Becoming a competent pianist requires years of dedicated practice. Over time, the musician trains the muscles of the shoulders, arms and hands to play with proper technique.
Before it is possible to play complex pieces on the piano, it is essential for the student to build a strong foundation of good playing technique. Just one of the methods for accomplishing this is by using hand exercises on a daily or near daily basis. Exercises such as these may:
- Help the musician to learn correct hand positions.
- Give the musician better control over sounds.
- Enhance the musician’s technique.
- Help to protect the musician against injury.
There are lots of different hand exercises for beginning piano students. Which ones should you try?
Several common hand exercises are described below. These exercises can help any piano student to improve their skills, including the speed of their playing and ensuring that they are using proper technique.
A Word About Piano Finger Technique
If you take piano lessons, then you have probably heard your instructor talk about playing “from the finger.” If you are a piano instructor, then you might be slightly weary of talking about good piano finger technique with every student.
Basically, playing “from the finger” is considered good piano technique. This means that the fingers are the main source of the musician’s power.
Pianists who are just starting lessons or who taught themselves to play may be less familiar with this concept. In these cases, it is important to realize that learning the proper technique can take quite a bit of time and persistence. However, the endeavor is worthwhile as it will vastly improve your playing and guard you against injuries.
Good piano finger technique incorporates these four characteristics:
- The fingers are neither floppy nor flat; the knuckles generally remain bent.
- Although the pinky fingers occasionally may be straightened, all of the other fingers maintain a bend at the knuckle closest to the fingertip.
- The power behind playing the piano is generated by the knuckle at the top of the hand instead of from the arm or wrist.
- The shoulders, elbows and arms are kept relaxed at all times.
When utilizing these characteristics, it is possible for the pianist to play “from the finger.” This is a critical concept, especially when considering the speed at which you play.
Imagine that you are holding a pen in your hand. You want to write on a piece of paper as quickly as you can. Are your movements large and sweeping? Is it your arm that completes most of the action?
Probably not. Instead, you are using the smaller muscles in your hands to make swift, precise movements. This concept holds true when you are playing the piano. Your shoulders and arms cannot play a series of incredibly rapid notes. It falls to your fingers to accomplish this task, and the smaller muscles in the fingers are well-suited to this task.
Common Errors in Piano Finger Technique
Until the piano student has an opportunity to be introduced to and practice proper piano finger technique, they may try all sorts of uncomfortable experiments.
As an example, some students hold their wrists either excessively low or high instead of simply adjusting the position of their hands. With the wrists out of alignment, the musician is feeling a great deal more tension than is necessary. All of that tension makes it really difficult to play with accuracy and speed.
Novice piano students also frequently play from the arm rather than the fingers. This mistake creates a sound that is actually overly rhythmic and may place unintended accents on certain beats.
To avoid these and other errors, it is critical to regularly practice certain piano hand exercises. Although these are mainly aimed at beginning piano students, even those who have some years of study under their belt may benefit from revisiting these helpful exercises on a regular basis.
Recommended Beginning Piano Exercises
With improved insight into proper piano finger technique, it is time to introduce some of the most highly recommended hand exercises for beginning piano players. Throughout each of these exercises, strive to maintain a consistent tempo, even if it feels very slow. Over time and with practice, the student’s speed will improve. That’s because these exercises are designed to help promote muscle memory and make the musician’s fingers more coordinated.
1. Five-Note Pentascales
This exercise involves playing each note with one finger and listening to the sound that each key makes. Select a new dynamic range solely through the use of your hand muscles, resisting the urge to move your shoulders or arms. This sounds like a really easy exercise, and if may be if you have a few months of lessons under your belt. However, if you are new to studying the piano, then this exercise can be critical for increasing the strength in your fingers.
2. Ascending and Descending Pentascales
When you feel that you have become proficient at the first hand exercise, give this one a try. The next challenge is to play ascending and descending pentascales from the lowest fingers to the highest fingers of each hand.
Here is an example of how this works. You’ll simultaneously play a note with your left-hand pinky and your right-hand thumb. Continue through the rest of your fingers, and then reverse the process. Be certain that you are keeping your shoulders, arms and wrists relaxed and that the fingers are curved.
3. Practice Playing in Thirds
Rather than playing adjacent notes, in this exercise you’ll practice skipping notes. Start with a pentascale, then play in thirds between every note. Try to do this with each note connected to the next, which your instructor may describe as “legato.”
It may sound like an easy exercise, but this one can be deceptive. Start out slow and gradually increase your speed as your skill grows.
4. Practice Firm Finger Positioning
A pianist has strong finger muscles that are developed over years of practice. Of course, the average person may have fingers that are not nearly as strong. This may mean that a beginning piano student approaches the instrument with floppy fingers, when it is far better to have firm fingers.
Are your fingers floppy or firm on the piano keys? Hold your hands at playing level, but do not put your fingers on the keys. Bend the knuckle that is the closest one to each fingertip, lift your hand and then let your fingers fall on the keys. If any of your knuckles collapses, then you need to try again, this time from a lower height.
If you are new to this exercise, then it is worthwhile to try it with just one finger at a time to see which of your fingers needs the most work. The purpose of this exercise is for the musician to become familiar with the sensation of playing with firm fingers. Ideally, the arms and shoulders will not be involved so that there is no additional tension or weight.
5. Try Over-Legato
For this exercise, you might play each note in a pentascale so that it overlaps the subsequent note. Imagine that you are playing a pentascale, but instead of striking each key and releasing it before you strike the next, you hold the previous key until you play the next one. Accordingly, you might play the first note with your thumb. This note is held until your index finger plays a note, at which time you can release the note being played by the thumb.
The purpose of this exercise is to help you to become aware of each of your fingers on an individual basis. Effectively, you are learning to control each one by itself, and this can be really hard for beginning piano students.
6. Play With Full Scales
Practice one or two octave scales while preparing your thumb. This might look like this when playing a C major scale. You play the first D using the index finger of your right hand, immediately preparing your thumb so that it is primed on or close to the F note. Practice all of your scales using this technique.
When done regularly and properly, this exercise makes your scales smoother while also enabling you to play with greater accuracy and speed.
Practice with Prodigies
Whether you are a piano teacher who is seeking new inspiration for students or a parent who wants your child to begin appreciating the beauty of music at a young age, Prodigies is a great place to start.
With our vibrant and informative video lessons, we’ve helped countless kids learn all about music. Get your students and your kids in on the fun with the many enriching programs that are at your fingertips on the Prodigies Music website.