4 Tips for Teaching Tension-free piano hands and thumbs [Photos]

Most of us heard it from our piano teachers: curve your fingers. But it’s not enough to have curved fingers. Despite our best efforts, if the thumb sits too flat, the wrist will fall and the fingers will flatten.

If the thumb sits too flat…

Or, if the thumb stands too tall, tension will build in the wrist and the elbow will drop and deplete the energy flow down the arm. 

If the thumb stands too tall…

How can a sleepy turtle help relax the piano hand? Or pizza dough? How can the shape of a baseball diamond help the angle of the thumb? Or the Millennium Falcon’s boarding ramp?

Actually, all of these can help relax muscle tension in our students! Keep reading for four effective tips on tension-free development the piano hands and thumbs.

1. Sleepy Turtle

From the first lesson my students begin to learn how to shape and relax their hands. I ask them to place both of their hands side-by-side in a relaxed fist (not tight). This could be on their lap, on the piano keys (silently) or on the surface of the closed piano cover. I place mine beside theirs as the example for them to follow. For my youngest students we call this the Sleepy Turtle. Our hands are the turtle shells, and the fingers are the legs and head all tucked inside as they sleep.

The turtle sleeping in its shell.

Then, slowly, the turtles wake and the fingers slowly rise up like legs coming out of the shells. The hand shape that results is a lovely relaxed hand, fingers naturally curved, wrists floating with the thumbs at a nice side-tip angle. 

Beautiful hand shape unfolds from the Sleepy Turtle.

2. Pizza Dough

For my tweens and teens, we call this Pizza Dough. It’s the same: we begin with relaxed fists side-by-side, and they are like lumps of dough. Then, slowly, the dough rises. The fingers unfold and lift the hands into a natural, relaxed shape, wrists floating and thumbs on the side-tips. As we observe their hands I always point out all the things I love about the way their hands look in that moment so the student can see and feel what we are aiming for. 

If ever I notice flat fingers or a collapsed thumb or sinking wrists, we simply pause what we are playing and do a Sleepy Turtle or Pizza Dough as a type of ‘reset,’ and then continue playing. I encourage them to do this at home while they are practicing, too, sometimes at the beginning of each repeat. Through repetition and reinforcement, over time students can build a lovely hand shape, including a thumb that stands on its side-tip.  

To develop better finger dexterity, good wrist-arm alignment, smooth scale runs and even tone, the thumb position is key. To focus on the thumb only and not the entire shape of the hand, I’ve developed two more analogies and they have worked wonders with my students.

In your piano lessons this week, observe your piano students’ thumbs. If you’d like to help them improve the side-tip angle of their thumbs, consider these ideas: 

3. Baseball Diamond

Have you ever noticed what the thumbnail looks like when the thumb is playing at the desired side-tip angle? It looks like a diamond. Most students can relate to baseball diamonds. To develop a good angle in the thumb, I’ve challenged my students to play on the ‘home base.’ This is the point of the nail on the outside edge of the thumb that sits on the key when the thumb plays at the side-tip angle. We play on the flesh of the thumb but can tell we have a good angle for playing if the home base of the baseball diamond is pointing down. 

When the thumb is at a good playing angle, the thumbnail looks like a diamond.

If the thumb is too flat or too tall, the nail will look square. When this happens, to find a comfortable playing position, I begin where the student is already. If their thumb has collapsed, we begin with the flat thumb and roll the hand forward until we see the diamond and home base point to the key. Likewise, if the thumb stands too tall; we roll back. Together with Sleepy Turtle (or Pizza Dough) and patient work and reminders, Baseball Diamond has helped my students develop poised and relaxed hands over time. 

4. Spaceship Boarding Ramp

It was a breakthrough, however, when I developed my next idea. Never before have I seen such immediate results. Usually with beginners or transfer students I make it a year-long goal for the student to independently play with good hand shape. This next idea worked within two months. 

Almost everyone has seen the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars. To exit the fastest ship in the galaxy, first the boarding ramp must be lowered. The angle of the ramp is the perfect comparison for the piano thumb. 

The Millennium Falcon’s boarding ramp is the perfect comparison for the piano thumb.

First, my students and I flatten our hands (relaxed and flat, never with tension), and ‘fly’ them toward the piano keys.

The hand flies like the Millennium Falcon about to land.

The hand then lands like the Millennium Falcon, the four fingers relaxing and lowering like the spaceship’s landing gear.

The Millennium Falcon has landed, the boarding ramp ready to be lowered.

The thumb, like the boarding ramp, stays up a moment longer, lowering to the piano key only at the moment the pilot and passengers are ready to exit the ship. Once lowered, the thumb stays at the side-tip angle, like the boarding ramp.  

The Millennium Falcon, landed, boarding ramp lowered.

Comparing the piano thumb to the Millennium Falcon’s boarding ramp has been a revolutionary development in teaching the piano thumb in my studio. It’s such a catchy, memorable idea that my students instantly get it and remember to practice it at home. For the first time I am complimenting them on their beautiful piano thumbs instead of reminding them to reset and start again.

I’m excited with the results I’ve seen in my students. I believe that if you give these tips a try in your piano studio, your students will experience the benefits of your gentle coaching, too!

And, though my cat, Mo, may wish for piano thumbs, I’m unsure I can help him….

Mo, my cat, wishes he had piano thumbs.

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I appreciate shares, comments and likes. Happy teaching!


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