How To Correct Hand Position in Young Piano Students… It’s Q&A Day!

Question:  One of my biggest struggles in piano teaching is hand position. I have tried so many different strategies -discussing and demonstrating the natural round hand shape, playing on their arm, their head, demonstrating on the keys, having them ride on top of my hand, using phrases such as ‘pull the sound out of the piano, don’t push the keys’, keep a relaxed wrist, have them feel my relaxed wrist, etc etc etc! My attempts to develop proper technique always seem to still leave me with those few students that no matter what I do, can’t seem to stop playing with ‘flying fingers’ and tension in their arms. Would love to hear your strategies to remedy this!

Fixing hand position in young piano students is front and centre in a piano teacher’s mind when teaching a young beginner, as we know all too well that bad piano habits are hard to break.  And so we piano teachers can be found saying… “Don’t forget the bubble!  Hold that tennis ball!  Don’t squish the kitten!” …or my personal favorite “Cupcake hands not pancake hands!” And while these images work for some piano students, others continue to repeatedly pop the bubble, lose the ball and squish the kitten into a pancake.  The result ain’t pretty.

Piano hand position

All Systems Go?

When embarking on a mission to fix your piano student’s hand position, first check the overall picture of your piano student sitting on the bench.  Are they:

1. The correct distance from the keys?  If they are too close this greatly increases the chances of “pancake hands”.

2. The right height on the bench?  Students who are too low in relation to the keyboard are forced to angle their wrist incorrectly to reach the keys.  An investment in an adjustable bench is in order for really tiny ones.

3. Showing tension in their shoulders, elbows and wrist?  If so, lots of “floating” the hands up in the air and then down to the keys is in order.  Kids benefit from an aural aid when doing this to get the correct amount of gracefulness (most kids don’t come by grace naturally).  I play a recording of some peaceful piano music while we do this exercise and it really helps them to loosen up.

4. Playing too far up or too low on the keys?  Some kids like the security of having their fingers jammed in amongst the black keys, others balance precariously close to the edge.  Check that their fingers are resting in a natural place on the keys.

Fixing Hand Position with a Goose

Piano Hand Position Image

That got your attention right?!  For most beginning piano students, the source of their hand position issues comes from incorrect positioning of the thumb.  The thumb is the only finger that doesn’t press the keys with the tip.  And while he’s certainly a dominant digit, if he’s incorrectly angled, he causes problems for the rest of the finger gang.  But do not fear.  The goose is here.

Have some fun with your student and draw some silly eyes on the sides of their hands. Then, teach them to make their hands into a goose bill shape (see picture).  You can’t make a proper goose without having your thumb in a great position for playing piano!  Once they’ve found the “goose position” have some fun “honking” or making shadow puppets on the wall.  (Yes, you are getting paid to do this) … and then have them place their hands on the piano keys.  Students should gently spread their fingers, but keep the thumb and knuckles the same.  Once their “bill” relaxes, their thumb (and therefore the rest of their hand) should be  at the perfect angle for a great hand position.  The funny eyes left on their hands serve as a constant reminder to keep those goose thumbs!

Avoiding hand position problems in piano students will have huge payoffs.  So change up your lingo; get rid of the bubble-blowing, tennis-ball-holding kitten pancake and trade them all in… for a goose.  Your students will thank you for it.

If you enjoyed reading today’s post then you will love our piano teaching guide, Piano Hands Shouldn’t Flip Burgers.

17 Responses to How To Correct Hand Position in Young Piano Students… It’s Q&A Day!

  1. says

    This is a great post with lots of helpful ideas. The difficulty I have is that in the UK the Musicians Union and other similar bodies recommend that music teachers do not touch students – ever. Obviously this is ridiculous, as it is impossible to teach any musical instrument without touching the student.

    Do you ask your students before you touch them? Or are you confident enough around them/they know you, that you just go right ahead? I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts….


    • says

      Hi Fran,

      In this day and age, unfortunately, it’s better to be safe than sorry. This particular “goose” activity doesn’t require any touching at all (the original person who had asked the question did use lots of hands-on strategies). Obviously we can’t give legal advice on this, but I do know that it’s not an issue with some of my students whom I’ve had for 16 or more years (and whose parents are now my close friends). With others that I know less well I will be more careful. There’s usually a way around hands-on teaching. Often it’s best to err on this side of things!

    • Bee says

      Some institutions in Australia also recommend the no touching policy. When I interview new students (under 18), I explain to the parent/s that I need to touch students’ fingers, hands, arms, and occasionally shoulders and back. I ask their permission to demonstrate the sort of touch that might be involved, and then I ask them to sign a permission section on the application form. This states something to the effect that they give me permission to use appropriate physical touch on their child in order to ensure correct posture and technique. Every parent and student without exception has been fine with this.

      For adult students, I simply ask for verbal permission. Once again, no one has ever refused. Most think it is strange that I even ask!

      I also believe that an adjustable piano stool is an essential item, not a luxury. Sitting at the correct height at the piano can remove all sorts of technical and postural issues. If parents can’t (or won’t) afford an adjustable stool, I recommend that they buy a few squares of Eva matting, as it is inexpensive and you can easily adjust the height with more or fewer mats, they are more comfortable than books, and they don’t compress down like cushions or pillows.

  2. ame says

    I found upon closer examination just this week that some of my student’s problems were their elbow/arm height at the piano. Sitting atop a book or folded towel helped raise them up initially. It also made them feel more relaxed at the piano. Now, to get them used to that additional height! I will perhaps have to invest in an adjustable piano bench.
    Thanks for the excellent ideas – again!!!

  3. Karen Van Sickle says

    I have the most problems with the pinkie finger. I will try anything to help them get that finger strong and played on the tip and not on the side. Any suggestions???

    • says

      I have tricks for each finger – what my students hear from me about the pinkie finger is “no karate chops!” or “Finger 5 stand up tall!” I’ve shown them (and parents) the effect finger 5 has on the rest of the hand. If F5 is laying on its side, it pulls the rest of the fingers down and to the side, increasing the chances of hitting a wrong note! (This part of the “lecture” usually convinces them!) If F5 stands up tall, the other fingers must raise up to the fingertips. I also stand a pencil up on it’s eraser end on the key where F5 is playing (typically during scales or a song using ostinato 5ths) Another student enjoys when I call out “where’s your tigger tails!” She thought of that one when she transferred to me and saw that I was not going to let her continue with bad hand shape!

  4. says

    My favourite way, which has proven effective if I may share, is to use a spider analogy.
    I have awake spider – (up on their toes), which progresses to ‘sticky spider feet’ (for those fingers that fly away from the keys).
    Dead spider, describes curled in fingers.
    Asleep spider describes flat hands.
    Crawling spider – well, just play a scale and you’ll see =D
    I teach this on a table and transfer it to the piano – then all I need to say is ‘awake spider’! .. and the hands jump up! Or.. ‘up on their toes, tip-toe spider feet’ (especially for students whose knuckles bend backwards :P)
    My students seem to find this fun, so they don’t feel ‘picked on’ or nagged about their hand position.

  5. Marie Counter says

    Very helpful comments. I use the analogy of flying goose not a dead duck to correct hand position already. Students, especially nervous ones at beginning, tend to tuck their elbows into their waists and rest the weight of their arms on the keyboard. The position of the elbow is crucial to correct hand position. As soon as you let the weight of the elbow drop the hand into the waist, the hand position tips over so little finger is lying down.
    If student is too tired to sit up straight and lift arms using back muscles, they should take a short break.


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