Sunday, March 24, 2013

Cans of Word Worms - Hand Position, Part Two

Most pianists learn to play from basic methods that include tunes written in major five-finger patterns. Translated for the non-pianists, that means do-re-mi-fa-sol in a given key. Working from these patterns helps students to hear major and minor scales and chords early in the process. These patterns also help students to learn how to move all five fingers over a variety of locations on the piano.

Notice these words from the above paragraph: patterns, locations, scales, chords, and move. Oh, you already did because I put them in bold typeface?  Well done!

In some method books, the word "position" is used instead of "pattern".  Position is an accurate term for a location on the keyboard.  It allows the student to begin to connect scales and chords with arrangements of whole and half steps and the resultant black and white key shapes they generate. If the student and teacher understand that, no harm, no foul. However, if somehow this word gets linked in the brain with holding the hand over a precise spot in a precise way, the trouble begins.

A more important word is the word "move". Our hands move over patterns every time we play. Our fingers move to play notes in patterns. In fact, the whole body is engaged in movement - small and large - when we play even one note. If our students don't understand that, they will tighten up physically and often musically in an effort to stay in the perfect position.

Teaching desirable hand "position" really means teaching the hand how to move. By matching functional movements of the hand - and body - to the music, we can help our students gain fluid control over their playing. By assessing each student's structural peculiarities, we can help each student find the easiest and healthiest way to play any pattern of notes. Those of us who teach small children are also aware that the development of small muscle coordination varies from child to child.

Elements to consider when teaching hand movement:
  • How the hand and fingers balance over the notes to be played
  • How the hand moves through a series of notes. This is especially helpful when playing patterns with wide skips. Often moving from key to key is easier than straddling the skips.
  • How the whole arm is engaged in moving the hand
  • Where the joints of the hands are and how they move
  • How the keys feel in terms of contact and shape
  • How the whole arm/whole body participate in playing
For resources on the structure of the hand and arm for musicians, visit

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