difficult spot with ease. Let’s call it the Piano Zone, for lack of a better term. Part of achieving strength is to gently stretch the fingers. The video below shows an old stretching exercise that Gary Graffman, an American pianist, tells of in his lessons with legend Vladimir Horowitz. The quickest way I know to the Zone is Hanon, those horrible finger exercises that many students were forced to endure years ago. 

I know many will say, “Try Czerny, try this or that,” but the Hanon “Virtuoso Pianist” is the only book that ever helped me achieve and maintain real finger strength. The exercises are so dull that you really don’t have to think, just play and play. The dullness is a virtue. I put a TV on the piano and wiggle away.

Use The Strength You’ve Earned

As soon as I become bored with finger exercises, whoosh, I start some monstrously hard passage and see how long the strength lasts. Remember that finger strength is cumulative: if you do finger exercises every day, your strength will grow, and as soon as you stop daily finger workouts, the muscles start fading from the Zone. If you don’t feel like playing, just do 20 minutes of Hanon in front of the TV and leave it alone. Ultimately, it comes down to endurance, just like an athlete. Without endurance, you cannot link all those difficult passages into a whole and make music out of it.

Test for endurance often by playing through a set piece to see how far you can get. I use Chopin’s G Minor Ballade or Bach’s B flat Prelude as my endurance test so I can gauge the evolution of the muscles and my strength. I stick to those two test pieces so I can feel the difference each day.
There is no place more fun at the piano than the Strength Zone, and nothing more difficult to achieve. Strengthen your fingers, strengthen your mind. The piano requires lots of both.

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