With an untrained beginner performing piano songs, the non-deliberate action by the 4th finger known as sympathetic finger movement ruins the rendition. Explained in this article are ideas to overcome it
When playing notes separated by an octave or the chords in the key of A Major, have you ever experienced accidentally hitting an unrelated key in between with an unrelated finger (usually the 4th or 3rd finger? How about when playing one of the phrases from Beethoven’s Fur Elise such as the 2nd bar shown in Image 7 below?
The pair of notes D in the second bar shown in Image 7 is divided by a wide distance calling for the need to open the palms, stretch the 1st and fifth fingers to reach them.
When said like that it doesn’t sound too difficult does it? Throw in the demand of playing in legato, the uphill battle begins in real earnest.
To get a clearer picture of the challenge faced, here are some more examples also taken from Fur Elise. Each example is labelled as Image 8 and Image 9 respectively. Please be cautious to know that they are not a continuous musical phrase but taken from various different sections of the songs. The intention is to show where the problem of sympathetic fingers can occur, marked with red boxes.
Playing in legato means never releasing a key until the next note has been played, hence my statement; it is an uphill task to execute such a thing when a wide distance is separating the key played by the thumb (1st finger) and the key played by the pinkie (5th finger). For example, see the notes in the red box in Image 8.
Having to stretch the fingers to reach the notes causes stress.
More pressure is then applied to the piano keys by the fingers.
The body senses the pressure to perform and reacts by releasing adrenaline - as a result more of the fingers’ muscles are pulled to strike the keys.
When you do attempt to strike the target keys using the correct 1st and 5th fingers, they are ’kidnapped’ by the weaker 4th finger, which also drops on the keyboard landing somewhere on a key nearby. The non-deliberate action by the 4th finger is known as sympathetic finger movement.
It messes up your piano playing. Obviously it is a big problem, so how do you fix it?
Build strength in the fingers - specifically in the 4th and 5th fingers.
If they are stronger they are able to overpower the tendency of the sympathetic fingers to act out causing the piano student to make the forced errors.
How to build finger strength?
I do it in a couple of ways. The first, when I am away from the piano. Sitting at the dinner table, I would curl my fingers and position them on the table, gently touching its surface like I would when playing the piano, then ‘bounce’ the 1st and 3rd fingers off the table and bring them down, continuing to repeat the motion with the 2nd and 4th fingers. Since the 5th finger is the weakest among them all, to build its strength, I would also do it with the 3rd and 5th fingers.
The benefit of this exercise is I am able to do it almost anywhere, while waiting for the bus, during lunch time and even in bed just before falling asleep. All I need is a flat surface to position my fingers.