Going back to the basics is when some of the most advanced learning and teaching starts. When teaching beginners how to play piano, often they are taught to start from a “five-finger position” on the keyboard. When students progress to more advanced music, normally the five-finger positions aren’t talked about anymore. Sometimes these positions, often referred to as five-finger positions, are used as a crutch by beginning students. Teachers tend to use them as teaching tools for beginners, but then they go away. For advanced students it’s like they don’t exist.
Even with advanced piano music though, the five-finger position should be taught indefinitely. It’s an important component to piano technique because it’s the natural state of our hand.
What is a Five-Finger Position?
Let’s use the C Major five finger position as an example. In the C Major five finger position, the thumb is on C. Each of your consecutive fingers are placed on each consecutive white key. This should be more obvious from the illustration below:
It’s pretty simple. When music lessons are started, students will typically keep their hand in this position, and play through simple music by just moving specific fingers.
After learning a couple of five finger positions, method books will typically include two or more positions in one piece of music. The student has to then learn to move from one to another.
Fingers Are Not Notes
Beginners often fall into the trap of thinking that their pinky will always play G, or their thumb will always play C. In order to teach music reading, teachers often try to introduce notes as notes as soon as possible, without reliance on a position for determining what to play.
Music is difficult for beginners to understand and read, and because of this they often look exclusively at the fingering. The music is learned pretty quickly this way, but it becomes difficult when the student needs to change between positions. Eventually the student will start to read music, and the five finger positions tend to take a back seat to playing. This is by design.
The Foundation of Piano Playing
Five-finger positions can be a crutch that deters the student from learning to read. Why would advanced students need it then? To help illustrate why we should be talking about the five-finger position more often, we need to understand what our hands look and feel like in a relaxed state.
Stand up and put your hands to your side. Relax them as if you were asleep. Now, without moving your hand or fingers, lift your arm up and take a look at your hand. Notice anything? Your hands naturally go into perfect five finger position.
Your fingers are curved nicely (a subject for another post perhaps), and you have no tension. This is why you should always come back to the five finger position whenever the music permits. You’ll play the best, most accurately, and fastest when your fingers are in this position. The anatomical term for this position is that your fingers are in a state of adduction. When you fingers are spread apart, they are in a state of abduction.
Always Come Back to The Five-Finger Position
Once you can read music, you understand that any note can be played with any finger. You may begin to feel some freedom on the piano. At this point you’ve likely forgotten all about the five-finger positions in your past.
Naming the position is not important, the important part is keeping your hand at rest when at all possible. This means closing your hand to the relaxed state of a basic five-finger position.
Let’s try another exercise. Hold you hand up in the natural five finger position. Now spread your fingers apart. Spread them apart as far as they go. You should feel tension in your hands. Naturally they want to return to that relaxed state. It almost feels like there are springs in each one of your fingers and by pulling them apart you are putting tension on the springs. When you relax, you are taking the tension off the springs and they return to their resting state.
Playing the piano with your fingers open causes tension, reduces accuracy, and it decreases speed as well.
Extending the Five Finger Position
The five finger position is usually thought of as just five notes. We can however extend this five finger position with keeping our hands where they are, but extending our fifth or first finger out a note or two. Extending out one note but keeping your hand in one place is typically the best way to go, so that a smaller movement (just one finger) is chosen over a larger movement, the movement of the entire hand.
When you cannot just extend the five-finger position to hit a note, you must think about how what movement you can make to smoothly get into another five finger position. In a perfect world all 88 keys would be under our five fingers in this relaxed state. Of course this is impossible. In order to play the piano we need to move from position to position. There are a few different ways that we normally move between these five-finger positions. Let’s go through the main three options.
If you’ve played piano for very long at all, you understand thumb under. But did you realize that thumb under is a technique, a motion, to change between two five-finger positions? That’s it.
Let’s examine the full C Major scale. The scale consists of two five finger positions, C and F. You start in the C Major five-finger position. While ascending with your right hand, you put your thumb under your third finger in order to play the F. When the thumb goes under, the rest of your hand pivots around your thumb and ends up in the F five-finger position. With the exception of when your thumb goes under your hand, your other fingers should always be touching the keys in the respective five-finger position.
Another way to switch positions is often referred to as “jumping”. A jump is the action of moving your entire hand to another five-finger position. Your fingers can be extended during the jump, or they don’t have to be. It really depends on the music. If only one note in the five-finger position you are moving to needs to be played, often it’s not important to close your hand completely.
Jumps are often the most difficult way to switch between positions because your entire hand has to move without relation to any other notes.
The further on they keyboard you have to move, the more likely you are to commit errors. Watching the hand that is moving is often important.
The correct anatomical word for extension, is abduction. It’s the opening of your fingers. As an example, let’s say you had to play broken octave C’s in your right hand where your thumb would play the lower C, and your 5th finger would play the upper C.
There are really three steps to this motion. The first step is playing the lower C in your C Major five finger position, then you open your fingers and extend to reach the higher C. Once you play the higher C ideally you would close your hand and now be in the F Major five finger position.
Of course being able to follow these instructions rely entirely on the context of the music. If the note after the top C is not in the F five finger position, then a different movement would be required to get to a different position.
The concept still stands though. Extension is a valid method to get from one position to another. The key here is to close your hands whenever possible. If you are needlessly keeping your thumb on C when, when you’re playing notes in another position, you could play much better by closing your hand.
How Important is It?
In my undergraduate studies I studied one piece the helped to specifically drive this point home for me. The piece was Chopin’s Prelude Op.28 No.8 in F# minor. The beginning few measures are below.
In this piece the bottom dotted eighth followed by the sixteenth is obviously the melody. If played exactly as written, you would hold the bottom note while playing the fast inner notes. In order to hold the melody you need to keep your hand perpetually open. The hand must stay open to reach up the octave, and the rest of the notes are in a higher range. Which necessitates your hand staying open.
I struggled with this piece. I could play it up to tempo, but I was just never satisfied with it. It wasn’t quite as technically clean as I would have hoped.
While I was working on it I had the opportunity to have a few lessons from Sergei Babayan, an incredibly talented pianist and teacher. I played the piece for him and the first thing he said to me is, “Why are you holding down the melody?” I said, “Because that’s how it’s written.” He said, “You’re using the pedal right?” Oh yeah, I guess I was. There’s no magical difference in quality of sound if you hold down a note if you’re already holding down the pedal. The dampers are lifted either way. That made sense to me.
He said the reason I was having difficulty was because my hand was open in that extended position while playing the inner notes. Done. It made perfect sense. Immediately I started playing the piece cleaner, and after a little practice it was as clean as I could have hoped.
Playing notes while your fingers are in a five finger closed position is easy. If you have some experience as a pianist, try it out. Play as many combinations of fast notes as you can in a five-finger position. You’ll likely find them all pretty simple. That means almost all of the technical difficulties that you are facing are either with movements between positions, or because you needlessly have your hand in an open position.
If there is ever an opportunity to stay in a five-finger position you should take it. I’m not implying that it’s always possible, there are plenty of pieces, and parts of pieces, that make it impossible to play in a five finger position. Your ultimate goal, however, should be to come back to the simple relaxed position if at all possible.
If you’ve never thought about this concept before, go to some old pieces, play through them slowly and notice if you can make any changes to move you to a closed hand position. Not only will keeping your hand closed help with piano technique, it will also help to prevent injury by reducing unneeded injury and strain.
Give it a try, what do you think? Have you successfully been able to implement this in your playing? What’s the outcome? Let us know in the comments.