Keeping your fingers “close”

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There’s a common idea with woodwind players and teachers that it’s important to keep your fingers close to the keys. Keeping the fingers within a certain reasonable distance does have benefits:

  • It’s easier to keep track of where the keys are and not “miss,” especially for beginners
  • Allowing the fingers to rise too far can introduce tension into the hands

But I think finger-closeness is a concept that gets over-taught and over-stressed. It seems to be motivated by a desire for finger speed (or some euphemism like “fluidity”).

Assuming the fingers are within a reasonable range, I think working toward extreme closeness probably doesn’t offer much if any speed increase, but does make tension more likely. It’s a micro-optimization only worth thinking about when you’ve solved every other problem with your technique, and even then your results may differ on whether it’s productive (or even counterproductive). Definitely don’t stress out your beginning students over it.

Try this if you like: bring a finger down onto a key from, say, 1-2mm above the key (about the thickness of a couple of credit or ID cards). Then try from ten times that distance, 1-2 cm (the width of a fingernail or two). What do you notice about speed? How about tension?

Keep the fingers close enough to stay in position and not bend backward, but don’t worry too much about dialing in extreme closeness.

2 thoughts on “Keeping your fingers “close”

  1. Hi Bret, I could not agree more with you on this topic. As an Alexander Technique teacher (and saxophonist), this “micromanaging” tendency with the fingers often interferes with coordination. From a functional point of view, efficiency is not always found in “economy of movement” (i.e., limiting the movement of the fingers), so much as in “economy of effort” (allowing things to move in cooperation with our human design, with a mininum of misdirected effort/tension). Unfortunately, most of the woodwind players who have come to me for help with focal hand dystonia have spent a good deal of time in their practice trying to “hold the fingers close”. There are neurological reasons why this is counterproductive, and for some, potentially harmful. If you’re interested in the science of it, I recommend Gabriele Wulf’s (she’s a kinesiologist and researcher) groundbreaking book, “Attention and Motor Skill Learning”, where she explains (and supplies ample research data) why micromanaging fine motor skills is usually not the best approach. Thanks, as always for you thoughtful, very helpful posts.

  2. As a former clarinet player, I remember that trying to keep the fingers too close to the keys (especially as a beginner in order to look more ‘professional’…) resulted in a possible quicker ‘winging’ of notes, but it resulted in a lack of precision and ‘impact timing’ especially when improvising.

    However, having switched to an EWI 4000/5000 many years ago, I found something interesting: in the meantime I hardly lift my fingers more than a few mm, but have a very precise feel as for timing and accuracy, and at times can play at speeds unimaginable on the clarinet, like in Db or B over 3 or even 4 octaves (but still grooving/swinging!).

    But: when playing more complex/multiple fingerings possible on the EWI, I still find my fingers lifting much higher and positioning themselves almost automatically into what feels like the ‘optimal’ height.

    As the Romans used to say: Ne quid nimis (‘[do] nothing in excess’)…

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