Piano finger numbers. How many times have you watched your students twist their fingers around in amazingly weird ways to attempt to reach the notes they desire to play?
Especially when learning written music, why is it so difficult for us to find the simplest way to get from A to B – or is it B♭?
It’s a daily experience for the piano teacher: a student comes in and is having difficulty with a particular passage, we show them the finger numbers and suddenly it’s all so much easier. Why does it seem like our students can’t come up with their own finger numbers?
As far as chording, playing by ear, and improvisation, the issue is progressively less obvious because we simply choose the patterns we already know how to finger. But imagine what we could achieve if those limits were pushed.
Where so much of what we teach in piano is so exquisitely organized, why does finger numbering continue to elude our students?
From our method books, we teach scales, we teach chords, we teach intervals on the staff and how they relate to the notes on the keyboard – all based on larger concepts, larger principles of music theory. As we grow in our musical training, we can always go back to these principles (really laws of the Universe) to generate new and deeper understandings about what we are learning.
But I have yet to see a method book that explicitly states, “These are the principles of finger numbering.”
Oh sure, we learn how to play intervals, simple chords, scales. But once we go beyond to “real music” it’s almost like every song is a new adventure in untangling our devious digits.
The closest I’ve heard to a bona fide general principle of finger numbering comes from Scott the Piano Guy: “Whatever finger gets there first, wins!” I understand the reasoning behind this: focus your attention on the note you want to play. Build your awareness of the keyboard. Don’t get hung up on playing the “right” finger.
Now I’m a big fan of Scott. Thinking about it, this approach makes a lot of sense. But in practice, I haven’t seen it work very well.
Why? My personal observation is that we acquire finger habits very quickly. The flexibility that the “first finger wins” approach promises quickly degenerates into rigid habits that favor the fingers with the most brain-space (more on this later).
So how did we learn to finger number?
In comparison to our students, why do we teachers find it so much easier to figure out piano finger numbers?
Through years of practice and experiencing different pianistic situations, we have absorbed a wide “vocabulary” of finger number possibilities. For most of us, this vocabulary was learned by rote memorization through thousands and thousands of thousands of repetitions, eventually growing into a pool of wisdom from which we draw as we encounter new situations.
In other words, we learned to finger number like a toddler learns to talk.
Not a bad way to go – the miracle of language acquisition is one of the most amazing achievements of our species.
However, for older children and adults to learn a language, a conscious understanding of the grammar and spelling of that language certainly accelerates the process.
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Toward Principle-based Finger Numbering
I’m going to describe to you a handful of principles, practices, and one law, that I use to guide me as I teach finger numbering in my lessons. In alignment with the idea that principles are beginnings to build on, rather than providing examples, I invite you to imagine how you would apply them to your teaching.
Since everything here is based solely on my own teaching experience, observations, and personal musings, I heartily welcome your comments and ideas below on the matter of finger numbering.
To deduce the principles of finger numbering, let’s look at how our minds and fingers work together.
Of course, all fingers aren’t created equal. Finger exercises since before the days of Hanon have focused on “strengthening” the fingers so they could play more “equally”. In our “normal” lives, fingers 1 and 2 do most everything. Finger 3 comes in handy sometimes, finger 4 gets to hold a ring, and finger 5?
Well, it’s good for pinky-swears and cleaning out an ear.
I imagine that if we saw a brain map of how much grey stuff is allotted to each finger, our thumb and forefinger would take up a zillion times more neurons than the other three fingers combined.
While important finger strengthening certainly takes place with exercise, the real progress is in the brain. I’ve often wondered if the accelerated brain growth reported in those famous studies of piano playing children are at least in part due to the increased use of fingers 4 and 5…
I believe that this is the primary reason that the “first finger wins” approach doesn’t work. Students will depend on finger 2 to do just about everything, and waste the potential resources languishing on the rest of their hands.
However, though over two centuries of Hanon exercises have striven to make our fingers equal, we can use the brain’s natural preferences to our advantage:
Principle 1: One Finger focus
The famous Hal Leonard “Pointer System” takes advantage of the brain’s favorite finger. This system relies on the superior hand-eye coordination hardwired into the brain-pointer connection. Finger 2 is the first finger individuated by babies as they learn to point to what they want.
In any passage, often directing students to focus on finger 2 can clear up the whole thing. Once they know where to point their finger 2, everything else falls into place.
Depending on the passage, focusing on a different finger is often more useful – for example, teaching the student to focus on the thumb movement in a series of ascending octaves.
Remember, though, that the other fingers will have a different “brain connection” than finger 2.
It’s this peculiar connection between the pointer and visual perception that makes it so useful in piano learning: piano is the most visual of instruments. However, that visual nature of the piano can cause other problems. Why?
The Visual Trap
Because fingers can’t see.
Sure, we often talk about the importance hand-eye coordination. But it’s my observation (and I’m wondering if brain research will back me up here) that finger 2 is much, much more connected to the visual apparatus than the others.
But what hands do best is move (motor function) and feel (sensory function). To see a graphic example of how the brain allocates space to the hands, see the representations of the motor and sensory cortical homunculi created by Dr. Wilder Penfield on display at the Natural History Museum in London.
We tend to teach piano visually, staring at the score, or staring at the keyboard. All our method books are visually-oriented.
Yet more than one famous pianist has been blind from birth.
The real breakthroughs come when we become aware of the piano kinaesthetically – by feeling the piano rather than just seeing it.
Principle 2: Kinaesthetic Focus
Some of my most magical teaching moments come when I ask my students to close their eyes.
No more struggling with them to keep their eyes on the page.
The students often surprise themselves with how well they do know their music. And once the struggle of where to put their eyes is bypassed, they can focus on the combination of touch and movement that the hands are best at.
Success is important, so I reserve this practice for small sections, usually trouble spots in a piece.
I’m learning about the depth of this principle the hard way: recently I’ve taken on learning a large repertoire of mariachi music which I arranged for the accordion. I’ve been bumping my head up against certain passages that seem quite difficult, even though I can read the music quite clearly. After hours of open-eyed practice, I’ve found that I could have cut my learning curve way down had I just closed my eyes and worked through kinaesthesis.
By the way, the eyes-closed exercise works wonders for beginning students who struggle with playing passages with two hands, especially when both hands are stepping up or down in unison.
Principle 3: Five Finger Positions Rule
The first-hand position we ever learn, the five-finger position, is the most natural and comfortable way to use the whole hand. Beginning piano focuses on this position, but students seem to think that the whole thing flies out the window when they start crossing fingers over and under.
Once they encounter, say, a tangle of piano finger numbers in a Bach invention, or a two-octave blues scale run, it’s every finger for itself until their hands crash in a tangled mess.
One of the kinaesthetic keys to successful finger numbering is keeping a stable hand position. Crossing over or under can destabilize that position – especially when the student twists the whole hand and throws the elbow out to the side.
It’s really not all that difficult for students to keep the line of the wrist parallel to the fallboard while crossing over or under – even if they have small hands. But is is something that needs to be taught.
Ebony and Ivory
A similar issue is the student that hasn’t figured out that they can slide all their fingers towards the fallboard when playing both black and white keys. They play the white keys on the wide part of the key, and twist the wrist and elbow to move up to the black keys. Another thing that seems obvious to us, but must again be taught.
Traditional methods introduce black keys slowly and painfully. For a very helpful exercise that quickly dispels the fear of the dark, simply teach your student to play five finger scales in every key. Even young students who don’t yet know sharps and flats are quite capable of learning these by rote.
Snap to grid
Once the hand position is stable, the fingers naturally fall into a five-finger position after crosses. Encourage your student to evaluate the subsequent passage to see where the fingers land easily.
Still, your students may second-guess and think they have to move their fingers when they don’t. This often occurs when there is a strong upward or downward movement in the melody and they’re anticipating more reach than is necessary.
Tip: One thing I’ve found helpful is to mark out passages where the hand position does not move for a period of time. Students are often surprised by how much mileage they can get out of one position.
Principle 4: Patterns
This is the extension of the five-finger positions principle. We acquired our finger number savvy by learning patterns upon patterns – scales, arpeggios, Hanon exercises, chords, octaves, stride patterns…
But even with all these exercises, it can be quite a different scenario when our students jump into real music.
When learning set pieces – classical or otherwise – this is part of a larger problem that we as creative piano teachers seek to resolve. Namely, musical pieces are often taught as “one-offs” – each piece like its own unique problem to solve. But taking the time to help the students recognize patterns and principles in that piece will accelerate their ability to transport that learning to other pieces.
Of course, this is something we all do subconsciously when we’re learning. But I’ve found that when I take the time to teach about the music theory, and the transportable techniques of a piece, the learning is faster, more efficient, and the student learns to look for patterns and principles in new pieces.
Specifically, to piano finger numbers, one fun way to address a tricky passage is to pull it out and practice transposing it to different notes, different scales.
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Patterns for the Creative Piano Teacher
When we’re improvising or playing by ear, we tend to stay within our technical comfort zone. So the greater our repertoire of finger patterns, the more potential fluency we achieve.
However, no matter how many patterns we learn, our improvisation tends to be restrained by what we can do physically rather than a completely free expression or music that we hear inside.
So far, I’ve been focusing on raising the kinaesthetic awareness of the fingers in greater proportion than the typical visual focus. But, ultimately, music is all about sound.
So one tool to liberating our fingers is our ears.
Principle 5: Fingear Training
With all finger number work, singing along connects our kinaesthetic, visual, and aural senses together, building deep connections that will pay off big time in greater musical fluency.
This singing can be singing the piano finger numbers, solfege syllables, note names, scale degrees, simply humming the tune, or all of the above.
And that’s still working from the fingers out to the ears – but what if we work it from the ears out to the fingers?
Learning music by ear teaches us to find new sonic patterns and to figure out how to twist our fingers around them. Regular practice which begins with sound – whether it’s the music in our heads or the music we hear in the world – inspires us to learn patterns and principles that may have been beyond our imagination.
These new finger patterns can then be practiced, transposed, etc. – becoming part of a transportable repertoire of techniques at the ready to play and create with the freedom we dream.
Well that’s a handful of principles to consider as you teach finger numbering. But where’s that law I promised?
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Let’s return from the lofty heights promised by the principle of “Fingear Training” to an idea that’s always relevant in finger numbering.
In my experience, this has been the single most helpful finger numbering concept for my students:
“Where you’re going to is more important than where you’re coming from.”
Music moves forward in time. Many issues in finger numbering come from choosing the most “comfortable” finger to come next. But that doesn’t always play out all the way to the end of the phrase.
In performance, music moves forward inexorably through time. Yet when we know the notes we’re going to play – whether from a score or by ear – we have the unusual advantage of being able to start in the future and work backwards to chart our course – 20/20 hindsight before the event has even transpired!
When a student has a persistent “crash and burn” passage, working backwards can reveal novel finger number ideas and greatly simplify the path to the end of the phrase.
Making Sense of Piano Finger Numbers
Combine the “Law” with Principles 1 through 5 and you’ll have powerful foundation for addressing finger numbering in your teaching in a more conscious, effective way. Remembering that there are several brain-body senses that combine to extract music from the wiggles of our digits (especially accounting for the rarely-discussed kinaesthetic senses combining touch and motor control) truly makes sense of piano finger numbers.
How do you teach piano finger numbers? Have you employed any of these principles – consciously or unconsciously? Do you have a different perspective on the matter?
Whether you respond or not in the comments below, for the benefit of our teaching and our students, it’s time to discuss a truly principled approach to piano finger numbers.