With most kids, the best way to introduce fingering is to play finger organization games which teach them to use the five fingers as a unit.
Fingering, briefly, is the process whereby a group of fingers are selected for a group of notes. It is one of the key organizing factors for a pianist, and is what makes playing quickly and fluidly possible.
Young kids start out jabbing with the index finger, which I permit to get the process going. Later, we need to broach the subject of grouping the fingers.
Kids readily understand the idea of the fingers as a team, much like a basketball team. There are strong and stronger players/fingers.
But treating the fingers as a group is difficult both physically and intellectually for kids.
The three strongest fingers are the thumb, index and third, and I concentrate on training those first.
Thus all our energy is concentrated on getting the first three fingers to act as a group. I use comparisons such as legs walking, staircases, anything that will get them wiggling their fingers in a row.
Often they need guidance to start using the thumb as the first in the group, since they are instinctively used to using their index finger, and have only a dim awareness of their thumbs. But the thumb is strong, and all children have an easy time starting to use it as the primary finger in the hand group.
You may have to literally take their fingers and move them like a puppet to get the idea across, and I often do this, as all children respond when you gently push the fingers in the proper way so they feel the muscle from the inside. Show, rather than tell.
I also have them play the fingers as a group outside of the piano keyboard, on a book, any flat surface. This is to defuse the complexity of the keyboard and show them that the fingers are really involved in a simple pattern.
I also use the game of having them hold their fingers in the correct position and I push the fingers down in the correct order, once again giving them a physical idea of what the passage requires in terms of finger movement.
The younger the child, the less usable are the fourth and fifth fingers. I don’t insist on them, and allow them to trail along as best they can.
The problem is always that kids are barely able to lift the last two fingers, due to weakness.
We as humans do not use these fingers much anyway, unless it is as a group with the other fingers. Look at your fingers as you grab for a doorknob or pencil and you will see that the dominant fingers are the first three, thumb index and third.
PENCIL TEST GAME
I play a piano game called the Pencil Test, in which I have a child slowly pick up a pencil, from above like one of those supermarket clamshell machines where you get a prize if you maneuver the clamshell claw to the right place.
Kids are surprised to find out that they use the first three fingers instinctively for this movement. Playing the game makes them aware of their fingers in a new, fun way.
Once the concept of fingers in a row/group has been established, I always assign a familiar song in which all the fingers are in a row, such as:
BEEHOVEN’S NINTH SYMPHONY
MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB
HOT CROSS BUNS
We play these songs and make up games involving those songs until they instinctively play with the proper fingering, all five fingers nicely in a row.
It may take months, and they may not make the association that other songs need the same rational approach to fingering. They fail and go in and out of using proper fingering. I just make a note and joke about it, maybe correct it briefly, but move on.
I don’t want them to get a phobia about fingering by breaking the flow every time they break a rule. But I do make them aware of it. One good way to make them aware of fingering transgressions is to play a game.
FINGERING METHOD GAME
Kids come up with the darndest piano finger combinations! I watch them all day long so I think I know just about every contorted configuration: backwards thumbs, pinkies only, upside down, you name it, the imagination of a child has already thought of it and tried it out at the piano.
As they learn fingering, soften the blow of your constant correction by calling their errors the “Jimmy Franklin Fingering Method” or whatever their name is. Always call attention to the use of the Jimmy Franklin Fingering Method when they use a strange combination rather than some rational group. I say, “Oh, I see you use the Jimmy Franklin Method, four thumbs in a row, yes, very unusual….” They will laugh, see their error, and soon their fingering will magically become correct, or more correct, and they will try.
Just keep pointing out the weird finger combinations. After all, even the greatest of pianists takes a “wrong” fingering and skids off the road.
Look at the piano works of Chopin and Rachmaninoff, and you will find “childish” things like two thumbs in a row, two pinkies in a row, and other strange positions that are not in any basic fingering method or violate the “rules” of fingering.
These composers broke the rules and then some, but of course, they knew what the rules were. I’m not suggesting that you throw “proper fingering” out the window, rather, only that you might help the child to discover it in their own way. The results are far better.
I always explain that fingering is a perfect example of a rule meant to be broken, either by circumstance or design.
But you have to understand the rule first, and kids all understand that games have rules.
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