Tiny students have tiny hands. They are so cute on the keys, and they're teachable, but how does a tiny student learn to build strength in those itty bitty fingers properly? There are several techniques parents and teachers can use to get precious fingers positioned properly for piano practice. So, who likes spiders?
1. Spider Fingers: Technically, this strategy should be called Dead Spider Fingers. A spider uses its muscles to draw its legs inward while alive, but lacks muscles to push those legs back out into normal, crawling spider position. It uses its heartbeat and blood pressure to force the legs back out. Thus, when it dies, there is no pressure to force those legs out, creating the dead spider leg curl. This is actually a perfect example of how tiny fingers should look on the keys. How to teach it: Let your hands fall naturally in your lap, completely at rest. Observe the natural curve of your resting hands, freeze them in that position, and place them on the piano keys. Curve them inward a bit like dead spider legs, and voila!
2. Blow a Bubble: Props make great visual aids during piano lessons. One single drinking straw can mean the difference between blah fingers and voila! fingers. How to teach it: Use a drinking straw to blow an imaginary bubble under the tiny player's hands, creating a beautiful curved-finger shape as the hands "hold" the invisible bubbles. Don't let it pop while you play! If the bubble pops, use the straw to blow it up again.
3. 50 Cents: Mrs. Gober, wherever you are, I will never forget this strategy of yours. My third grade piano teacher kept quarters on her piano console, ready to place them, flat-sided, on the tops of my hands while I played. It's a great tool for older kids and to make a quick point, but I don't recommend using it for entire pieces, creating tension in the wrists. How to teach it: Place a quarter on each hand and begin playing the piano. Use it as a check-up every now and then to assess hand position. If the quarter falls off, adjust those wrists and fingers!
4. Sit. Stay. Beg: Have you ever seen a dog sit up into a begging position? Its doggie "wrists" flop naturally, its doggie "shoulders" are relaxed and its back is strongly supporting its weight. Sometimes when kiddos are struggling with tense shoulders and bowed elbows that rise during an attempt at lifted wrists on the keys, they may need a canine reminder. How to do it: Have a child recreate a begging dog position. This is silly and fun, but the basic posture is essentially good. Adjust the arms as needed to get the wrists to lie on the keys properly, focusing on the relaxed shoulders and elbows.
5. Lava River: Okay, okay, boys really like this one. How to do it: Pretend there is a river of lava flowing just below the keys, where wrists could naturally (but wrongly!) rest. During the lesson, challenge the student not to get burned up by flowing lava. It works, and no actual students' wrists are char-grilled in the process.
... and the most important of all, often overlooked...
6. Posture Check: If tiny hands are still sagging, propping on the piano, or the little one is constantly wiggling unnecessarily, check the little pianist's feet! Tiny bodies have tiny legs, and tiny legs that don't reach the floor are a big problem for tiny fingers! You try sitting in a chair and lifting your legs off the floor for 30 minutes. Eventually, your hindquarters will slide off so your feet can help you balance, or your hands will be used to prop, or catch yourself from falling. In my teaching experience, a foot problem is the cause of hand position problems in all of my tiny tutees. Place a stool (or an Amazon box?!) under the feet of the small one, eliminating the need for his or her body to find balance with the hands. This allows the hands to be freed up and can correct a host of postural issues with the back, elbows, shoulders and wrists. And best of all, it's often an instant fix!
Take time to ask questions and make small adjustments during lessons. Is your music centered on the rack or are you having to turn your head/neck to see? Is your body near middle E or F or are you out of alignment with the middle of the piano? Are your shoulders relaxed? Do your feet touch the floor or a stool? For tall teens and adults, are you sitting too close to the piano for your wingspan? Do you need to back up? If you're playing with pedal, does your heel rest on the floor?
A few simple corrections make a world of difference in your endurance at the keys, and overall postural health! Happy practicing!