Aching is good, Pain is bad
It was Aristotle who said, "We become what we repeatedly do; therefore, excellence is not an act, but a habit".
Equally consider the following by Zen Master Sheng Yen:
“Be soft in your practice. Think of the method as a fine silvery stream, not a raging waterfall. Follow the stream in its course. It will go its own way, meandering here, trickling there. It will find the grooves, the cracks, the crevices. Just follow it. Never let it out of your sight. It will take you.”
This article goes hand-in-hand with my video on arm muscle and finger tendon exercises, as provided here:
In this video, I casually discuss how many I do or for how much time but what I hope to achieve in this little article is to give you the exact numbers and then, from time to time, update the numbers as my strength increases. It will also clearly separate the exercises for you to more easily identify and adopt.
(Consider my new eBook: Water Pianism)
First of all, find your natural limits. It is not necessary to compare with others, to aim for speed or to cause injury. By finding your natural limits the first time you do each exercise, you will have a starting point and then will only observe progress week after week if you sustain a daily routine.
A useful, related article: Closer Look at Fingering
Second, don't stop the moment it begins to burn or ache somewhere. Once it does, identify the body component and add a few seconds or repetitions. This results in progress rather than remaining stale at the same numbers every week and then feeling disappointed that no progress is being made. Also, leave some time between each exercise so as not to overdo the muscles/tendons, especially if this is new to you.
Going to the gym or doing any form of muscle exercises is recommend anyway, aside from these piano-orientated suggestions, as are periods of calm (call it meditation if you will, but I prefer to call it 'periods of calm' since it does not evoke the image of one sitting with their legs in lotus position and fingers in a ring and chanting "ommmmm"! So cliché and not the right message at all).
Remember: Water shapes landscapes and carves valleys not through force but Steady Persistence. Think about that.
The Exercises (with my own unmedical, made-up names for ease of reference):
1. Rotating Arm Shake - This involves standing up with your arms dropped down by your sides. With a bit of effort, rapidly rotate the wrists as far clockwise and anti-clockwise as they naturally go with the fingers always pointing towards the floor and maintain this for as many seconds as possible.
My natural limit: 45 seconds. I push to 50s. Left arm aches first.
2. Fist Squeeze - One makes a fist but squeezes as much as possible for just 1 second then slowly opens the fingers out to a full stretch and then pushes that stretch to the limit for just 1 second and then returns slowly to a squeeze. I simply do this 10 times and I do not rush it. It feels great. Make sure you feel every finger and thumb being squeezed and pushed out when flexed open.
3. Fist Palm Slap - Best way I can describe this exercise whereby one goes to make a fist but the fingers remain as straight as possible until the pads of the fingers 'slap' the lower palm area. This will of course cause the second knuckles to bend but not into a fist. Your thumb does not close in behind the fingers but rather rests against the index finger's side.
My natural limit: 80 (2/second). I push to 100 (slowing to 1/second). Left forearm aches first.
4. Wrist Flex - Quite simply arms out in front, all finger tips touching the thumb, making a pyramid shape and then forcing this down at the wrist and holding it for a second at the maximum natural limit. Then release. Then I point the fingers upwards (thumb anywhere) and pull them back and force them to their maximum position for a second. The arms must be straight out in front for this one.
5. Fist Flex - Similar to the Fist Palm Slap, but simply making fists! A good old, traditional, right hook fist. No squeezing but be sure to extend and contract 100% without rushing.
My natural limit: 100 (2/second). I add around 10 more. Left arm aches first.
6. Fingertip Flex - Shaped like a tent, make only the tips of the fingers and thumbs touch their same finger of the other hand. In each direction, which a maximum push for 1 second, push the finger tips only back as far as they will go, then switch to the other finger tips. I do this only 2 or three times.
7. Outward Fist Close - In making a fist from open hand position, I close my fingers one by one but starting on the less-natural index finger and closing my little finger and thumb together last of all. For some reason, this uses different anatomy so I start to feel an ache much sooner than the other exercises.
My natural limit: 40 (2/second). I add about 5 more. Left arm suddenly starts aching so I can't go on for too long or add too many.
8. Flat Fist - Fingers open, hand flat, forearm in line, bend the second knuckles (which means middle knuckle for the thumb) whilst maintaining a flat hand. I quite like this exercise and sometimes do it during the day alone when I'm in the lift of my building for example (45 seconds - slowest lift ever built).
My natural limit: 100 (about 3/second). Can add 10 or so once aching starts. Usually my left index finger starts hurting first.
That brings me to the end of this unique post. Simply follow the advice in the video, the links in the description and the teachings provided at the beginning of this article, and you'll be quite wonderful.
You see, there are three components to being a pianist: Mind > Body > Piano. Most books and teachers, or self-trained students, focus 99% on the Piano component and this is the only and exactly reason why progress is not made or maintained.
It must be 50% mind, 40% body and 10% piano; or, as I like to say, 1% for each finger.