A weird phenomenon

October 5th, 2017

It was in 1986, when I was a teaching fellow at a rather big name school, that I first became aware of a weird phenomenon—players who play only from the knuckles and with their middle joints locked.

Now, I had studied and watched players from New Zealand to England to Germany but I had never seen this kind of playing before.

At first, I thought it was a recent innovation and I wanted to believe in it.

But the more I saw the results of this kind of playing, the more I was convinced that it was completely unnatural and went against our body’s very instincts.

And the results bore me out.

Players who played this way almost always lacked fluidity and naturalness in their finger movements. Their finger movements were stilted and almost zombie like.

And the sad part was, these students were extremely serious players.

With the amount of time they were practicing, they should’ve been super virtuosos but instead their playing lacked both speed and accuracy.

As a teaching fellow, I had a few students who played this way.

At first, I thought it was a relatively simple thing to get them to start moving their middle joints again, but I did not know how hard it would be to retrain fingers to move differently.

If someone has been taught to play only from the knuckle while keeping the middle joints locked, it literally required a super human effort for them to get the middle joints moving again.

I managed to devise a simple way to get them to wake up the middle joints and get them moving again.

The strategy was to go the opposite direction, to lock the knuckle joints and to pluck only from the middle joints.

This required a rather drastic measure; I had them tape their fingers between the middle joints and knuckle joints (I believe there’s a name for this part of the anatomy) to keep the knuckle joints from moving.

By taping the fingers this way, the students were forced to pluck only from the middle joints. After a few weeks of playing this way, the tape would be removed.

The results were amazing.

The students found that they were able to engage the whole finger again in plucking the strings. All three joints were moving again as a unit, each joint supporting one another. This led to immediate greater facility and speed.

One student in particular went from having not much speed and accuracy to playing extremely well, with great speed and accuracy.

I remember his senior recital where his fluid and clean arpeggios in Asturias and Giuliani’s La Sentinelle were especially impressive and received many compliments.

Fast forward 31 years—little did I dream at the time that I would still be talking about the middle joint in 2017.

But there’s a positive development.

Recently, I became aware of a thread on an online forum where someone has been posting slow motion videos of professionals playing.

And in every one of these videos, the evidence is all too clear to see.

Real players play mostly from the middle joints.

Yes, there’re still some unanswered questions.

For instance, how much should the middle joint move in relation to the tip-joint? And is the rebound movement a natural reflex action or is there conscious effort involved?

But these are small details which can be worked out. (Although I think even that is quite unnecessary as these are natural impulses which are best left to our body intelligence to work out.)

The big picture is that there’s a growing realization that our finger movements are incredibly complex and to try to lay down strict rules on which joint to move and which joints to lock while playing is perhaps over micromanaging the body.

Even as I write this, I’m aware that there’s still a large group of teachers who still subscribe to the knuckle playing theory.

As someone said in the thread, there’s always going to be some hostility when you get to the truth from people who are insecure with other ideas.

To which I say, yes, I do know something about hostility. I’ve been dealing with it for over thirty years.

I believe someone once also said, the truth shall prevail (and sanity too, I might add).

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