Machines for Improving Piano Technique:
In the post “Want to become a better pianist? Grow your hands!” RIPM’s Curios, News, and Chronicles explored the perception in the musical press that small-handed people, under the supervision of “hand specialists,” could increase their hand size and, thereby, increase their potential for becoming a piano virtuoso, or at least improve their piano technique.
A “hand specialist” advertisement claiming to increase the size of one’s hands
Musical America, Vol. 16 No. 23 (12 October 1912): 99.
But, as this above advertisement suggests, having small hands was just one of many perceived obstacles preventing pianists from reaching the heights of true mastery. A lack of finger elasticity and strength was also seen as an impediment. To address these issues, several contraptions specifically designed for pianists were invented during the nineteenth century. Today, these now antiquated devices are likely to strike fear into the hearts of many pianists.
Pianist and composer Henri Herz (1803-1888), a professor at the Paris Conservatoire for more than thirty years and himself a virtuoso, invented a device called the dactylion.
A bilingual advertisement for Herz’s dactylion
Cäcilia, Vol. XVIII, Supplementary pages (): .
Once the dactylion was affixed to the keyboard, the pianist placed each finger inside one of the corresponding ten rings. These rings were attached to adjustable springs that permitted the student to regulate the amount of pressure required to strike the piano keys. This, in theory, would strengthen a pianist’s fingers, and presumably, gradually permit one to obtain a technique more akin to Herz.
German by birth and French by domicile, pianist, composer, teacher, and piano manufacturer Friedrich Wilhelm Michael Kalkbrenner invented a piano contraption called the guide-mains, or “handguards.” The device was essentially a long bar of wood attached several inches from the keyboard, coupled with an extension that allowed the keyboard cover to rest a few inches above the hands. This kept student wrists even, eliminated excessive vertical motion, and forced reliance on the strength of the fingers instead of the arms.
Musica, Vol. 9 No. 89 (February 1910): 30.
Once the teacher trusted that the student minimized any excessive motion, the keyboard cover could simply be lifted off of the guide-mains, as seen below, and easily returned as needed.
Featured in an 1846 issue of the French newsweekly L’Illustration was another such device. Its name, l’appareil destiné à faciliter l’étude du piano, or “the device intended to facilitate the study of the piano,” sounds reasonable enough, except for the fact that it resembles a medieval device designed for the removal of fingers. The machine was developed by an apparent scientist named “M. F. d’Urclé” and endorsed by the celebrated piano virtuoso Sigismond Thalberg. The hand was first secured by a vice-grip. Next, an individual finger was isolated, and then, to improve its dexterity, gradually stretched further and further backwards.
L’Illustration, Vol. VII (11 July 1846): 304.
Invented in 1897 and pictured in the pages of the Gazzetta musicale di Milano was a finger device called the metròmano-piano, a “very effective instrument to develop the articulation, the independence of the fingers and to increase their force, ensuring together a correct position of the hand.” [third paragraph] How the contraption functions is not explained.
Gazzetta musicale di Milano, Vol. LII No. 12 (23 March 1897): 176.
Lastly, French piano manufacturer Casimir Martin invented a series of little devices which were collectively dubbed, the chirogymnaste.
La France musicale, Vol. 6 No. 5 (29 January 1843): 40.
These devices were designed so that in principle “the joints of the hand may be gradually relaxed, with each finger obtaining free play both perpendicularly and horizontally.”
The Magazine of Science and School of Arts, Vol. VI (1845): 177.
A number of advertisements for the chirogymnaste, including the one above published in La France musicale, can be found in the RIPM databases. Some, like those featured in the London music journal, The Musical World, boast a more than impressive list of apparent supporters, and along with it, some apparent hyperbole.
The Musical World, Vol. XX No. 1 (2 January 1845): 8.
RIPM search tip: For more information about the dactylion, guide-mains, and chirogymnaste, keyword search those terms in the RIPM databases. To access the related previous post, find the “Archives” on the right side of RIPM’s Curios, News, and Chronicles page, and click on “October 2017.” Note as well that all previous posts are available here.
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RIPM is an international non-profit organization preserving and providing access to music periodicals published in more than twenty countries between approximately 1760 and 1966, from Bach to Bernstein. Functioning under the auspices of the International Musicological Society, and the International Association of Music Libraries, Archives, and Documentation Centres, RIPM produces four electronic publications: Retrospective Index to Music Periodicals, Retrospective Index to Music Periodicals with Full Text, RIPM European and North American Music Periodicals (Preservation Series), and RIPM Jazz Periodicals (Preservation Series, forthcoming).
 The Musical Examiner, No. 81 (18 May 1844): 583.