Pumpkin Tapping

In last week’s post, Pumpkin Hand Piano  I presented the use of a pumpkin as a metaphor and prop for teaching kids how to use their fingers and hands in playing piano. In short, I took the ideas of rounded hand shape and holding a ball a step further by using the stem of a pumpkin to call kids’ attention to the bridge of the hand. This week, I want to get into the perennial problem of curved and strong fingers. I don’t know how many times I’ve said or written “curved & strong fingers” over the years, or how many times students have failed to quite get it. As the saying goes, if I had a nickel…

My mini pumpkin prop has provided a new approach that is proving with my students to be very effective. The reason, I believe, is that they are getting an understanding of how this fits in with their use of the hand in a way they can understand: Through experience. I can picture you sitting back, looking skeptically down your nose at me and saying, “Is that so? Please, tell me more.” To which I say, “Sure thing!”

There’s actually three parts to this. The first is Pumpkin Tapping. I’ve long used tapping on the key cover in an effort to get kids to develop the nerve connections required for individual finger control and to develop curved and strong fingers. If you haven’t done this, the student does as I’m doing in the video below. 

I think this has not been as effective as I’ve hoped for a few reasons. One, this is not how anyone plays the piano with arm weight. There’s no movement, no weight, and the fingers have no pressure on them since they aren’t having to push against any resistance. Two, if you’re fingers are pushing straight down into the keys, as mine are doing into the key cover, the arm must be tense to provide a counter balance. Consequently, even if a student does this type of finger tapping on the keys, they will be using the whole mechanism—fingers, hand, wrist and arm—in conflict with how they need to use it to play with arm weight. Three, they are not using the hand at all. On the contrary, this gives the impression that the fingers work independently of the hand. 

Pumpkin tapping has proven much more effective. Here is the video from which the picture of my student above was taken. 

Kathy is a little past 5 years old. As you can see, she’s holding the pumpkin while she taps each finger. This means the hand has to work. At first, her fingers are not as curved as they could be. The pumpkin, though, makes it easy for her to experience the distinction between curving her fingers all the way to the tips, and just curving the first knuckle. In my experience, this is a big problem. Young kids’ awareness just isn’t tuned into details enough for them to recognize the distinction between bending that last joint also or leaving it straight. When I point this out to her in the video, though, she gets it immediately. She can feel the difference. This is because of the direction of force. At first, she is pressing into the pumpkin when she taps it with the pad of her finger. Because of this, the force of the movement is not directed at the pumpkin. When the fingers are curved, the tips point at the pumpkin and this means the force of her tapping IS directed at the pumpkin. This is something anyone can feel. Feeling this, in fact, is essential to feeling “connected” to the piano keys when playing. If your fingers are flat, you cannot feel connected to the keys simply because the force of your effort to depress them is not being precisely directed into them. 

What I’m really saying is that curved fingers are not actually the issue. As any accomplished pianist knows, ones fingers go through most of their range of movement in the process of playing the piano. The concept of curving the fingers is simply how we try to counter kids tendency to play with flat fingers when they begin. It does work, eventually, but I hope I am illuminating somewhat why so many kids still play with flat fingers or collapsing knuckles even though they know very well that their fingers should be curved and the knuckles shouldn’t collapse.

Kathy above is doing pumpkin tapping for the first time. Later comes the not-very-imaginatively-named Pumpkin Tapping 12345. Hey, I’m calling the hand a pumpkin, so give me a break! Seriously, I just thought calling it that made it easy for my students to remember what it is, which is pumpkin tapping, but with all 5 fingers, like a 5-finger exercise. In fact, the idea came from a student who was having trouble with exactly such an exercise in Dozen a Day

To do Pumpkin Tapping 12345, the pumpkin has to be held in the other hand, because it needs to be done too quickly to maintain a grip on the pumpkin. In the video below, Kathy demonstrates. As you can see, she really likes her pumpkin! She will do this as part of her practice at home so that she can do it quickly. 

The purpose is two-fold, to practice tapping and also to develop more finger independence in a context in which that is easy to do while maintaining a good form. The keys provide resistance and this creates a challenge to maintaining form. Being able to maintain form in this exercise helps to develop the nerve connections required to control the movement. That will make succeeding at mainaining the form on the piano more likely.  

In summary, the pumpkin hand exercises in my previous post introduced the concept and the prop, with the addition to the common “hold a ball” concept of the stem, making the student aware of the bridge of the hand. Pumpkin Tapping makes the student aware of curved fingers through experiencing using curved fingers to apply force to the pumpkin. To get these things to work together, however, requires being aware of the hand working when they play. The muscles that give the fingers their strength are actually in the underside of the forearm. Tendons run from these muscles through the wrist, the hand and all the way to the last segment of the finger. These muscles are fairly large and strong, but we also have muscles in our hands that operate the fingers in more subtle ways. To develop technical proficiency, these muscles need to be developed, as well, and this cannot be done very well if we are not aware of them. As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I’ve found away to use the pumpkin to achieve this. Next week, we’re going to squeeze something more from this Pumpkin Hand!

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