Finger technique: why you should keep fingers close to the holes on your recorder

A few posts ago I talked about holding the recorder. Today I want to tackle the subject of finger technique, and why it makes sense to keep your fingers close to the holes on your recorder. I’m sure everyone knows that it makes sense, but I’m guessing that many of you will have found it easier said than done! I’m going to try to explain it from an anatomical point of view, and I’m hoping that it will be helpful.

The problem: the ‘attacking spider’ look

Does your hand look a bit like this on your instrument?

Tendons of finger extensor muscles visible with poor finger technique

If it does, I’m guessing that you probably do the same when you use a keyboard or mouse. When you play, I am guessing that your fingers rise a long way above the instrument. If you’ve done an exam, the examiner may have queried your finger technique. You may well have difficulty playing fast passages accurately; sometimes people sitting close to you might even hear your fingers hitting the instrument as you’re playing. You may also feel your fingers to be quite tense; maybe you miss holes when you are playing, or sometimes have trouble covering them properly.

I’m also guessing that your arms and wrists get tired if you’ve played for a while. You can see in the picture why this is: note the angulation between the hand and wrist. Also take a look at the tension in the back of the hand – you can see all the tendons sticking out. Not a good look!

Most of the major muscles that operate your fingers aren’t really situated in your hand; if they were, your hand would be too meaty to move effectively! Instead, the belly of the muscle is in your forearm, and a tendon snakes down your arm to connect to your finger.

A diagram showing the belly of the muscles that extend the fingers are in the forearm.

When we lift our fingers away from the instrument, we’re engaging a whole series of finger extensor muscles in the forearm. That’s why your forearm might get tired or sore.

Taking advantage of the anatomy of your hand.

The big problem with using finger extensors so much in the ‘attacking spider’ posture is that it works against the natural shape of our hands. A resting hand looks like this:

A resting hand

Note the shape of the hand here – it has a lovely soft curve to the dorsal surface, and the fingers curl naturally in towards the palmar surface. It’s a beautiful shape, It’s also the perfect shape to fit a treble recorder. You only need to move your thumb slightly, and the body of the recorder slots right in:

Showing good hand position for good finger technique

So if we take advantage of the natural curve of the hand, your fingers should already be sitting beautifully just above the instrument. You only need to use the muscles between your fingers (engagingly called lumbricles) to extend the gaps between the fingers slightly, and you should have your fingers neatly over the holes of the instrument. Then, it’s just a tiny movement downwards to make contact and play notes.

Sometimes we have the idea that we need to lift our fingers away from the holes on the recorder so that we don’t unintentionally change the tuning, or because we were taught when younger to keep fingers well away from holes. Actually, the opposite is true: our hand is naturally curved to keep the fingers just above the holes, and we just need to move them down a tiny way to cover them. Good finger technique just takes advantage of the natural anatomy of the hand.

What to do next

I would advise spending a bit of time in the next few practice sessions just looking at your hands. See if you can relax the back (dorsal) surface of your hand and allow for that lovely natural curling curvature. Then try slotting the instrument into your softened hand. Try moving your fingers down to the holes, and let them almost spring back up. If you’re curious about the details of the finger movement, check out my previous blog post.

Good luck!

Photos of arm and hand by Jennifer Mackerras

Diagram of Extensor Digitorum Communis from Stone, R.J & Stone, J.A., Atlas of Skeletal Muscles, 4th ed., NY, McGraw Hill, p.135.