Often I will have a student complain to me that their fourth finger is weak, or they can’t reach an octave comfortably. Usually they ask for strengthening or stretching exercises, but often those aren’t the solutions they need.
One of the most important things we harpists can do to have an even technique and tone is to keep the hand centered. What is “centered?” Your hand is centered when the bulk of your hand is distributed evenly over the distance between your thumb and fourth finger. Your hand should have a round shape, not a flat one, and your thumb and second finger should look like the letter “C”.
The tendency is to pull the hand back toward the thumb. This makes the space between thumb and second finger too small and prevents the thumb from making a full closing motion when it plays. When your hand is too far toward your thumb, your fourth finger needs to stretch to reach the notes it must play, and it is too straight for you to have control over tone or dynamic or even over basic coordination.
How does keeping your hand centered help you?
It allows for an equal distribution of physical effort, which means a more equal sound between your fingers.
It allows you to keep your fingers curved. The curve of each knuckle is crucial to the strength of your sound. When each knuckle is curved, your finger becomes an arch. As you may remember from physics class, the arch can distribute weight evenly along its span. This makes it not only ideal for bridges, but the perfect way to draw a beautiful sound from a harp string.
The round hand is a relaxed hand. It is a natural shape for the hand, and will prevent the build-up of tension.
How can you practice centering your hand?
Place your fingers on four adjacent strings. Adjust your hand until your hand looks round, with that “C” formed by your thumb and second finger, and all your knuckles are curved. Then gently, at a soft dynamic and staying relaxed, play each finger in tunr. After you play each finger, replace it on the strings, then play the next finger.
Place a four finger chord. Center your hand, so that you have that nice “C” shape between your thumb and second finger and no finger is over-stretched. Play each finger in turn, replacing it before you play the next, and checking the centering of your hand before you play.
Play a scale. Keep your hand steady as the fingers play, then shift it as you cross under, and shift again to replace the next set of fingers, re-centering your hand before you play. Be very deliberate about shifting your hand only at those crucial moments and keeping it centered the rest of the time.
Make keeping your hand centered a focus for this coming week, and see how it changes the way you sound, and the agility of your fingers.