Twiddling Your Thumbs

Recently I’ve been working with several students, aiming to develop strong, active thumbs. This may sound rather strange, but we tend to take the thumb for granted. They protrude at the side of each hand and we just expect them to support the fingers. I’ve written several times, here on this blog and in various articles, about the importance of a strong finger technique, but so far I’ve written little about the poor old thumb.

Thumb movement can make a colossal difference to many aspects of piano technique, as essentially they ‘control’ almost half of our hands, due to their dominant, and slightly lower, position (compared to the fingers). Alberti bass accompaniments, octave playing, pristine rapid passagework, are just a few of the typical piano elements demanding a clean, well-formed thumb. In my teaching, I’m very aware of a student’s movement during piano playing. Demonstrating to pupils ‘how’ and ‘where’ to move is an issue which must be constantly addressed. Without correct, helpful movement, technique really can’t be developed. This is certainly the case with our thumbs, and they require a different approach to the fingers.

Whereas fingers are encouraged to play with all joints active, that is, not collapsing, and on the tips (or finger pads), ensuring strength and contact with the key, the thumb will, by necessity, play on its side. However, like fingers, they are best utilized with the joints fully engaged for optimum movement. If we allow our thumbs to just ‘hang’ or lag behind our fingers, or even worse, ignore them altogether, they will be unable to articulate with clarity and precision.

Here are a few ideas for clean thumb playing:

To be aware of thumb movement, start by moving the thumb; you can do this exercise away from the keyboard. Sway your thumb back and forth under the hand, gradually building flexibility. It can also help to move the thumb in a circular motion over the hand too, but aim to do this carefully and free of any tension.

Now experiment at the piano with four white notes; C, D, E and F using the right hand. Try this fingering 1, 2, 3, 1. The first and last note will be played by the thumb. When you play the third finger on the E, lift your wrist slightly allowing the thumb to go under the hand to play the final note, but don’t let go of the E. You’ll notice this position, that is playing the E and F together, will contort your hand slightly. Make sure your hand muscles and tendons, especially around the thumb joint, are pliable and flexible, so this position feels comfortable; it will require a ‘letting go’ or release of the tendons and muscles within the thumb joint in order to feel relaxed. This is best done whilst keeping both notes depressed, and it feels easier if you ‘drop’ you hand and wrist (as opposed to keeping them in a stiff position), releasing tension. Now do this with the left hand, perhaps using C, B, A and G.

You can also experiment with arpeggios. Using the right hand, play a C major arpeggio; middle C with the thumb (1), E with your second finger (2), G with your third finger (3),  and C (above middle C), again with the thumb (1). When you reach the G with the third finger, turn the thumb under the hand, leaving both finger and thumb in place, as shown in the photo:Try to ensure that your hand keeps loose and relaxed as both notes are depressed. Again, it’s the release of tension in the hand and thumb joint as the notes are held which will help and encourage easy thumb movement.  Now try this with left hand too; a C with the fifth finger, E with the fourth finger, G with the second finger, C with the thumb, and then turn onto the E with fourth finger, holding both the second C and E in place, releasing the thumb joint muscles.  This gap might feel unnatural at first, but when combined with a free wrist and arm movement, it will eventually feel relaxed.

Aim to use thumbs on a scale. Taking C major again, try this fingering: 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2 or even: 1, 3, 1, 3, 1, 3, 1, 3.

This works well with a chromatic scale too. It may feel a little unorthodox to begin with, as the movements required will test the thumb, encouraging it to ‘move’ out of its comfort zone, but provided this is done with total flexibility in the wrist and arm, and without tension, the thumb should feel more controlled.

Finally, find an Alberti Bass pattern (a broken chordal accompaniment figure), which requires the use of thumbs. Here’s a left hand example from Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor Op. 10 No. 1 (first movement):

A weak or flabby thumb is very obvious in this pattern (generally the thumb would play the repeated middle Cs in the example above). The thumb must skim the keys lightly but very precisely and rhythmically. After blocking out the chordal pattern (playing the notes altogether, so you are aware of the fingering and note patterns), play deeply into the keys on every note, with a heavy tone. Accenting can help, at first just on the thumb, ensuring it plays on the right hand corner of the nail and with a good connection to the key surface. Now accent every note, employing a very free rotating wrist movement throughout. Once the fingers have been given a thorough work out, play the note patterns again very quickly and lightly ensuring a tight rhythm. It’s essential to balance the hand in passagework such as this, so a combination or finger/thumb power and wrist rotation will be crucial. But without an active thumb, achieving evenness will be almost impossible.

I hope these suggestions may be of help. They will at least draw attention to the plight of the thumb, so it hopefully won’t be a bystander during piano practice sessions.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


Top Recommended Piano Resources for September 2016

Badge Graphics Draft 3

September brings a bumper crop of new publications and resources which I hope you will find of interest. A selection of beginner’s volumes, great little elementary pieces, anthologies and fascinating piano related books as well as a novel, which should provide reading and playing material for the new school term. Enjoy!

Beginners and Elementary

The Lang Lang Piano Method Volumes 4 & 5

lang-langEarlier this year The Lang Lang Piano Method (volumes 1, 2 & 3), written by Chinese star pianist Lang Lang, was launched by Faber, and now volumes four and five have been released. A cartoon Lang Lang appears throughout these books providing encouragement, taking young pianists step by step through every section.These books build on the learning process already established in the first three publications, introducing new keys, rhythms, extending technique through repertoire which includes original pieces and famous tunes. Find out more and purchase here.

Piano Piccolo

heumannThis is a new collection of 111 original easy piano pieces published by Schott and collated by the excellent German composer, teacher and arranger, Hans-Günter Heumann. Including popular repertoire as well as many less known works, over 60 composers from the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern periods are featured. This books comes from the Pianissimo series, designed as an introduction to the collection, Für Elise. You can find out much more and purchase here.

Piano Train Trips

train-trips

Piano Train Trips is the first book written by Spanish pianist, teacher and composer Juan Cabeza. The book includes 18 Études  and 9 Exercises with duet accompaniment, downloadable audio recordings of the pieces and play-along accompaniment for the exercises. Each étude covers a particular technique: scales, intervals, arpeggios and chords, which are all presented in an original and attractive way. They are fresh, modern and exciting pattern-based pieces. These pieces can be enjoyed by children or adult students, and are of a late elementary level. The book is available for Europe here and a digital edition can be purchased here. Soon, It will also be released  in the US by Piano Safari (pianosafari.com) and a German edition will be published by zauberklavier.de.

Sonorous

sonorousNew this past month,  Sonorous is an original collection of Piano Solos by Colombian pianist and educator Harold Gutiérrez. The books take students from beginner to intermediate level (Book 1), and intermediate to advanced level (Book 2) adopting the 21st century view of music education, in which enjoyment of performance is first and foremost. Each piece presented in this book has been composed as complementary material for young players and their teachers, encouraging students to perform and experience their musical achievements on stage. There are two books in the series so far, and the first is designated ‘for little hands’ with plenty of interesting melodies and technical exercises at the end of the book. You can find out much more, hear some of the pieces, and purchase here.

Safari

safari-firstA collection of 23 pieces by Irish composer June Armstrong. Intended for elementary level students, June’s music is predominantly educational with emphasis on interpretative qualities, engaging a pupil’s imagination. This is certainly evident in these works, which rely heavily on atmospheric harmonies. Safari charts the course of a day in Africa, starting with African Dawn and ending with Night Sky with Stars.  Meet all the animals along the way – gazelles, flamingos, lions, giraffes, hyenas, monkeys, elephants and many others. Pieces often use specific hand positions, suitable for less experienced players. You can hear each piece here, and find out more and purchase here.

Elementary to Advanced

The Faber Music Piano Anthology

faber-piano-anthologyContaining 78 piano pieces, this large volume is suitable for those from Grade 2 – 8 (elementary to advanced), and has been designed as a gift book; a luxury hardback edition featuring high-quality premium paper and ‘The Concerto’ linocut cover image by Cyril Edward Power. Published by Faber, it has been compiled by myself and will hopefully interest a variety of levels and abilities. Many pieces are very well-known penned by the great composers, but there is also a cohort of less familiar works (and composers). From late Renaissance music through to mid to late Twentieth century, piano lovers can enjoy reading through (and learning) a much-loved repertoire of core pieces. Out later this month, you can find out more and purchase here.

Intermediate to Advanced

Russian Folk Tunes

russianPublished by Schott and containing 25 traditional tunes, this book is sure to be popular with all those who appreciate and enjoy playing traditional music. A selection of melodies including Russian folk tunes, Russian Gypsy music and Russian Jewish music, as well as folk music from the Ukraine. The pieces have been edited and arranged by British bandoneonist, composer and arranger Julian Rowlands, who performs them on an accompanying CD. There is also a brief history of Russian music as well as notes on the pieces (which are also available in French and German). The arrangements are from approximately Grades 4-8 level. You can find out more and purchase here.

Blues, Boogie and Gospel Collection

bluesA new collection published by Schott, written by British jazz composer and writer Tim Richards. This volume contains 13 original works for piano by Richards and 2 arrangements (a traditional song and another by Jelly Roll Morton). There are copious interpretation, technique, theory and performance notes, accompanying each piece and a helpful CD of all the pieces (played by Tim). Chord symbols are provided to aid improvisation, and in my opinion, the volume complements other books in the series; Improvising Blues Piano, Exploring Latin Piano and Exploring Jazz Piano (all Richards’ publications). For more and to purchase click here.

Books

The Mindful Pianist

mindfulWritten by British pianist, teacher, writer and composer Mark Tanner and published by Faber in conjunction with EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association), this book is sure to be a winner for all pianists, presenting a fresh perspective on playing and performing. Applying the concept of mindfulness to the piano, this text explores the crucial connection between mind and body: how an alert, focussed mind fosters playing which is more compelling, refined and ultimately more rewarding. It also tackles the issues encountered by pianists when practising, performing, improvising and preparing for an exam too. Drawing on the expert advice of 25 leading pianists and educationalists (I’m delighted to be amongst those mentioned!), this unique book offers a wealth of exercises and musical examples to help every player succeed in becoming a Mindful Pianist. Out later this month, you can pre-order here.

The Steinway That Wouldn’t Budge

budgeA delightful little book written by British piano tuner Peter Tryon (cousin of concert pianist Valerie Tryon) and published by Austin Macauley. This volume is essentially an autobiographical tale of a life spent tuning the pianos of those in East Anglia (in rural UK). It’s full of anecdotal tales from boyhood piano lessons and moving pianos in all kinds of situations, to ghostly tunings (my favourite stories!), there is much to enjoy in this publication. You can purchase it for kindle and as a hard copy, on Amazon here.

Moscow Nights

moscowA thick non-fiction volume written by British historian and biographer Nigel Cliff, and published by Harper Collins, this book tells the story of Van Cliburn, who, as a young pianist from Texas in 1958, travelled to Moscow to compete in the First International Tchaikovsky Competition.  An unknown pianist, Van Cliburn was not the favourite to win, indeed a Russian had already been selected, but his playing captivated the nation. The novel brings together the drama and tension of the Cold War era, with a gifted musician  whose music would temporarily bridge the divide between two dangerously hostile powers. You can find out more and purchase here.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

 

 

Recommended Piano Resources for October 2015

Badge Graphics Draft 3

Happy Halloween! It’s the end of October already, and therefore time for my monthly round-up of useful piano resources. As  might be expected for this time of year, there are several Christmas additions (great for students everywhere). Enjoy!


Beginners and Elementary

Piano Mix 1

Piano Mix 1

This new series, published by UK exam board, ABRSM, is a selection of arrangements in three graded books. The collection has been complied and edited by David Blackwell, and Book 1 is intended for those of around Grades 1 – 2 level. The arrangements have been written by Alan Bullard, Nikki Iles,  Christopher Norton, and Tim Richards, amongst others, and feature very famous tunes, which appear in easy arrangements for those just learning. There is a vast spectrum of styles from Handel’s Fireworks Minuet to Harry. J. Lincoln’s Bees-Wax Rag; from orchestral music to opera, and from folk to jazz, there’s something for everyone. Find out more and get your copy here.

Jazzin’ At Christmas

Jazzin

These effective little Christmas piano pieces have been arranged by British composer, saxophonist and music teacher, Rachel Forsyth, and published by Roo Records. The collection features ten arrangements of well-loved festive classics all presented in a jazzy style (as the title suggests!). From swing and blues through to reggae and calypso styles, this book will bring a different take on playing carols. Included are Deck the Halls, Good King Reggae, Not so Silent Night, Ding, Ding Dong! and Holly and Ivy Dance. Suitable for students of around elementary level (or Grades 1 – 3). Listen to some of the pieces here and get your copy here.

Famous & Fun Christmas

Carol Matz

Written by American composer and arranger, Carol Matz, and published by Alfred Music, this group of fifteen piano arrangements is perfect for late elementary to early intermediate players. The series is specially designed and carefully leveled to supplement any piano method. It’s a very useful supplementary series which expands to include popular holiday selections as well as traditional favourites, including Jingle Bell Rock, Sleigh Ride, Winter Wonderland, and Ding, Dong Merrily on High! Download and print sheet music from the Famous & Fun Christmas Series here.

 Puffin Island

Puffin Island

Puffin Island is a set of eleven piano miniatures written by Irish composer June Armstrong. They are around Grades 1 – 4 (elementary and early intermediate) level, and have been beautifully written to reflect the atmosphere and life on Rathlin Island which is situated off the coast of County Antrim in Northern Island.  There are helpful notes about each piece at the beginning of the volume, and some performance directions too. Titles include Off to Rathlin! Morning Mist, Puffins, Curlew Calling, and Sunset over Donegal. Great alternative repertoire for between exams, or sight-reading material for higher grades. You can listen and learn more about these pieces here, and get your copy here.

Intermediate

Christmas Cool Piano Duets

Christmas Duets

This is a fun volume of Christmas tunes arranged by British composer Heather Hammond and published by Kevin Mayhew. Fairly straightforward in style and difficulty, they would be appropriate for students of Grades 4 – 6 level, but also great sight-reading practice for more advanced levels. The Primo part is generally simpler than the Secondo, which may make this volume ideal for pupils playing with their teachers. Amongst the twelve Christmas pieces are Jingle Bells, Joy to the World, Silent Night, Walking in the Air, We wish you a Merry Christmas and Frosty the Snowman. Perfect for the end of term Christmas concert! Get your copy here.

Advanced

Piano Music for One Hand

Left Hand

I came across this volume recently. It’s not a new publication, but sometimes it’s beneficial just to highlight various collections. Piano Music for One Hand has been compiled by American pianist Raymond Lewenthal, published by G. Schirmer, and is intended for either students who have temporarily or permanently lost the use of one hand, or any pianist (above approximately Grade 6) who believes their left-hand playing could benefit from some extra practice (or perhaps those who are just fascinated by one-handed repertoire). These pieces vary in difficulty. Some are technical studies, yet they are not just exercises; many of these pieces are beautifully written by a whole spectrum of esteemed composers over several centuries. There are works by J S and C P E Bach, Czerny, Liszt, Scriabin, Bartók, Alkan, Moszowski and Godowsky. The book includes some very useful notes about the history of one-handed music and practice techniques too. Get your copy here.

Online

Noviscore

Noviscore

Noviscore.com is a French company established in 2006 which specialises in online sheet music of copious styles and genres, which are available for all different levels. Each individual piece featured in the catalogue has been adapted and arranged for the piano by in-house pianists for up to four different levels of piano playing ability. Whether you are a beginner, an experienced player, or a private piano tutor, there is a large selection of music from easy piano sheet music to original scores, which are available for piano solo, or as an accompaniment to another instrument or a singer. Styles include classical, pop, jazz, blues, gospel, movie soundtracks, Christmas, and children’s music. For much more information and to browse the catalogue click here.

MusicPal

CRsX1vNUYAAKet0

MusicPal can replicate the sound of a piece of music merely by scanning a photo. So take a picture with your phone or device and MusicPal will play it for you. You can listen note by note, loop phrases, and even isolate the treble or bass clef. Apparently every photo you take and tile-matching game you play will improve MusicPal’s accuracy. It’s always handy to ‘know’ instantly what your sheet music sounds like! This could be a helpful app for students especially. You can find out much more here.

Books

Choral and Vocal Warm-Ups

avadFAJ4Choral & Vocal Warm Ups

This new volume has been written by British pianist, composer and teacher Nancy Littenand is published by Alfred Music. It has been conceived for pianists and is essentially ‘everything the pianist needs to know’ about directing choral and vocal warm-ups. The book is very comprehensive, starting with harmonized major scales in all keys (which are conveniently written out), then there are chapters on body relaxation, breathing, using vowels, focusing tone, intonation, diction, agility, gentle warm-ups, sight-singing, ice-breakers, and finally, tips for accompanying solo singers. This will prove an invaluable resource for all those associated with church music, and anyone rehearsing choirs. There are extensive tips and helpful musical examples too. Get your copy here.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.