The Beginner's Guide to Learning Piano
Playing with proper piano technique is not just about pushing the right keys. Everything from the way you sit to how you drop your fingers onto the keyboard will affect the sound of the piano. Correct sitting position and posture will allow you to translate energy from your entire body to the fingertips. Get it right and you can play with expression and a vast dynamic range.
It’s not just about making good playing better. Incorrect technique makes playing more difficult, tiring, and it can put unnecessary strain on your body. Bad seat positioning or posture can cause pain or discomfort in the shoulders, neck and back. Improper hand technique can give you stiff fingers and limit your dexterity even away from the keyboard. If you have ever suffered after writing or typing all day, you will know what this feels like.
Fixing bad physical technique can be tricky, so it’s important to develop good habits from the start. This chapter covers all elements of proper piano technique, from setting up your playing environment, to how your fingers interact with the keys. As you progress, it is a good idea to return to this chapter to continually adjust and correct your technique.
Bench and lower body position
It doesn’t matter what you sit on as long as it is comfortable, solid and at the correct height for you. The best option is an adjustable bench or stool, designed for playing piano. If you are lucky enough to have a chair in the perfect position then this is fine, but it’s very unlikely.
Place your bench/stool parallel to the centre of the keyboard, adjusting the distance from the piano so you can reach all of the keys with a comfortable hand position (see below). If you are using a grand piano bench, don’t use the whole seat. Instead, sit or perch on the front half, allowing you the leverage to move your feet up and down on the pedals.
Sit with your elbows aligned parallel to the keyboard, or a little higher if you want more leverage. This means adjusting the height. If you are using a keyboard and stand you can adjust the keyboard itself, but acoustic or electric pianos are fixed so you will have to adjust the bench/stool. If this is still too low, then you can add height with a mat or piece of carpet. It doesn’t matter what you use, as long as it is comfortable but firm (no pillows).
Great pianists with bad habits
There are always exceptions...
Classical pianist Glenn Gould sat so low that he brought a tiny chair to concerts and recordings. Jazz legend Keith Jarrett played standing up twisting his entire body.
However, this didn’t stop them from becoming outstanding artists. But these are unusual cases. Make it easy for yourself, and your body, by doing it properly from the start.
Place your feet flat on the ground below your knees, not under the bench or off to the sides. Later, it will be important to move your feet freely from this resting position to use the pedals. Certain pieces use a lot of pedal work, so bear that in mind when getting comfortable.
If your feet aren’t flat on the floor with your arms in the correct position, you can add height to the ground using a mat or carpet. Again, make sure you use something comfortable but firm. A good angle for your knees is roughly ninety degrees, but it doesn’t have to be exact.
Now your lower body is fixed, with firm feet and hips, it won’t move much. Don’t shift along the seat, but keep your position strong and reach out for the higher and lower keys. If a piece concentrates on one part of the piano, then it’s fine to shift so you don’t end up leaning over to one side. You might have to try a few combinations to get it right, but it’ll be worth it.
Correct posture and upper body position
It is true that only the fingertips make contact with the keys, but your fingers should never do all the work alone. Your entire body is involved in playing the piano. Concert pianists who seem to make elaborate motions are playing with utter control. They are simply transferring energy from their entire body into the keys, so here we guide you on how to do the same.
Sit upright, back straight. Imagine a line all the way along your spine from your seat to the top of your head. Sitting like this may be tiring at first, especially if you are used to sitting on chairs that support your back. Don’t worry, your core will get stronger very quickly, and the position will soon feel natural.
Relax your shoulders. Fight the urge to hunch or curve your spine. Your head is heavy, so avoid craning to look down at the keys. This puts pressure on your back and shoulders. If you hold tension in your shoulders as most people do, roll them over and back a few times, then let your arms hang loose by your sides.
Once you’re comfortable, lay your hands either side of the center of the keyboard. Your fingers should be parallel to the keys, hovering somewhere above the middle of the white keys, close to the where the black keys begin (not on the edge).
Your elbows should be at a comfortable distance from your body, bent outward.
As you move up and down the keyboard with your fingers, your elbows should move along in a smooth, fluid motion. As your hands move apart and reach for the ends of the keyboard, your arms open up to a comfortable playing position. When you reach inwards, keep the wrists soft and let the hands turn in towards each other to avoid strain.
Relaxed and flexible wrists allow you to translate the weight of your arm into energy to play. Gravity is your friend here, so rather than keeping your wrist locked, keep it loose. It creates a more natural movement that will make your playing smoother, with greater dynamic range.
Common mistake: stiff wrist and forearms
It’s worth mentioning twice how important it is to allowing energy to flow along your forearms and wrist to your fingers. Stiff wrists and forearms take away your control over the sound and cause pain or even lead to injuries if it develops into a habit. Relax the wrist, use gravity to your advantage and imagine how your hands and arms would fall down through the keyboard if it wasn’t there.
Look closely at your fingers. Imagine you are holding a small ball in each hand. Curl your fingers downward so that your fingertips tap on the keys. Your hand should be domed with rounded fingers like your knuckles are curling around the imaginary ball. If you are finding this hard to imagine, try cupping your hand over your knee, then lifting it onto the keyboard while keeping it in the same position.
Your little finger (your “pinky” finger) is the smallest and weakest, so it is common bad habit to keep it flat. This will collapse your hand and stop you from building strength in the little finger. Instead, curve it like the others. As it’s shorter, you won’t be able to bend it as much, but that’s fine. Find a comfortable position with only the tip touching the key.
Your thumb is the exception to the “keep it curved” rule. Keep your thumb straight but relaxed, letting it drop down on the key with the side edge, near the tip.
Common mistake: buckling your fingertips
When playing, your fingers should remain rounded and firm. But since it is not entirely natural to push down in this way, it is common for beginners to let their fingers bend back at the first joint. This “buckling” or “collapsing” will make your playing slower and clumsy, and it can do damage to the joint.
You can avoid this by strengthening your fingers using putty or grip strengthening tools, but mostly it is a matter of watching out for it as you play. Take care to push down the key using your fingertips, like you are tapping at a computer keyboard, and the finger strength will come with a little time.
Perfect key technique
You took your time to sit properly, so you should also take the time to play the keys properly. It’s all about control over the notes and maximising dynamic range (the range of volumes available to the player). We introduced the idea in the Chapter 1 - Choosing a Piano or Keyboard when talking about how much range the piano has. Now, we try to ensure that you are able to play each note with maximum range, to get the most out of the instrument.
If you have seen players hammering the keyboard, every note the same volume and intensity, then you know what can happen if you get it wrong. Imagine a world-class concert pianist, or watch a video. They have total control over the energy they transfer to the notes. Even if they move in exaggerated gestures, they can quickly move between soft and aggressive notes.
Pick a key. We will go over correct starting position in the next chapter, but for now, any white key around the centre of the keyboard will do. If you want to be precise, then find Middle C by following the instructions in Chapter 4 - Starting to Play Piano.
Remember your hand position. The left side of the thumb, near the tip, is touching the key while the rest of your fingers curl around an imaginary ball. Your little finger, wrist and elbow should make a relatively straight line. Now drop your finger to the key, don’t hit it. When your finger drops, keep your wrist loose and let it fall a little. When you pull back up from the key, let your wrist move back to the starting position. This natural movement will make your playing smoother, less stiff, and allow for greater dynamic range.
Experiment. Play the key hard and hold it. Raise your finger slowly and listen to the soft sound of the hammer pulling away. Play hard again but pull away quickly and pay attention to the difference in the sound. Play soft and long, then soft but bouncing back gently.
Getting to know the instrument is a matter of seeing how it reacts in different situations. Just like people. It’s not hard to understand why lifelong pianists see the piano as a friend. Move on to the next chapter to start playing your first melodies.