Hot Jazz: Fingers Working Overtime

Django Reinhardt (1910-1953) was one of the world’s greatest guitarists.  His improvisations and compositions have inspired jazz and popular music guitarists for decades.  Fortunately, Django recorded extensively during his short life; he made over 900 sides of 78-RPM records between 1928 and 1953.  Listen to one of Django’s solos and you will marvel at his speed and agility.  

Django’s playing is extraordinary.  Just listening to him, you would have no idea that he played with only two fingers.  
Django was not born with a limb difference, but he damaged his left hand in an accident.  When Django was eighteen years old, he came back to his caravan one night after a recording session.  As he looked around, his candle wick fell onto his wife’s highly flammable celluloid flowers, immediately setting the caravan ablaze.  Django and his wife escaped, but Django’s right side and the ring and pinky fingers on his left hand were badly burned.  The tendons in these fingers shrunk and he couldn’t extend them.  During the eighteen months that Django recovered from his burns, he developed a new technique system to play guitar, relying almost exclusively on his two uninjured fingers.  A few video clips exist where you can see how he plays.  This one gives more information on Django’s life.  Enjoy!

Sliding Around

Playing piano is all about illusion.  

Playing piano with a limb difference is all about illusion and resourcefulness.  

If you need to do the work of ten fingers with fewer than ten fingers, it makes sense that each finger will have to play more notes in compensation.  Depending on your limb difference, there may be dozens of options for alternative and creative fingering.  In this post, I’ll share one of my most useful tricks:

Sliding from key to key with one finger

All of the videos will show an atypical cleft hand (mine), but the principle could be used for pianists with other limb differences.  

There are 4 situations where sliding could be useful:

Black Key to White Key

This is the easiest slide and the one I use most frequently.  As with any of these slides, practice making the connection legato.  

G Scale* **

*I call my thumb 1 and my pinky 2

**I have my own fingerings for each scale.  However, they are not always useful.  Complete scales are rare, and it is more likely that pieces contain scale fragments.  My scale fragments often have different fingerings than my “scale fingerings.”  

Black Key to Black Key

This is harder than black to white, but still possible.  

White Key to White Key

Slowly lift the first key until you can fall onto the second one.  

White Key to Black Key

This combination is the hardest.  If you can figure it out, good job!

I use sliding constantly; it is a critical tool for me!  When I write in my fingerings, I write 1-1 or 2-2 to indicate the slide.  Feel free to ask me questions about alternative piano fingering.  I would love to brainstorm with you!

Last Note: I am wholly and forever indebted to my college piano teacher, Arlene Kies, for teaching me how to use sliding.  We spent many hours together puzzling over how to create and improve my technique.  At least one of those hours was spent going over the types of slides and practicing them in isolation.  

Tuneful Triggers

The trumpet is a common choice for musicians with limb differences.  After all, it only has three valves.  Players usually press the valves with whichever hand has more fingers and hold the trumpet with a stand, or, if possible, their other limb.  End of story.


When trumpet players reach an intermediate level of playing, they adjust their intonation using tuning slides.  Notes using the third valve tend to be sharp, so players extend the first valve slide and/or the third valve slide to compensate.  Typically, the valves are pressed with the right hand and tuning slides are extended with the left hand.



For players with limb differences, this can be difficult or even impossible.  Unless…

…you have a trigger first valve slide!


Selmer K Modified Trumpet with a trigger first valve slide

Some trumpets are made with a trigger on the first valve slide.  It is possible to push the trigger with the same hand that presses the valves.  This gives the trumpeter with one hand more control of intonation.  


Michael plays trumpet with his left hand

When I was in seventh grade, I switched from playing trombone to trumpet in the school band.  The man at my local music store told me how important it would be to use tuning slides.  He sold me a used Selmer K Modified trumpet with a first valve trigger, and it was a great instrument for me.  Thanks, wise man at the music store!

There is a one-handed clarinet!

Guess what!  You can play clarinet with one hand!  I am so excited to tell you about this new instrument!

Peter Worrell, an instrument maker in the UK, has done tremendous work for musicians with limb differences.  He recently developed a one-handed clarinet!



As you may know from my previous posts, instrument stands are crucial to allow musicians to focus on playing.  Peter shows two options for supports:

 You can purchase a Daniel’s Claritie separately, though Peter includes the contraption with his one-handed clarinets.

Peter’s contributions to the adaptive musician community also include the development of the Dolmetsch One-Handed Recorders:


And, he created my own customized recorders!


Peter added keys to a soprano recorder for me in 2013.  One year later, he customized an alto with the same design.   
Thank you, Peter, for your beautiful, high-quality instruments!  Your craftsmanship and creativity continue to amaze me!