Developing finger intelligence

June 18th, 2011

There’s a quality of playing that I’ve mentioned a few times time before.

It has to do with a certain sensation, a feeling at your fingertips when you play, a sensation as if the fingers are completely independent, able to operate on their own and fully focused on their targets, the strings.

They seem to be driven by some hidden force, almost a kind of intelligence that’s guiding them automatically to the strings.

In the left hand, this is manifested in a kind of ‘stickiness’ at the fingertips.

You feel as if there’s an internal force at the fingertips attracting them to the fretboard, almost as if there’re little magnets at the fingertips. You don’t have to do much, they automatically know where they need to go.

In the right hand, you feel as if there’s an internal intelligence at your fingertips, constantly guiding them to the strings. You don’t have to do much, the fingers seem to be able to play themselves, with incredible efficiency and precision.

The sensation is almost like when you want to scratch an itch.

You don’t have to look for the itch or make your fingers go there. You feel the itch and instantly your finger is there, scratching it. If you were to watch yourself do it, you will see that the movement is all concentrated at your fingertip.

How do you develop this internal intelligence, this ‘magnetic’ force in the fingers?

First, focus your playing at your fingertips.

Don’t try to ‘pluck’ the strings, just stroke them with your fingertips. The movement must be very small and totally focused at the fingertips.

You should feel as if you’re only moving the fingertip, wiggling them. That’s how small the movements should be. Naturally, there will be small sympathetic motions in other parts of the finger, don’t suppress them.

When you develop this extreme focused movements at your fingertips, you will begin to notice increased sensitivity in your fingertips. You will feel as if you have complete control over them.

The more you focus on the fingertips, the more awareness and control you develop. This control eventually becomes so automatic you don’t have to think about it anymore. Your fingers instinctively know where they need to go.

Second, anticipate. Focus on getting the fingers to the strings before you have to play.

No, this is not the old ‘preparation’ technique where you place your fingers on the strings before you play. That technique is too static.

This form of ‘preparation’ is fluid and dynamic. You feel as if your fingers are constantly on the move, moving to the next note, to the next string, propelled by some unseen force in your fingertips.

Try playing Etude #1 by Villa Lobos this way.

Make your fingers constantly go to the next string. Focus on getting to the strings rather than on plucking them. Let the plucking happen naturally, without effort, as you let go the string to move on to the next.

When you do this consistently and over time, your fingers will begin to develop a sixth sense as to where the strings are. They will move automatically to the strings as if they’re propelled by some unseen force in the fingertips.

I know the idea of finger intelligence may sound a little strange.

But the sensation is very real and is at the heart of what I do. In fact, I first became conscious of the principle when I saw flamenco legend Juan Serrano play years ago.

What fascinated me about his playing was the incredible precision and directness in his left-hand fingers, especially in the way he fretted his notes. When he fretted his notes, it almost appeared as if there were some kind of weight in his fingertips, some magnetic force in them pulling them to the strings.

One of the things I had learned from Karl Herreshoff was to apply strong pressure in the left hand. This is to develop strength in the left hand. Over time, this pressure becomes effortless as you develop strength. To me the idea of a strong attracting force residing at the fingertips was an extension of that same principle.

And I also began to realize that I had been applying the same principle in my right hand.

I had always played with the right hand by concentrating all my efforts at my fingertips. It was something I had gravitated to doing naturally, one of the benefits of not having ‘correct’ instruction in my early years.

I began to notice the same kind of focus in my right-hand fingertips, the same kind of directness and concentration of energy right at the fingertips.

That was when I began to realize that economy, efficiency and finger independence are all a matter of focusing your playing at your fingertips, not the knuckle, not the wrist, not even in your head, but right at your fingertips.

For me, this is the holy grail of playing, developing so much sensitivity in your fingertips, they begin to assume an independence so complete it feels as if they have an intelligence of their own.

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