12 minutes reading time (2326 words)

An interview with Seymour Fink, master technician

Fink-No-1

"But that's the way my professor showed it to me!" Her eyes were open wide, her voice a wail. I was talking to a young teacher whose student had just played—poorly—in an international festival. In a subsequent masterclass I tried to show her a more efficient, better sounding way to teach her students to play chords. It hadn't gone well.

It does sometimes seem that Mark Twain's indictment of a long-winded preacher also applies to piano technic. "Often, the less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it."1 The teacher knew her student hadn't played well (the judges' scores clarified that); she recognized that chords were a problem area, but still: tradition, in the form of her previous teacher, forbade her learning anything new.

"Physics is physics," Seymour Fink, in the form of her previous teacher, forbade her learning anything new. "Physics is physics," Seymour Fink told me when we last spoke.2 "It used to be that we learned what our teacher had learned." I told him about my encounter with the inexperienced teacher at the festival. "Yes, for too many pianists the situation hasn't changed at all," he replied. "But piano technic has to be based on our understanding of the physiology of the body, not a bogus tradition based on what someone supposedly said years ago. Anything other than a technic based on the principles of body mechanics won't work, and in the long run will cause discomfort and injury. My own teacher, Austin Conradi was a true artist; I learned much from him creatively and about interpretation. But his technical approach was quite personal. He used a special finger pressure technique, which, if one were not careful, could encourage keybedding and cause unnecessary tension in the hand.

That's what happened to me. By the time I was sixteen or seventeen, my hands were hurting and I knew I needed to learn more. The situation became urgent when I was a young teacher. In the 1980s I was on the faculty at Yale and realized I didn't have enough information: none of the available books on technique met my needs. Some of them even suggested ideas that to me seemed to be just plain wrong. So I started reading more deeply, thinking, and experimenting with my students."

Seymour found early steps to solutions in the writings of Schultz3 and Ortmann.4 "They both saw technic as a scientific procedure; their ideas about proper movement and structure tied into verifiable logical principles. Schultz's teaching started to unlock the mechanics of hand and finger motions for me. I was intrigued by his description of the effect of a particular motion on other parts of the hand. His findings suggested a way to expand the tonal color palate through the use of subtle variations in touch. It was a revelation to me, for example, that I could push my finger forward. When you make this pushing motion, your finger opens up and relaxes almost simultaneously, very useful for fast playing. Speeding up the forward stroke even more, almost a jab, helps the fingers move very quickly. A pulling backward of the fingers, on the other hand, produces a richer sound.

Ortmann saw himself as an objective scholar, seeking to pin down the ultimate truths and relationships in movements at the piano. To him, piano technic was not a personal discovery, but a long-term methodical inquiry into general principles. He systematically collected data from photographs of artistic performances. In the work of Schultz and Ortmann, I had a body of scientific knowledge I could build on."

I asked Seymour why, in his own book and accompanying DVD5 about piano technique, he starts with the larger muscles of the body: many pedagogues begin with the fingers. "I believe that the body works from the center out," he answered. "Energy radiates externally, all motion begins that way. Then, as you change focus to the extremities, the gestures become more refined. The fingers work together with the larger muscles of the body. There is a synchrony of movements, which is at the core of strong expressive piano playing. The arm leads the finger motion and provides the strength and shape.

You might say that my book moves from strength to speed. I believe this method to be sound pedagogically, as well as a faster way to learn. Larger movements are easier to digest and retain, develop strength, and promote muscle memory. Once mastered, they can be reduced in size for application on the instrument. A similar procedure was demonstrated in the 'wax on, wax off' teaching in the movie Karate Kid."

"I also found it interesting that you start the process of learning most motions with away-from-the-piano exercises," I commented. "That's right," he replied. "I believe that it's easier to focus on the pure mechanics of the motion without having to worry at first about the sound. Once the structure and basic movements are reasonably set by practicing the exercises, we take the newly learned action to the keyboard. For some, the away-from-the piano process may take several days or a week. Even after actual playing of the piano begins, it's always helpful to periodically review the nonplaying drills. They're fundamental. I call them primary movements; when we take them to the piano to use in our playing, they become integrative movements. Performing even a relatively simple piano work requires chains of different integrative movements, which I call synthesized movement."

Seymour Fink working with a young student

I asked Seymour to review some of the foundational principles of piano technic. Here are his thoughts in his own words, edited and condensed slightly by me, with an occasional comment:

  • Hand position6: I think of the hand position as in transition, in a sense. To my mind, there are three basic positions, what I call:
    • Extended position in which all parts of the hand—fingers, thumbs, and palms—align in a flat plane. Palm position is found by bending all the digits and thumbs at the knuckle, with tips and mid-joints flexing a bit. The hand is now in a rounded shape. For me, this is the most important of the three hand positions. Almost all finger strokes finish with this arrangement. Flexing the nail and mid-joints under the hand while the metacarpal-phalangeal joints staying firm produces claw position. This action is produced by the flexion of the long flexors in the arm.


Your hand should always be in an optimal position for the place on the keyboard where you are, and where you next will be. This has to do with the three positions I described above, and also with arm position, alignment, and body energy. Your hand position should be firm, so you can move from it with security and land on the next position with the same sense of assurance. Piano playing motions are discrete: everything has to be in a good position and connecting to new motions and positions smoothly.

  • Finger strokes: There are two:
    • Pulling finger: Here the fingers pull toward the palms from the extended position. The thumb initiates this motion, producing a deeper and perhaps stronger sound.
    • Unfolding finger: Unfolding finger is created when the fingers push out from the claw position to the palm position. The metacarpal-phalangeal joint motion is generated by small flexors in the hand. Nail and mid-joint movement is reflexive rather than active. This motion creates forward friction on the fingertip, producing a lighter and quicker key response.
  • Thumbs: The thumb is the most flexible joint of the hand: the thumb is the only finger (well, it's not really a finger like the others, anyway—it moves so differently) that can shift readily in all directions. This flexibility allows the arm to position itself to stay out of the way of the other arm. Students would do well to explore lateral thumb movement, the use of "poking" motions, and the numerous grasping strokes that I discuss in my book.7
    • Rotation: Rotation is associated in many people's minds with Tobias Matthay.8 Dorothy Taubman9 also talked extensively about it, a practice continued by Mrs. Taubman's former artistic director Edna Golandsky10 in her own work. There are some differences, of course, between the respective approaches, but fundamentally I agree with all of them. The rotary motion provides a turnaround movement that is very strong and very fast. It's quite useful. 
    • Fingering: Once a student moves into synthesized movement, other issues become prominent. While playing all but the simplest piano works, the hand jumps around a lot. The role of fingering is to keep the hand balanced and in a comfortable position. So much modern fingering, even in urtext editions, seems to be based on the idea that it is important to achieve a finger legato, even in spots where it is clearly not needed and/or simply impossible. The problem with this type of old-fashioned fingering—wrist rolls, changing fingers on held notes—is that it takes the arm out of position. Creating a sense of legato depends on rhythm, continuity, and control of pacing. Smoothness of motion is more important than actually connecting fingers. Finger legato is not the first priority.

SMcBS: I remember you saying in a workshop once that scale playing is overrated.
SF: (chuckling) Well, I think I might have been overstating to make a point. But in fact one flaw in basing technical development largely or even exclusively in practicing scales is that the fifth finger is little used. Students sometimes are not even aware of how they are using that digit, so important to melodic and chordal playing. It's sometimes held artificially high in a tense position, or completely collapsed, causing the whole structure of the hand to slide.

SMcBS: How should the fifth finger be positioned?
SF: Arm aligned behind it, forearm pronated, and the fifth finger metacarpal-phalangeal joint prominent. But there's an important first step that has to happen before the teacher explains all of this to the student. In my opinion, this "prestep" might be the most important job of all for a teacher in teaching technic: making the student aware of how she is using her own piano playing mechanism. I find most students don't think about this much at all. They are very focused on the result they want; not so much on the movements that will help them create it. This mindset never works.
    • Wrist position: Wrist position has the important role of serving as a shock absorber,11 softening the raw power of the arm drop and regaining artistic control when landing the keystroke. This is accomplished in two ways: 1) from a low wrist position, by a "pulling" motion, and 2) from a high wrist position, by a "pushing" motion, both of which slow the speed of the gravity drop.
    • Breathing: If I were writing the book today, I certainly would include more information about breathing and its interaction with piano movements. Its impact on pacing and its relationship to the flow of energy lead to a more informed sense of phrasing and thus, musicality. Breathing in a musical sense is important, too: it provides those little specks of space in your phrasing that allow you to physically recoup and start over again. There is always a mechanical necessity, as well as an interpretive one, of taking a pause. It's a change for a new beginning, musically and physically.

I reflected about the youthful teacher at the festival. Why should she be open to new ideas about technic, even if her teacher taught her something different? There's an easy answer: her student will get higher scores at the festival by playing better. But there's a bigger reason, too.

As Seymour writes in the introduction to Mastering Piano Technique,12 "movement and meaning are so closely related to each other that the specific character of the gesture is itself part of the message conveyed. For example, musical continuity demands physical continuity, it being virtually impossible to express a quiet, flowing line with either constricted or overly energetic movement. Likewise, rhythmic vitality can be articulated only through vigorous action. Technical decisions are thus never made in an artistic vacuum." The physiological basis of good piano technique cannot be separated from interpretation. In a sense, they are one and the same.

A graduate of Peabody and Yale (1953), Seymour Fink has dedicated his life to teaching, performance, and the study of piano technique. His sixty-year teaching career has included appointments at Yale, SUNY Binghamton, and Capital University.

1Twain, M. (1876). Hartford, CT: The American Publishing Co. Retrieved from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/74/74-h/74-h.htm#c5

2Fink, S. (2018, June 9). Telephone interview.

3Schultz, A. (1936). The Riddle of the Pianist's Finger and Its Relationship to a Touch Scheme. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Also Schultz, A. (1996). The Physiological Mechanics of Piano Teaching. American Music Teacher, 46(1), pp. 32-35.

4Ortmann, O. (1981). The Physiological Mechanics of Piano Technique. New York: DaCapo Press.

5Fink, S. (1992). Mastering Piano Technique: A Guide for Students, Teachers, and Performers. Portland: Amadeus Press. Also Fink, S. (1993). Technical Objectives in Beginning Piano Study. American Music Teacher, 42(4), pp. 28-29, 80-81, 83. The book and its accompanying DVD are available on Seymour's website: http://www.seymourfink.com/.

6Fink, Mastering Piano Technique, pp. 36-45.

7Fink, Mastering Piano Technique, pp. 112-117.

8Matthay, T. (ca. 1912). The Forearm Rotational Principle in Pianoforte Playing: Its Application and Mastery. Boston: Boston Music Co., among many other works.

9Taubman, D. Virtuosity in a Box: The Taubman Techniques.Retrieved from http://www.taubman-tapes.com/Home.html, accessed June 23, 2018.

10Golandsky, E. The Golandsky Institute. Retrieved from https://www.golandskyinstitute.org/, accessed June 23, 2018.

11Josef Lhevinne discusses this concept in his book Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing, rev. ed., forward by Rosina Lhevinne. (1972). New York: Dover Publications.

12Fink, Mastering Piano Technique, p. 11.

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Comments 1

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Oliver Tomkinson on Sunday, 25 October 2020 08:13

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