The shape of a hand

Ask any concert hall box office employee which side of their hall is in demand at a piano recital and they will tell you the keyboard side seats fill up first.

While the audience is there to hear the music, they also want to see those hands dancing across the keyboard. A pianist’s hands deliver the same acrobatics, grace and agility of a ballerina. These palms, fingers, and thumbs are a feast for the eyes and ears if you are lucky enough to get close enough to watch as they play.

The light passing around the motions and forms of these hands as they make music at the piano is mesmerizing. I am not a pianist but I have stood and knelt down intimately beside the keyboard with my camera over 150 times as some of the world’s greatest pianists rehearse their repertoire. Recently I watched as Antonio Pappano, better known for conducting, played on his Bösendorfer in the Royal Opera House while light bounced off the rooftops of Covent Garden with literally a rainbow appearing on the fallboard. (I had wondered why he went from playing Chopin to ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ serendipitously.)

Before we began our photography session, the maestro looked at his hands, musing at whether their aesthetic condition was good enough. This is a common aside from pianists when I arrive to photograph their hands. Rarely have I seen a pianist with exquisitely manicured fingernails. Hands are working tools and they reveal the exercise and labour spent hammering away at the keyboard for hours.

While their hands may not have the porcelain quality of a model’s hands, most pianists take pains to keep their hands safe and dexterous. Some pianists wear gloves or plasters to protect and warm their hands while others rely on a Chopin etude to warm up. Then there is Alice Sara Ott who often solves a Rubik’s cube to loosen up her fingers before rehearsing.

When I began researching classical pianists for my project on photographing their hands, I first looked at prior imagery of these artists from their album covers and the archives of picture libraries. I came to find out that documenting a pianist’s hands was as natural as making a portrait of their face.

Many pianists invite me into their own homes and studios to photograph their hands. In these pianist lairs, I often spot a replica of Liszt or Chopin’s hands nestled among artefacts of their careers, a reminder of their pedagogical ancestry. French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet invited me to photograph his hands at the former home of Georg Solti where he was rehearsing. At the end of the session he brought out casts of Liszt’s hands from Solti’s collection to playfully pose with, as did Richard Goode, who proudly has a cast of Chopin’s hand in his home in Manhattan.


A ‘pianist’s hand’?

Next to being asked if I play the piano (I don’t!) the most common question I get is if I have found there is a ‘pianist’s hand.’ My answer includes an explanation of my visual objective in beginning my book project ‘Piano Hands’: to expose the myth of the long, lanky pianist’s hands and demonstrate their infinite variety and beauty. Unlike ballet dancers (average height, 165 cm), pianists are not only short, but also tall and everything in between, from thin to stocky to muscular or fit. The size of a pianist’s physique generally is reflected in the shape and size of their hands. Tall people tend to have large hands while short men and women have smaller-sized hands. A skinny figure yields a lanky finger while a stout individual’s fingers tends to be stubbier. Age, gender, ethnicity only diversify the beauty of the aesthetics but not necessarily the facility of the craft.

The one characteristic I do find common to all the hands of pianists I’ve photographed is strength. I have never seen hands of a pianist that I would describe as weak or frail. I photographed Holocaust survivor pianist Alice Herz-Sommer at her piano at age 109. Her hands did not reflect youth yet were resilient and played with the optimism and hope she preached about music and life. Even the hands of those pianists that have been afflicted by arthritis reveal stalwart willpower and the veins of resolve as their body turns on them.

So the next time you hear someone say ‘that baby has such long fingers, they might be a pianist one day’, correct them! A successful pianist’s accomplishments at playing is predicated how well they join the mind, heart and soul in using their own hands at the keyboard to interpret the music as they want. Everything else simply serves as an enchantment for our eyes.