­The True Value of Finger Independence for Musicians (and Pianists in Particular)

Having a pre-conditioned rhythmic facility in place before approaching music creation on an instrument, makes learning, practicing, and performing much more efficient (not to mention much more comfortable). One of the most essential skills that arises from having trained the hands rhythmically, is absolute finger independence. Often a general term musicians use to describe facets of physicality or technique, finger independence has major implications when it comes to learning music on an instrument. This skill plays a critical role in a how a musician makes use of their body in order to recreate complex musical ideas, and it also influences how one learns and rehearses, in preparation for live performance.

In this article, we’re going to take a look at what finger independence is, why it’s so important in the context of music creation, and how it develops through progressive learning. Many of the following ideas presented throughout this post derive from the perspective of a pianist and will be using examples from piano repertoire. As finger independence is a high level skill that many instrumentalists require, many of the ideas can easily carry over to other types of instrumentalists, genres, and musical situations.

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The essence of music performance involves expressing musical ideas in various emotional ways through the use of your body, and through an acoustic instrument that produces sound. Making music on an instrument therefore involves gaining the ability to control, manipulate, and re-created abstract musical-rhythmic ideas. This is true whether one is composing on the spot, or recreating music that has been previously written down.

When it comes to the skill of finger independence, one does not have to look very far in order to see that pianists, using all ten fingers, have the ability to reflect all the sounds of the orchestra (or an entire jazz band), in extremely dynamic ways. Therefore, it makes sense to take a brief dive into the world of the pianist, in order to see how aspects of physicality and perspectives on music making, can carry over to other musical situations.

The Ability to Control Musical-Rhythmic Ideas

In practically every piece of music composed for the piano, there is a hierarchy of intervallic layers (also referred to as voices) of a composer’s language. When learning a piece of piano music, each of these layers is creates a tactile impression in the hands, through the sensitivity of the contours of the piano keys.  

This hierarchy of intervallic layers is displayed differently in every piece, because each composer writes with his or her own unique melodic, harmonic, and above all—rhythmic language. Most the time however, it's easy to identify and distinguish these layers when you see note-stems that are turned up and others that are turned downward. Stem directions often help indicate the various layers and voices that move horizontally through a section:

For instance, in this eight bar section from Granados’ beautiful Los Requiebros (the first piece of his masterpiece suite titled Goyescas), you can see how the hands have to adapt and manipulate up to four separate layers of voices, which move horizontally through the section.

In the first four measures, the hands recreate the music by molding to three distinct voices, each moving and expressing their own rhythmic ideas. At the same time they fuse with the layers around them, and influence the overall sound of the section. From the bottom up, these voices can be designated as:

1) Eighth notes in the left hand, which outline the harmony / chord progression of the section on the downbeats of each measure.

2) A middle ornamental layer composed of quicker sixteenth note rhythms, which wind their way forward and embellish the melody.

3) On top of all of that harmonic motion is the melody, i.e. the main thematic material of the section, which is going to grab the attention of the audience, and help them follow the musical story.

At any point in a piano composition (whether it’s a single bar, a phrase, or even an isolated chord), the music can require the hands to adapt to multiple voices. In measures four and five from the same example, the fingers are dynamically controlling four voices:

From the bottom up these could be thought of as:

1) A bassline

2) An ornamental ascending line

3) A cadence tone followed by chordal harmonies beneath the top melody notes

4) The top melody

In terms of hierarchy, the top melodic layer in this section is the most important, as it guides the ears of the listeners, and conveys the musical narrative. When a pianist has developed advanced finger independence, each voice (each layer) can be easily controlled by the hands, and rendered distinct to the ears of the audience.  

In physical terms, this might mean that more pressure from the right hand fingers is used into the keyboard, to emphasize the top melody, while the remaining layers in the right hand and left hand below the melody, are articulated by the fingers in different ways. This allows the pianist to create different layers of sound. Depending on the situation, a layer below the main melody might assume less pressure from the fingers, or the fingers might articulate in a way that produces specific gradations of volume or texture. But enough so that the sounds and details of the various entwining layers, still contribute to the mood and atmosphere of the section.

In rehearsal, through intense and focused learning, the hands adapt to the rhythmic conception of individual layers in a composition. By using focused amounts of pressure from the fingers that align to the musical ideas in the composition, one can easily and comfortably express each layer with ease.

Additional applications of finger independence

In addition to being able to express different layers of sound to an audience, by means of controlling musical ideas through touch sensitivity, there are also two specific aspects of finger independence that a musician constantly makes use of, when learning music on an instrument. These are:  

1) Confronting different voices aligned to, or passing through solid chords.

2) Adapting to new coordination, and making the body acclimatize to new forms of choreography through opposing rhythmic ideas.

Articulating voices aligned to, or passing through solid chords

To illustrate the first point, in this brief example from the exotic middle section of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G minor (Op. 23, No. 5), the right hand begins playing solid four-note chords on beats 1-3. Starting on beat four, the composer changes the following chords to include held quarter notes, inside of the melodic eighth note and quarter note octaves. Four notes are still being played by the right hand, except the middle two-note chords are now voiced, held for their specific duration, felt in a tactile sense, and heard as a distinct layer of sound.

What’s interesting to realize, is that by acknowledging this subtle change in notation, one learns that the inner held quarter notes actually have two distinct functions, both of which can make a huge difference in how the section is perceived, and how it is played. First, these inner held notes emphasize a separate horizontally moving melodic melody, which is distinctive, and which colors the main melody above it:

Furthermore, they also function harmonically as full chords, influencing the progression in the left hand.

There are many instances in music where notes, either held or moving through chords, requires the skill of finger independence. In both practice and performance, pianists can comfortably and easily apply appropriate amounts of pressure and articulation from the fingers to these inner notes, while the surrounding melodic ideas are conveyed. When a pianist is conscious of the various layers of sound being brought out by the fingers, all of these smaller details begin to produce the larger conception of a musician’s vision of the piece. This contributes to a more precise interpretation of the music and the ability to communicate a variety of sound and detail of a composition. As a consequence of understanding a composition in such a detailed way, this also enhances the confidence of the performer, making the musician more comfortable with what she is presenting, when it is time to perform the music in a live setting.  

Expressing opposing rhythmic ideas

Developing the skill of finger independence also allows musicians to easily control opposing rhythmic ideas that a composer is writing. Opposing rhythms can occur in the same hand (between different musical ideas), between the right and left hand, and in various other combinations.

The opening section of Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1 (Deux arabesques L. 66) is an example of opposing rhythmic ideas. The flowing statements of the opening melody is comprised of descending eighth note triplets in the right hand, which overlap ascending and descending eighth note phrase groups in the left hand—essentially 3 against 2. These polyrhythms require the pianist to think of the phrases (and their choreography) as independent from each other—while at the same time, being able to define in clear terms what is happening in the section: i.e. a left hand accompaniment, against a right hand melody.

In another example from Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor, pianists once again have to adapt to two separate types of rhythmic choreography. In the example above, groups of six eighth notes in the left hand require the wrist and forearm to move side to side to accommodate the wider broken intervals. At the same time, the right hand is expressing opposing rhythmic groupings of five quarter notes, which are played with slightly more vertical movements on the keyboard.

Contrasting rhythmic movements are often difficult for some musicians to adapt to. The reason why is largely because they have never experienced (and honed) these specific types of rhythmic coordination. Here is another reason why training the hands in different rhythmic capacities, can have a powerful effect when it comes to enhancing finger independence and the coordinational capabilities of the hands—especially when it comes to opposing rhythms. Having the ability to express polyrhythmic coordination between the hands, would render this section feasible even for beginners, only requiring the musician to become accustomed to the finger combinations they choose, and the placement of the musical phrases on the keyboard.

In the examples from Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1 and Chopin’s Ballade No. 1, it’s easy to see how a pianist must to adapt to the choreography of the composer’s musical ideas. When a musician has developed a high level of finger independence, music becomes easier to learn, and this is crucial when the rhythmic ideas in a composer's score, become increasingly more complex.

So what exactly is finger independence?

In simplistic terms, finger independence means each finger on each hand is able to express different musical-rhythmic ideas simultaneously, and independently from one another. Finger independence develops over time, by progressively learning new pieces of challenging music, adapting to the coordination and choreographic movements of each composition learned, and maintaining one’s overall technique.  

When a musician achieves a high level of finger independence and dexterity, this means they have the ability to control each finger on each hand, in response to (often very intricate) abstract musical ideas. Each finger can be put into action rhythmically, can move independently, can hold or release certain notes, and can apply different amounts of pressure onto an instrument—with comfort, efficiency, and precision.

If a pianist has undergone a certain amount of rhythmic training, it becomes relatively easy for them to hold—to actually grasp and to exert pressure into specific notes of a chord or a passage—while the remaining fingers on the hand have less pressure, or stay neutral (not flexed or rigid). This is the essence of finger independence, and it is fundamental to how complex piano music is performed. Finger independence should not be confused with the ability to raise the fingers to a certain height (although this ability happens as a natural result of training). In fact, when a piece is played at it’s natural tempo, the hands and fingers tend to stay close to the keys with minimal lifting of the fingers. Instead, the premise of finger independence actually lies in the ability to do two things simultaneously with absolute comfort, and non-rigidness. These are:

  • The ability to hold down a key or several keys, down to the key-bed of the piano (keys that are representative of specific notes of a musical idea), by utilizing various gradations of pressure from the fingers, forearm, or upper body. In it’s simplest form, simply being able to press and hold a key. When a finger presses a key down and reaches the key-bed, the first phalanx of that finger becomes rigid (it does not bend inwardly), and the finger flexes the muscles of the palm. When a note is pressed as far as it will go, the feeling of hitting the “bottom,” occurs when the key touches the balance rail—the fulcrum point for each key on the keyboard. This tactile connection forms an impression in the mind of the musical notes that you want to remember, and each repetition of your movements, reinforces the specific placement of the musical ideas on the instrument. 
  • The ability to comfortably and easily control different musical ideas with remaining fingers, when specific fingers are already in use. For instance, if a musical idea in a score requires one finger to hold down a key, the other four fingers have the freedom to move in any local direction, or adapt to other notes. This is an amazing physical feeling and probably one of the main reasons why it feels so good to play the piano, as many different layers of musical ideas can be expressed simultaneously.

Finger independence is not only physical

One can argue however, that the most important aspect of finger independence, is the musician's ability to separate the diverse layers of musical ideas within a piece, even down to a single phrase. Meaning, the musician creates a musical intention from having conceptualized a musical idea, before communicating that information to the hands into choreographic terms. Through this process, the physical movements of the body are stimulated and finger independence is enhanced from the musical ideas that move them—and not the other way around. Since most music contains rhythmically contrasting and layered phrases, this means a musician also needs to develop the capacity to be able to conceptualize the rhythmic ideas in a composition; to be able to think through them in various ways (without playing the instrument).

Demanding that your mind and your hands adapt to the musical information in a composition, and then through the instrument, implies specificity. You are able to look at the music, reflect on what is going in the composition, and then recreate that musical information through touch on the instrument. As a natural result of this process, being able to bring out the various detailed elements in the musical ideas with the hands comfortably, makes it not only easier to learn the music, but it contributes to one’s overall awareness of the larger story being communicated to the audience. This in turn makes it easier for musicians to keep learning new and more complex pieces of music, and even allowing these skills to transfer over to other instruments that they create with.

Why is finger independence critical for learning and performance?

Each and every musical idea that a composer writes in a score, are always felt in the hands in tactile ways. Many pianists refer to this perspective as mirroring what is written in the score. What you are mirroring, what is reflected onto the keys, is every facet of musical information a composer writes in the score—all of which is turned into sound and story. A powerful learning perspective that musicians can adopt, is that the hands mirror the intervals of a composer’s language through tactile and rhythmic touch. When a section of a piece of music is learned thoroughly on the piano, your movements are guided by the larger rhythmic and thematic ideas of that section. At the same time, every interval contained within those larger ideas, are continuously and consciously felt.  Kinesthetic is a great word to describe this process, meaning to learn by touch and tactile awareness through physical activity. This ultra sensitive feeling of a composer’s notes within the fingertips, is constantly refined in each practice session and within each section you are learning. It is how you can tell, with laser-like focus, if a note in a passage or a chord is the wrong note, by aligning your sense of touch, to the musical ideas in the score.

Learning a section of music with absolute thoroughness, means that every musical idea can be manipulated by the hands with precision. When you play a musical idea from memory, the tactile feeling of the shapes and contours of the notes in the hands, is one of the core ways the music is ingrained and absorbed. Once you make the conscious effort to ensure that each musical idea within a section is precisely felt, and balanced within the hands, you will realize  that you are indeed mirroring all of the detailed musical information of a composer, as it is reflected on the keyboard through touch.

In Summary

The core aspect of what you are doing in performance, is geared toward expressing music in various emotional ways through the use of your body, and through an acoustic instrument that produces sound. Performance preparation therefore involves gaining the ability to control, manipulate, and re-create abstract musical ideas according to your will. Achieving a high level of finger independence, gives you the freedom to express music on the instrument, in a much more comfortable and functional way.   

It is important to keep in mind, finger independence is not just the ability to control the fingers in physical terms, but it is also the ability to conceptualize and separate the various layers of musical ideas happening simultaneously within a piece of music. Being able to identify musical phrases and layers that overlap one another, or phrases that start and end in different rhythmic groupings, allows you to transfer that information into choreographic movements, whereby the hands adapt to the musical ideas.

Attaining an advanced level of finger independence, occurs through a combination of progressively learning new music and maintaining a high level of technical facility. When it comes to music making, finger independence is not an aspect of physicality that develops once and then a musician “has it,” but rather it is a skill that is constantly refined and maintained, as one expands their musical knowlege. Furthermore, as every piece of music uses a different melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic language, the hands and mind have to adapt to ever-changing note combinations. When your body gets used to new types of coordination, finger independence is naturally reinforced.

If you are interested in developing advanced finger independence, I recommend exploring the concepts in The Technology of Rhythmic Dexterity method book. This training system provides a stimulating alternative for developing dexterity for performing musicians. The system differs vastly from using scales, arpeggios, or exercise books on your main instrument, and it can be a dynamic and highly stimulating way to maintain facility for music creation.

Written by: Mark Salvatore

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To learn more about developing technique for music performance, check out The Technology of Rhythmic Dexterity and La tecnología de la destreza rítmica method books, available through The Art of Dexterity.