Chromatics and the fifth finger

Question from a reader: 

When I play chromatic runs or scale passages, I notice that my fifth fingers straighten or curl under my hand. Is this something I should worry about?

Tim Stein answers: 

If you watch some concert pianists (such as Brendel and Fleisher) when they play, you may well notice that, in scale passages or chromatic runs, the fifth finger on either hand is either outstretched or curled inwards. It is a common misconception that the only way to play such passages is with your fingers in this a position. When we play, we want to be as tension free as we possibly can, and by trying to imitate another style of playing, we end up causing even more stress. The ideal placement of the fingers on the keys should be a ‘down’ position, meaning all the fingers should be pointing down towards the keys. Your arms should be free and loose from the top of the shoulder to the tips of the fingers, and the arms should be free to travel across the torso. One of the reasons the fifth fingers have a tendency to straighten or curl under is because the arms are too fixed and there is little flexibility of movement.

We are all built differently, of course, and in some cases it is simply a case of the hand and fingers finding their most natural position that causes some fingers to move in strange directions. There are, however, some simple things that you can try to do to help overcome the so-called ‘riddle’ of this wayward finger. For starters, you can place the fingers in a very simple five-finger position (e.g. C to G) and practise just raising the fifth finger a little (but not too much so as to cause unnecessary strain), counting 1 as you lift and then dropping down on to the key on 2. Don’t worry about making a sound, as the thing here is to develop independence and freedom of movement. You can then take a very simple scale and practise this just with the fifth finger alone. The important thing here is to keep the hand in as relaxed a position as possible, with wrist flexible, knuckles rounded and fingers curved. In the end, getting too stressed about your fifth fingers will lead to even more tension, so if you are not being too restricted by their strange movements and they don’t impact too severely on your playing, don’t worry too much about it.

Watch Tim’s online piano lessons for beginners.