In this article, we explore the 5 best hand exercises that every pianist should know. We’ll show you the benefits of incorporating them into your practice regime and explain how to do them in a step-by-step fashion.
Have you ever wondered how pianists manage to play complicated passages like those found in virtuosic piano compositions such as this one?
The answer is simple – most of the world-class pianists we know have spent hours and hours practicing scales and doing other exercises! While we’re on the topic, I often get asked how long it takes for someone to learn the piano. This article sums it up nicely.
Now, we know that you don’t have all the time in the world. So, the 5 simple exercises we’ve selected won’t take more than a couple of minutes out of your day.
Why you should do hand exercises
As you saw in the video above, having strong fingers and hands that allow for flexibility, dexterity, and control are quite important. If you want to play alongside the greats, it’s important that you improve on these skills by doing hand exercises.
If anything is worth doing, it is worth doing well. At Skoove, we realize the importance of teaching you how to read music and play all your favorite songs in a fun way. We try to make sure that you are learning the RIGHT way too. For this reason, we suggest spending some time on the technical component of your playing.
You will also reap the many benefits of playing the piano while you are at it. This article explains how practicing piano benefits your brain.
You will keep these skills… forever! Professional pianists utilize the techniques they learned at the beginning of their journeys in just about every performance they have. We often see them incorporating trills, moves, hand-overs, and other techniques that you will learn doing these exercises.
When should you do hand exercises?
You could compare doing warm-up exercises before you play to Usain Bolt stretching his muscles before an Olympic sprint. Think about it: What’s good enough for Usain Bolt, is good enough for YOU!
💡PRO-TIP 1: Do these exercises before you practice
Playing piano with cold fingers can be risky business for various reasons. I know of many people that experience aches and pains from practicing piano the wrong way for years. No, you probably won’t land up in the ER if you don’t warm your hands up properly by doing some hand and finger exercises. But, doing warm-ups will prevent the discomfort of playing with cold fingers and that is reason enough for doing them!
💡PRO-TIP 2: Do these exercises on the fold-down tray on a plane, on the arm of your TV-couch, or the dashboard of your car.
You can do some of these exercises away from the piano. Away from the piano means literally anywhere – on a plane, on a bus, while you’re driving to work or lazing on the couch. Doing them when you’re bored or just feeling the need to play the piano might be a good idea. And, it’ll probably make you feel less guilty about not putting enough practice time in.
This article has some excellent suggestions for practicing the piano while you are traveling and away from home too.
💡PRO-TIP 3: Do these exercises when you need some diversion in your practice session. Or, do them when you just want to kill a few minutes playing the piano.
Lastly, not all practice sessions are created equal. We all know the feeling. You sit down in front of the piano. You’re thinking that you will be preparing for your performance in the Christmas Variety Spectacular at Carnegie Hall. But, you start to feel distracted and tired after 5 minutes. Or, you would like to practice, and as you sit down to do so, you remember your tea date with Aunt Mavis. Who will ring the doorbell in… exactly 10 minutes!
1st exercise: Practicing the correct hand position
Doing this exercise repeatedly will help you to build what we can call “muscle memory”. Muscle memory kicks in when your hand automatically assumes the right position on the keys when you play. An added benefit is that you will strengthen the muscles on your hand while you’re at it!
You will need a stress ball such as this one:
We’ll do this exercise in 3 steps:
- Start by bending your arms in front of you, emulating a T-rex stance of the years gone by. Keep holding your fingers in a relaxed position. Next, spread your fingers out straight, before starting to curl them. Start the curl at the first knuckle (the knuckle closest to your fingertips), and keep full control of the motion, doing it sloooooooowly.
- Once you’ve done that a few times, do the same curling motion while gripping a stress ball. So, grip the ball firmly, trying to control your fingertips, so that you will bend your fingers at the first knuckle. Next, squeeze the ball slowly, trying your best to control the motion of your fingers. You will feel some tension – and exertion – after just a couple of minutes.
- You are now ready to place your hands on the keys. Try imagining your fingers curling around the stress ball (many teachers call this making tennis-ball hands) when you place your hands on the notes. Make sure that your palms are higher than the keys. You should have an elevated hand position, with the palm of your hand making a little platform. All your fingers should stay curled into a ball shape. Look at your hands now: this the right position to be in. Once you’ve placed the position, remove your hands, and try again at a different place on the piano.
A quick word on hand posture
Many teachers across the globe cite that exercises like these might aid in preventing carpal tunnel syndrome or arthritis. All we know is that this is the simplest way to train your hand into a firm, correct hand posture. The correct posture will do wonders in allowing you to have the largest range of motion possible for your hands. It will greatly improve dexterity and overall mobility too.
2nd exercise: Finger drills
Theodor Leschetizky was a 19th-century pianist and professor. He popularized the notion that is is easier to memorize music with sheet music on your lap than in front of the piano. His capabilities as a performer make us think that he might have known a thing or two about practicing the right way:
We recommend practicing away from the piano too. You can do this by going through sheet music, doing finger drills, tapping rhythms, and so on as often as you can.
This exercise is one of those well suited for “away from the piano” practice.
How to do the exercise
You can do this exercise on any flat surface – a dining room table, a subway train’s window, your office desk, literally ANYWHERE!
So, we’ll be practicing finger independence with finger drills. This is a great way to improve finger-strength and co-ordination too.
- Place your fingers on a flat surface, as though you are placing them on a piano. Next, “play” each different finger, paying attention to the motion of your fingers. Start with your thumb (finger number 1) and lift it up, and put it down. Now, play your index finger (finger number 2), and keep going until all five fingers have played. Keep all the other fingers stationary and make sure that you don’t lift any other finger except the one that is playing.
- Once you have done this a couple of times, try mixing it up by playing sequences of numbers. You can use just about any sequence – such as 15324, 14253, and so on.
- Lastly, you can play with both hands at the same time, using the same finger on each hand. Try playing sequences together, with both thumbs being finger number 1.
Other finger drills
We advocate incorporating finger drills because of the many benefits that you can derive from doing them. There are many different books, websites, and other aids focused exclusively on hand exercises for pianists.
Hannon, a popular range of books that contain finger exercises, is one of them. The publisher of Hannon claims that their books have “a proven track record in improving technical skill, speed, and precision”. I find that students often get bored with the monotony of doing these exercises repeatedly for hours on end. So, I don’t always prescribe playing them unless they’re advanced students. You might find some of the examples on their website interesting though.
3rd exercise: A 5-note scale
This exercise is what we call a Penta-scale and has you playing the first 5 notes of a scale with independent fingers. Doing this exercise is great for aural training – teaching you to identify the sound of each key. At the same time, it is equally great for developing your finger muscles.
Being able to play notes in a controlled motion is vitally important if you want to be a well-rounded pianist. Strong fingers will make it easy for you to play dynamics or add emotion to your performance. We recommend putting this particular exercise in your warm-up routine, which you can extend to include other scales and arpeggios at a later stage.
How to do the exercise
- Start by placing your right thumb on Middle C. Then place your index finger on D, middle finger on E, ring finger on F, and little finger on G. Make sure you have the right-hand position, with your fingers slightly curled and your palm higher than the keyboard of the piano.
- Now play each note, paying close attention to what sound you are producing. You want to create a uniform sound (playing each note at the same volume as the previous one). Try to also create a uniform tempo (holding each note down for the same amount of time as the previous one). Play all 5 notes ascending – CDEFG, and all 5 notes descending – GFEDC a few times. Once you feel confident to do so, speed the tempo up dramatically, and slow it back down.
- Now, repeat this process for the left hand. Start by placing your little finger (finger 5) on a lower C, and repeat the same process.
- Lastly, try coordinating your hands by playing the same 5 notes in both hands – first ascending, then descending.
If this is all Greek to you, we’ve got you covered. There is an excellent article on Skoove blog which will help you to understand piano scales a little better.
If you’d like to give have a bit of additional practice, try playing the pentatonic minor scale on the Skoove App here:
4th exercise: Playing chords
Most theory books refer to chords as triads. The first part of the word Tri- means three – as we find it in triangle, tricycle, etc. Triads are thus built with THREE notes. Triads and chords are the same things, but we’ll call them chords for now.
This exercise will help you with hand placement and force you to use more than one finger at a time. Don’t fret if you find the co-ordination hard initially. You should be able to condition your muscles into naturally placing a chord quite easily once you’ve done it a few times.
So, how does it work?
When you play a chord, you’ll basically skip a note between every note. You can build the chord of C by playing C, E, and G with fingers 1-3-5 in the right hand. See how you’re leaving D and F out?
- We’ll start with the right hand. Place your thumb on any note. Next, get your hand into position, and play every second note starting with your thumb. You should play these three notes – thumb, middle finger, and little finger – at the same time. Try pressing all three notes simultaneously a few times.
- Now move your hand around, trying to play a chord on whichever note your hand lands.
- Once you’ve mastered playing chords with your right hand, try doing the same exercise with your left hand.
This really gets easier the more you do it – so, keep at it! If you’d like to read a little more about chords, this article on Skoove blog might be helpful.
5th exercise: Playing legato and staccato notes.
In music, composers often instruct performers to play legato or staccato notes. Legato notes are smooth, even notes that usually create flowing phrases in music. Staccato notes are loose, separated, short notes.
Practicing these will help you to play better, and strengthen your hand. Being able to do staccatos and legatos will ultimately give you more control over the tone-color of the music that you play.
Once you know how to read sheet music, you will need to perform what you read. Just playing the right notes is step one. Adding emotion, different touches, dynamics, and phrasings is step two. By the way, if you can’t read sheet music yet, this article might help you.
Before we continue, it is important to note that there are two types of staccato notes. The first type is a wrist staccato, which you play by moving only the wrist. The second type is a finger staccato, which relies solely on the speed of your finger to play the short, sharp staccato note. It is often left to the performer’s interpretation to choose which one to do. For this exercise, we’ll be practicing a finger staccato movement.
Graham Fitch is a popular piano pedagogue who’s playing the New York Times described as “unalloyed pleasure”. In this video, he explains the legato and the staccato touch in a bit more detail:
How to do the exercise:
- Place all 5 fingers of your right hand on the piano, and start playing a Penta-scale. Hold each note down until you play the next – connecting them and playing them smoothly. Make sure that there are no silences as you ascend and descend on different notes.
- Next, try the other end of the spectrum, and play the Penta-scale with a short finger staccato. Imagine that the notes are as hot and that your fingers burn as you touch them – this should give you the right technique. Make sure that your hand doesn’t move off the keyboard. Simply do light touches with your fingers as they make contact with each key.
- Try doing this exercise with both hands playing simultaneously.
The Skoove app will help you develop these skills and techniques while you learn to play. Once you’ve gone through these exercises, why not try our interactive lesson playing the popular ABBA song, Dancing Queen?
For a bit of inspiration, watch the talented pianist Francesco Parrino’s interpretation of Dancing Queen.
With a bit of practice, this could be you! Your hand is ultimately made out of bones, ligaments, and most importantly, muscle. Like any sports athlete conditions his muscles, you as a pianist should be conditioning your muscles. The muscles of your hand, that is. And, the only way to get your hands into performance shape… is to EXERCISE them!
Happy practicing, and happy playing, you muscle-fingered pianist!
Author of this blog post:
Roelof Strydom is a 30-something-year-old wordsmith whose content has been published globally. He was born with perfect pitch and honed his sight reading skills while attending the world-renowned Drakensburg Boys Choir School. When he is not writing, he spends his time playing the piano, drinking red wine, reading good books, or operating the cruise control of his old ‘Benz in the wide-open spaces of South Africa where he lives. He owns a music school currently teaching music to about 250 students and is a popular entertainer doing pianoman-type gigs in Johannesburg.