The Hands of a Harpsichordist



Professional keyboardists obsess about their hands, at and away from the instrument. It’s not only about protecting our livelihood, but about artistic development. Awareness of our hands, what they do and how they do it, is indispensable to our music-making.

As a harpsichordist, I know that with few exceptions (i.e. improvisations) the music I play was written for a very different pair of hands—everything from Antonio Valente to J.S. Bach. Yet I spend my life practicing so that I’m able to play, in part, what I want.

Sometimes I’ll even go so far as to rewrite passages so that they “fit” better under my hands. I have relatively small yet thick hands—good for early keyboards and repertoire, but less ideal for the modern piano and music by composers like Rachmaninoff where large hands are almost de rigueur.

Admittedly, my hand awareness didn’t come out of nowhere. It was part of the musical training I had from the very beginning. Every lesson, coaching, rehearsal, and masterclass gave me a little more to think about and brought my awareness a little more into focus.

It didn’t necessarily make me a better musician, that’s more of a big-picture issue, but it was a key tool to progressing. After my studies ended I continued to be aware, it just became a part of me and my still-ongoing development as a artist.

A while back, I came to appreciate my hands just a little more after coming across a five part series of blog posts entitled “Balance of the Hands,” written by Tilman Skowroneck, a professional harpsichordist and fortepianist. The gist of the series proposes that better awareness of your dominant hand will provide for more efficient preparation and performance at the keyboard. Skowroneck explains:

“It is absolutely possible to develop a balanced or even ambidextrous behavior at the keyboard. This would, however, require one to know and accept one’s natural handedness, in order to avoid over-exercising the non-dominant hand: just as it is problematic to write with the wrong hand, it would be problematic to bully the non-dominant piano hand into a leading role.”

Skowroneck tells us that his perspective came from being a left-handed keyboardist in a world designed for the right-handed. His series is equal parts biography, philosophy, and statistics. It is perfectly applicable to whatever dominant hand you possess.

And even if you’re not a keyboardist (or musician), it’s a great read and an accessible look into the inner workings of the musician from an insightful writer.

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