Finger & Hand Awareness – 5th in Series: 7 Musical Intelligences

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Finger/Hand Intelligence – Part 5 of the Series on 7 Musical Intelligences.

  • Awareness of finger and hand feedback
  • Using minuscule motions
  • Teaching your fingers to remember their place

Common Problems

Most music students gain only a rudimentary awareness of their fingers before forgetting all about them. Once the basic hand position over the instrument is mastered, greater consideration is given to the “notes”, usually with unnecessary amount of effort, rendering fingers and hands into wild roaming beasts thrown about with every gesture!

The biggest issue which arises in finger coordination is excess motion of both hand and fingers.

Perhaps I should invent a device to limit motion to a small area above each key to highlight this particular problem!

Beyond that, the majority have a poor spatial memory and do not “remember” where each key is located with the result that their hands and fingers must “find” the keys anew for nearly every note.

Developing Detailed Awareness

For most players, the problem is not a lack of coordination but a disconnect from the feedback of fingers and hands.

The hands and fingers have some of the highest concentrations of nerve endings in the body. In other words, they transmit a huge amount of information about everything they touch.

Turning Consciousness into Coordination

Concentrating on finger sensitivity, pick up your instrument and hold it. Place your fingers gently in the basic playing position but don’t sound any notes - only feel the keys (or strings) under your fingers. Close your eyes if it helps.

Feel the holes and the rings. Feel the shape and position of each key, the resistance of each spring. Create a memory of each key’s position and motion.

Notice how little effort is required to move each key or cover each hole. Use as little movement as possible - the absolute minimum.

Mastering Complex Motions

Moving one finger at a time is not the greatest challenge of finger coordination; that honor rests with complex motions - moving two or more fingers at once, or having to move one finger in multiple directions to hit different keys. The real clincher for most people is coordinating movements of both hands.

Once again, acute awareness is the remedy. The actual effort required to move hands and fingers in almost any combination is minuscule. The “wild beasts” do not respond well to force (effort); instead they are tamed with calm cooperation.

The real work is done by the mind. Fingers and hands only do what they are told. Don’t make them work more than necessary.

I want to go back to the beginning of the Rondo from Mozart’s Concerto by way of a practical example.

Mozart Clarinet concerto, Rondo opening
The piece is technically quite simple for the first several lines requiring mostly single finger motions. Beginning bar 20 however, that easiness disappears with notes leaping up, down and skipping all over the place!

Focusing in on bar 20, interval G-B calls for moving 2 fingers up - not too difficult so far. The next interval, B-D, demands several motions at once - lifting 1 and pressing down 2 in the left hand while the right hand depresses the 2nd and 4th fingers. Remember - each finger barely moves!

Mind Games

Many clarinetists develop a problem with the interval in this register because it involves both a register change and a complex finger movement. The first issue tends to exacerbate the other and vice versa, resulting in a downward fear and tension spiral.

If I have them blow through the clarinet while I finger the notes - with the clarinet turned towards me - the D pops right out. So what’s the solution? Tiny well placed finger motions coupled with a “zombie” or non-adjusting air stream.

Following on from the interval I’ve just discussed, the next few in the rest of that bar are not too bad except for numerous changes in direction.

In bar 21 we have a repeat of the G-B issue in a lower register. The player must move from no fingers down to ALL fingers down.

Goodness! Moving all fingers together must require a lot of coordination, right?

Try flexing both hands into fists and open them several times. Do you have any problem moving all 10 fingers together? I doubt it.

It really is that simple to go from G-B in this passage. It only requires that you believe how easy it is rather than approaching it with a struggle in mind.

To sum up - remember 1) tiny motions; 2) detailed awareness of feedback from fingers and hands and 3) memory of motion and position. Before you know it, your fingers will be calm well-heeled helpers in any passage.


Finger passages without sound. Do some fingers press harder or move the instrument more? Do some fingers tense unnecessarily to “help” others move? Does your hand or arm tense when attempting difficult passages?

When playing fast passages practice one beat at a time at full speed, then try two beats, then three. Feel the “shape” of the entire motion of all the notes, not only individual notes.

Let your fingers dance.

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9 comments for “Finger & Hand Awareness – 5th in Series: 7 Musical Intelligences

  1. James Langdell
    November 13, 2010 at

    Rosario Mazzeo pointed out to me in lessons that a finger movement that opens a hole an effect on the sound as soon as you start the motion, while a movement that closes a hole doesn’t have an effect until you complete the motion. That led me to try the discipline of taking inventory of the number and type of finger movements needed to get from each note to the next in a passage. Note pairs that involved a combination of closing and opening finger actions were especially challenging.

    • November 14, 2010 at

      Good stuff James. That kind of detail in awareness is wonderful. In the case of such detail, I think the best approach is a combination of listening and feeling. Although there may be some difference in tone response between opening and closing a hole, the real challenge for the fingers is consistent pressure and interaction. The goal is not only clarity of tone between notes, but fast and coordinated fingers for fast passages.

  2. November 10, 2010 at

    Single, lip, that is.

  3. November 10, 2010 at

    Hi Ambrose- No I don’t know many who actually use snugging, though some know of the technique.

    I think double lip encourages the best voicing, plus no biting, but it is possible to have the same freedom with single lip. And for me, it’s a lot easier to articulate, and better for endurance.

  4. November 9, 2010 at


    I think you’ll enjoy this video of Ridenour outlining the pinky touchpoint system and light fingers.

    And him applying it to a chromatic scale:

    • November 10, 2010 at

      I have been using it all day! And I love it. Thanks for reminding me of that simple finger feedback.

  5. November 7, 2010 at

    David, I’d like to hear your thoughts on using your pinkies as “touchpoints”. Tom Ridenour’s “Educator’s Guide the Clarinet” advocates leaving at least one pinky in contact with their assigned key wherever possible (and, of course, practical), and I found it to be useful in many contexts. On the flip side, you might prepare for a future note by moving your pinky to rest on another key in advance (chromatic scale has many practical examples).

    I’ve recently started consciously working on light fingers. I realised a big reason my right hand fingers were so heavy and not effortless was my first finger was not sufficiently covering it’s tone hole. Actually a quick fix for years of violent slapping.

    Right now I’m working on playing effortless clarion Eb. My right hand pinky ends up very tense when trilling from D, and the tension quickly transfers into my hand. I’m experimenting (as suggested by Ridenour) to rest the right pinky on the trill key and alternate between “squeeze and relax” actions.

    From the book:
    “..pinkies need to exert just enough energy to overcome the lever’s spring tension. …to close the hole, relax and allow the spring tension to overcome it.”

    This is a far cry from my previous “lift and slap” technique.

    So far, it feels great, but it’s difficult to maintain a relaxed hand with extended fast trills. How do you approach this trill?

    Also, I’m also working on a Scheherazade excerpt (4th movement) that repeats clarion D, E, F, Eb, D, C# (here: ). I’ve found it useful to keep my right pinky resting on Eb. It both restricts my 2nd and 3rd fingers movement while keeping them in an optimum position. How do you approach this?

    I enjoyed realising how easy it was to clench my fists in harmony 🙂 Great post!


    • November 8, 2010 at

      Thanks for your wonderful comment Ambrose. Ridenour is one of my favorite clarinet educators. I think a lot like him, so I am not surprised at the practicality of the pinky touchpoint idea. Do you practice his “snug” method for mouthpiece position in the mouth?

      • November 8, 2010 at

        I do use snugging to control the reed, when combined with double lip I get an amazingly more resonant sound.

        I still haven’t quite got it with single lip though, I think my jaw closes slightly and kills the sound (old biting habits). It also seems to be more natural with double lip, with the top lip giving a nice cushion as opposed to scraping the mouthpiece with your teeth when you need more “snug”.

        Do you know how common snugging is? Everyone I know (personally) uses vertical pressure to control the reed.

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