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Glenn Gould and Finger Tapping

© Richard Beauchamp — April. 2005

Many people are aware that Glenn Gould indulged in the arcane practice of “finger tapping” and that he believed this developed and maintained his amazingly refined and agile finger technique. Sadly, it tends to be placed in the same area in people’s minds as the well known Gould eccentricities, such as the glove and overcoat wearing, the pill taking, the strange and and audible chair he would not do without, the compulsive vocalising etc. etc. That Gould was a genius who may have suffered from some form of OCD and possibly was also on the Asperger's spectrum is now generally understood, and it is sad to think that he was denied the knowledge and understanding that would certainly have been his due had he lived at the present time.

The idea for the finger tapping technique apparently came to his first teacher, Alberto Guerrero, while at a Chinese circus. One of the acts featured a three year old boy who performed an astonishingly agile and intricate dance. Guerrero went backstage to find out how it was done and the trainer demonstrated how he moved the child’s limbs into the correct positions for the dance while the boy remained passive and relaxed. Later the boy had to reproduce the movements by himself whilst remembering the relaxed and effortless feel. Guerrero’s adaptation of this technique to the keyboard involved placing the hand in a relaxed way on the keyboard, with the arm hanging loosely, the finger pads resting on the keys, and the second knuckles (PIP joints) as the highest point. The other hand then tapped the individual fingers on the fingertips or the end joint (DIP) down to the keybed, allowing the keys to return the fingers quickly to the surface of the keys. After this, the fingers performed the movements without the help of the other hand but whilst maintaining the same feeling of effortlessness. (This ties in well with what my own teacher, Ernest Empson, told me of Godowski (his teacher)’s methods. Godowski told his pupils that the whole hand should remain relaxed in virtuoso fingerwork “as though it had fainted” and that the fingers were moved by tiny sparks of energy which allowed the fingers to return to the relaxed state instantly. When you listen to recordings of Godowski’s lightning leggiero finger work (as in Liszt’s “La Leggierezza” for example) this description makes good sense.)

It takes only armchair reasoning (to borrow Richard Dawkins’s phrase) to understand that learning to perform an action with the minimum of effort and tension is going to be of benefit technically, but anatomical knowledge is needed to understand fully why the finger movement induced by tapping works so well in playing the piano. The key point is that tapping the finger forces it to mimic the coordination that would be caused by using the intrinsic muscles of the hand (i.e. the interossei and lumbricals), by making the finger flex at the first joint (MCP) and extend at the second and third (PIP and DIP). Success in reproducing this movement without the aid of tapping is only possible with the use of the intrinsic muscles. Their great benefit to the pianist is that they can act independently of each other (unlike the muscles in the forearm) and can work at great speed. They are also provided with a very high degree of neural feedback. Alternatively, using the long forearm flexors (flexor digitorum profundus and flexor digitorum superficialis in particular) results in a stiff hand because of their tendency to make the fingers work together as a unit. These muscles are also less sensitive for tone control and speed than are the muscles in the hand, because they are so far from the levers they operate.

Gould’s habit of immersing his hands in hot water before performing is further proof that he used this fine coordination. The small intrinsic musicles at the extremities of the limbs are much more vulnerable to cold temperatures than are those in the forearms.

My own adaptation of the technique — and one I find extremely useful in teaching — is to tap the fingers immediately proximal to the PIP joints (just above the middle joints), as this mimics the the intrinsic coordination very faithfully — although it can lead to a feeling of being rather detached from the fingertips. I love using the official Guerrero method as well, as this give a wonderful feeling of hugging the keys with the finger pads. Anyone who has seen Gould play will recognise the way the fingers seem to mould themselves, as though boneless, to the keys. You will need to have a lower wrist position for the end joint (Guerrero style) tapping to work properly.

For more detailed information on how the intrinsic coordination works read “Curved fingers — and tension?” and view the PowerPoint slide shows “The Ergonomics of Piano Technique” and “A Look at the Muscles which Control the Fingers“.

The first three videos on the page “The Beast with Five Fingers” should also be helpful.

Richard Beauchamp is keyboard coordinator at St Mary’s Music School, Edinburgh.

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