Improve Your Thumb Technique – Practising the Piano

Wouldn’t it be great if Nature had designed our hands with the fingers in reverse order? If the “strong” thumb were on the outside of the hand and the “weak” pinky on the inside, we would easily be able to project melody lines –  supporting them with effortless basses and a suitably light harmonic filling in the middle. But it is actually possible to make the pinky strong and the thumb light and flexible. I would like to share a few ideas on this subject today. I have included the video demonstration I made for Pianist Magazine at the end of the this post, so please don’t worry if the verbiage that follows is a little difficult to follow – all is revealed in the video!

The thumb can be a great ally or an enemy – depending on how we use it. In brief, the thumb has two phalanges (proximal and distal) and eight muscles, acting in groups. It can move in several different ways – straight up and down, stretching out laterally (abduction), moving in towards the hand (adduction), as well as moving under the palm to the tips of the fingers (opposition). It can also make grasping and circular movements. When I move my thumb freely, I feel the movement at the base of the thumb, at the wrist. The thumb connects to the keyboard on the tip by the nail (rather than on its flat side), forming an arch with the 5th finger in chords and octaves. If you want to investigate the anatomy of the hand applied to piano playing, I can highly recommend Thomas Mark’s excellent book, What Every Pianist Needs to Know about the Body. If you’ve heard of the book and have been debating whether to get it, click on the link and go ahead and order (and no, I don’t get any commission).

Practising scales with the thumb alone is a very good way to sense the vertical up-and-down movement in the thumb (moving the same way the other fingers move). I suggest progressing to scales in octaves with a double tap of the thumb in two ways:

  1. With the vertical strokes I have just described
  2. Adding a small amount of forearm rotation.

Try one way and then the other, holding on to the 5th finger as you tap, and notice the difference in sensation between the two. In many instances, adding a small rotary movement to help the thumb feels like the equivalent of power-assisted steering – it just makes the job a whole lot easier!

Thumb Scale

A very good exercise for thumb mobility is to play a scale with the thumb and one other finger in alternation. It is best done hands separately at a slow to moderate tempo – C major to begin with and then any other diatonic, whole tone or chromatic scale. Begin by alternating the thumb and 2nd finger, two octaves up and back down. When you get to the bottom of the scale, without stopping change the fingering to thumb and 3rd finger. Larger hands may go ahead with thumb and 4th, and even thumb and 5th. Avoid any jerkiness in the arm, and equalise the touch between the thumb and the other finger.

Thumb Steers the Hand

When I play chords and octaves I have the sense that my thumb steers my hand. Taking a chordal passage such as this example from the last section of Rachmaninov’s C sharp minor Prelude and playing only the thumb notes gives me a terrific sense of the geography of the passage.

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 08.35.56Use the thumb tapping technique I suggested earlier when you practise chord streams like this. Play the thumb notes twice very lightly. If you wish, add value and interest by tapping a rhythm such as “slow, quick-quick, slow”, or any other rhythmic pattern that takes your fancy. Change this from time to time as you practise, for variety.

Thumb Under

It’s really important how we pass our thumb under the hand as we move from one position to another, such as the shifts we make in scales and arpeggios. One of the most common faults I encounter is the tendency for the thumb to stay behind, meaning the arm has to jerk the thumb into its new position at the last moment and drop it into its key like as though hauling a sack of potatoes. This slows us down, produces horrible accents as well as causing accidents and derailments. The solution? Teamwork between the arm and the thumb. The arm needs to travel away from the body and back again smoothly, with no downward dropping in the elbow. The secret is to begin moving the thumb as a result of the legato connection to the 2nd finger. As soon as the 2nd finger plays, the thumb begins its journey to its next destination. At this moment, the arm begins its journey too (arm and thumb working in tandem). To assist the thumb, we allow a small rotary movement of the forearm (this does not slow down or affect in any way the smooth horizontal flow of the arm), which helps plant the thumb into the key freely yet securely.

Scale and Arpeggio Technique

To develop the turn around the thumb in scales and arpeggios, I suggest holding down the thumb and playing the two notes either side of the thumb turn – the note before and the note after, repeating the pattern a few times. Make sure you use the correct fingering (this needs some concentration, as it is easy to get it wrong). When practising this exercise in a scale, the elbow stays in one spot; remember to keep very free in the wrist. When you apply this exercise to an arpeggio, you may need some horizontal movement in the arm but remember not to drop the elbow vertically. Do the exercise again, this time playing the thumb instead of holding on to it (I demonstrate this in the video at the bottom of the post).

Alternatives to the Thumb Under

When distances are too big for a thumb-under approach, there are two other options:

1. Arm shift

Don’t even try to put the thumb under, instead simply move the arm across keeping the hand close to the keyboard. As we release the finger before the shift, we permit a tiny rotation. This minimises any break in sound that could come from lifting the hand up and away.

2. Thumb Over

In some places it feels almost as though the thumb were swinging over the hand, rather than passing underneath. Here’s another Rachmaninov example (the LH from middle section of the G minor Prelude). Allow the 5th finger to swing over the thumb on the way up, and the thumb to swing over the 5th finger on the way down. As you do this, keep the hand in touch with the keyboard – there’s no lifting away involved and it is a very enjoyable, easy sensation.

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 08.52.41Tension and Injury

If you feel your playing is clumsy and stiff, it is worth checking to see what’s going on in your thumb. If it is tight, the rest of the hand and the muscles in the forearm will also tighten. As we know, the first symptoms of tension are expending unnecessary effort at the keyboard. Not only is this inefficient, but we risk pain and injury if we persist. Here are some observations from my own experience.

1. Tip Joint

Some players lock the tip (the interphalangeal joint) into a curled-up position, which is especially debilitating to freedom of movement. While small adjustments of the tip are vital as we accommodate the black-white terrain of the keyboard, we need to allow the tip joint to return to its natural position after extension and flexion. Don’t forget – you can find your natural thumb position by allowing your arm to hang loosely by your side. Swing the arm freely then bring your hand up to the keyboard.

If you play an octave scale of C major, notice how the tip of the thumb can stay in this one position. Now experiment with a chromatic scale in octaves and sense the tiny adjustments of the thumb tip as you move from white to black keys. You’ll need to make a tiny extension of the thumb on the black keys.

2. Stretching Out

Tension may originate from the habit of keeping the thumb stretched out away from the other fingers during playing. Perhaps you make a position shift and leave the thumb behind as the fingers move away from it.  The golden rule is to bring the thumb back to join the fingers as soon as possible after a stretch – the closed hand needs to be our default position.

3. Collapsed Metacarpophalangeal Joint

If you have a problem with a collapsed metacarpophalangeal joint (the second joint in from the tip), you can use the other hand to support the joint in its correct position as you slowly play a scale in sixths (or octaves). Every now and again remove the helping hand until the playing hand has learned what it feels like to play with a supported thumb.

Pianist Magazine has recently published my article on the thumb (Issue 90). Get the magazine for the full article. I am happy to share the accompanying YouTube video with you here. I hope it will clarify some of the issues I have written about above.

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