Are You “Built” for Your Instrument?

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Here’s a challenge Sherlock Holmes would enjoy:

Vladimir Horowitz

Vladimir Horowitz

Take the members of a professional orchestra. Put them in civilian clothes, no tails or black gowns. Line them up. Now try to guess which instrument each plays. There are the telltale calluses, marks, fingernails, etc., that you could use to identify the masters of particular instruments. But aside from those features, the stereotypical images may steer you wrong.

Not all trombone players are barrel-chested men, nor are all flutists dainty, well-manicured ladies. The truth is, all different physical types of people play each instrument.

We tend to think that masters of a specialized skill, like world-class musicians, are “built” for their instruments. They probably share some common physical traits, but there are too many exceptions to determine any hard and fast rules.

Consider this: Basketball player Muggsy Bogues had a 14 year career in the NBA and holds team records for the Charlotte Hornets in steals, assists and turnovers. He also is one of the shortest players ever, at only 5’ 3” tall.

Pianist Vladimir Horowitz had long fingers which were well suited to the massive Rachmaninoff works that he played. But Alicia de Larrocha, the great Spanish pianist, was less than five feet tall with small hands, and she played those same Rachmaninoff works with fire and brilliance.

What we often regard as physical limitations on our playing are more likely just difficulties to be solved. Instead of saying that we can’t play a certain way, it is probable that we just need to figure out how to work with what we have.

I’m not talking about overcoming real disabilities. I’m talking about how quick we are to turn a difficulty into an impossibility.

So maybe your problem isn’t your hands themselves (or whatever you’re blaming). Maybe it’s not a question of CAN’T, but it’s a question of HOW: HOW you can use the tools you have to get the results you want.

Here are three common problems I help my harp students conquer, and my recommendations for turning CAN’T into HOW.

1. I CAN’T reach. Short fingers and small hands make it more difficult to reach big intervals and big chords. This is a fact. But it is also true that your reach will stretch over time. And in the meantime, you can roll larger chords, or place them from the bottom up. You can even leave out notes for the time being, if you need to. Do your etudes, and practice chord techniques carefully, staying relaxed and not putting too much strain or pressure on your hands, and you will be soon able to manage bigger chords.

2. I CAN’T keep my fingers curved. I have always been double jointed. My fingers were a mess, and my teacher (who never had these problems) despaired of my ever having a decent technique. But it only took me one dedicated summer of serious attention to my hands and fingers to learn the right habits. You would never know how double jointed I am just from watching me play the harp. And if I can do it, you can too. The steps are simple: practice the Conditioning Exercises (or something similar) slowly, softly and correctly. Train your fingers gently to make the correct motions and keep the correct shape. Gradually add some volume, keeping concentrated on the strength of the arch of your finger. You can do this!

3. I CAN’T play fast. Fast, agile playing

requires a secure technique, some patience and some time. As you try playing at faster speeds, keep your hands relaxed. The faster you go, the softer you should play. You need to get your fingers used to playing fast and staying loose, because as soon as your fingers tighten, they become uneven and clumsy. Once you are used to faster speeds, you can add more sound and dimension to your playing. Scales and arpeggios are ideal practice vehicles for developing speed and fluidity in your playing.

Yes, you CAN! So HOW will you do it?

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  • Deb Geer

    Back on the left hand exercises: I have a problem with the four noted chords – the stretch between 4 and 3 and 3 and 2 fingers. I can do the chords with rolling, but not good playing block chords. Any suggestions?


    • Anne Post author

      You’re probably going to have to stretch out a little. Short of putting your hands on the rack, which is definitely NOT recommended, perhaps the best big stretching exercises are Salzedo’s Daily Dozen. If you can do these gently so you don’t hurt yourself in the process, they will help grow your reach between all your fingers. Just be careful to stay slow and relaxed. One side note, don’t dip your elbow when you try to reach a big chord. It’s a natural thing to do, but it makes it harder to reach!


  • Elizabeth Volpe Bligh

    Some pieces were written for men with huge hands, to be played on smaller-spaced harps than what we have now. There are some works, for example, by Parish-Alvars that have spans that my hands are physically incapable of reaching, no matter how many Conditioning Exercises I practise. I once heard an interview with Alicia de Larocha, in which she was asked how she managed to play Rachmaninoff. She laughed and said, “I don’t play Rachmaninoff!” (Maybe she meant she had to edit it so much that it was no longer Rachmaninoff?)
    I choose my solo repertoire and fingerings to suit my hands, but if I have to play something that is too big for my hands to reach, I have no choice but to edit it slightly. Small hands are not always a curse, though. I can do left-handed double harmonics in higher registers than people with very large hands, who can’t squeeze into that space.


  • Carole Smith

    When I was President of the ice skating rink, I would hear sometimes that we can’t do one thing or another. My response was “Don’t tell me it can’t be done. Tell me how we are going to do it.” That worked most of the time.


  • Anne Sullivan

    Elizabeth – very well said! Unfortunately, even pieces written for modern harps sometimes have gargantuan chords, and there is nothing wrong with saluting them for normal or small sized hands. It’s extremely important to avoid injury caused by playing or trying to play things we shouldn’t.

    I was really addressing the sort of thing that Carole mentioned. Sometimes we just give up too easily, when just a little more effort would get us the results we want.


  • Pamela Myers

    This is so helpful and encouraging, everyone! Where can I find good exercises like the ones you refer to? I’m self-taught so far, on a 34-string lever harp.


  • Lorna Ota

    Thank you, Anne, for your constant reminders of the daily arpeggios or scales, as well as the 10-chord stretch. I’m a very late bloomer, but it seems to be working the more I see the reminders!


  • al

    Thanks for this; useful to know that other people have overcome being double jointed too. I have been trying for ages. Being double jointed and trying so hard to stretch more to increase my reach has caused a lot of tension and pain. I am gradually learinng to relax my hands a bit and maybe the conditioning exercises you mention will be possible now.


    • Anne Post author

      There’s always hope! But seriously, double joints can be overcome with lots of attention and light, relaxed playing. Don’t over stretch so that it hurts. Playing the harp should not be painful!


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