10 Important Rules to Facilitate Economy of Motion

The following list summarizes ten fundamental technical issues to be aware of when learning piano in all stages, and especially, in the early beginning stages:

🎹 1. Keep the fingernails well-trimmed and short – Playing with correctly curved fingers is impossible with fingernails that are too long. Long fingernails cause the first joint of the finger to collapse. Keeping the fingernails trimmed may be inconvenient to those who prefer long fingernails, but it really is the only way to ensure proper finger positions.

🎹 2. Keep the joints strong and rounded and avoid collapsing the first joint of the fingers – One of the main reasons for collapsing the first joint of the fingers is that the fingernails are too long. However, if the fingernails are trimmed and one still collapses the joints, extra precaution needs to be taken to correct this position. (See images below.)

🎹 3. Keep the knuckles protruding slightly upwards and avoid collapsing the knuckle area of the hand – The great pianist-teacher John Browning explains that “Russian School” teachers like Rosina Lhévinne placed great emphasis on keeping the knuckles of the hand rather high, which the Russian School refers to as the “dome” of the hand. (Watch video here.) This type of position creates strength and stability. On the other hand, collapsing the knuckles creates weakness and instability. Students should take extra precaution to avoid collapsing the knuckles, but instead, always play with a strong hand position. (See images below.)

🎹 4. Position the thumb at about a 20-degree angle and avoid playing with a flat thumb – The thumb functions as the anchor of the hand. If the thumb is positioned improperly, then the wrist and all other fingers will automatically be in less-than-ideal or improper positions. On the other hand, a properly positioned thumb will automatically create the most optimal positions for the wrist and other four fingers. 99% of all beginners play with flat thumbs (especially young children), which needs to be avoided and corrected in the early stages of learning (See images below.)

🎹 5. Position the fifth finger on the fleshy part of the fingertip and avoid playing it on the side – Just as 99% of beginners play with flat thumbs, 99% of beginners also tend to play with flat fifth fingers. On the other hand, the fifth finger should not be too curved either, but optimally positioned just a little more curved than totally straight. (See images below.) 

🎹 6. Position the wrist straight or curved slightly upwards and avoid playing with it sinking down – The previous rule of keeping the thumb at about a 20-degree angle automatically solves the wrist problem, as it is impossible to have a sunken wrist if the thumb is tilted at an angle. Playing with a flat thumb, which is so commonplace among beginners, causes the wrist to sink downwards. This needs to be avoided at all costs. On the other hand, avoid playing with a wrist that is too high and curved. The optimal position for the wrist is between the two extremes of flat and too high, which is achieved by tilting the thumb upwards at about a 20-degree angle (See images below.)

🎹 7. Position the thumbs approximately midway between the end of the white keys and beginning of the black keys and avoid playing them at the end of the white keys – Playing the thumbs at the end of the white keys, as if almost falling off the keyboard, is one of the biggest problems committed not only by beginners but by all pianists. Playing the thumbs at the end of white keys makes reaching the black keys difficult when needed and creates huge problems with economy of motion. Beginners often play the thumbs at the end of white keys presumably because they have some sort of fear of the black keys and, at least subliminally, they position their thumbs and other four fingers as far away from the black keys as possible. This is fine if all one plays is white keys, but when black keys must be played this approach backfires. There is no need to fear black keys. Notice that when the thumb and other four fingers are positioned further up the white keys and closer to the black keys, that it is much easier and more efficient reaching a black key when needed. (See images below.)

🎹 8. Position the fingers at least a half inch (1.27 centimeters) from the end of the black keys and avoid playing them at the end of the black keys – Just like playing the thumbs at the edge of the white keys (discussed previously), playing the other fingers at the edge of the black keys is also a common problem with beginners. Beginners often play the fingers at the end of black keys presumably because they have some sort of fear of black keys. There is no need to fear black keys. Playing black keys at the edge is almost always caused by playing the thumbs at the edge of white keys. Thus, if the latter problem is solved, then the former problem is solved, and vice versa. (See images below.)

🎹 9. Position the thumbs over the keyboard and avoid dangling them off and away from the keyboard – Dangling the thumbs off and away from the keyboard is a common problem with beginners, which is easily corrected by simply sliding the other four fingers up more on the white keys. The reason this position is not optimal is that it places the thumbs at least 4-5 inches (10-12 centimeters) away from the black keys, and thus, disables the thumbs from playing black keys if needed. The best way to ensure the thumbs being positioned over the keyboard is to hold the elbows near the body or torso, since outward elbows automatically positions the thumbs away from the keyboard and black keys while inward elbows automatically positions the thumbs more over the keyboard and closer to the black keys. Pianist John Browning (1933-2003) addresses and demonstrates this issue by explaining how Josef Lhévinne (1874-1944) advocated practicing with the elbows holding books in order to train them to be held close to the torso, which automatically positions the thumbs optimally over the keyboard. Browning does not talk about the thumb positions specifically, but rather, advocates that the elbows close to the torso make enable economy of motion much better than elbows far away from the torso. (Please refer to 8:00-8:40 in the video below.)

🎹 10. Release each previous key at the same time as playing each new key and avoid overlapping the playing of two or more keys – The overlapping of keys is a common problem among beginners, which some teachers refer to as the “lazy finger” technique. This causes an unclean sound since usually two or more unrelated notes are sounding simultaneously. This applies to scale playing with single notes as opposed to playing two or more notes at a time (i.e., chord playing). The best way to avoid this is to consciously lift each finger higher than it needs to be lifted, that is, exaggerate the lifting motions. This exaggerated lifting motion makes it impossible to hold down the keys longer than they should be held, which automatically eliminates the overlapping of keys. (See images below.)