The first time you sat down at a piano, do you remember how you touched the keys?
Chances are good that you did what most people do. That is, you touched the keys with your fingers stretched flat out.
However, if an experienced musician was there with you, she may have said that it works better to keep your fingers curled. If you ever took piano lessons, then you know that this point of technique is stressed again and again.
Why is curling your fingers while you play the piano so critical? It turns out that there are several reasons. These include:
- Holding your fingers straight and flat causes tension from the hand and all the way up the arm. When you play the piano, you want to minimize tension as much as possible so that you’re free to play better and less likely to cause an injury;
- Curved fingers can move much more quickly across the keyboard because the entire arm is more relaxed;
- When your fingers are curved, your hands have more flexibility so that they can rotate in the appropriate direction;
- Curving your fingers improves your posture as you play because you are less tense; and
- Maintaining curve in your fingers helps to keep your lower body in place on the bench even as your upper body moves with your fingers.
Perhaps you noticed that there is a great deal of emphasis on relaxing and avoiding tension when you are playing the piano. By working hard at ensuring that you always curve your fingers when you play, you are improving your performance because you are able to relax and be comfortable.
Try It Now
Are you sitting close to a piano? If so, then you can try a little experiment. Try to run through a couple of basic scales, paying particular attention to the curvature of your fingers. How much tension do you notice as you play?
Try playing the scales again, but this time start with your fingers curved and hovering above the keys before you play them. Slowly lower each finger and play, taking care to keep your fingers curved.
Keep in mind that there also is such a thing as overextending the fingers. This can be responsible for generating just as much tension as playing with straight fingers, so it’s crucial that you practice using just the right amount of curve. The overall goal is to be relaxed and at ease, so let your fingers fall naturally. They are probably curving just the right amount.
Keeping Curved Fingers Isn’t Easy
Although it actually is “natural” to play the piano with slightly curved fingers, it does not always feel that way to students. This can be especially apparent when they are working on a challenging piece. More than one piano teacher has grown weary of saying, “Keep your fingers curved,” several times throughout a lesson.
Fortunately, there are all sorts of techniques and exercises that are designed to help piano students grow more comfortable with the idea of curving their fingers.
Some of these are:
- Holding water balloons;
- Pretend to hold an orange;
- Make circles with your fingers;
- Holding an empty water bottle;
- Leave room for the mouse; and
- Hot potato wrists.
Let’s break down each of these techniques to understand them better.
1. Holding Water Balloons
Some piano teachers actually give their students a small, water-filled balloon the first few times they try this technique so that the student really understands what it means to curve their fingers. Basically, you give the student a water balloon to cup in their upturned hand. Then, the student is asked to turn their hand over and to not let the water balloon fall.
The trick is to keep the fingers curved in the same position when playing the piano. If you don’t have a place to “play” with water balloons outdoors or are worried about accidents, you can do this exercise without an actual water balloon. Just ask kids to use their imagination, which usually isn’t a problem.
2. Pretend to Hold an Orange
This is a great exercise for emphasizing the importance of having the fingers curved yet relaxed. Ask your student to visualize that they are holding an orange in their hand. Remind them that they don’t want to drop the orange, so they have to hold it firmly. However, they also don’t want to squash it, so their grip needs to remain somewhat relaxed. If they are holding their hand as if they could hold an orange, then they are ready to play the piano with curved fingers.
3. Make Circles with Your Fingers
This is a great exercise that piano students can practice absolutely anywhere. In fact, this is an excellent technique for strengthening the fingers, so it makes sense to encourage students to incorporate this into practice sessions or anytime that they are feeling bored.
To begin, make a circle by bringing your index finger into contact with your thumb. Lift your index finger away and bring your middle finger into contact with your thumb. Keep repeating with all fingers, and make certain that they stay curved.
4. Holding an Empty Water Bottle
This may be the ideal alternative for piano teachers who are reluctant to bring an actual water balloon into the studio. This exercise uses an empty water bottle. Ask the student to hold the water bottle in one hand with their fingers curved around the bottle. Have them remove the water bottle with their other hand, maintaining the curvature of the fingers. That hand is now ready to play. Encourage your student to play their song while keeping their fingers curved in the same manner.
Eventually, your student will be able to imagine the feeling of having his fingers curved around the water bottle without actually holding it. When he forgets and starts playing with flat fingers, all the teacher has to say is, “water bottle,” to tell him that he needs to check his hand position.
5. Leave Room for the Mouse
This one is particularly fun and effective for younger piano students. Ask them to imagine that there is a mouse living on the piano’s keyboard. The mouse needs to constantly move back and forth along the keyboard, and he can only do so if he has enough room. This means that the student needs to keep her fingers curved at all times so that the mouse has sufficient clearance.
The teacher might say “mouse” or “eek” whenever noticing that the student’s fingers are not curved. This signals to the student that she needs to check her hand position.
6. Hot Potato Wrists
Most people are familiar with the game called hot potato in which it’s necessary to pass the bean bag as fast as possible from one player to the next because it’s “hot.” This is a variation on that theme, with the teacher telling the student that the piano is “hot.” Accordingly, the student will burn their wrists if they touch the instrument. This is a fun game for young students because it lets them use their imaginations. At the same time, they get a helpful reminder to keep their wrists up off of the piano. When the wrist is up, the arm generally is straight and the fingers curve naturally.
Are Curved Fingers Always Necessary?
When piano students are teaching new students, they place a heavy emphasis on keeping the fingers curved. This is a widely accepted technique that is used by students and professional musicians all over the world.
However, it is not an absolute rule, especially among more experienced pianists.
Each of your fingers is a different length, but the keys on the piano are all the same size. This can make it hard to stretch your fingers between one key and the next. With your fingers curved, this difficulty largely is solved.
If the student keeps studying long enough, they may eventually reach a piece or a level at which it is necessary to use flat fingers. This produces a different tone. Some say that it makes the notes sound fuller, and others observe that it can produce a mellower, sometimes blurred, sound. In comparison, playing with curved fingers yields a cleaner, crisper sound.
When you play with flat fingers, you also can reach further, which can be useful when playing octaves. Moreover, you can push more weight with a flat finger because this enables all three finger joints to be used.
So, while playing with curved fingers is the best rule of thumb, some piano students may someday reach a point at which they will need to break this fundamental rule.
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