Are you all Fingers and Thumbs?

My most recent article for Pianist Magazine’s e-newsletter focuses on the thumb. As always, my intention is to draw attention to an area of piano playing which may benefit from concentrated practice. I notice in my own teaching that students perpetually work to achieve and maintain finger strength, but then leave the poor old thumb to its own devices. Here are five practice suggestions.

Thumbs. They might just be appendages stuck on the side of our hands, but for any pianist, they are important additions to our armoury of articulation. If used optimally, the thumb can enable easy turning (both under and over the hand) for smooth passagework, and can take the lead during chords and octave passagework, creating assured playing. Here are a few practice ideas to strengthen our thumbs.

  1. Start with a thumb exercise away from the keyboard; I like to use a circular motion exercise. Observe the three thumb joints; the first at the bottom of the thumb, next to the wrist, the second, at the thumb base, and the third, in the middle of the thumb. By moving the whole thumb in an upward (almost above the hand) then downward motion, so that the movement finishes with the thumb under the hand, whilst keeping the arm relaxed but still, you can start to loosen the fleshy areas, so that they feel pliable and soft. Aim to keep the movement flexible and free of any tension.
  2. Observe your thumb position on the keys. The thumb is naturally lower than the other fingers, and it should ideally make contact with the keys on the tip of the thumb nail; at the left tip for the right hand, and right tip, for the left hand. The nail just touching the keys. Try to avoid the whole side of the thumb flopping down on the keys, as this position makes thumb control challenging.
  3. To practice thumb positions and get the thumb moving, play a one octave C major scale ascending with the following fingering: 12121212 (right hand), 21212121 (left hand), you can then switch fingers starting with 21 in the right hand, and 12 in the left. Practising with 13131313 (right hand) can be helpful too. Ensure a flexible thumb movement every time the thumb moves over or under the hand.
  4. Now try a one octave chromatic scale using the same fingering; when you move to the black notes, try to ‘place’ the thumb tip with care as these notes are narrower therefore demanding greater accuracy. Thumbs will also need to employ a larger movement in order to negotiate these notes.
  5. Finally, practise intervals i.e. a C and E in the right hand using the third finger on the C and thumb on the E, and in the left hand, the thumb playing the C and third finger, the E. This seemingly unnatural position (practising the turning motion) will require a tension free hand so ensure the ‘fleshy’ part of your hand is relaxed as opposed to taut and ‘locked up’. When playing these intervals, sound them together as chords, and keep both notes in place whilst relaxing your hand; this is a useful preparation exercise for arpeggios. When comfortable, move on to larger intervals such as a C (played with a third finger) and an F (thumb) in the right hand.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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