A reader recently asked how to perform glissandos without tearing skin under our fingers.
Here's our advice:
In Piano Notes, Charles Rosen’s wonderfully written account of the life of a concert pianist, he talks about the various ways in which pianists cope with the difficulty (or not) of playing a glissando on the piano. He writes: ‘It is the heavier action of modern pianos that has made all glissandi more onerous… The older instruments, lighter in action and, at least in the early 19th century, with slightly narrower keys, were less destructive of the performers’ cuticles.’ He goes on to say that ‘a simple single-note glissando is more difficult on the black keys than on the white since it is hard to slide on keys that are far apart,’ citing Leonid Hambro, who played a particularly awkward passage with his wallet, which he would leave on the piano within easy reach. Even Rudolf Serkin, he says, in a famous passage from the last movement of Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein’ Sonata, ‘used to lick his thumb and fifth fingers quickly in order to facilitate the slide.’
As you can see from these anecdotes, there are many ways of playing and practising glissandi. The most practical advice, certainly with the single-note glissando on the white keys (going up), is to turn the palm upwards and use the fingernail only, as if stroking the keys with a very large brush. The important thing here is to graze the surface of the keys. Going any deeper into the keys will make any glissandi almost impossible to play. Some people like to keep the fingers close together, using the third finger (or second and third together) to play the keys, while others like to use just the first three fingers, again held closely together for extra strength and support, with the third finger held so that it is slightly extended beyond the rest.
Going down can be a little easier. Here, keeping the hand in its normal playing position, but with the hand angled slightly towards the thumb, you can either use just the fingernail of the thumb with the remaining fingers making a fist, or you can support the thumb with the second and third fingers acting as a support behind it.
In the meantime, here's some fabulous glissando playing from Marc-André Hamelin:
And can Krystian Zimerman's advice be of some help?: