Much has been published, both printed and online, about keyboard exercises to improve facility at the piano or keyboard. Beginners especially seem to have challenges with developing this facility on the keys. As I’ve considered this challenge, I have come up with seven of the best piano exercises that seem to help my students and others who wish to learn to play the piano or keyboard.
All of these exercises take place on the keyboard. Some of these exercises will sound bizarre, but these exercises are not meant to be musically pleasing. They are designed to facilitate independence of the fingers, first one hand at a time, and then both hands played simultaneously. Variations of any of these exercises can ‘spice up’ your practice and make the exercises more interesting and challenging.
Here in ascending order of difficulty are the seven best piano finger exercises that will help all beginning piano/keyboard players have success and strengthen the fingers:
- Five fingers ascending
- Five fingers descending
- Five fingers on five keys
- Both hands, five fingers going in opposite directions
- Both hands, five fingers going in the same direction
- Both hands on keys, play 1,3,5 on each hand simultaneously, then 5,3,1 simultaneously
- Both hands on keys, play 5,3,1 on left hand, 1,3,5 on right hand simultaneously
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Five Fingers Ascending
Using curved hand and fingers, place your right thumb (finger #1) and four fingers on five adjoining white keys on your piano. Don’t worry about which five white keys you choose; it does not matter how the keys sound together when you begin to play. This exercise is only about finger facility and listening for volume.
Slowly, starting with your thumb, play one key at a time. You will be using finger 1, which is the thumb, first. Your index finger is finger #2, and this finger follows. Finger #3 is your middle finger, followed by finger #4 (the ring finger) and finger #5 (the pinky). These finger numbers never change when playing the piano. It would be worthwhile to learn the finger numbers as soon as possible so you don’t have to spend time thinking about which finger is which number.
Don’t try to rush through this exercise. Yes, it is very simple. Make certain that you lift the fingers completely off of the keys as you play them one at a time. Listen carefully. Is every key played with the same weight? Volume is the aspect for which you are listening. Every note should be the same volume—nothing louder or softer than the note before.
Most of us tend to be “thumb heavy”; i.e., the thumb tends to ‘thump’ the key, producing a louder sound than the subsequent fingers. Don’t be surprised if that is the case when you begin this exercise. Your goal is to play all five notes, one at a time, in ascending order (going up, or to the right, on the keyboard) without any ‘thumps’ or variation in volume. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Perhaps it is for you, but don’t be surprised if it isn’t as easy as it seems.
Once you have mastered this exercise with your right hand, proceed to play the same pattern with your left hand. If you are right-handed, this exercise may present quite a challenge for you. Left-handed people tend to find that the right hand presents their biggest challenge. Either way, you are striving to play the keys evenly with tones all the same volume.
Once you feel you have mastered this exercise and maintained the same volume throughout, try increasing the speed (tempo) of the exercise. You can spend a great deal of time on this exercise by varying tempos and rhythms.
Five Fingers Descending
Just as it sounds, this exercise merely reverses the direction of the one just discussed. As before, make certain that you play one hand at a time, one finger at a time, lifting fingers 5-2 high above the keys and playing each key with your fingertips. Make certain that the volume never changes as you descend from your pinky finger to your thumb. No thumps, no whispers, just a nice even sound as you move from key to key and finger to finger.
Once you feel satisfied that you have mastered this exercise with each hand, try increasing the tempo or varying the rhythm. As before, be careful to maintain an even tone and the correct posture on the keys.
Five Fingers on Five Keys
Using only one hand at a time, press down all five fingers on 5 keys, then lift only one finger at a time while holding down the other four fingers. This exercise may seem easy as you work the thumb and second finger. The third finger may present more of a challenge. The fourth and fifth fingers may seem to be impossible to lift independently of the others. Most people struggle to attain independence in the fourth and fifth fingers, especially that stubborn ring finger (#4).
When you feel you have mastered this exercise with one hand, try it with the other hand. Be patient with yourself; don’t expect to master this exercise immediately.
Play slowly. Don’t try to rush through this exercise. Don’t use anything to try to lift the fingers except the muscles and tissues of each finger. To try to ‘help’ lift the fingers by pulling up the fingers with the unused hand could actually damage the fingers. One of the finest pianists who ever lived, Robert Schumann, is rumored to have damaged his own fingers using a make-shift device to strengthen his fingers. So resist the temptation to do anything that might harm your fingers!
Both Hands, Five Fingers Going in Opposite Directions
Using both hands on five consecutive white keys, play the same finger numbers (1,2,3,4,5) on the keys. The keys will be different, but the finger numbers are the same. Listen carefully to make certain that the tones are the same; i.e., you should be listening for volume primarily. Don’t worry about whether or not the left hand notes and the right hand notes sound good together. That isn’t the point of this exercise. This is all about volume and tone.
Start by playing slowly until you can play all five fingers on both hands with the same volume and length of tone. The keys should be pressed down and released exactly at the same time.
Once you have mastered playing slowly, start increasing the tempo little by little, still listening carefully to make certain that the tones are exactly the same volume and length. If you find it distracting that the notes are dissonant (or ‘clash’), place the left hand 5th finger on a C below the middle of the piano and the right hand 1st finger on middle C. You will still play the same finger numbers (1, 2, 3, 4 ,5 and then 5, 4, 3, 2, 1), but the sounds will be much less dissonant and probably less distracting.
You can have some fun with this exercise by playing the finger numbers separately; e.g., play left hand 1st finger then immediately right hand 1st finger. The keys are not sounding together but immediately after one another. This variation can be challenging and entertaining, as well.
Both Hands, Five Fingers Going in the Same Direction
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? But it certainly is not! Yes, the fingers will be moving in the same direction. But the finger numbers will not be the same except for the 3rd finger on both hands.
Place your left hand fifth finger on a low C. Place your right hand first finger on middle C. Play left hand 5th finger with right hand 1st finger. You will be playing two ‘C’s together, but you will be using different finger numbers to play them. Play slowly, listening for equal tone and length. Don’t hold one key longer than the other. This exercise may feel awkward at first, but it should quickly become easier to play.
When you feel you have mastered this exercise, increase the tempo. Keep listening for tone equality and length of notes.
Both Hands on Keys, Play 1, 3, 5 on Each Hand Simultaneously, Then 5, 3, 1 Simultaneously
Still in C position on the white keys, play fingers 1, 3, and 5 on each hand simultaneously. The pitches will not be the same, but they will fit together harmonically. Listen carefully for sameness of tone and length of notes. Make sure that no note is louder than the other. Play slowly so you can listen closely.
Once you have mastered this exercise at a slow tempo, increase the speed incrementally. Continue to carefully listen for sameness of tone and length of notes.
Both Hands on Keys, Play 5, 3, 1 on Left Hand, 1, 3, 5 on Right Hand Simultaneously
Again in C position on the white keys, play fingers 5, 3, 1 on left hand while playing fingers 1, 3, 5 on the right hand. In this exercise you will be playing the same pitches but with different finger numbers. This exercise will probably present more of a challenge since the hands will be playing different finger numbers at the same time.
Start slowly and listen carefully, as in all of the exercises presented here. All of the tones should be the same volume and the same length. Try to separate all the tones and keep them from blending together as you play. Each tone should be clear and distinct with no blurring of sounds. Listening is such an important part of playing the piano or any other instrument. As you learn to listen more closely, you become a better musician.
Once you feel that you have mastered this exercise at a slow tempo, increase the speed incrementally. Continue to listen for volume and length of tones. Increasing the tempo challenges listening skills, but make certain that you master the exercise at a slow tempo before you speed it up.
These seven exercises and the variations in tempo or rhythms can improve your skills at the piano or keyboard. Don’t be afraid to experiment with tempos and rhythms once you feel confident in performing the exercises.
Some remarkable and challenging exercises exist online and in print. Many web sites offer free exercises that you can print and study. One of the most important and prolific composers of piano exercises was the composer Charles-Louis Hanon. He published arguably the most famous book of technique exercises for improved speed and facility at the keyboard.
These exercises are now available to print and study online, as they are public domain works and therefore available to the public at no cost. Consider them as your next approach in exercises for the piano or keyboard.
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