Perhaps the greatest struggle young beginning piano students have is with learning to use their fingers effectively. Teacher’s have generally agreed that curved fingers are essential, but getting kids to play this way often seems impossible. We often simply strike out, and with good reason!
With most, they have never had to pay attention to or use their fingers—or likely any part of their body—in such a disciplined way. They simply are not prepared to do it. They lack the attentiveness to detail, the finger strength and the fine motor control to use their feingers effectively to play the piano.
They are also having to pay attention to playing rhythms and notes correctly, likely with little to no experience with them. So paying attention to their fingers is only one of at least three things they are being asked to pay close attention to at the same time, none of which they have much, if any, experience with.
The physical act of playing the piano is not a job for the fingers alone, but for the whole body. If the rest of the body is not doing what it should be doing, curved fingers are of little consequence. This means it’s very hard for beginners to either understand why this matters or experience any benefit. Further, it means there probably isn’t much benefit because they also are not adept yet at using the rest of their body as they need to be. In short, if our aim is merely to enforce curved fingers, well…
You’re outta there!
So what often happens? We muddle through with constant reminders and demonstrations and, hopefully, eventually students get it. Fortunately, many do, but the process is not often fun and too many never do get it. The earlier they can get it—and the more effective and painless the process—the better for their progress, their enjoyment and their sound technical development. I believe I have found a way to address the problem of using the fingers with arm weight effectively from the start. But let’s look first at one of my students who I feel has “gotten it.”
Jimmy is playing Eric Baumgartner’s wonderful jazz idiom piece, “A Mingus Among Us.”
This excerpt begins with the B section, which involves a lot of dropping on the keys with arm weight. He’s sitting upright, his arms and wrists are pretty free and flexible and he’s using his fingers well. This does not—as accomplished pianists know and you can see here—mean holding his fingers in a curved shape. Rather, it means moving through a range of motion from slightly curved to forming more or less a quarter circle. It also means letting his wrist and arm move freely, but not making them move excessively. This is quite a complex physical operation! It is what makes strike three so hard to overcome. We often teach to have curved fingers or a rounded hand shape, but good technique is in motion, not still. It is not a pose, but a choreography. If students actually do keep their fingers curved or their hand rounded as they play, they inadvertently develop a habit of keeping the wrist and arm stiff. Ultimately, that undermines using arm weight and developing the subtle control of the fingers and keys that produces expression, technical fluidity and effective, injury-free playing of the piano.
Inability to do this means inability to experience doing it and that means absence of experiencing this dimension of playing the piano and even of music itself. I believe many kids lose interest in piano because they never really learn how to access through the piano the range of experience that makes music valuable to us. They never acquire the technical skills that makes that access possible (and if they see friends playing who have, this inability can be demoralizing when their in adolescence). This is where the Pumpkin Hand comes in. I did not have this idea when Jimmy began, but the Pumpkin Hand is a drawing together of the approaches I used with him into something more clear, more relatable and more attractive to kids.
A Pumpkin In The Hand Is Worth…$1.49 (plus tax)*
The prop I use with a bit of modification is this small decorative pumpkin I found at Hobby Lobby. They’re meant to stick into something like an artificial flower, so I first cut off the support wire. I used pruning shears here, but wire cutters work better.
The stem is also too long, so I cut it down to about a quarter of an inch. I used pruning shears, but scissors should work fine.
Hold a Pumpkin
In presenting to students, the first step is like the “hold a ball” idea. Students wrap their hands around it. This puts the stem of the pumpkin underneath the bridge of the hand at the 3rd finger—right in the middle. You might have heard—or experienced this yourself—of teachers holding a sharp pencil, pointy end up, under students’ hands right at this point so if the bridge of their hand (the row of knuckles where fingers meet hand) collapsed they’d get poked. That’s a pretty unpleasant way to go about it, but the desired result was sound. When the bridge collapses, the fingers cannot work as they should. The pumpkin stem is a more gentle approach, aimed not at enforcement, but rather awareness. It also provides an easily grasped analogy. The knuckle above the pumpkin’s stem is the “stem” of the Pumpkin Hand. I have students squeeze the pumpkin and watch their “hand stem.” I ask them to repeatedly open their hand then squeeze the pumpkin, watching the “hand stem” and feel the pumpkin stem underneath.
Become the Pumpkin
The second step is to remove the pumpkin and repeat this exercise, feeling the palm underneath their “hand stem.” I usually have them touch that part of their palm with a finger of their other hand while doing this. The point of these steps is to make them aware of their hand working as their fingers move. After doing this a few times, I have them hold the pumpkin again and play some black keys, feeling the pumpkin stem press against their palm underneath their “hand stem.” Then we remove the pumpkin and play black keys without it, aiming to use the hand to keep the fingers in the Pumpkin Shape.
In the video below, Kate does this last part for the first time. She is the first student I tried this with at her 5th lesson (she wasn’t 100% clear yet which keys are C & F). I wish I had video recorded her playing before this, because she had been having a hard time using her fingers, especially trying to play fingers 1 & 5 together. I didn’t have the foresight, though, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.
This is the first stage of learning the Pumpkin Hand. Kate is holding her finger tips pretty firmly in the video, but this is not always the case. I was amazed the first try went this well and subsequent uses proved this is not universal. But this first stage is just one part of a 3 part puzzle. The second stage is about addressing the problem of collapsing knuckles. If we stopped after this first stage, keeping the knuckles from collapsing may or may not happen, but even if it did, very likely developing a habit of playing with a stiff wrist and arm would also happen. That part is addressed in the 3rd stage.
Tune in next week for stage two, Pumpkin Tapping!
* Hobby Lobby is not real consistent with its seasonal merchandise, so you may not find the exact one I’m using.
Note: The names of students shown in this post have been changed to protect their identity.