My husband recently started a job 1½ hours from my studio, so we are living the commuter life.    As much as I despise the traffic, the drive provides a lot of quality time for mulling and    brainstorming. Thinking back over the past semester, I realized what a big problem my young students have with changing hand positions. I teach a large number of 4-7 year olds who are extremely frustrated when the method changes their hand position for a song.  I am a strong proponent of intervallic reading, but if a child is always in the same hand position, they will undoubtedly begin to associate their thumb with Middle C, or RH finger 3 with E.

To combat this problem early, I’ve come up with some steps that have worked for my students:

1.) COVER their hands early on – Even in a student’s first month of piano you can challenge him/her to play with hands covered! Make it exciting: “Do you think you could play this piece with your hands covered?!” Most songs on the black keys will have a nice picture in the corner for students to rely on for extra security. Covering a student’s hands will force him to visualize the keyboard, and break the habit of looking down at his hands between every new note he reads.
2.) ENCOURAGE directional reading – You can begin this even on pre-reading songs.  When a student is using RH, “Is your 3rd finger above or below your 2nd finger on the keyboard?” “Do these three notes go up, down, or stay the same?” Before asking these questions, it is important to confirm that a child understand how “up and down” and “above and below” relate to moving “right or left” on the keyboard. When reading on the staff, cover your students’ hands and point in between the notes to encourage relational/intervallic reading. If needed, you can preface this activity off the piano by having a student draw arrows (up, down, or straight line for a repeat) with pencil in his/her music.
3.) DISCOVER new hand positions  – For example, a young student is assigned a piece with LH on GAB (321) and RH on CDE (123). The next week she comes back and has studiously practiced her piece. At that point, you can give her a challenge: “Can you discover a way to play this piece using different finger numbers?” Most young students will be more than happy to try the piece again without their thumbs [LH on GAB (432), RH on CDE (234)]. I’ve even had a student cross her hands and play the entire piece with RH and LH inverted! Assign the piece a second week with the new hand position.
4.) TRANSPOSE – Again, you don’t have to wait until a student is at the intermediate level to try transposing. Try moving a piece on black keys to white keys, or vice versa.  Have students that are proficient in five finger patterns transpose a piece in C position to G position.  Have them discover transposing to a minor key and describe the differences in sound!

Above all, make it fun! Having your hands covered or position changed during the lesson can be such a drag, but with the right tone, phrasing, and enthusiasm, we teachers can make it exciting!  Make sure to be very patient and encouraging during a student’s first encounters, because losing the security of a consistent hand position can be overwhelming to the young student.

Have you encountered similar problems with your young students? What strategies do you use in your teaching?

Author: Julia Parker