Why are strong fingers so important?
As a pianist, your fingers are the tools of your trade! To successfully play the piano, the fingers must have enough strength to move independently with ease. Strong fingers also allow you to control how hard or soft a note is played, creating variety in tone (sound) and dynamics (volume). Strong fingers also make it far easier to play large chords. As the fingers develop strength, dexterity will also increase, allowing you to play faster and with more confidence.
Moving the fingers independently
For many beginners, especially children, developing the ability to move the fingers independently is a big challenge. Particularly in the case of the weaker ring finger and pinkie, moving one finger while keeping the rest still can seem impossible! Yet this is something pianists are required to do on a regular basis. Luckily, there are plenty of exercises that can help develop this important skill.
Piano Finger Exercises
When playing the piano, each finger is given a number. These numbers are used in written music to determine hand position and, in more advanced music, to alert the pianist to where the fingers need to cross over or under each other.
In piano playing, the thumb is finger one, index finger number two, middle finger three, ring finger four and pinkie finger number five. The finger numbering remains the same in each hand. (It is worth noting that fingering numbers on the piano are different to string instrument fingerings.) Be sure to memorize these fingers numbers as they are key to both learning the piano and many of the finger strengthening exercises we will be discussing.
A finger number exercise
Try this fun exercise to help students both memorize finger numbers and practice moving the fingers independently. You will need at least two people.
Take turns hiding the hands behind your back. Then call out a hand and finger number (for example “right hand, finger two”), while bringing that hand out from behind your back and wiggling the designated finger. Your partner must copy you as quickly as possible. Take turns naming and wiggling fingers, giving extra attention to the weaker fourth and fifth fingers.
(Note: when playing this game with very young children, it can be helpful to use mirror image. If sitting opposite the child, show them your left hand if you wish for them to use their right and vice versa.)
A Finger pattern exercise
For a more challenging exercise, try creating patterns using the finger numbers. This can be done either at or away from the piano.
If you are trying this without an instrument, find a flat surface where you can create the rounded hand shape used in piano playing. (You can even use your lap— this is a great way to pass the time during a long car ride!) If playing with a friend, teacher or student, take turns calling out a group of random numbers between one and five. (“Three! Five! Two!”) Your partner must then use those fingers to play an imaginary key, copying the exact pattern. Take turns giving each other patterns to ‘play’, gradually increasing the length.
If you are trying this exercise by yourself, you can either write down patterns before you begin or simply call out random numbers as you go along.
This exercise can also be done at the piano, using simple five finger positions. Practice starting in different places to hear the change in sound. (Varying the hand position will also stop students equating a specific finger with a certain note.)
Don’t forget to practice both hands!
Scales and other technical work
While they may not be the most exciting thing to play, it is worth remembering that practicing scales is one of the best ways to strengthen the fingers and improve dexterity. Major, minor and chromatic scales and arpeggios all provide pianists with different fingering challenges that will be encountered when playing repertoire. Beginning each practice session with a few minutes of technical work will do wonders for the strength and agility of your fingers. Start slowly, ensuring your hand remains rounded and your fingering is correct. Gradually increase the tempo as you develop confidence.
Scales can be played hands separately or together, legato (smoothly) or staccato (detached) to provide different physical and mental challenges.
Speak to any pianist and they will no doubt be familiar with Hanon, Czerny and the countless exercises these composers penned to help develop finger strength and technique. For beginners, however, these often demanding works can be somewhat overwhelming!
For beginners, a far better place to start is the A Dozen a Day Series by Edna Mae Burnham. Each short, simple exercise focuses on a different element of technique, strengthening and dexterity. Children in particular will enjoy the fun exercise names such as “Jumping Rope”, “Cartwheels” and “Leap Frog”. For very young children,A Dozen a Day Mini Book is a great place to start.
But for pianists ready to dive into the more complex world of technical studies, great starting points are Practical Method for Beginners, Op. 599 by Czerny and The Virtuoso Pianist by Hanon, a famous collection.
Particularly in the case of Hanon, try not to let the written score deter you. While the music may look very complex with its runs of sixteenth notes, these opening exercises are just simple patterns, repeated in different places on the piano!
Patience and Practice
Like everything in piano playing, and indeed in life, strengthening the fingers is not something that will happen overnight. You are training your body to behave in a certain manner, in the same way that a runner trains to increase their speed or a dancer works to be able to do the splits. Even the most advanced pianists practice scales and technical exercises regularly in order to maintain and improve their dexterity and strength. With regular practice of the above exercises, however, improvement is guaranteed! You will begin to notice your fingers moving more quickly and independently and those pieces that once seemed impossible will soon be within your grasp.
When you practice your fingers on an actual keyboard, make sure that the keys of your digital piano are weighted properly just like in an acoustic piano!