One of the biggest challenges while learning how to play piano is avoiding bad habits, such as skipping warm ups, in our day-to-day practice. This can prevent us from improving technical aspects such as finger dexterity, finger strength, hand coordination, and more broadly, develop a proper technique.
In this article, we’ll explore the top 6 exercises for beginners that every pianist should know. We’ll show you the benefits of incorporating them into your piano practice and explain how to do them step by step. Let’s begin!
Hand exercises for pianists: improving speed and overall performance
At Skoove, we understand the importance of teaching you how to learn piano in a fun way, but also doing it the right way. For this reason, we want to share with you a few simple but effective hand exercises to improve your piano technique.
Incorporating these exercises into your routine will bring great benefits, such as increasing finger strength, flexibility, dexterity, and control. Better still, you get to keep these skills forever!
When should you do finger strengthening exercises for piano?
Piano warm-up exercises are just as beneficial for you as a pianist, as they are for an athlete. They help your body and mind be prepared to endure the physicality of your every-day piano playing. However, before we discuss any specific exercises, let’s take a look at a few exercising tips:
- PRO-TIP 1: Exercise before you practice
Playing piano with cold fingers can be risky business for various reasons. It is unfortunately all too-common to hear about people experiencing aches and pains from practicing piano the wrong way for years. The best way to avoid this, however, is by doing warm-ups prior to every session, thus significantly decreasing any chance of injury.
- PRO-TIP 2: Take advantage of your free time with piano-less exercises.
A great advantage of warm-up exercises is that you can do most of them away from the piano. Yes — away from the piano means literally anywhere – on a plane, on a bus, while you’re driving to work, or laying on the couch. Taking advantage of your free time to exercise is a great way to improve your piano playing and will probably make you feel less guilty about not putting enough hours into your practice!
- PRO-TIP 3: Mix it up! Make your piano session more engaging by combining activities.
Although not all practice sessions are created equal, we all know the feeling: You sit at the piano, ready to give your best performance ever, but after 5 minutes or so you start feeling distracted and tired. To help prevent this, it’s important to come up with strategies to make your practice time more engaging. One such strategy is mixing in different types of activities while you practice, such as sight-reading, playing songs you already know, improvising, and, of course, doing hand exercises.
1st exercise: Practicing the correct hand position
One of the most foundational aspects of piano technique is hand position and posture. This aspect alone has an immense impact in your overall learning process, and it’s therefore essential to spend time working on it. Let’s start with our first exercise.
Steps on how to do the piano hand exercises
- Step 1 — posture: Stand up and let your arms and hands be as relaxed as possible. Pay close attention to the natural position your body adopts, how it feels, and what your hands and fingers look and feel like. Now try seating at the piano, and bend your arms just enough to have your hands on the keyboard. Try to preserve the same level of relaxation as you had while standing up.
- Step 2 — arms: While placing your arms over the keyboard, it’s important to make sure your forearms naturally maintain an overall horizontal line with respect to the keyboard — in other words, your hands and arms should be at a similar height.
- Step 3 — hand shape: A helpful analogy to think about correct hand position when playing piano is to imagine you’re holding an invisible glass of wine: In other words, keeping your fingers slightly curved, making a C shape, but in such a way that it feels completely relaxed, and effortless. Of course, the minor difference here is that the palm of our hands will be facing down.
- Step 4 — wrists: Finally, make sure your wrists are at the same level as the keyboard, and as relaxed as possible. Tense wrists can greatly reduce the speed and finesse of your playing.
A quick word on piano hand posture
Many piano teachers around the world say that exercises like these might aid in preventing carpal tunnel syndrome or arthritis. All we know is that this is the simplest way to acquire 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, a 19th-century pianist and professor, popularized the notion that it is easier to memorize music with sheet music on your lap than in front of the piano:
Like Leschetizky, we also recommend practicing away from the piano from time to time. You can do this by going through any sheet music, doing finger drills, tapping rhythms, and so on as often as you can. This is one of the “away from the piano” exercises mentioned earlier.
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! It will also help you improve finger independence, finger-strength, and coordination.
- To start, 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.
3rd exercise: A 5-note scale
This exercise is what we call a pentatonic scale and has you playing the first 5 notes of a scale with independent fingers. Being able to play notes in a controlled motion is vital if you want to be a well-rounded pianist, so we recommend incorporating this particular exercise into your warm-up routine. Later on, you can further extend it with other scales and arpeggios.
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 maintain a steady tempo. 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 sounds too complicated, don’t worry! You can learn more about piano scales here. Once you’re ready to put this into practice, try playing the pentatonic minor scale through this Skoove app lesson:
4th exercise: Playing chords
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 coordination 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.
- We’ll start with the right hand. Place your fingers following a similar pattern as shown in the image above — in other words, pressing three keys, leaving one key in between each. You should play these three notes 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 piano chords with your right hand, try doing the same exercise with your left hand.
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 add expressivity to your playing and give you more control over the tone-color of the music you play.
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.
How to do the exercise:
- Place all 5 fingers of your right hand on the piano, and start playing a 5-note 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 doing the opposite by playing the same notes 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.
6th exercise: Piano hand coordination
This may seem like an obvious suggestion to make, but starting with an easy song is really important in giving you a good start to building coordination between the hands.
The first example to look at is Mozart’s Sonata No 11, taken from our Beginner Course 1. Looking at the music, we can see that the right hand and left hand parts are exactly the same, the only difference being that they are one apart. Both hands have the same rhythm, and move in the same direction… Easy right?
- Play the first four bars using the right hand only. Once you are comfortable doing this, play with both hands together. But when you do, and this is really important, think of the right hand leading the left hand. Were you able to play it for the first time? If not, then give it a few more tries, and if you’re still struggling, then carry on reading, as the next tip will help you out a lot!
- Once you have played this example successfully, make sure you go through and complete the other hands together songs in the Beginner Course 1.
How to improve hand coordination for piano
The next exercise we are going to practice is a 1-octave C Major scale, played in contrary motion. In simple terms, we are going to start with both of our thumbs on middle C, play in opposite directions until both hands have reached another C, and then return. Looking at the numbers under and above the notes, we can see that the same fingers are used at the same time in each hand, which makes this exercise a good place to start.
Make sure you use the finger numbers as shown above. When we reach our 3rd fingers, our thumbs tuck under our hand and play the next note. On the way back in, once we have played our thumbs, our 3rd fingers loop over the top and play the next notes. Be sure to get comfortable playing the exercise hands separately before putting both hands together.
The second exercise is again a 1-octave C Major scale, but this time we are going to play it with both hands going in the same direction; first going up, and then coming back down. This is slightly more difficult, as our hands are using different finger numbers at the same time. Our “Thumb under” and “3rd finger over” motions also come at different points within the scale.
Once you have mastered the first exercise, give the second one a try. It’s very important that you go very slowly at first, thinking about every move you make with each hand. As you become more confident, you can start to increase the tempo.
In this article we looked at 6 different exercises to improve your technique, as well as some best practices to approach them. These help you address different aspects and skills relevant to piano playing, such as hand posture and position, muscle memory, finger independence, coordination, and expressivity. Additionally, we shared a couple of complementary lessons available through the Skoove app.
Now that you’re well-equipped with new practicing techniques, it’s time to take your abilities to the next level. Enrich your piano routine with your new knowledge and we’ll see you in the next article. Happy playing!
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