Kid’s Piano Fingering 101

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Let’s look at kid’s piano fingering from the simplest version they offer, to the complex patterns and positions they must learn. You must see it from the child’s point of view, or you will get lost.

IN THE BEGINNING

Kids will offer you their instinctive choice of finger, and you should wait and see what they offer. Usually, it’s the dominant index finger, but I’ve seen everything. All thumbs, all pinkies, backwards fingering, anything an untrained six year old can dream up.

At first, accept whatever crude method they offer. It really doesn’t matter that they just played Jingle Bells with their pinkie, it matters that they played a song. It’s not hard to suggest the index finger, in this example.

FIRST STEPS

Get them to use their index fingers, as they will have the most control over those two fingers (left and right.)

Then get them to use both index fingers. Now, the two sides of the brain are talking. The two index fingers can either play bat the same time or in some order devised by the child.

Make up a mock sad game in which you lament that they “were born with only one finger” to try to make them aware of what they are doing.

The truth is that kids are only dimly aware that they have ten fingers, of five types (thumb, index,third, fourth,pinkie) and that each finger has different capabilities, and must be taught to work together as a team.

Point out that they have a finger right next to the index (the third) which might be useful. Try to encourage them to use the two fingers, index and third. They make a good team, at first.

Piano Fingering Diagram

THE THUMB

Introduce the thumb.

To a child, they have no idea what the thumb does at the piano. It is half as long as the other fingers, and to place it on the white keys requires the hand to be at a rather strange angle, at least to an untrained child.

THREESIES

At this point I play a game called “threesies.” which teaches kids to use the first three fingers as a group (thumb, index, third.)

Numbered Keyboard
Numbered Keyboard

Play the following set of numbered keys, using only the first three fingers of the right hand:

123, 234, 345, 456, 567, 678, 789, etc.

This allows the child to get used to the rather odd angle the hand must adopt in order for the shorther thumb to sit on the white keys.

ALL FIVE FINGERS

It can take weeks or months to get to this stage, and older kids get there much more quickly.

Set the five fingers of the right hand on the keys 1 2 3 4 5.

You may have to play relaxation games like Hobbita Jobbita (shake the hands like a cartoon character, ending in a relaxed position.) Kids do not understand laying the hand flat on the keys, especuially younger kids. They will clench their hands, making it impossible to lay the hand flat. A common position is what I call The Karate Chop” in which the hand is held sideways, pinkie on key #5 and thumkb flailing in the air. Patience.

Now just get them to play 1 2 3 4 5  then 5 4 3 2 1.

SONGS WITH FINGERING

You should have already taught them basic songs on the white keys that lend themselves to five finger positions.

Here’s a short list:

  • JINGLE BELLS
  • MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB
  • BEETHOVEN’S NINTH
  • ALOUETTE
  • POP GOES THE WEASEL

Put their fingers over the keys and press their fingers down for them so their muscles get the idea quickly: this almost always works.

Now, offer them the option of using one finger or fingering. Sometimes younger kids shy away from fingering, so let them: there are many other things to be taught, and if they shy away from fingering, they are not quite ready for it.

Kids should be limited to “C position” in right hand until they instinctively choose groups of fingers, rather than single fingers. But give them the option of no fingering, they know their brains better than you do.

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Make Piano Fingering Logical

If you make piano fingering logical, kids accept it and use it if they can.

The issue that kids have with fingering is that it just one more conceptual burden put on their brains to play a simple song. It may be logical to you, but they see no point to it until they want to play fast.

At first, the only logic a child sees to fingering is their index finger. It is strong, long and the finger they use for a lot of things.

Kids aren’t even really aware they have five fingers, in terms of the piano, and have to be introduced to their “basketball team,” as I call the group of five fingers. It’s like they’ve never seen them as a group before.

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THE FIRST LOGIC

The first thing I suggest is that they use two index fingers instead of just one. This is easy for them to do, even if they are not ambidextrous.

The cleverness of this move, from a piano teacher’s point of view, is that using two index fingers involves both hemispheres of the brain, whether the child knows it or not.

You’re getting their brain to talk internally without them knowing it, or feeling that it is difficult.

THE NEXT LOGIC

Point out that they have fingers right next to the index finger. The third finger. Why not use that?

Get ready for them to walk up the piano white keys with their second and third fingers, like a pair of legs. Imagination!

THE WEAK LINK

The fourth and fifth fingers are practically useless, at first, and many kids keeped them tucked under the hand instinctively. You can try to uncurl them. They won’t until they are ready.

TOWARDS A WHOLE HAND

Now introduce the thumb, a very strange finger to a kid.

It is half as long, twice as thick, and start halfway down the hand, unlike every other finger. Kids shun the thumb, but must be taught to lead their “basketball team” with it. The thumb is the captain of the hand.

The problem with thumb is that it is so short that it forces the hand to be at a rather uncomfortable angle when used with the other fingers. Kids find this strange.

A GAME FOR THE WHOLE HAND

The first three fingers are the strongest, thumb, index and third.

Thus it is logical you would have the most success in showing the child how to use the hand as a unit if you use the strongest fingers.

So I number the keys and let the kid loose.

THREESIES, A FINGER GAME

Numbered Keyboard
Numbered Keyboard

Play 123,234,345,456,567,678,789, etc. with the thumb, index and third fingers. You have to repeat this over and over, inventing reasons why it must be repeated.

What it is teaching the child is that the fingers go in a row, one after the other, and we don’t skip fingers.

The last step, of course, is to try to use all five fingers, and you may have some success with it. But the fourth and fifth fingers will remain weak to the point of unusability for a long time.

Get the child to use the first three fingers as a group.

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Piano Fingering for the Very Young

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The younger the child, the less digital control they have. That’s why sippy cups exist.

My message is that you must adopt an attitude of almost Biblical patience, because young kids are barely aware they have five different fingers.

This is why, with toddlers and preschool kids, I allow them to use their dominant index finger. That is what they will instinctively offer you.

Thus, until the child is capable of more, accept the uni-finger method and move on to teach other things until they are ready.

Fingering, in the classic sense, is the art of assigning the fingers to specific keys in order to make difficult groups of notes easier to play.

But younger kids need first to be made aware that they even have ten fingers, of five different types (thumb, index, middle, ring, pinkie.)

They will have played “This Little Piggie,” but piano fingering in infinitely more complicated.

Instead of insisting on fingering, you would do better to explore what the child actually knows about their fingers, both singly and in groups.

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Here are steps to make younger kids more aware of their differing fingers. I can almost guarantee you they have never thought about any of this.

Since they are offering you the index finger, start suggesting they use BOTH index fingers. Let them choose when to use them.

Without them knowing it, they are now exercising both hemispheres of their brain, since the left index finger is controlled by the right brain, and the right index finger is controlled by the left brain.

Next, point out that there is a finger right next to the index, the third finger, which might be very useful.

Suddenly you’ll find the child fascinated with using the two fingers (second and third) as a pair, most likely making a childish game of walking up the piano with those two fingers acting like two legs.

The fourth and fifth fingers on a child’s hand are almost useless at first, so introduce the thumb now.

Hold up your hand and point out that the thumb is half as long as any other finger, and yet is twice as strong.

Kids avoid the thumb because it is shorter, preferring the longer fingers that reach the keys more easily (2,3,4 and 5.)

You first major objective is to get the child to use the first three fingers, thumb, index and third, as a group.

I made up a game called “threesies” to help develop this skill.

Numbered keyboard

123,234,345,456,567,678,789,89 10

These groups of three notes (123,234,) are played with the same finger group: thumb, index, and third.

From here it is an easy jump to get the child to use all five fingers, since they have already established strength with the first three (thumb, index and third.)

Next, take Mary Had A Little Lamb and play it using the first three fingers. It is the only song that fits these three fingers, but it is relatively easy to do, and introduces younger kids to fingering in a very gentle way.

Numbered keyboard

Mary Had A Little Lamb (played with thumb on 1, index on 2, third on 3.)

3 2 1 2    3 3 3   2 2 2     3 3 3     3 2 1 2      3 3 3 3    2 2 3 2    1

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Fingering and Familiar Songs

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Fingering and familiar songs go together perfectly for kids. Since they already know the song, it is easier to see how to arrange your fingers.

Often, I allow kids to play a song with their index finger, without fingering, so they can see the pattern of notes first, unencumbered by fingering. It works well, and helps the child get to know the song.

Usually I spend a good amount of time with the child as if fingering didn’t exist, enduring every absurd combination they instinctively offer me.

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Only later do I point out that the fingers can be most efficiently deployed as a group.

I pick a familiar song and show them:

Numbered Keyboard
Numbered Keyboard

MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB

3 2 1 2    3 3 3    2 2 2    3 3 3   3 2 1 2    3 3 3 3   2 2 3 2   1

I let them try it with the index finger. It’s easy.

Now I put their third finger on key #3, and push gently on their fingers so they get the muscular idea of using the fingers in a row. A tangible demonstration works better than abstractions.

Even just getting them to play 3 2 1 with third, index and thumb will give them the idea.

If the song is familiar enough, most kids get the idea. I’m not saying they accept it, but they see what I’m after.

Below is a list of songs (or portions) that stay within the first five notes of the piano, C D E F G, or, in PIANO BY NUMBER, 1 2 3 4 5.

Take a small portion of a song below and make a game out of it. Then put the parts together, if possible.

JINGLE BELLS
MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB
DRAYDL DRAYDL
ANGELS WE HAVE HEARD ON HIGH
HOT CROSS BUNS
BEETHOVEN’S NINTH
POP GOES THE WEASEL
EENSY WEENSY SPIDER
FRERE JACQUES

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