Teaching Hand Position

This is one of those subjects that gets some teachers frothing at the mouth and examining their students' body positions in minute detail. In fact, there are whole schools of technique/pedagogy dedicated to hand and body position.

I try to keep it simple.

This means I aim for the student's keeping her forearm parallel to the floor. When this happens, the top of the hand is also parallel to the floor.

Of course, with little ones, special provisions are often needed to allow the student to hold her forearm/hand correctly - - such as a telephone book on the bench!

If the student stands with arms hanging straight down, the fingers will naturally curl under. To demonstrate this, I ask the student to stand with arms at the sides. The student's fingers curl. Now I pull the piano bench so far to one side so that, when the student is sitting, one of the student's arms is able to hang straight down and not bump the bench. I ask the student to -keep her fingers that way- and bend her elbow so her hand can be placed on the keyboard. This, to me, is the ideal position at the keyboard.

Another way to think of this position is "keeping the wrist up."

The trick is learning to "sense" what this position feels like so the student can discern when the hand position is lost. This is probably the most difficult part of learning hand position.

Unfortunately, this is something the student must do for himself. The teacher should keep an eye on it at all times during lessons, though, to catch him when he loses it.

For children, the dangling arm approach is usually too esoteric. For kids, it's better to focus on keeping the wrist up.

To demonstrate what happens when the wrist is not up, I ask the student to tell me his favorite beverage. "Grapefruit juice? Really? Ok, pretend you have a big glass of grapefruit juice resting on the top of your hand. What happens to your grapefruit juice if you drop your wrist?" Boom. On the floor. Big trouble with Mom. No grapefruit juice to drink. "What happens if you lift your wrist?" Ick! In the piano. More big trouble with Mom.

Again, continued reminders at lessons will solve the hand position problem.

Another common problem is when the wrist drops so far that the heel of the palm is resting on the keyslip [that's the piece of wood just below the keyboard; the plane of the keyslip is perpendicular to the plane of the key tops]. "Been out in the desert long? I see you wrists have melted!"

To solve this one, I use the Piranha Game. I put my hand, palm up, next to the keyslip and wiggle my fingers so that my fingertips will just touch the underside of the child's wrist if the wrist collapses. When the wrist drops, the student's hands are tickled by my fingertips, and I say, "Hurrah! Lunchtime at the Piranha Café!" From the first technical exercise, we play the piranha game.

Most young students also need a weekly wrists-up song, which I call a Piranha Song. We select a really old song, one the student knows the notes so well that he barely has to consult the page; often, he has it by memory already. The idea is for him to play the song and also pay close attention to his hand position. Is that wrist drooping? Oops! Fix it before those piranhas get a nibble!

One other trick I've tried with some success: explaining that the wrist's job is to hold up the arm. If the wrist doesn't do its job, then the poor fingers have to play the keys -and- support the weight of the arm. I ask the student to go to the grocery store and, with permission, weigh his arm on the produce scale and report the finding. "Heavy, isn't it? Your poor fingers! Make that wrist do its job!"

Some students have the habit of dropping their thumbs toward the floor when these fingers are not in use. This one is "Don't Let the Alligators Get You." When the thumb drops, I grab it and say, "Alligator got you!"

I find these two games work very well. More than one student has asked to play the Alligator Game and/or the Piranha Game long after it's not needed, technically. They want to make a mistake and see if they can beat me by correcting it before I can get them.

Keep an eye on the shoulders. Many students lift their shoulders as they concentrate intently on playing. They need to learn what it feels like to keep the shoulders dropped, again, so they can sense immediately that something is wrong. Shoulder position doesn't affect hand position all that much, but it does introduce tension in the body, which causes fatigue and reduces enjoyment and attention to proper hand position.

Another place of tension, surprisingly enough, is the tongue!

Playing with good hand position is a combination of relaxation, natural hand position, and sensitivity to when things are "out of whack."

copyright 1998-2003, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me for reprint permission.

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Last updated on November 28, 1998.