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Sharon Bill Author & Music Tutor

Let Your Fingers Do The Walking

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People come for lessons for many and varied reasons. The most obvious motivation is a desire to play music, but this isn’t always the priority. I’ve had pupils begin piano as they get older to help stave off rheumatism. Of course, it wouldn’t be helpful if the condition was already chronic, but at the first signs of stiffness they’ve decided to exercise their digits on the piano keyboard. Scales are a great workout for your hands and the resultant ability to perform some nice music is a happy by-product. Regular exercise is beneficial to the whole body and this is just as applicable to your hands and fingers. Regular practise - little and often - is the key to success in music, and if your fingers get a regular oiling and service then so much the better.
Of course, playing the piano doesn’t only involve the use of your fingers, it’s a whole body experience. It may not be an intensive cardio session but dynamic tension is an effective, if more gentle, form of exercise. Your whole upper body must maintain good posture and muscle control to maximise good piano technique and if you’re playing using the pedals then your legs get a bit of a workout too.
In all of this we’re forgetting the most important muscle of all - the brain! With so much research being done on the brain and dementia it’s now well known how important it is to keep the brain active. We’re often told to make ourselves undertake tasks that we find difficult so as to keep our minds exercised and active. I’ve had more than one pupil take music lessons for this reason alone. My mum works word puzzles and crosswords to work her brain and she’s unbeatable. She even completes crosswords puzzles that don’t have any clues! A similar principle is at work when you play the piano, but you get the physical benefits too - and the reward of enjoying creating music into the bargain.
We human beings are a marvellously complex creation and playing music is one of the few activities that makes use of the whole of our being. Scientists have mapped the brain of musicians whilst they play and tests show that the whole brain is active, not just selected parts. It’s also working faster than science can properly explain. Regular practise results in what is termed “finger memory.” This is where, after prolonged repetition, your fingers perform rehearsed sequences without the brain having to tell them what to do. I’m afraid that my neuroscience leaves a lot to be desired but, generally speaking, it takes a number of microseconds for the brain to send a ‘message’ to the fingers to play a certain note. However, after repeated practise (lots and lots of practise!) it becomes possible for the fingers to play passages of music much faster than the time it takes for the brain to react. Think of some of the virtuoso performances you may have seen. Some Bach Fugues have four independent melodies with rapid ornamentation all going on at the same time. In fact that’s the very nature of a Fugue, which means ‘Flight’ - melodies literally chase each other at a furious pace. Technically your brain can no longer keep pace but your fingers have learned the movements automatically. Science isn’t quite sure how!
Whatever standard you hope to achieve (maybe not all of us intend to spend six hours a day at the piano) it all starts with the basics at a slow and steady pace. At times even the basics seem difficult and challenging. But that’s the point. It’s good to make ALL of our muscles work, even the brain and it’s good to learn to play and appreciate music that we wouldn’t normally listen to. In so many ways it’s good for us to step outside of our comfort zone.