This blog post is a slightly revised excerpt from a two-part article I wrote on scale-playing, published the September-October and November-December, 2013 issues of Clavier Companion.
I feel strongly about the importance of starting technical work in contrary motion; in my opinion, it is an easier and more natural way to move one’s fingers.
Try drumming the fingers of both hands on a table, and see if you agree with me. Most students will drum their fingers in contrary motion, medially, that is, starting with the fifth finger and moving in toward the center of the body.
However, I use lateral (from the thumb out) contrary motion in The D Song, the first exercise I teach beginners, for a reason: to focus on the thumb.
The D Song
The thumb is the “problem child” of technic because it is so different from the other digits. It has only two phalanges (finger bones) instead of three; it works in opposition to and indeed has a different position from them as well. The thumb metacarpus (which attaches the fingers to the hand) is capable of a wider range of movement compared to the other fingers; the tip of the thumb also has a more extensive motion range than the other fingertips.
What all of this means for beginning piano students is: trouble.
In the beginning stage, the most important task is to establish the proper position and movement pattern for the thumb. I start with a simple away-from-the-piano drill I call, with a startling lack of creativity in titling, The Thumb Drill.
The Thumb Drill
- Rest your forearm on a flat surface
- The arm should be relaxed, really “resting”. I sometimes tell children that their arm should feel like it is asleep
- Fold the four fingers (not the thumb) under the hand, making a loose, relaxed fist
- Move the thumb gently up and down five times per hand, with the tip turned in slightly. At the bottom of the stroke, it should gently tap on the flat surface, not pressing or holding
Why fold the fingers under the hand? This position makes it virtually impossible (though some students try) to move the thumb incorrectly. The thumb moves easily from the metacarpal joint, rather than the knuckle, and acts independently.