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Talk to the Hands

By Sandy Asirvatham | Posted 2/20/2002

Musicians, like athletes, often display a foolish machismo when it comes to pain. This past November, in the middle of my first semester as an older-than-most jazz-piano student at Towson University, I injured my left hand. Although the proximate cause was overuse, I can pinpoint exactly when and how the pain first appeared. During practice one day, I grew bored with my jazz drills and decided to play through my old classical repertoire, including a fast, aggressive Scriabin piece, for which I was not sufficiently warmed up. I'd once won a competition with this piece; now, like a child showing off, I was too proud and impatient to play it at a slower, more careful tempo, even without an audience or judge listening.

Later that day, I rehearsed with the school big band, with which I tend to bang the keys to be heard over the horns. Next morning, I awoke with sharp pains on the ulnar side of my left wrist. I spent the following weeks wearing an Ace bandage, skipping rehearsals and practice time, and generally trying to be a responsible adult about my self-inflicted boo-boo.

But I wasn't responsible enough, it seems. I went ahead and played full-strength in all my end-of-semester concerts. During winter break I tried taking serious time off--several four- or five-day periods without touching the piano at all. But there was always some new skill I wanted to drill, some piece I wanted to read through, so once a week or so, I'd sit down at the bench and fall effortlessly into a five- or six-hour practice session. And the pain inevitably came back, although not quite as sharp as it was in November. It has since turned into a generalized disturbance in my left hand and wrist, and lately I've been having similar aches in my right wrist as well.

So now I'm trying to be a real grownup who has modest yet serious musical aspirations--I'm seeing a physical therapist, I've drastically minimized rehearsal obligations and practice time, and I've started working with Reynaldo Reyes, the eminent concert pianist and Towson professor, to improve my technique.

These events have forced me to attend to my hands in a whole new way. Over the past few years--especially as I've gotten into improvisation--I've come to realize that my hands aren't just the "conduits" to musical thoughts, but they are to a great extent thinking organs themselves. I should have known this already. As a writer, I long ago accepted the fact that I generally didn't know what I wanted to say on a particular subject until I put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. In an intuitive way, I'd always felt that the actions of my hands weren't merely translating thoughts that existed ready-made in my consciousness, but were actually helping bring those thoughts into being.

That intuition seems nicely supported by a book I've just started reading, neurologist Frank Wilson's The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture. A science-writer friend of mine recommended it to me when I told her about my hand problems, and although it offers no direct advice about my injury, it does inspire me to be even more humbly appreciative of my keyboard-obsessed paws than I have been.

Wilson's premise is that the unique intelligence of Homo sapiens resides not in its large, "superior" brain so much as in its fertile, symbiotic hand-brain connection: "Increasingly in the work of those concerned to illuminate human origins, we find evidence that, from the beginning, the hominid hand and its growing repertoire of movements were integral to what was happening in behavioral, cultural, and cognitive evolution. . . . [T]he brain elevated the skill of the hand as the hand was writing its burgeoning sensory and motor complexities, and its novel possibilities, into the brain."

What this means for today's humans--some 200,000 years after the transition from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens--is that our learning abilities and creativity are still very deeply connected to our manual capacities. In cultures such as ours that dichotomize "mind" and "body" and hew to what Wilson calls a "cephalocentric view of intelligence," the importance of the hand-brain nexus is easily forgotten. As a result, we overvalue symbolic knowledge (the ability to manipulate words and numbers to describe or represent meaning) while undervaluing "bodily knowledge" or "hand knowledge" (the ability to manipulate the elements of our physical environment to create meaningful actions and objects in our lives). In schools, Wilson writes, children "who are most successful, even virtuosos, at using their hands to build and fix complicated things in the everyday world around them" are often the same children doing very poorly on math tests.

Wilson's book can be rough going at times--there are several fistfuls of descriptive "symbolic knowledge" stuffed in there, from paleoanthropology to biomechanics to philosophical musings on hand-oriented crafts such as juggling, rock climbing, and puppetry--but I highly recommend it to those of you who feel, as I do, that your hands are quite literally the smartest things you own. Certainly smarter than the stubborn-ass brain that chooses to risk overworking them.

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