Double-jointedness, more technically known as hypermobility, refers to the ability to stretch joints farther than usual. It can occur in many joints (knees, fingers, elbows, etc.) and to varying extremes. It’s very common -- according to this article, 10-25% of the population and is double-jointed -- and often doesn’t affect people negatively. If you ever knew (or were) a kid who could step through their own joined arms, or could bend thumbs backwards so far that they touch the wrist, those are more extreme examples of hypermobility. More mildly, being double-jointed can simply mean that our finger or thumb joints bend beyond a straight position into a backwards angle.
Being double-jointed can be an asset to some aspects of playing piano, guitar, and other string instruments. It can also make certain techniques difficult, and even make players more prone to injury.
Extra stretchy hands - both pianists and guitarists benefit from a wide hand span. Guitarists often need to make chord shapes that span several frets with the left hand. Having some extra flexibility is really helpful for those sorts of stretches. Similarly, hand span is a common topic among pianists, as music often asks them to stretch more than an octave. It’s worth noting that many historians believe that virtuosos pianist Rachmaninov and violinist Paganini were hypermobile. That enabled them to play and write music with extreme stretches that instrumentalists with normal mobility find nearly impossible.
Partial barres - A lot of us can bend the smallest joint of our fingers backwards. As guitarists, that allows us to fret two strings with only one finger. Double-jointed players can fret strings 2 and 3 of an A Major chord with just the index finger (bent backward at the tip) and strings 5 and 6 of a B7 chord with the middle finger. This is a distinct advantage in many situations - in fact, I have trouble finding suitable alternatives for students with straight finger tips. Can any teachers/students with ‘normal’ mobility weigh in?
Fingers that won’t behave - Some students try to keep their fingers round, but joints straighten and bend backwards too easily. Other students have fingers that overextend and lock and get stuck in that position position. In general, patience and careful exercises can develop the strength needed to ‘tame’ hypermobile joints.
Awkward right hand thumb for guitarists - Certain thumb techniques (thumb rest stroke and alzapua in flamenco, for example) demand that our thumb push through one or more strings at a time in a strong, quick stroke. For a ‘normal’ thumb, this just means extending our larger thumb joint (the one that connects the thumb to the hand) as far as it goes. For hypermobile players, extending the thumb ‘fully’ seems to mean that it extends beyond its normal range, pops out of the joint a bit, and is difficult to get back into place quickly afterwards. I’ve only seen this in a few students and dealing with it has been an experiment. Please comment if your thumb moves like this too - particularly if you have tips on dealing with it!
Increased risk for injuries - In general, joint instability can lead to strength imbalances and higher susceptibility to soft tissue injuries and osteoarthritis. Speaking for the entire body (not just the instrument-playing parts), just because one can bend their joints beyond the normal range of motion doesn’t mean they should. Overextending an unstable joint can stress the ligaments over time. Hypermobile players can probably safely enjoy their increased hand spans, but they should also devote careful attention to exercises that build strength and stability.
Symptom of an underlying disorder - In rare cases, hypermobility can be a symptom of a connective tissue disorder. Although it’s impossible to confirm or deny, the same historians who have investigated Paganini and Rachmaninov’s hypermobility have explored the possibility that they also suffered from Ehler-danlos or Marfan syndrome. Both disorders have serious health consequences in addition to contributing to a larger hand span.
Hitchhiker thumb - A hitchhiker thumb bends backwards at the tip instead of extending to a straight position and stopping. There are amazing guitarists who have thumbs like this, and amazing guitarists who have straight thumbs. In my experience, students and teachers tend to fixate on this a little too much. It’s neither better nor worse, just different. I have thumbs like this. The only time it caused me issues is when an early teacher suggested I try keeping it straight when I played, which ended up being a waste of time and effort going down an erroneous technique path. If you have a hitchhiker thumb, let it do its thing when you play, and adjust your right hand position to accommodate.
Are you double jointed? Has it affected your playing? For better or worse, or both? What tips do you have for other double-jointed players?
An article geared toward cello players with a slide show useful for any instrumentalist: http://cellopracticecelloperformance.com/cello-tips/2017/9/20/buckling-fingers-double-joints-playing-the-cello-while-hypermobile
The Musician’s Health Collective address hypermobility in several articles. Take your pick here: http://www.musicianshealthcollective.com/search?q=hypermobility