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Keep those fingers in a row!

When Is Learning Fingering Necessary?

by John Aschenbrenner

Fingering is the process wherein a child is asked to use a certain finger for a certain piano note. Consider the diagram below, in which each finger of each hand is assigned a number, as in conventional piano lessons:

Picture of left and right hands, numbered for piano fingering.

As an abstract concept, it is of course essential to learn fingering in order to play the piano properly, but our question is, "When is learning fingering necessary?"

To put the question another way, does a child need to learn fingering at the very beginning, or may this process be delayed for a variety of reasons?

Conventional piano lessons answer with a resounding "Fingering must be learned at the very beginning, or bad habits will be formed."

We beg to differ and answer, "The worst habit to be learned at the piano is to not play it, and not enjoy it."

Think of it from the child's point of view, in a conventional piano lesson. They are asked to understand three things, almost immediately

  1. They must learn to identify the notes on the page, usually naming them (A B C D E F G) as well.

 

  1. They must learn fingering, using the correct finger for each of the notes.

 

  1. They must learn rhythm, which is the timing of each note.

 

If you really observe a child attempting to learn the notes on the page, and relate them to the correct keys of the piano, you will find that it is an intensely difficult process, and this is without asking them to name the notes as well.

In reality, children are more successful at the piano if they are asked to simply familiarize themselves with the notes on the page, and associate them with the correct piano keys with whatever finger is convenient.

To ask them to use a certain finger AT FIRST is to cloud the issue as they struggle to learn the unfamiliar language of music on the printed page. I myself was a prodigy and learned to read music in five minutes from my father, but you have to accept that I was an exceptional case, and my experience with teaching kids bears this out.

I don't expect kids to be a prodigy as I was, I expect them to be themselves.

This in itself is a huge hurdle, this one single element (finding the notes and the keys) and a teacher must be an infinitely patient and creative game show host to get a child to finally be able to find the first five notes (C D E F G) with comfort and without anxiety. It can take weeks, months or years, and depends entirely on the individual child.

Teach the individual child, not your method. If they are frustrated reading music, go slower, still frustrated, go slower still. 

To ask even an extremely intelligent and diligent child to do more at first is to court frustration, which leads to disaster, which leads to your child simply giving up. It happens again and again and again with conventional piano lessons.

Ask other parents and they will tell you "He loved piano at first but now he hates it." Another comment is, "I had lessons when I was a kid, but I hated it."

Why?

Let us consider an entirely different approach:

  1. Allow the child to find the first five notes and associate them with the piano keys at their leisure and at their own pace, with whatever finger they wish, usually the index finger. I usually tell them, "I don't care if you play it with your nose, but find that note, and play the key on the piano that belongs to it." When they are fully confident with this, and look up at you as if to say, "Is this all there is to it?" they are ready for step 2.

  2. When a child is fully confident, even bored with finding notes and associating them with the correct keys, they will usually learn the idea of fingering in only a few minutes, for they now have a base of confidence to build upon. Make up fingering games, which are completely separate from any piece of music on a page and let them experience having five fingers as a game (see below). The truth is that children are only dimly aware at first that they have five fingers, much less able to use them as a coherent group. This only follows the psychology of children, and allows them to grow at their own pace.

  3. Last of all, and sometimes not until several years have passed, should you attempt to teach children rhythm, for until they can find the notes, play the correct keys with any finger, and then start to use the fingers as a group, it is a hopeless task to ask almost all children to assume the burden of putting it all together at the correct time. A better approach is to teach them songs in which the rhythm is already instinctively known to them, like JINGLE BELLS.

As for this approach teaching bad habits, it hasn't taught the child any habits at all except perhaps confidence and patience. There's nothing to unlearn, because they have put together the elements at their own pace.

If a child cannot understand fingering after this approach, they weren't ready for it in the first place. In this case go back and allow them to become confident with playing notes with any fingers they wish until they are ready for more difficult ideas.

Here are the steps of this method outlined:

1. Allow the child to identify the notes on the page without naming them until you can point to any note on the page and have them successfully find it on the keyboard. Let them use any finger that they want. Start with Middle C and learn only the first five notes C D E F G. Go over and over it, again and again. Your job as a teacher is to make this process fun, fresh and exciting each time you do it. It's very much like teaching toddlers their ABCs. You didn't get impatient with that, you went at their pace, and should do the same with this.

2. Play abstract fingering games that are not part of any printed page or piece of music (such as outlined below) and allow the child to grasp that the five fingers are like a basketball team and function as a group. As a practical matter, get them to use the first three fingers of the right hand (thumb, index and middle) at first. The reason for this is that these first three fingers are the strongest and will most likely be easier for the child to use as a group. I play a game called "the pencil test" to prove this to a child: place a pencil on a flat surface and ask the child to pick it up slowly. Invariably they will use the first three fingers of their hand, it's just human instinct. Get them to start each group with the thumb, and tell them "The thumb is the captain of the hand, always start with it."

3. Then, and only them, try a simple piece of music such as the first pieces in I CAN READ MUSIC or the first ones in any book such as the Bastien series, Alfred, etc, and see if they can play it using the fingers as a group. It is difficult at first, so go extremely slowly and do not frustrate them or call attention to their mistakes in a  negative way. If they cannot do this, go back and repeat steps 1 and 2 until they can, because it means, through no fault of their own, they are not ready.

THREESIES,  A FINGERING GAME

Here's the game I use to start learning fingering. Remember that the only fingers used are the first three of the right hand, thumb, index and middle, and that the numbers refer to the piano keys as numbered using our method, PIANO BY NUMBER, not the fingers as numbered in the diagram at the top of this page.

1  2  3     2  3  4     3  4  5     4  5  6     5  6  7      6  7  8      7  8  9      8  9  10       etc.,

Picture of piano keyboard numbered with piano by number removable stickers.

The only objectives are to use the fingers as a group, and to always start with the thumb.

Curriculum Outlined

Here is the general approach to getting a child started at the piano.

1. Start with PIANO BY NUMBER using a book such as PIANO IS EASY. The reason for this is to begin at a neutral, fun, easy-to understand point that allows the child to start right away and avoid, initially, the complexities of reading music.

2. When the child needs a challenge beyond PIANO BY NUMBER, begin to easily introduce the concepts of reading music using a book such as I CAN READ MUSIC

3. Then, and only then, start to introduce the idea of fingering, using the games outlined on this page.

4. At this point your child has fair chance of succeeding using conventional methods, and we suggest the series of books by James Bastien available widely and used by most conventional piano teachers. You can use any method you choose. Our books are designed as preparation for these methods, a missing link in the complex process of getting a child happily started playing piano.

By John Aschenbrenner Copyright 2008 Walden Pond Press All Rights Reserved

See also WHEN IS LEARNING FINGERING NECESSARY?

See also WHAT KIDS REALLY UNDERSTAND ABOUT SHEET MUSIC

See also THE TRANSPARENT PIANO LESSON STRATEGY

See also VISUAL PIANO GAMES

See also WHAT IS FINGERING AND WHEN DO WE USE IT

See also PIANO HAND POSITION GAMES

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FOR FINGERING, SEE ALSO:

ARTICLES ABOUT PIANO GAMES

Click here to see the game QUARTERS: A PIANO GAME KIDS LOVE

Click here to see the piano game FUN PIANO GAME WITH A PAIR OF DICE

Click here to see the piano game MOZART'S FAVORITE MOVIE 

Click here to see the essay BASEBALL, KIDS AND PIANO

Click here to read about PIANO CHORD GAMES FOR KIDS

Click here to read about VISUAL PIANO GAMES

Click here to read about THE FUTURE EFFECT OF KIDS PIANO GAMES

 

CHORDS GAMES FOR CHILDREN

Click here to read the tutorial ROOT POSITION CHORDS

Click here to read the tutorial FIRST INVERSION CHORDS

Click here to read the tutorial SECOND INVERSION CHORDS

Click here to read the tutorial THE SIX BASIC CHORDS FOR CHILDREN

Click here to read the tutorial TWO NOTE CHORDS FOR KIDS

Click here to read about PIANO CHORD GAMES FOR KIDS

Click here to read the article WHY CHILDREN SHOULD LEARN ABOUT PIANO CHORDS

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