Piano Hands: How to Build Better Playing Technique

Having good technique on the piano helps you make progress faster in your practice, play with greater expression and control, and make you less prone to injury.

by Rhian Avery

Think back to the last time you played the piano. How did you hold your hands at the keyboard? How did you position your wrists and arms? How much tension did you keep in your body?

Why do these small details matter? They form the foundation of piano playing technique. 

And when you add them all up, they can lead to big playing improvements. In this article, you’ll learn how better technique can take your piano playing to a whole new level.

Why technique matters

Having good technique on the piano helps you make progress faster in your practice, play with greater expression and control, and make you less prone to injury. Sounds good, right?

Additionally, developing your technique helps you play piano with greater confidence, accuracy, and fluency. You’ll feel more at home on the keyboard and you’ll be able to pick up music more easily. What’s more, when you develop your technique, you can play more expressively with a vast dynamic range, which makes your playing sound a lot more impressive!

Piano myth: Ever heard that only people with large hands can be great pianists? That’s not true! The piano is made to be played by people with average-sized hands. If you can do things like make a fist and tap your fingers on the counter, then you already have enough hand strength and dexterity to play the piano.

On the flip side, neglecting your technique makes playing more difficult and tiring. It can put unnecessary strain on your body and even lead to injuries. If you’re not sitting comfortably at the piano, it can cause pain in your shoulders, neck, and back. Likewise, if you keep too much tension in your wrists and arms when you play, you increase the risk of injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome, which can really hold back your progress on the piano. 

Developing healthy technique can help you avoid habits that make playing uncomfortable.  It’s not about forcing yourself to use particular movements or adopt a specific posture. The “right” technique will be different for every player and, above all, it should never hurt. Use the following tips as a starting point: if something feels good, then keep doing it; if you find yourself straining to position your body or hands in a certain way, then don’t force it. 

Make sure you’re sitting comfortably

Before you even sit down to play, set aside some time to get your playing height and position just right. You’ll want to place your bench or stool parallel to the center of the keyboard. Adjust the distance from the piano so you can reach all of the keys with a comfortable hand position (like in the image below).

Keep a fair amount of space between your torso and the edge of the keyboard. You don’t want to sit too close, but you shouldn’t have to strain to reach the keys either. If half your thighs are tucked under the piano, you’re probably too close. If your knees are completely exposed, then you might be sitting too far back.

For height, your elbows should usually be parallel to the keyboard or slightly higher, depending on what feels most comfortable to you. To get them positioned perfectly, you’ll need to adjust your height. If you’re using a keyboard, you can raise or lower the stand itself. If you have an acoustic or electric piano, you’ll have to adjust your bench or stool. 

Get your posture right

Proper posture is crucial because it allows you to keep your body straight but relaxed. This will make playing more comfortable and save you from back and neck pain. 

Technique tip: When you’re learning the piano, it’s important to keep your posture simple and stable. You might be tempted to imitate pro pianists, who you’ve seen move around a lot or use dramatic arm movements. However, these are advanced performance techniques that take time to perfect, and getting too dramatic can impede your playing when you’re just starting out. 

Start by placing your feet flat on the ground below your knees, not under the bench or off to the side. Keep your feet and hips firm—it’s important that your lower body stays stable while you’re playing. Make sure to sit upright with your back straight, but not stiff or tensed up. Relax your shoulders and resist the urge to hunch your back or crane your head to look down at the keys. Now you have the ideal foundation for proper playing.  

Find the perfect hand position

Your fingertips alone make contact with the piano keys, but the power it takes to press them down comes from your hands and the rest of your body. Keep this in mind when you practice and your technique will be much better for it.

When it comes to finding the best position for your hands, they should land somewhere above the middle of the white keys, close to where the black keys begin. This will ensure that your fingers can easily reach both sets of keys. The image below shows where your hands should lie in relation to the keys.

Focus on those fingers

Strong, flexible fingers are everything when it comes to playing the piano. Here’s how to make sure you hold them in the proper position.

Imagine that you’re holding a small ball in each hand. Curl your fingers down so that your fingertips tap on the keys. Your hand should be curved with rounded fingers—like your knuckles are curling around that imaginary ball. 

Technique tip: Many players find that their fourth and fifth fingers are weaker than others, which can make it tricky to keep them curled in the right shape when playing. You can build up your finger strength by placing your hand on a flat surface and tapping one finger up and down at a time, while keeping the others completely still. You’ll notice that the range of motion in your fourth finger is much more limited than all the others—all the more reason to practice this drill!

Your thumb is the only exception to this rule. Keep it straight but relaxed, letting it drop down on the key with the side edge, near the tip. The image below illustrates how your fingers and thumb should look when held in the correct position.

Master your dynamics

Proper posture and positioning aren’t the only elements of good piano technique. How you play each note also has a big impact. This is where dynamic range comes into play: it’s the range of volume available to you when pressing the keys. 

Playing dynamics on the piano is a matter of how quickly and firmly you press a key. Quicker and firmer produces a louder note, while slower and softer gives you a quieter note. When you have good control of your dynamics, it allows you to play with real passion and emotion.

A good way to build your technique around dynamics is by focusing on playing with your arms, not just your fingers. If you use only your fingers to create force (or softness), the tone will always be a little thin. But if you use more weight from your arms, you can transfer more energy to the note and achieve a better dynamic.

Like many aspects of piano technique, dynamics are something that you just have to practice until you get a feel for them. Try sitting down at the keyboard and playing notes quietly and loudly. You can also focus on pressing with just your fingertips, then your whole hand, and see if you notice the difference.

How to improve your technique

If you’re serious about strengthening your piano technique, then you’re going to have to put in some practice. Luckily there are many different ways to improve the way you play piano—these are some of our favorite practical ways to build better technique. 

Practice your scales 

Scales are the backbone of piano technique. When you know your scales, you’ll also know your way around the keyboard much better. They’re great for helping you to learn your keys and key signatures. And once you have a deeper understanding of all the keys, music gets much easier to play and enjoy!

Scales also develop your musical ear, strengthen your finger muscles, and improve the dexterity of your playing. They truly are excellent all-rounders and should be a part of any aspiring musician’s routine.

Scales make a great warm-up exercise for piano practice. Try adding a few before each session, and make sure to work on both major and minor scales. It’s also helpful to pretend they are actual pieces of music—practice them both loudly and softly, and vary the touches that you use.

Work on those arpeggios

Unlike scales, which move from one note to the next, arpeggios jump over notes. An arpeggio is a type of broken chord, in which you play a series of three or four notes, one after another, in ascending or descending order.

Not only are arpeggios useful for building strength and dexterity in your fingers and wrists, they’re also fundamental for learning how to create beautiful harmonies on the piano. For maximum benefit, practice your arpeggios in different styles: start slow and build up speed, play softly then loudly, or play them legato (with long notes) then staccato (with short notes.)

Master your finger movement

You need strong, yet flexible fingers to play fluidly up and down the piano. As you progress in your studies, you’ll find more scalar and arpeggiated patterns, finger crosses, and other passages that require precise finger work. 

It’s quite normal to cross fingers over and under each other in order to achieve smooth playing. When playing scale-type passages, for example, you should always cross your thumb under your third finger in order to negotiate all the notes properly. The rule of thumb is that you should never “run out of fingers.”

This doesn’t always feel natural for beginner players, so it’s important to practice these finger movements often until you become more fluid. Playing scales and arpeggios are an excellent way to develop smooth and consistent movement of your fingers, so it’s worth practicing them for this reason alone! 

Play challenging pieces

Practice makes perfect, but you also need to play pieces to transform your technique into real playing ability. Think of soccer players: they practice skills like passing, dribbling, and sprinting every day to hone their technique. Then they put it to work on the pitch by playing soccer matches. The same applies to piano technique—to make the most of it, you have to put it to the test with actual music.

Try learning pieces that you find inspiring and also a little intimidating! Etudes are great for this. They’re designed to focus on specific aspects of piano technique and you get to learn a new piece at the same time. You can’t go wrong with one of Chopin’s Etudes. Here’s one that focuses on strengthening the hands through polyphonic playing (playing two different voices with one hand).

Developing great piano technique doesn’t happen overnight; it takes both determination and dedication to reap its rewards. If you put in the time and effort to lock in your technique now, it will make you a much more comfortable and confident pianist. So, get practicing and get ready to watch your technique take off!

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