What does a sleepy turtle have to do with the piano thumb? Or pizza dough, or a baseball diamond or the Millennium Falcon’s boarding ramp?
Actually, all of these can help develop magnificent piano thumbs in our students!
The thumb is the pillar of the piano hand. It’s not enough to have curved fingers or a flexible wrist; those are a great start. But if the thumb sits too flat, the wrist falls and the fingers flatten.
Or, if the thumb stands too tall, tension builds in the wrist and the elbow drops and depletes the energy flow down the arm.
To develop better finger dexterity, good wrist-arm alignment, smooth scale runs and even tone, the thumb position is key. 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:
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
First, my students and I flatten our hands (relaxed and flat, never with tension), and ‘fly’ them toward the piano keys.
The hand then lands like the Millennium Falcon, the four fingers relaxing and lowering like the spaceship’s landing gear.
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.
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. Please try this and the other ideas I’ve shared today with your students.
And, though my cat, Mo, may wish for piano thumbs, I’m unsure I can help him!
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