If not, think of the “THUMP” as being a heavy thumb in an Alberti Bass pattern and you have the sort of thing that haunts piano teachers in their sleep. But, resist the urge to just turn that page in your student’s book…don’t skip the piece! But… don’t let the THUMP slide either… we piano teachers need our sleep!
Fixing Mr. Thumpy Thumb
There are ways you can approach Alberti Bass patterns to help your student find a great sense of legato and hand balance that will have them racing through those Mozart Sonatinas in no time.
To help fix a heavy thumb (or Mr. Thumpy Thumb as I refer to him with my students) in Alberti Bass patterns, try the following:
Check for tension – but obviously check the obvious first…are they positioned correctly at the piano at the right height and distance from the keys? Little ones need a stool for their feet so they feel grounded. Now, check for arm and wrist tension (and sometimes even shoulder!). A student with tension will have a difficult time finding a sense of balance in their hand.
Practice the Alberti Bass sections in a piece as a solid chord exercise first. If your student can play the left hand comfortably as solid chords then you’ve eliminated any issues with “note-searching”. This helps the hand to achieve balance as the student has developed the muscle memory needed and isn’t searching as they play. The second part to this is to encourage slow practice once you break free from the solid chords. Speed without adequate preparation produces tension and then you’re back to square one again.
Teach them to rotate – their hand should be in motion (not just their fingers) while executing an Alberti Bass pattern. If only their fingers are moving then you are very likely to hear the thumpy thumb (he is, after all, a rather large fellow!) Allow the wrist to rotate so that the thumb is not reaching (and therefore thumping). There is a difference between rotation and rocking. Rocking is Mr. Thumpy Thumb’s best friend.
Listen – Spend some time having your student play only the first note of each set of 4 notes. Can they shape a melody using just these first notes? Doing so will train their ears to listen to the underlying progression that is taking place, and will bring the emphasis away from the thumb. Ideally, if they can play these bottom notes on their own with a sense of legato and phrasing it should carry through once they add the remaining 3 notes of each set. Students often look at an Alberti pattern as being simply a set of 4 notes… each note having equal importance. You’ll achieve beautiful results if you can have them instead look at each set as a bass note with three supporting notes. To put it in simple terms, the first note should be somewhat louder than the other three (emphasis on somewhat!). Go for the gusto by having them then continue to shape these bottom notes once they return to playing the full pattern. This not only takes away a thumpy thumb but also produces a beautifully phrased performance.
Finally, expose your student to lots of recordings of great pianists playing Alberti Bass. Through listening to good examples in the context of great pieces your student will absorb the desired sound and learn to listen to their own playing to compare. In their lessons, play the left hand along with them to allow them to mimic your hand shape and movements.
By giving students a few simple tools you’ll set them up for success when approaching a piece with an Alberti Bass. The techniques learned in doing so will transfer over to other areas of their playing as well… and your sleep will no longer be haunted by the dreaded Mr. Thumpy Thumb.
Did I really just use the words “Mr. Thumpy Thumb” five times in one blog post… yeesh, must get more sleep!