Re: Hand Work
I am familiar with two different "schools" of thought:
1) learn the form so that you can break the form
You learn preset forms (yes, even in aikido) so that you can eventually step beyond the forms. Yoshinkan, Iwama, schools that follow Shirata Sensei's and others lineage tend to stress technique that follows certain forms.
2) There is in reality no form...aikido is about body to body connection, not about doing the same technique the same way each time, but rather, what is appropriate to the situation.
One of the groups I train with occationally seems to follow more of this idea (I don't know for sure that they would agree with my assessment); they are the Aikido Kenkyukai. I seem to see various individuals with their own particular form...but unlike the yoshinkan, where you see a lot of the same type of movement, you see a lot of variation in the physical movement styles of practitioners.
I do not personally think that these two view points can't be reconciled. I guess its all in how you look at things. I enjoy doing both...but spend most of my time in the yoshinkan, so I do as they do most of the time. I found it hard as a beginner to learn the way you describe...but that was just me, and I'm a klutz...