Questions, Technique

The November Forum: Analogies for Finger/Hand Shape

This month’s discussion topic:

Analogies for Finger/Hand Shape at the Piano

How do you teach students how their fingers/hands should look when they play?  Do you use any analogies, such as: “pretend you are holding a bubble”?  What do you find works, and what doesn’t?  Please share your tips!

Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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22 thoughts on “The November Forum: Analogies for Finger/Hand Shape”

  1. I use the bubble. And I tell them to make sure they stay relaxed, so they don’t pop the bubble….but curve their fingers enough that the bubble doesn’t float away. If they start to drop their wrists, I point out that they are squishing their bubble all over my piano….and soap with ruin the piano. The young children, especially love this. But even the teenagers and adults can relate to it.

  2. Baby chicks! Don’t squash ’em, but don’t let ’em get cold, either! We also do a quick 2-second “Hokey-pokey & shake ’em all about” & then I ask them to drape their hands over their knee-caps. That’s the position I tell them I want.

  3. Sometimes I use an orange…those clementines are a perfect size. And, with that lesson the student gets to go home with one. Funny thing is, they hardly ever eat it because they “need” it at home to help with their hand shape. I’ve also used the Fisher Price “Roll-Around” balls. My younger students love ’em because of the fun things inside them. Since I have a whole box of them they’ll pick a different one every time they come. We’ve used the bubble analogy too.

    Thanks for the great idea for “Hokey Pokey” and shaping the hand over the knee cap!

  4. I like the orange analogy above…my music teacher would have me put my hand around a door knob, and as a young child, this may have suited my hand size better than anything else…

  5. Great comments, folks! I like to have the student dangle their arm loosely at their side and have them notice how their fingers are naturally curved even when completely relaxed. We then bring their gently curved fingers up to the keys and usually very little additional adjustment to their hand shape is needed (depending on the student).

    For preventing those nasty finger cave-in’s, I like to use the phrase “firm fingertips” and instruct them to “play on the tips of your fingers rather than on your fingerprint.”

    Of course, I also employ the philosophy, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If the student naturally has a good hand position, I don’t bother spending much time talking about hand shape.

    I love the ideas shared above! Your can never have too many ways to explain something. What works for one student might not work for the next. =)

  6. I agree with Joy and like to point out how fingers are naturally curved when dangling at the side or placed on your lap.

    I like to use phrases like, “play on the tips of your fingers” or “don’t collapse your knuckles.”

    Sometimes for young students I use the birds nest analogy (similar to the baby chicks mentioned above) – you don’t want to squish the baby birds in the nest.

    Also, I have done this before with young beginners – place little dot stickers on each of their fingertips (where the finger should be touching the keys – so for the thumb it’ll be on the side). You can even put dot stickers on the keys on a 5-finger position, kind of in an arch shape, where the fingers should be touching the keys – so all they have to do is line up the dots and they’ve got a good hand position!

  7. Something my piano teacher used and I continue is to tell my students that their hands are the shell of the turtle. If their hands begin to collapse, I tell them not to squash the turtle underneath. The younger ones really seem to relate.

  8. Loving the suggestions above. i’ve always said an apple, but I think I will try out the bubble one. Love that!

    My question for anyone is about a 6 year old student who has a physical disability with her eye sight. One eye does not function properly and it affects how she places her fingers on any instrument. We’ve tried the recorder but she has to turn her head to the side and instantly her fingers move again!

    So we’ve moved onto the piano to see if that is easier for her to use… but she bends her thumbs backwards!! I’m not sure if this is part of the developmental issues with her sight as she seems pretty bright. She can make a nice rounded shape with her fingers but as soon as we put them on the keys, they all collapse and go in multiple directions!

    I really want to help her but am at a loss as to what to try next. Any suggestions welcome!!!!

    1. Tough question, Miriam! I think what I would try is using a small squishy ball (you know, the stress reliever kind) to have her curve her fingers around. Put her hand on the keys with her fingers still curved around the ball. Use lots of descriptive words (“relaxed fingers,” “gently curved,” etc.) and get her to focus on how her fingers feel (rather than how they look). Then see if you can sneak the ball out from under her hand and see if she can keep her fingers in the same shape. Make a game out of it! It might take a few tries, but I bet this would help. If she still tries to look at her fingers a lot, try doing the game with her eyes closed. This is a game for her fingers, not her eyes. 🙂 Good luck!

  9. Hi Joy,
    Thanks for that advice! I will try using that technique. I found some good hand exercises from an occupational therapy website so gave those printouts to her mum to help strengthen her fingers. I’m looking forward to next week’s lesson now! Have to get me a squishy ball!!!

  10. Just saw this post; loved the “kneecaps” idea! I like to get my students to dangle one arm & hand loosely, then pick up the dangling arm with their opposite hand. I then have them set the loose hand on the keyboard, starting with the middle finger, and stopping when all fingers are touching keys and wrist is in line with the top of the keyboard. I enjoy seeing the looks of surprise when their hand shape forms so naturally rounded!

    A past teacher of mine has given the example of a rounded hand being like that of a domed cathedral; there is also strength in that structure!

  11. I’m really curious on all your thoughts about how important is the curved finger position for a young (5yo) beginner? My son has been learning for 3 months now and since couple weeks back when his teacher (during lessons) and I (home practice) started reminding him more about his fingers, it’s really frustrated him and is putting him off quite badly. We have been reminding and helping him but let him get away with it at the start because he was trying to learn so many things at the same time (play a tune, find the note, etc). Now that he knows the notes so well, she started enforcing the curved fingers and he just hates it 🙁

    1. I don’t believe in curving fingers just for the sake of having curved fingers. I believe in developing a healthy technique, and that does NOT include over-curving the fingers! The fingers should be in a neutral, gently-curved position, must the way the hand looks when at rest when you drape your arms loosely at your side.

      I don’t know what your son’s fingers look like, but if they are straight and tense when he plays, then that is bad news. If that is the case, I would encourage him to keep working on it and remind him that it won’t change overnight. You may want to try showing him some YouTube videos of students who play with healthy technique (Irina Gorin’s YouTube channel comes to mind). Also be sure to explain to him WHY healthy technique is important: it will help him be able to play faster and harder repertoire later on!

  12. For my girls I use the analogy of keeping fairies safe. For my boys I tell them to pretend their hands are spiders, and their fingers are the legs. They love this because they see it as an opportunity to try and scare me! Of course, it’s always fun to play along, as it draws their interest afresh.

    1. Oh my 3 yo son will LOVE this one! He’s obsessed with spiders and spider man!! (he’s never seen spiderman books or cartoons, but he loves the idea just the same!) I’ve used an egg analogy before, then he’ll press the keys, give me this silly wide eyed look, and exclaim, “Oh no! I broke the egg!”

  13. I have thoroughly enjoyed using Catherine Rollin’s Pathways to Artistry Book 1 for working on proper hand technique. Her terminology of “strong fingers” seems to help students remember to firm up their lazy knuckles. One of the funniest ways I used to drive the proper hand position home was when I printed a photo of a pancake, left it up on the piano for each lesson and then kept a spatula there also. When I saw poor hand positions, I said, “No pancakes on the piano!” and I would “scoop” them up from the keys!

  14. I used to use the bubble analogy, but I my students would get silly and intentionally collapse their fingers because its fun to pop bubbles. I’ve since switched to holding an orange or clementine depending on the size of their hands.

  15. I use the orange or clementine technique in my studio, but keep a tube of fresh tennis balls on hand to use instead of the fruit. The kids seem to grasp the idea quickly this way in my experience. If the tennis balls are just nowhere near the appropriate size, I sometimes will use crumpled paper in its place so the “ball” can be made to fit their hand. And I get a great reaction when I rip out a piece of paper from that “sacred assignment notebook” and crumple it up in front of them!

  16. I just started two younger boys, and I asked them what bugs they like to catch, and they both said “not bugs, but frogs!” So we keep the frog warm, but don’t squish him.

  17. In response to Karen’s question above, I’ve seen curved fingers “develop” over time with young beginners and they develop hand strength. One student who started with me as a 6-year old wouldn’t curve her fingers at all, but this year (at 8) her fingers are looking nice and curved. I really think it has to do with finger strength, coordination, and the refinement of fine motor skills.

    I’ve also noticed that girls develop these fine motor skills earlier than boys (I’ll have to bug my wife the teacher, but I think that’s developmentally accurate). I have a 5-year old boy who just started and can’t play with curved fingers, but I have a 4-year-old girl who can.

    These skills just take time and patience. I have a 9-year old that started in August, and he is JUST NOW playing with habitually curved fingers, and this is after weekly reminders. Now he just needs to sit up straight…

    Oh, and I use the bubble analogy, but I do like the clementine/orange idea.

  18. For my young ballerina students having trouble with flat locked fingers I encourage them to have their fingers play ‘en pointe’. They’re so enraptured with the idea of being old enough to wear pointe shoes one day, that it’s exciting that their fingers can do it now.

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