Strengthening The Hands

Terri Armfield | October 2014

    Maintaining good health is essential to the success of any performer. In keeping with this, band and orchestra directors usually do a good job of developing proper playing positions and finding ways to protect the hearing of their performers.
    Another significant, but sometimes overlooked area is the health and function of the hands. Hand injuries are sometimes mistakenly believed to affect only veteran musicians who have played their instrument for many years. However, aches and pains can occur in the hands of young instrumentalists, and these may be an indicator of excessive stress on fragile hand structures, which could result in a repetitive motion injury.
    A well-designed and regularly practiced exercise routine will strengthen muscles and enhance flexibility, which is needed to provide adequate support for the delicate structures found in the hands. Better hand health and strength can improve playing technique and help to prevent hand injuries in young performers.
    The hand is an incredibly complex structure, and the biological mechanisms by which it functions are nothing short of miraculous. The following series of short, simple exercises will help to make sure the hands continue to function as they should. Exercising the hands should not take an inordinate amount of time, nor do these exercises require any expensive materials. Only a short amount of time is needed to practice these exercises, some or all of which could easily be incorporated at the beginning of a rehearsal.

Three Beginning Hand Position Exercises
Curly Fingers
    To do the Curly Fingers exercise, gently place  each finger, one at a time, into a curled position as shown in the pictures on the right. The fingers should stay straight at the knuckle, with the end joints in the fingers doing all of the bending so that the fingertips touch the palm. Be careful not to place excessive pressure on the finger to achieve a tight curl. Instead, just bend the finger to a curled position that does not cause any discomfort or pain, keeping in mind that some fingers are not as curly as others. Hold this curled position for a few seconds.

The Claw
    The Claw position is shown in the two pictures below. Notice that the fingers do not bend at the big knuckle, but rather at the middle upper joints. Hold the Claw in place for a few seconds and then release and relax the fingers. Repeat the hold and release positions five to ten times.

The Splits
    In this exercise the fingers should be stretched apart as demonstrated in the two pictures below.

Students should be careful not to force the fingers any further apart than is comfortable. At no time should this or any other exercise cause discomfort or pain.
    These first three exercises should take only a couple of minutes to complete, and they provide an excellent hand warm-up routine.

A Second Set of Exercises – with Rubber Bands
    The next exercises are also short, simple, and effective. If time permits and if the need arises, directors may include five to ten repetitions of these exercises into a pre-rehearsal warm-up (or these exercises can be practiced independently by any students who have difficulty with their hands).
    One helpful technique with these exercises is to use two rubber bands that are three inches long as a way to create resistance. One word of caution is that students should not use standard size rubber bands for these exercises. A standard size rubber band will be too small, put too much stress on the fingers, and could easily cut off circulation.
     A good first exercise with rubber bands is to open two rubber bands and place both together around the outside of the fingers and thumb at the little end joints.

With the fingers beginning in this position, the student should flex the fingers outward as far as possible, keeping the rubber band in place, and then retract to the previous position. The flexed position is shown below.

     In the next exercise, place the four fingers through the rubber band and make a double twist in the rubber band between each finger as shown below.

     Next, with the hands lying on a flat surface, palms down and fingers together, the four fingers and thumb should be stretched apart as far as comfortably possible, as shown here.

Then the fingers should slowly retract back to the original position.  
    With the rubber band in the same position as in the previous exercise, place the hands and fingers on a flat surface. From this position, lift each finger individually up and down ten times while the remaining digits lie flat on the even surface. As you might predict, the ring finger will be the most challenging to lift.

    The next set of exercises can also be done in five to ten repetitions, with or without a rubber band. If a rubber band is used, its position in these exercises should be slightly different from the previous set of exercises. It should be placed around the thumb, with the index finger and the second finger making twists in the rubber band between each finger as shown below. Place both hands on a flat surface with the palms down and fingers extended and the thumb resting next to the hand. Next, slide the thumb out and down so that it is approximately 90 degrees with respect to the hand as shown below.

    Then return the thumb back to its original position beside the hand. 

    For the next exercise, the rubber bands should be placed around the same three digits as described above, and both hands should be placed palms down, flat on a table. Slide the thumb so that it is approximately 90 degrees with respect to the hand as shown in the picture above. Next, lift the thumb up off of the table and then down, making sure to keep the palm and fingers flat on the table.
    In the next exercise, keep the rubber band around the same three fingers, as described above, and then place the outside edge of the hand on the table so that the sides of the hands and sides of the little fingers are resting on a flat surface with palms and extended fingers parallel to each other. Then make a circular motion with the thumbs, both clockwise and then counter-clockwise. The challenge in this exercise is to keep the hands perfectly still and the fingers straight, as shown at the bottom of the previous page, while the thumb moves in a circular pattern.

A Third Set of Exercises – with Play-Doh
     A third set of exercises requires the use of about ½ cup of very soft, pliable Play-Doh or a similar modeling compound. Be sure to replace the Play-Doh whenever it begins to lose moisture and become stiff. If the clay becomes too stiff, it will put too much stress on the hands during the exercises.
     For the first exercise, roll the Play-Doh into a ball, place it in the palm of your hand, and squeeze your hand shut to make a fist. The Play-Doh should ooze out around your fingers.

    Next, roll the Play-Doh into a ball and place it in the palm of your hand. Squeeze it into the palm of your hand with your fingers as you keep them straight from the middle joint to the finger tips.

     For the next exercise, roll the Play-Doh into a cylinder, place it across the inside middle joint of all four fingers, and make the Claw, as described in the first set of exercises above. Squeeze the Play-Doh by bending all finger joints except the big knuckle at the base of the fingers.

     Next, roll the Play-Doh into a cylinder. Place the cylinder between your index finger and second finger, and then squeeze the fingers together until the inner surfaces of both fingers are touching, as shown below.

     Repeat this step by placing the cylinder between the second and ring finger, and then try it again, placing it between the ring finger and little finger. The hand should not make a cupping shape during this exercise. To help avoid this, try performing the exercise with the palm face down on a flat surface.
     For the next exercise, roll the Play-Doh into a cylinder again, and use the thumb and index finger to pinch the cylinder five times. Roll the clay back into a cylinder, and then repeat this pinching exercise using the thumb and second finger, followed by the thumb and ring finger, and finally the thumb and little finger, as shown below.

A Final Exercise or Game
     The Snowball Fight is a fun hand exercise that can be done as a contest or game to help students practice dexterity and coordination. A station can be set up in a small area of the classroom for this activity. The only material required is four different colors of small soft cotton pom-poms approximately ½ inch in diameter. (These are available at any hobby or craft store.) After designating a specific color and number of poms for each of the four fingers, students should use their thumb and one finger to flick the pom at a target. The target could be a particular object, goal, or even another student. The winner of the Snowball Fight is the one who is able to flick all of the snowballs at the target with the thumb and finger of the assigned color.

     Surprisingly, this game is not as easy as one might think. As students play, they will be making a good effort to improve hand strength, flexibility, and dexterity, which will ultimately help to improve their performance technique.

Learning to Warm Up as Athletes Do
     Athletes always take the time necessary to warm up their muscles before they begin to exercise or compete in their sport. Effective warm-up routines facilitate the skill sets that a given sport requires. Just as important, warming up the muscles helps to prevent injury. Just like athletes, instrumentalists will be well served if they take the time to practice regular warm-up exercises. For instrumentalists, the essential physical asset they need to maintain is their hands.
     Any of the exercises described above can easily be incorporated at the start of an ensemble rehearsal. The nominal amount of time it takes to implement a good warm-up routine for the hands is a small price to pay to avoid possible repetitive motion injuries. In addition, these exercises help students to reap the benefits of developing and maintaining the necessary strength, dexterity, and flexibility required for successful performance.

     The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of Susan Ransbottom-Witty, Occupational Therapist and Certified Hand Therapist, who helped with the preparation of this article.