If you are an adult beginner wishing to learn to play the piano, there are a few things that you can do to improve your hand and finger health before you actually begin to practice the piano or keyboard. These exercises are important for overall finger, hand and wrist health, so make certain that you attempt at least two or three exercises every time you plan to practice the piano or keyboard.
As we get older, our hands, wrists, fingers and finger joints also get older. The combination of age and daily activities can cause wear and tear on our hands, even without symptoms. Osteoarthritis strikes even young adults and can worsen with usage and over usage of hands and fingers.
Playing the piano, knitting, and other arts are good ways to keep the hands useful even when signs of wear begin to appear. It is especially important for a pianist to keep the hands limber.
To keep hands and fingers flexible, warming up is always a good idea for a pianist. Whether you are a beginner or a virtuoso or somewhere in between, finger stretching exercises for piano or keyboard will improve your dexterity and prolong your ability to play piano or keyboard. There are dozens of exercises that a pianist can do, some in printed technique books such as Hanon, Czerny or Dohnányi, and some like the exercises outlined below.
Please exercise caution as you undertake these warm-up and stretching techniques. An injury to the wrist, fingers, joints or hand requires a long period of rehabilitation to allow the tissues to heal. Stretching should never cause pain. These hand exercises for piano players will allow you to warm up and stretch your hands without damage if you follow instructions carefully:
- Hands in warm water
- Palm and finger press
- Thumb and finger stretch
- Hands flat on a table
- Fingers on the keyboard
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Hands in Warm Water
Trying to play a piano or keyboard with icy cold fingers is not only painful, but clumsy as well. Cold fingers just do not respond to the brain’s commands as well as toasty warm fingers with sufficient blood flow. Placing your hands in warm water is probably the easiest way to warm up your hands and fingers and to loosen muscles of the hand.
As someone who struggles with osteoarthritis, I can assure you that warm water works wonders on aching fingers, joints, and hands. If you can place your hands in a sink basin full of warm, almost-hot water, the heat increases blood flow to the wrists, hands, fingers and joints. You can almost feel the increased blood flow in your wrists and hands as you soak them in nicely warm water.
Be careful to keep the water a warm temperature that isn’t too hot. Scalding your hands will not help you play the piano or keyboard. Scalded fingers can be extremely painful, as well, because scalding may injure delicate nerves and blood vessels. Monitor the temperature of the water as you fill the basin so you will not damage your sensitive hands and fingers.
Allow your fingers and hands to soak in the warm water as long as possible. But make certain to take your hands out of the basin of water before it cools completely. Otherwise you have wasted your time and may have to repeat the warm water bath.
Have a clean towel nearby to gently dry the hands. This may be a good time to carefully massage the fingers and hands, especially the areas around the joints, before you begin to play or to undertake any of the other warm up and stretching exercises you may wish to attempt.
Palm and Finger Press
With palms together, press right hand fingers against left hand fingers, gently pushing the left hand fingers back slightly; then press left hand fingers against right hand fingers, gently pushing the right hand fingers slightly. Repeat these procedures several times.
Once you become comfortable with this stretching technique, consider working just one finger at a time. Push each thumb back carefully. Then repeat with the index fingers, taking care to perform the stretch gently without any pain or discomfort. Repeat with the middle fingers, then the ring fingers, and finally the pinky fingers.
Also consider using combinations of fingers: 2nd and 3rd, 1st and 4th, etc. Some of these stretches may not work for you, and that’s okay. There is no rule that you must perform every stretching technique every time you warm up. Do take time to perform some kind of stretching; these exercises will increase your flexibility and blood flow to the hands and fingers.
Be very careful when you stretch your fingers in this manner, however. When you press a finger backwards, if you experience pain then you are pressing too firmly. It’s desirable to experience stretching in the joints and fingers. Pain is not desirable and is a warning that damage may be occurring in the part of the body experiencing pain. ALWAYS listen to the warning signs in your fingers, hands and wrists.
Thumb and Finger Stretch
With thumbs and index fingers touching and palms down toward the ground, press thumbs firmly together and index fingers firmly together to stretch the area between the thumbs and index fingers. Allowing the index fingers to relax and rise above the hands, press the thumbs together and the third fingers together to stretch the areas between them. Continue this process with the thumbs and fourth fingers and then the thumbs and fifth fingers.
When playing the piano, reaching certain intervals on the keyboard requires a flexible stretch between the thumbs and necessary fingers. By stretching the thumbs and specific fingers against one another, it improves the musician’s ability to manage those stretches in a comfortable and easy way.
None of us is likely to have the reach of Kawhi Leonard, the great NBA star for the Toronto Raptors, or of Sergei Rachmaninoff, the amazing Russian composer of whom it is rumored had hands so large that he could reach a 13th on the piano (that’s an octave and five additional keys, or approximately 12 inches on a piano with standard-sized keys!). By working on your stretches gently and carefully, you facilitate moving up and down a keyboard with ease in most written music.
Hands Flat on a Table
With your hands flat on a table or keyboard cover, lift 1 finger on each hand while keeping the other fingers pressed against the flat surface. You should make sure you lift each finger high on both hands without causing discomfort. Start with all fingers flat on the table, and then lift both thumbs while keeping the other fingers flat on the table.
Drop the thumbs back onto the table and, while keeping all the remaining fingers flat, lift the index fingers of both hands. Be certain to curve the fingers upward; do not keep them flat. Imagine a string attached to the first knuckles past the hands on the index fingers. The knuckles should lift first.
Lift the knuckles as high as you physically can without causing any discomfort to the finger. Repeat the exercise with the 3rd (middle) fingers, keeping all other fingers flat on the table if you can. Do the same with the 4th fingers of each hand. Repeat the exercise with the 5th fingers.
Don’t be surprised if this exercise is physically difficult, especially for the 4th and 5th fingers. It helps to press the flattened fingers a bit firmly against the table top. However, your 4th and 5th fingers will likely resist this exercise. Do NOT lift the fingers artificially! If you use your left hand to lift one of the fingers on the right hand or vice versa, you can damage the delicate tendons, ligaments or nerves of the hand. Let the fingers do the work, as much work as they can, without any other help.
It will take awhile to develop independent movement in these fingers. They may never be as adept as the second fingers (index fingers) in this exercise, but that is okay. They don’t have to perform as well as the index fingers.
Fingers on a Keyboard
With your fingers curved and fingertips pressing on five white keys with each hand, hold the thumbs on a key, pressing it down and holding it. While holding down the thumb, play the other four keys with each hand ascending and descending. For example, while holding down middle C with your right thumb, use fingers 2,3,4 and 5 to play D, E, F, and G, then reverse—G, F, E, D.
The left hand thumb will hold down G while fingers 2,3,4 and 5 play F, E, D, and C, then reverse—C, D, E, and F.
Repeat this exercise, except this time hold down the second fingers while playing 1, 3, 4 and 5. Then reverse—5, 4, 3, 1.
The pattern continues: hold down 3rd finger of each hand and play fingers 1,2,4,5, then reverse the finger numbers—5,4,2,1.
Hold down the 4th finger of each hand and play fingers 1,2,3,5. Then reverse the finger numbers—5,3,2,1.
Finally, hold down the 5th finger of each hand while playing fingers 1,2,3,4. Then reverse the finger numbers for the last time—4,3,2,1.
Of course, there are variations of this exercise that you can try as well. For instance, using one hand at a time, try holding down fingers 1, 3, and 5 on the keys. Then play 2 and 4, lifting fingers high, one at a time, then 4 and 2.
Just for fun, hold down fingers 2 and 4. Play 1, 3, and 5, one finger at a time, fingers high, and listen to the dissonance that results. Both of these new ways will create some interesting sounds.
Some musicians don’t care for dissonance. Other musicians love it. This is a good way for you to decide what you like as you work to increase the dexterity of the fingers. Repeat this exercise with both hands when you feel you have mastered it for the left hand and the right hand alone.
For an extra challenge, you could hold down the thumb of one hand and a different finger on the other hand. Then you could play the remaining fingers of each hand. This is some serious cognitive function, so don’t be surprised if it is much more challenging to do than it sounds. Most people simply don’t learn to work the fingers independently and simultaneously.
Music improves the motor function centers of the brain, especially the fine motor skills required to play music. This improvement takes time, however, so be patient with yourself as you learn these new skills.
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