Technique is a very important factor in learning to play piano. Some of the finest professional pianists practice diligently to enhance their technique more than they actually practice the piano pieces they wish to master. Sometimes working to enhance a technique may be nothing more than learning to relax while a musician practices or plays a piano or keyboard.
Relaxation is one of the most challenging aspects of playing the piano. Tension in the hands, fingers, shoulders, neck or back causes damage over a long period of time and is very difficult to eliminate once a habit has been acquired. Learning to relax the hand and fingers will improve your skills at the keyboard and is vital to maintaining good hand and finger health while you play.
In this article, I will address finger exercises for piano. These exercises will increase finger dexterity without actually using a piano or keyboard and can be done no matter wherever you may be. You will find some of them very easy to perform. Others of these exercises may challenge you physically and mentally. Whatever you do, don’t give up! Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are piano skills.
Here are 5 easy finger exercises you can do away from the keyboard to improve your piano skills and learn to play properly:
- Tennis ball beneath the hand
- Using the tennis ball to ‘drum’ the fingers
- Tap thumb and fingers simultaneously—same fingers
- Tap thumb and fingers simultaneously—different fingers
- With assistance from someone else, repeating exercises 3 and 4
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Tennis Ball Beneath the Hand
If you place your hand flat on a table or desk, you can see that the fingers are all different lengths. A piano keyboard is on a single plane, so obviously the hand and fingers must be curved in order for all the fingers to reach the keys sufficiently. Here’s where the tennis ball comes in. (If your hand is small or you want to perform these exercises with your child, consider using a golf ball or ping pong ball instead of a tennis ball.)
Place the tennis ball on the table or desk, and then curve your fingers over the tennis ball as it rests beneath the palm of your hand. (If your fingertips cannot touch the table top, then use a golf ball or ping pong ball to perform this exercise.) Your fingertips should be resting lightly on the table top and your hand should be curved over the ball.
This is the correct posture to play the piano or a keyboard. This curvature of the hand and fingers is vital to proper playing technique. A musician cannot play the piano or keyboard with flat fingers and a flat hand. Be certain that all five fingers can touch the desk or table top. This will be necessary for the next exercise.
Using the Tennis Ball, ‘Drum’ the Fingers
Now that you have achieved the correct posture of the hand and fingers, you will then ‘drum’ the fingers while the ball is beneath the hand. Before you begin, however, let’s make it clear how each finger is numbered for keyboard studies.
The thumb on each hand is the 1st finger. This differs from most instruments, as the thumb is otherwise used to hold and stabilize wind instruments and string instruments.
The forefinger on each hand is finger number 2. The middle finger on each hand is finger number 3. The ring finger on each hand is the 4th finger. The pinky on each hand is finger number 5.
Now, with the balls still beneath the palms of the hands, ‘drum’ your fingers and thumbs as if you are impatiently waiting for something or someone. Perform this action one hand at a time, making certain that you keep a steady pattern. Don’t rush; finger exercises cannot be hurried if they are to have the maximum benefit.
When you feel confident that you have managed a 1-2-3-4-5 pattern with one hand, repeat it with the other hand. For more away-from-the-keyboard exercises and relaxation techniques, check out this information on ways to relax the hands, wrists, and other parts of the body used in playing piano or keyboard.
Tap Same Fingers and Thumb Simultaneously
This exercise can be performed with the balls under the palms of the hands or without the balls. If you choose to do this exercise without the balls under the palms of your hands, keep the hands and fingers curved as if the balls were still there.
Tap the thumbs simultaneously in the same rhythm and the same speed, at least 10 times. Next, tap the forefingers of each hand simultaneously, same rhythm and speed, at least 10 times. You see the pattern? Middle fingers of both hands next, same rhythm and speed simultaneously, at least 10 times. Fourth fingers of both hands next, same rhythm and speed simultaneously, at least 10 times.
These fingers and the pinky fingers will likely be uncomfortable, as the nerves which connect them are intertwined. These intertwined nerves can make independent movement tricky. But keep trying! A measure of independent motion can be achieved with sufficient and diligent practice. Take your time and work slowly. Learning to play a keyboard or a piano is not an event; it is a process, and it takes time and a great deal of repetition.
Learning to coordinate the fingers of each hand helps master a degree of independent movement in the fingers. Independent movement is vital for a piano/keyboard musician. It is helpful if you master this exercise before you begin the next one, but not absolutely necessary. No matter how accomplished you may become on the piano, this exercise will always improve your finger dexterity as well as your concentration.
Tap Different Fingers Simultaneously
This particular exercise will not only strengthen your fingers and hands, but it will also stretch your cognitive function and concentration. Get ready! It’s a challenge!
Using the tennis/golf balls under your palms if you wish, tap different fingers simultaneously in the same rhythms and speeds (the musical word for speed is tempo). For example, tap the thumb of the right hand with the middle finger of the left hand using the same rhythm and tempo. Then switch to right hand 2 and left hand 4. Then tap right hand 3 and left hand 1.
Continue in this pattern until you tap with all five fingers on each hand. Don’t be surprised if this exercise presents quite a challenge at first. You may be amazed by the difficulty of tapping different fingers at the same time and tempo. Most tasks we human beings undertake do not require different fingers doing the same thing at the same time. Even typing on a computer keyboard is one finger at a time, one letter at a time.
I strongly recommend doing this exercise at a very slow tempo at first. Once you have mastered it slowly, then you may consider increasing the tempo slightly. An additional hint: this exercise will be improved by using a metronome. Set your metronome no faster than 60 beats per minutes when you begin to practice this exercise.
If this tempo proves too fast, then reduce the speed to 50 beats per minute or even to 40 beats per minute. Find a tempo that works for you and master this exercise before you attempt to speed up the exercise. Metronomes are a musician’s best friend and worst enemy, oddly enough. We hate the clicking or beeping sound, but a metronome will keep a musician at a steady tempo better than anything else.
Tap Different Fingers Simultaneously with Assistance
Find a willing partner to help you with this exercise. With or without the balls beneath your palms, ask your partner to call out different finger numbers for each hand. Then you tap the finger numbers called out by your partner at a rhythm and tempo you choose.
For example, your partner may say, “Right hand 3, left hand 5.” You tap finger 3 on the right hand and finger 5 on the left hand simultaneously, same rhythm and tempo. Start slowly or your brain will hurt! Perhaps you can ask your partner to count your taps at an even, slow tempo. By doing so, you may be able to focus more closely on tapping the correct finger number on each hand and staying at a steady pace.
If you cannot find anyone willing to be your partner in this exercise endeavor, use some 3 x 5 index cards to make flashcards. Ten cards sorted in two stacks will be sufficient. On one set of cards, write “Left hand 1,” “Left hand 2,” and so forth until all five fingers of the left hand are written. On the second set of cards, do the same for the right hand fingers.
Shuffle each set separately. Pull one card from each set, decide your metronome setting, and tap your fingers according to the instructions on the two cards. These index cards provide for some rather interesting opportunities to play with tempo, as well. Write tempo markings on each of the left hand cards; for example, on one card beneath the hand and finger number, write 56 for the tempo marking, or 56 beats per minute. Feeling really adventurous? On one of the left hand cards, write 86!
Altering rhythms is another way to ‘mix up’ the learning when it comes to independent fingers on different hands. Tap one pair of cards with a straight rhythm: 1,2,3,4. On the next set of cards, tap Long…..short, long. This idea is limited only by your rhythmic imagination!
You can use any of these ideas with any of the practice techniques outlined above. Don’t be afraid to experiment to keep your practice fresh and interesting. One of the biggest challenges faced by all pianists, beginner or otherwise, is boredom. If your practice becomes boring, you will be less likely to practice the necessary things to play the piano properly, with good technique. Or even worse, you might practice incorrectly.
Practicing technique incorrectly can not only damage your technique, but it can also damage your fingers, hands, or wrists. Usually when a pianist is diagnosed with carpal tunnel or other conditions of the hand or wrist, they have practiced or played with incorrect technique.
To prolong your joint health and ability to play, make certain that you practice correct techniques no matter what exercises you choose to employ. Losing the ability to play piano or keyboard because of an injury is a terrible thing for any musician to face. Be kind to yourself and practice correctly EVERY TIME. Your hands will thank you, and your technique will thrive!
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