Pianists’ Hand Position and Posture
Pupils who have watched others playing the piano may instinctively position themselves and their hands correctly straight away. However, most children I have taught (some adults as well) have no idea and they display many weird and wonderful contortions of both fingers and bodies.
I have witnessed various incorrect hand positions – sometimes occurring immediately after my advice to have the fingers ‘as if holding a ball’ – and far too often recurring on many occasions after that.
Some will have the tips of their (flat) fingers so far up the note that – even when playing the most basic piece solely on white notes – they have to negotiate the black ones in between. Less common – although I have one pupil who persists in doing it – is the opposite of this position, with fingers kept on the very edges of the keys (in some cases causing them to slip off).
Another strange hand position I’ve encountered is leaning the wrist lazily on the wooden edge of the piano (as if the player is too weak to hold it up) – again with the fingers completely flat.
At the other extreme is a very raised wrist with all fingers (apart from the one touching a note) ‘flying’ high up in the air – the main problem with this being that the fingers don’t necessarily ‘land’ in the correct place.
In the early stages, I encourage learners to imagine that their fingertips are glued to the notes. For the first few pieces in John W. Schaum Pre-A The Green Book, this will mean that the right-hand thumb (finger number 1) is glued to middle C, 2 is glued to D, 3 to E, 4 to F and 5 to G. Of course, it’s not ideal to hold on to this idea of a set hand position for too long (and, frustratingly, even after playing only a few pieces, many are unwilling to move) – but it’s as good a place as any to start.
In some cases, there is a great reluctance to use the fourth finger (of either hand), and learners will move the hand ‘out of position’ to avoid this. I then take some time to explain why the fourth finger is so ‘unpopular’ (or with younger children maybe ‘unloved’ – to get their attention and sympathy) and show them how, if they place all five fingertips on a flat surface and lift each one at a time, the fourth will not come up as high. They enjoy trying this exercise and it helps them to remember that an extra effort has to be made for this ‘special’ (unloved) finger.
As the player progresses, more tips on hand position and movement can be given. Particular attention should be paid to wrist action – which may be required for the first time when scales are learned. The pupil should be taught that it is not just a case of playing three fingers of the right hand, then putting the thumb under – but that as the thumb goes under, the wrist must change direction.
This wrist-swinging action is also vital in more advanced pieces when trying to move quickly from one note to another – possibly 9 or 10 notes above (a span of even fewer notes will be challenging for those with small hands). The pupil needs to be shown that ‘jumping’ is not the ideal way to move from a low note to a high one and that by changing the direction of the wrist he will be able to move more quickly, accurately and smoothly.
Position and posture are also important considerations. Many learners pull the chair or stool too far forward so they have to lean back (or in some cases have their legs at an angle) or too far backwards so they have to stretch to reach the keys.
Some try to sit on one leg (or two), whilst others cross one over the other. I never allow anyone to start playing until I see that they’re sitting correctly. Even then, I have some children (the ones whose legs are long enough) who persist in resting their right foot on the pedal – or banging it up and down. This can be extremely irritating but I usually manage to put a stop to it fairly quickly.
Others lean the body to one side, especially when playing scales – some seeming as if they are about to topple over as they head towards the higher notes. This not only looks rather odd, it also results in the pianist having less control.
One young boy I used to teach had a habit of slouching – which prompted me to say repeatedly: “Keep your back straight and con-cen-trate” – a catchy, rhythmic, little phrase which I then turned into a song and couldn’t resist singing at every possible opportunity. My singing is not the best (to put it mildly) and I’m sure I used to annoy him (I even annoyed myself) but – at the same time – we’d both end up laughing.
So, the back should be straight but without tension and the body leaning very slightly forward. Adults – in particular – have to be reminded to relax: I often observe shoulders creeping higher and higher towards the ears; a silent touch on the shoulder with my finger reminds the anxious pianist to lower them again –without interrupting the flow of play.