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When I started learning to play the piano/keyboard about a year and a half ago I initially had difficulty with my dexterity and getting my fingers to do what I wanted them to do and when. My lack of finger flexibility meant that I would sometimes hit the wrong key by mistake or often hit several at the same time. My ring finger and my little finger were next to useless and couldn't be trusted to join in with the rest of the more competent fingers when playing so my early musical exploits were somewhat limited. There's only so many times one can play 'Chopsticks' though so I knew I had to find a solution to my cack-handedness. After all, good piano fingering is one of the most important facets of learning to play the piano.
A few days later, I happened to stumble across the GripMaster Finger Exerciser on amazon and thought it looked ideal for my keyboard/dexterity problem. The product description and reviews told me what I wanted to hear - "Ideal for any musician wanting to develop hand strength". Perfect! I could now develop strength and agility in my fingers and what's more, I could do it from the comfort of my sofa.
== Weight for it
After discovering the GripMaster range of finger exercisers I spent some time studying the various reviews on amazon.co.uk before deciding which weight version was the right one for me. Thankfully, there were some helpful comments which stated that the light version (5lb) would be ideal for budding pianists but also some recommending the X-Light tension. I decided to take a bit of a gamble and go for the light version and hope it didn't turn out to be too much. It turns out that this was the right decision; I found the device provided the ideal tension for what I wanted to achieve.
However, for your information (and reading pleasure) here is the full range of GripMaster exercisers available:
3lb - X-Light (yellow)
5lb - Light (blue)
7lb - Medium (red)
9lb - Heavy (black)
11lb - X-Heavy (grey)
The heavier tension exercisers are more suited to those looking to build serious hand strength for purposes such as weight training, sports and delivering bone-crushing handshakes. The lighter versions are more suited to those simply looking to improve finger/hand strength whilst focussing more on finger flexibility and agility - ideal for musicians. If you have particularly poor hand strength and weak fingers to begin with then the X-Light version might be more appropriate because the Light tension is still quite resistant and may be too difficult for some.
== Hold on
The GripMaster is designed to be used like any other hand strengthener; you squeeze it together in the palm of one hand - with coiled springs providing the resistance. The difference here is that each finger can also be exercised individually by using the four spring-loaded pistons. The piston heads are curved to match the natural curvature of your fingertips and they have a rough surface to provide grip. The grip has proved useful for when my fingers have become a little clammy during use.
To grip the GripMaster, place it in the palm of your hand with the thinnest part of the black rubber palm cushion placed on the fleshy part of your thumb - the small hooked part on the end goes over the webbing of your thumb. You then place the ends of your four fingers on each of the four pistons at the top with the thumb resting on the side of the device.
I find the GripMaster quite comfortable to hold but I do have a little difficulty placing my fingers perfectly on the pistons because my hands are a little on the large size. It has clearly been designed for the average user so anyone with medium-sized hands will most likely find it easier to hold than I have. That said though, I still find it easy to use just by altering its position in my hand a little.
== One, two, three, four,...
To exercise my fingers, I hold the device in my hand and then push each piston down individually, starting with my index finger and ending with my little finger. The exact technique you use is entirely up to you - there are countless different ways to use the device so you are able to find whatever works for best you. As I am using this to improve my pianist skills, I try to keep my fingers on the pistons as if they were piano keys. By this I mean that I keep my fingers slightly curved without letting the upper knuckle bend backwards. I also try to press each piston without moving any of my other fingers up or down. I will generally continue to use the device repeating each finger exercise for about 10-15 minutes or until I get fed up.
The instructions that come with the device, brief as they are, recommend that it is best to exercise with a low tension and do more repetitions rather than doing fewer repetitions with a stronger device. This helps build up the muscles in your hand and forearms progressively without risking injury or sprains. The fingers themselves do not contain any muscles and are moved by tendons controlled by the muscles in your hand and forearm. So by pressing the pistons down again and again you are strengthening the muscles in your hand and arms rather than the fingers themselves although my fingers do also feel the strain of the exercises.
My index finger and my middle finger found the challenge of fully pressing the pistons down very easy. It wasn't too effortless though and I could still feel the resistance of the springs. My ring ringer being weaker than the rest struggled a bit at first but I could still manage to press the piston all the way down. On the other hand (so to speak) my little finger could only manage at best a ¾ press to begin with - no amount of constipated facial expressions helped the cause.
There are two rows of springs built into the device so it flexes and changes its shape with the exercises you are doing. This allows it to feel more natural and comfortable when exercising each finger as it enables you to press each finger in a direct downwards motion so at no point does it feel awkward to use.
I also use this device to exercise my whole hand from time to time. The only difference here is to squeeze the whole device in the palm of my hand pressing all the pistons down simultaneously as if they were all connected. When doing this, I find it easier to rest the upper knuckle of each finger on the pistons so I have a firmer grip on the device. Both rows of springs contract together to provide the resistance here.
A slight disadvantage I have found with the GripMaster is that it can feel a little uncomfortable after a while. The piston heads are made from plastic and the constant pressure with my fingers causes the ends to become a little sore after several minutes of use. Also, the palm-cushion is a little on the hard side too and although it is softer than the plastic, I feel this too could do with being a little softer. I find that it digs into my palm slightly which can make the exercises uncomfortable after a while. However, these are only small concerns and exercise isn't supposed to be 'comfortable' anyway, is it?
== ...I declare a thumb war!
But wait, I hear you say, what about the poor thumb? Rest assured, the thumb is also able to partake in the exercises as well. To do this, you have to grip the device differently - with the hooked part of the palm cushion resting on the side of the top knuckle of your index finger and the device pointing away from your hand. Then you can place your thumb on the first piston pressing it down repeatedly to exercise it.
If I'm honest, this doesn't really feel like it's doing a lot for my thumb. Although, this might be because my thumb is strong enough already - years of using PlayStation controllers may have something to do with this - and the light tension simply may be too weak for my thumb.
== The Results: Beethoven or Lassie?
The acid test is in the results. Did the GripMaster have any effect on my hand strength and finger agility? Yes. Although I've been using this for several months now, I noticed results after just a week or two. Using the device daily, my fingers feel much stronger and more flexible. All my fingers are now capable of pressing the pistons down fully, even the wimpish little finger.
My keyboard playing has improved significantly as a result of the exercises. My little finger can play notes previously out of reach and my ring finger is able to press notes without the little finger pressing the note alongside it. These two fingers (the idiot fingers as I used to call them) seem to have developed more independence simply through practising pressing the pistons down without moving other fingers at the same time. My left hand has also improved significantly and I can now play competently with two hands - my left hand is still some way behind the right in terms of agility but my left fingers are much less clumsy than they used to be.
My increased flexibility also means that I can master more awkward positions on the keyboard (crude innuendo not intended). I can also play faster than I used to be able to and my range of musical capabilities has increased. I can now play some of the more difficult piano pieces reasonably well, which would not have been possible without my current level of finger speed and flexibility.
My hand grip in general has also improved which I have found useful for when I play golf. I feel I can grip clubs better and have more control when I swing. I can't say the device has increased my chances of accidentally delivering any bone-crushing handshakes though but I now rarely have problems opening jam jars.
The GripMaster Light Tension (5lb) Finger Exerciser is currently available on amazon.co.uk for £7.98. The other tensions/versions range from prices £8-11. Whilst they are typically more expensive than traditional hand strengtheners I think they are great value considering the added ability to exercise individual fingers and for the high build quality of the device, which feels very sturdy and is likely to last a long time.
I would not hesitate to recommend the GripMaster to anyone suffering from a lack of finger agility on the piano (or any other musical instrument). Even if you don't aspire to be the next Mozart then there are still countless reasons why you may want to consider this device. You can use the device to obtain stronger hands in general and also to nurse previously injured or weakened hands back to full health. I have been really impressed with the results that have come from such simple exercises thanks to the design of this device. I also love that I can use it whilst sat watching TV or when reading a book which means I can fit in exercises more often. Exercising is also much more tolerable when you are able to do it from the comfort of your sofa.
Thank you for reading :-)