Over the last few years, I have developed an approach to teaching technique to my beginning students that has changed my teaching for the better. Today, I would like to share the first five techniques I focus on with my students, and the activities I use in my lessons to reinforce these skills. We learn these techniques away from the piano first, then we practice them at the piano using rote patterns like scales and broken chords. Finally, we incorporate these techniques into our repertoire pieces. Mastering these techniques in the first year of lessons will create a firm foundation for the more advanced technical concepts that follow.
I have found that technical issues such as fly-away fingers and flat fingers are often caused by tension. Students are working so hard to play each individual finger that they tense the rest of the hand, causing the other fingers to straighten out. It is important that students learn how to “let go” and completely relax the arm, wrist, and hand.
How to practice: I like to practice this concept by having students do arm swings away from the piano. We stand and swing our arms, making them completely relaxed. Then I ask students to make their arm as heavy and relaxed as they can, while I try to pick it up. You should be able to feel the difference between a relaxed arm and one with tension. With practice, students will be able to relax these muscles on command. Some students “get” this concept right away, while others might take several months to be able to completely relax their arms and hands on command. So, keep working on this exercise consistently at each lesson.
Technique #2: The Piano Stance
Are you constantly reminding students to sit up straight, touch their feet to the floor, and pick up their drooping wrists? We know how important it is to have correct posture at the piano, however this can be a difficult habit to instill in our students.
How to practice: I have found that most of my students who play sports connect with the idea of having a “piano stance.” We talk about how getting into the correct stance before playing the piano is just like using the correct stance when swinging a bat while playing baseball, or doing exercises in karate or ballet. We get in the habit of finding the correct distance from the piano, sitting tall, touching our feet to the floor, and putting our hands on the piano with a proper hand shape (more on that later). For students who are too short to touch the floor, I use an inexpensive plastic foot stool until they are able to reach the floor comfortably. We make a game of getting into our piano stance as quickly as possible--ready, set, go! Then we find our piano stance before playing each and every piece in our lessons.
Technique #3: Round Hand
Remember how we practiced arm swings for relaxation earlier? When our arms are fully relaxed, our hands naturally form a round, relaxed shape--which is exactly what we want when we play the piano.
How to practice: We can help students to fully relax their arms and hands by doing arm swings, then placing their hands gently on the piano to see the nice, round shape this creates. I have also found it helpful to have students imagine making a “house” for a small puzzle eraser or other toy. Just be sure that the hand stays relaxed--otherwise we run the risk of the dreaded “claw hand”--when students work so hard to create a round hand that they over-tense the fingers.
Technique #4: Landing on firm fingertips
If students are landing on the correct spot on their fingertips, it will eliminate many other technical issues: flat fingers and drooping wrists, for example. It is also important to make sure students are landing on the keys on the correct part of the thumb. Students often play on the side of the thumb joint, instead of beside the nail, which can cause the wrist to droop and the fingers to flatten.
Another issue I frequently encounter is students who are double-jointed or have extremely flexible joints. They often collapse at one of the finger joints when learning how to land correctly on the keys. These students often take longer to develop the ability to keep their joints from collapsing--but they can do it with patience and persistence!
How to practice: There are a few fun ways to help students practice landing on the correct spot on the fingertip without collapsing their joints. I like to use the game “Last Mouse Lost,” which has a rubber game board made up of small bubble shapes. (You can find this math game on Amazon or any place that sells educational games for kids.) When you press the game board with the correct part of the finger, you will hear a small “pop” as the bubble pushes in. We practice pressing each bubble firmly without letting the knuckles collapse. Once students are comfortable playing this game, I have them pretend to pop imaginary bubbles on the piano keys, using a light bouncing motion. We practice “perching” the thumb next to the other fingers on the piano keys and tapping it lightly, like a bird pecking the ground, to help learn the feeling of landing on the correct spot on the thumb.
Technique #5: Non-legato touch
I have found that encouraging students to play with a non-legato touch at first helps them to connect many of these beginning techniques together. They are focusing on using their arm weight to create each sound (as opposed to isolating each individual finger), landing on the correct part of the fingertip, and bouncing lightly off the keys while maintaining a round, relaxed hand.
How to practice: I like to start by having students practice the non-legato touch on the closed piano lid. We might imagine bouncing a basketball or jumping on a trampoline. I model the movement and then have students copy this motion using each finger one at a time. If I see tension creeping in, we will take a break and do a few arm swings to help students relax their hand and arm completely.
Once students are comfortable doing this movement on the piano lid, we try it using steps and skips on the white keys of the piano. Students will practice all of their pieces using this non-legato touch until I see they have mastered these first five techniques and are ready to learn legato playing.
In my experience, there are three keys to teaching technique successfully:
- Make technique practice fun! Use your imagination and turn these technical exercises into a game. Students will be much more likely to practice these exercises and take corrections on their technique if they are introduced in a fun and engaging way.
- Work on these techniques consistently at each lesson. Building technique is just like lifting weights at the gym--it takes consistency to see results.
- Be patient. It takes some students a long time to develop the body awareness necessary to master these techniques--but with patience and persistence, they can do it!
What do you think? Do you use any of these techniques with your beginning students? Any tips on teaching technique that you would like to share? I would love to hear from you in the comments!