One of the first things a child is taught when learning the piano is to play a C-major scale. We always begin with the simple fingering 1 2 3 1 2 3 4 5, and we are shown how to exploit the special character of the human hand and the mobile thumb by crossing the thumb under the third finger as we play the scale. In other scales (E-flat for example), we cross the thumb even more awkwardly under the fourth finger. This is a basic part of piano technique as it is conceived in conservatories the world over. Nevertheless, it is a mark of the extraordinary variability of approaches to playing the piano that this fundamental practice is not as useful for some pianists as piano teachers think. A pupil of the late Dinu Lipatti, one of the most interesting pianists of this century, told me that Lipatti once remarked: “You know, it has been at least ten years since I last crossed my thumb under the third finger.”
I was pleased to hear this, because I too have discovered that this position is in fact very uncomfortable. Perhaps that is because my thumb is relatively short, not even reaching up to the middle joint of my second finger. I therefore find that wiggling my thumb into an awkward position moves the hand into an inconvenient angle and it is better for me to keep my hand at a steady angle and displace the arm quickly to the right when shifting from the third finger to the thumb, and I have learned how to accomplish this legato.
Everything depends, of course, on the shape of the hand, and it must be stressed that there is no type of hand that is more suited to the piano than another. Josef Hofmann, one of the greatest pianists that I have ever heard—certainly the most remarkable in his control of the widest possible range and variety of tone color—had a hand so small that he could reach no more than the eight notes of an octave, and Steinway built him a special piano in which the ivories were slightly narrower so that he could reach a ninth. His friend Sergei Rachmaninoff had a very large hand, as did Rudolf Serkin, and Sviatoslav Richter could not only reach a twelfth but could play the last chord of the Schumann Toccata all at once without arpeggiation—an effect that would certainly have astonished the composer. My teacher Moriz Rosenthal, famous for his technique, had a small hand with stubby fingers; Vladimir Horowitz’s fingers were exceptionally long, while Robert Casadesus had fingers so thick that he had trouble fitting them in between the black keys. There is no such thing as an ideal pianist’s hand.
In addition, there is no agreement on how to hold the hand at the piano: most children are taught to curve their fingers and place the wrist in a middle position, neither too low nor too high, but of course…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.