A teacher recently wrote to us with a question: I have a transfer student that is VERY attached to the Middle C position and the finger numbers. She has taken piano twice before in 6-month stints and can play by ear, but is having a difficult time with pieces that aren’t middle C position– until she hears it played. I have started at the beginning with her. She’s 13. I don’t want to lose this student’s attention —I’ve not had many transfer students and am not sure how to proceed.
This is a very common problem with students who begin in method books that “lock” them into the security of Middle C Position (where thumbs share Middle C). And it’s a big problem because, aside from the method book pieces designed to reinforce this position, there is next to no repertoire out there that uses this hand position in the “real world”.
Common problems that arise from dependency on “Middle C Position” include:
1. Dependence on finger numbers vs. keyboard awareness. Students who use Middle C Position think of “D” as “2” and E as “3”. Once you move their hands to a new position, such as D position, they will almost always play an E with their right hand every time they see a D (their 2 finger is conditioned to play every time they read D on their music) and so on. This is a really hard habit to break!
2. A fear or reluctance to play pieces with hand positions where left and right hand are far apart.
3. A fear or reluctance to play pieces with a key signature.
4. A lack of comfort with accidentals.
5. Stiffness when playing, especially when required to change hand positions mid-piece.
Moving Away From The Security of Middle C
To avoid this dependence on hand position, be careful when selecting method books. Choose a series that gets students out of Middle C position and moving their hands right away. Instead of asking “What position is this in?” students should instead be identifying their starting notes, finding the primary chords in the key the piece is in and being made aware of the tonic and dominant of the piece. This strategy will enable them to be comfortable playing any piece in any genre.
Encourage your student to look at the piano “as a picture”. By this I mean that the groups of black keys need to become her landmarks. She’s used to the security of having her thumbs touching. This lets her know she’s where she needs to be. Many students view the piano as a vast sea of white keys…unpredictable and overwhelming. They panic and want to know “Where do I put my hands?!”. The black keys are there not as a helpful guide to them, but rather are “those scary sharps and flats that I hardly use”. However, teaching students to use the black keys instead as a guide will give them the same sense of security as does Middle C Position. Just as we use guide notes when teaching students to read on the staff, we need to use guide keys on the piano.
Therefore, teach C not as a white key, but as “the white key to the left of the group of 2”. Teach F as “the white key to the left of the group of 3”. Have her repeatedly find all of the C’s and F’s using this visual. Continue from this point with E and B and then gradually fill in the rest. Practice having her quickly move her right hand thumb to F, then to C, then to B, then to E etc. and the same with her left hand pinky finger. Once she can find the single note, then move into asking for two-note pairs (playing FG, CD, BC etc.) and then four-note groups. If you do this often enough then you’ll hopefully erase the “D is 2” etc. programming in her mind.
Remove Barriers With Fun!
There are many times in our teaching day when we need short excerpts of music at an appropriate level that focus in on one specific skill. But each time you reach for that old out-dated technical exercise book you might as well be hitting the “boredom” switch in your studio! Break through those barriers with technical exercises that are unbelievably fun and that provide those musical examples and practice your students need so frequently.