If you are a parent of a young child who is taking music lessons, you may have questioned “Are they doing this correctly?” or “Is there something I need to watch for while they play?” and the answer to those questions is a resounding YES. We music teachers get to work with your kids for half an hour to 45 minutes and while this time is exhausted and used to the most effectiveness possible, it will never make up for the time spent at home practicing what they’ve been taught.
I love this podcast called Piano Parent Podcast. It is such a helpful resource for me and for many piano parents! I was recently listening to a podcast about technique and the different approaches pertaining to student learning and musical development. For instance, hand position….what should the child’s hand look like? What about height level of their hands? Where do their feet go if they can’t touch the floor? All these things have been addressed in their lesson, but most times the set up is different at home. How can you ensure your child is getting the most out of their practice? By making sure of a few things below:
One of the first things a student learns is the distance between them, the player and the instrument, the piano. A good practice to get into in the beginning is for the student to stick their arm straight out with a clenched fist touching the fall board (the part that falls over the keys while in the upright position, or for a grand piano the back piece directly behind the keys). This should ensure based on the child’s arm length that they are the right distance from the piano. They can move their bench accordingly to ensure there is not a bend in their elbow (while holding their arm straight out) putting them too close or that they are not too far away. If the child does not have a fallboard in the instance they are using a keyboard, simply judge the distance by their kneecaps just barely covered by the keyboard. If their thighs are halfway underneath the keyboard, they are too close. Keep a close eye on this because young students tend to move closer to the piano than they should, causing more trouble with their hand position and not allowing them to have any free range of motion in their arms. This could lead to tougher problems if they habit is not solidified at a young age.
2. Hand position
There are many, many, many methods out there for correct hand position. Sometimes I’ll tell the students they should pretend to hold a bubble, or form a C with their thumb and fingers. But basically, the most natural hand position is one where that is most relaxed. When you rest your hand around your knee cap or relaxed to your side, your hand is the EXACT position it should rest on the piano. This is not always the case when playing full chords or octaves BUT young students will not be tackling that quite yet. You should be looking for their knuckles to be bent, but not “claw like”. Their thumb should rest on it’s side slightly extended outwards and their pinky should be resting relaxed at a somewhat curved position (not straight). If they look like they are playing with the pads of their fingers, remind them to play on their fingertips right below their nail. (THIS IS WHY PIANIST CAN’T HAVE LONG NAILS!) Their wrist should NOT fall below the keys. This causes tension in the hand muscles and actually cause injury. They need to keep their wrist level with their first set of slightly bent knuckles.
Now the dexterity of a child’s hand and fingers is not the same as a 10 year old or an adult, so be patient with those fingers that want to stick up or can’t seem to press a note with a curved knuckle. They will learn to control them the more experienced they get. It takes time. Some children have a more natural ability and others have to work harder at it. The important thing is to RELAX and play naturally. With practice those muscles will develop and get stronger so that they can play with a curved hand position.
3. Posture, foot and seat position.
Posture: Of course, posture is VERY important when it comes to learning to play the piano. Slouching is not good. Crossed legs are not good. Even standing up (unless the piano is higher like a band style keyboard) is not good either. It is important for a students to learn what is SHOULD feel like at the piano. They should be sitting with good posture, shoulders back and relaxed, head looking forward at their music. They should not be scooting on the bench either. If they need to reach higher keys, they need to lean and use their arms to reach (exceptions would be for very small students).
Foot position: This is such a tough one because every child is growing and the young ones can’t quite touch the floor. For those that cannot touch the floor, if possible, bring a little bench underneath their feet to help them with their posture and keep them grounded. Often they will want to scoot closer to the edge of the bench so that they can touch the floor which causes them to move too close. This should be avoided. If they can reach the floor, just be sure of the following:
Seat position: Their bum should only be sitting on the front half of the bench. In other words, they should not be sitting on the entire bench! For tall students, like growing teenagers, they need to watch this because they tend to forget how fast they are growing and do not move the bench far enough out. If an older students legs are almost fully underneath the bench and their elbows are sticking past their ribs, they are too close. They need to scoot the bench back, position themselves on the front half, back and bum would start in the middle with the back straight and shoulders relaxed. Young students need to do this as well so that they are establishing a good habit.
There is so much more to technique than these few things but these are the MAIN topics of concern. Having the right position for all of these will set an amazing foundation for the student. Take a look at your youngster at home and be sure they have the equipment they need to practice properly. Do they need an actual bench rather than a chair to be at the proper height? Or you may want to put some books underneath them temporarily to bring their height up. Are they sitting so close to the keyboard their elbows are extended past their sides? You may want to remind them to scoot back and not sit too close to the piano and be sure their elbows are bent but not at a 90 degree angle. Are they sitting up straight and tall? Remind them real musicians do not slouch! Does their hand look too flat? They may need to be reminded to have a rounded shape and not to drop their wrist below the keys. Do you hear clicking while they are playing? You may need to make sure they cut their nails! (my pet peeve is long nails while playing the piano!) If a ballerina or a basketball player are required to have good technique while practicing their craft, a musician should as well.
Of course, I am always here to help, adjust, coach, love and teach. If a students shows signs of repetitious bad technique, I will definitely correct it and make sure they know how to practice properly. However, I cannot be there all the time. Parents, you are my eyes and ears! You can be a huge help and encouragement by following through with these little tips. It will not take much especially in the beginning. It will set them up for success!