Thursday, January 1, 2015

Piano Technique for Tiny Fingers

Let’s Play Music: Keyboard Method
There exists a piano-playing dilemma in the world: Parents know that piano lessons are the best way to begin musical education (read our post), BUT a child’s ability to hear and internalize music peaks way before his ability to precisely control his fingers. 

Parents find themselves in a quandry: "Should I put my child in piano lessons now, even though his fingers are not really ready, or should I keep him out for a year or two but miss out on meaningful music and ear training during a critical time!?"  

Let's Play Music has solved the dilemma!

In the first year of Let’s Play Music, we took advantage of the ears' sensitivity in the ‘Music Learning Window’ by emphasizing ear training, rhythm training, melodic patterning, classical music listening, and harmony exercises without requiring finger dexterity to participate.
Students practice harmony and rhythm without much dexterity

I like to tell parents, "We let their ears and brains internalize as much as they want, as fast as they want- they don't have to be held back by what their fingers could perform at this age!"  Can advanced concepts be taught to little students? Yes, yes, they can.  If they hear and internalize the concepts early on, they are ready for abstract conceptualizations we explain it to them in year 3.

Get Started on Keyboards
Typical second year students are 5-6 years old and ready to begin using the keyboards. At the beginning of the year, they are not usually happy to sit still or practice for long periods. For this reason alone, I generally advise against enrolling 5-year-olds in private 30-minute lessons.  

At this age, they learn best through active play (read our post here) but enjoy focused bouts on the bench, progressively lengthening in duration. Let's Play Music is specifically designed to meet the needs of this age student, and that means being more active and fun than sitting still!

5 year-old hands and fingers are still quite weak and uncoordinated, so keyboard experiences must be simple training exercises that progress slowly

For a bunch of ideas for playful (non-piano) ways to strengthen fingers before and during the GREEN semester, read our post here. Of course you'll be doing your on-piano drills from class, too.

It will take some time before the fingers catch up to what the ears and mind have already learned!  The beauty is that the child's trained ear will correct his fingers.  

I find it very satisfying to have a student say, "gosh, that didn't come out sounding like I expected. I better double-check my fingers and play it again."   Likewise, I find it worrisome when a non-LPM student pounds out a song at the piano and cannot hear his own errors!

Posture at the Keyboard
An example of improper posture. PC Julie Fishbeck
The keyboard is a phenomenal teaching tool. We wish to introduce it properly and with correct technique. But be aware- technique is best adapted around age 8, when students' ability to precisely control hands and fingers is finally developed.  Wise private piano teachers will wait until age 7 or 8 to focus on technique drills. (Remember, age 5 is the time to focus on ear training.)

The following are things parents and teachers can encourage during Let's Play Music, but they are not expected to always be maintained/ enforced. That will come during private lessons.

Arm Position: ideally your child's elbows will be slightly higher than the keyboard.  Teachers with electric keyboards can lower them, but with a real piano at home you'll have to raise your bench height or use a booster. Adjusting seat height is perhaps the most impactful change you can make.  Arms should hang loosely from shoulders.  If elbows are too high or low, it's impossible to achieve a level wrist and a correct hand shape and the student often hunches up the shoulders to raise her own arm.

Teacher Anna White purchased these piano cushions for $20 to boost students up, but also uses these cheap foam craft squares to create just-the-right-height for each kid.  Marnie Christensen and Mallory Harris (Gilbert, AZ) remind us that you can go old-style an old phonebook bound in duct tape, or a new pack of printer paper! 

Flat Feet: it seems unfair that we just made you raise your child up and NOW we are saying the feet should reach the floor! Dangling feet can cause a student to lean back away from the keyboard.  A footstool, book, or box can be placed under the feet so the student is able to lean forward slightly.  you could buy this perfect piano footrest for $80, but Teacher Misty Burnett (West Point, UT) found that IKEA pull-out drawers were just the right size and shape.

Bench Distance: the child should sit far enough from the keyboard so she sits perched on the front 1/2 of the bench, leaning forward ever so slightly, and can put both hands in C position comfortably.

Sit up! Remind your child to sit up tall, like a string is pulling up on her head, so her back is straight and shoulders can relax down.  Green Turtle Shells are not for shoulders to hide in (you are not a turtle!) If you see a chin poking way out forward, remind your child to pull her chin in and sit up.

Hand and Wrist Position
Wrists and Fingers:  'Bubble Hands' is the term we use to explain the soft, round, natural position of the hand on the keyboard.  This position allows for natural movement of the fingers, making it possible for all fingers to touch the keys at the same time and promoting relaxation in the hand.  

Did you notice that although all finger pads touch keys, it's the side of the thumbs that rests on the keys?  If fingers are stiff and straight, thumbs can't even reach the keys. That's why we sing "Rounded like a bubble, fingers flat are trouble…"

In class and at home, your child will practice holding a REAL BUBBLE so she can see and feel the shape her fingers take.  Once the bubble is no longer used, her brain and muscle memory take over to reproduce this perfect bubble shape whenever possible.  Of course, when she begins playing, variations are expected.  Bubble-hand is an ideal position to strive for, and it will come as fingers grow in strength from years of practice. 

Pop the Bubble
When doing scales, we must pop the bubble for a moment. Teacher Justine Turcotte shows how to avoid "chicken wings" while popping by creating "cat claws" during the cross-over.

Mental Technique
Your child looks at a note on the staff or hears the teacher say a finger number. Then, she thinks about what the notation represents, decides which finger corresponds to the note, and sends a signal to the finger to 'press down'. This arduous hand-to-mind-connection process can take a while – much longer than it takes adults. This process is practice, and although it is slow and may sound ugly, this is what builds the muscle memory for future playing. (Read our post on muscle memory)  

It is critical to not press down on a child’s finger to play the key.  Although we want to help "speed things up", this only interferes with her brain’s processing and will rob her mind of the chance to learn how to translate cues into muscular movement. (You can't practice for your child.)  We should not even touch the finger, as this disrupts the connection from the muscle to the brain and disturbs the 'bubble hand'.

What you can do: A better way to encourage your struggling child is to press the key at the top of the key near the soundboard (we call this the “player piano method”).  Her finger will feel the key drop beneath it and she'll experience the sensation of the muscles moving in the correct way.  This gives the brain a nudge toward learning to send the proper signal to the finger. 

Teacher Misty Ralphs in Chubbuck, ID (studio link) has an additional game for practicing finger numbers that YOU can play at home: she blows bubbles into the room, and the students have a chance to pop them, but only with the specified finger as she calls them!

Technique Drills

Once the hands are correctly placed on the keyboard and each finger feels the key relationships, we train the fingers to play smoothly from one finger to the next.  Each finger gains the ability to independently press down with adequate strength.  All of the keyboard technique songs are essential for developing finger strength, control and dexterity. Undoubtedly, once you graduate from Let's Play Music, your new teacher will have many additional technique drills to add to your study.  By then, your child's finger musculature will be mature enough to handle some very complicated patterns and commit them to muscle memory!

-Gina Weibel, M.S.
Let's Play Music teacher


  1. thanks! This article is super useful!

  2. This article is excellent. I am using these techniques for my daughter. Thank you!