“Little Fingers”

Helping Beginning Piano Students Name Hands and Number Fingers

For developing little brains, naming hands and fingers is a difficult task. Piano teachers who work with young students should be really careful to not discourage students when they mix them up while trying to follow directions in a lesson. A student’s first piano book will use “RH” and “LH” to identify which hand is playing, as well as numbers to communicate which note is to be played. A drawing of some kind tells the student before the piece where the hands should be placed…so essentially the student is reading rhythms and finger numbers instead of note names. For a student to be successful in these early stages of note reading, he or she will need to have a handle on which hand is his left and which hand is right as well as identify each finger by their assigned number. In piano the thumbs are 1, index finger 2, and so on (this differs from string, wind, and brass instruments which do not regard the thumb as a finger so it can be confusing for parents with previous music experience). It is really difficult for students up to even 8 years old to identify their left hand from their right hand. If they straighten out the difference early there will be less confusion when following directions in a formal piano lesson.

Early Childhood Activity/Early Piano Beginners- Naming Fingers with Felt

To teach my youngest students finger numbers I bought a sheet of white felt on top of which I lay a cut out of a right and left hand. The felt is a stiffer kind so it holds its shape and lays flat easily. When I am done with the activity I can fold the sheet in half (you can see my crease in the photo below) and sandwich all of the pieces inside. I made the right and left hands out of softer felt (more flimsy) and chose two colors randomly, one for the left hand and one for the right. I wanted the colors to contrast so that the students could see a bigger difference between each hand.

I bought little sticky velcro circles and stuck them to each finger and numbers 1 through 5. I found the felt numbers in the same section of the department store (the downside to these numbers is that the backs are sticky also so I kept the paper backing on them). Young children are taught the names of the fingers and can proudly recite numbers 1 through 10. Use this to your advantage! I found with my three year old student that he is VERY excited to show that he knows his numbers. My student’s mom (who sits with us during the lesson and participates) had really interesting names for the fingers. Instead of thumb, index/pointer, middle, etc. she called them baby, daddy, momma, brother, and sister (I think?). I also use this activity for students that are early beginners (4 years of age to 6 years of age).

The prep for this activity probably took about 15 minutes – tracing, cutting, sticking – and cost about $5-10. (Sorry I don’t remember specific prices because I prepped this in 2015 and have been using it since. I remember getting all of my materials in the craft section of Meijer because I lived in the dorm and that’s where the bus could take me.) Check on the internet though because you could get these materials even cheaper than I did.

Lower Elementary – Usual Beginner Age (7-9)

When I teach at music stores I like to do a similar activity with my usual beginner age students (seven years of age to nine years of age). These students need less direction and have a better handle on right and left, but still need to practice assigning each number a finger. Beginning piano methods use finger numbers over note heads in “pre-staff” notation or notation apart from the five-line staff. I will bring blank sheets of paper to the lesson and ask the student to trace their right and left hands. I then give them a sheet of number stickers and ask the student to stick the correct stickers to the numbers. I ask the student to keep this sheet by their piano as a reminder. There is not usually enough time to be super decorative, but you can bring choices of different color markers and stickers to get the student excited about the activity. The activity 1) gives them something to put on their piano that they made, not just a page in their lesson book that they won’t look at again and 2) the “doing” part of this where they have to match up the correct numbers is a way for me to informally assess that they understand which numbers are which fingers before sending them home to decode a new piece, as well as reinforce the “teaching” part of the lesson. I do this activity after I have introduced the numbers and drilled them.

Having the student trace their hands in their lesson and then using the number stickers (or have them draw the numbers) takes no prep! A pack of crayons or magic markers is less than $5, but if you don’t have either you can just trace and label with pencils. I bought some packs of stickers for teachers costing about $10 for 1,000+ stickers.

Ways to Drill Finger Numbers

  • I drill finger numbers by asking students to touch their 1s together, then their 2s, etc. first in order, then I mix them up. I usually will speed up the drill too and the faster I go the quicker the students have to think (and I get a giggle from the student when I go from 1 to 5 super fast and we both mess up). I do this type of drill with the student while modeling so that it they are a visual learner they can see me put my hands together correctly and not just rely on the oral commands I am giving them. If the student is an English Learner (meaning their first language is not English) modeling is very important.
  • Giving a command like “Show me your 1s!” as a method for drilling works alright for some of the fingers. To be honest I did this a few times without thinking about how the students would show me their middle fingers. The students are too young to think that sticking up their middle fingers is a problem (they do not know that it is an American social taboo yet) but it is also difficult for kids developmentally to raise their middle and ring fingers by themselves. Try to raise your ring finger by itself and you will see the difficulty! This works great, however, with 1 and 5 – thumbs up! for “show me your 1s” and pinkies up (imagine the snobby voice you have to say that in) for “show me your 5s.

Ways to Encourage Using the Correct Hands/Fingers

I have a six year old student who is starting piano this year who frequently mixes up her right and left hands. If she plays a passage with her left hand instead of her right hand, for example, I first will simply repeat the directions. Often she notices her error and corrects it. If she doesn’t, I will point to the music and ask her if it says “LH or RH” and sometimes she corrects it then. If she is still confused I will ask her what hand she is using and often when she sees what hand she put on the keyboard she will correct it herself. The key is patience…If she is confused and not able to correct herself, I ask her, “Can you show me your right hand?” and we wave our right hands at each other, then I ask, “Can you show me your left hand?” and then we wave our left hands. It is just developmentally hard at that stage so I never want my students to feel that they are doing something wrong if they mess up which hand. As a piano teacher I have to be especially gentle with my quiet, timid students. I never want them to play timidly and I never want them to be afraid of making mistakes. To me the most important part of the lesson is how the student learns to identify and correct their mistakes themselves.

These are my strategies when a student repeatedly uses the wrong hand after a direction:

  • Repeat the directions.
  • Ask, “What does LH or RH mean when you see it in the music?” or “What does it mean when the stems point up? (or point down?)”
  • Ask, “What hand are you using?”
  • Ask, “Can you show me your right hand?” and “Can you show me your left hand?” Be careful that both of you are facing the keyboard so you do not confuse the student by facing them.
  • Say, “I saw you play this” and play the passage with the same hand the student used. Then ask, “Is that the same or different than this?” and play it with the correct hand. This helps guide the student to seeing the mistake.

Guide, laugh, smile, and lead them to understanding of which finger/hand is which!

First Experiences in Music Play

I have received quite a few inquiries from parents interested in starting their children in music lessons as young as possible. When I’m asked the question, “How young can my child start?” I usually respond is the same way other piano teachers would – 4.5 to 5 years of age, as long as the student is able to sit up and focus at the piano. I tell the parent that the younger the student is, the more parent involvement is needed in practicing so the student can be successful. Surprisingly, two parents contacted me wanting music lessons but their children were 3 years of age or younger. They are thinking: my child is showing interest in music, why not start now?

Having a background in Gordon’s Music Learning Theory (MLT) in Elementary and Early Childhood General Music from two classes I took for my undergrad, I decided to give weekly 30 minute lessons with one of these adorable three-year-olds a try. My plan is to begin immersing the student in music through music play and prepare him through music readiness activities, then slowly introduce concepts that can be applied to the piano as he is able.

For a student as young as this one, he is on his way towards “exiting babble.” My learning goals for him in the next few months are the following:

  • Feel macrobeats in different parts of his body
  • Express flow in different parts of his body
  • Express singing versus speaking voice
  • Vocal exploration – the range of his voice at different volumes
  • Hear and perform resting tone

Here are a few of the activities I have planned for my student for the month of September:

Bicycle Riding – Activity for Vocal Exploration

In this activity, we follow the contour of the “hill” or line with our voices like a slide whistle allowing the student to explore the range of his or her voice and begin understanding the contour of musical lines. This type of vocal exploration activity can be done in a number of ways: a teacher could bend a pipe cleaner or draw lines on the white board. I am limited in what materials I have, however, so I drew lines with marker on large note cards. I then cut out a hand drawn bicycle that we will move along the line as we make the sounds with our voices.

Here are all of the lines I drew to use in the activity:


“Here is the Beehive” – Activity for Feeling Macro Beats (in triple) and Vocal Exploration

For this activity I use the traditional chant “Here is the Beehive.” I will begin the chant sitting cross legged across from the student and model with my “spider” fingers (hand position where the hand is cupped with the fingers separated) tapping on my knees to the macro beats. Right now I think this particular student is too little for feeling micro beats (I will introduce that soon though!) but ideally you would switch between macro and micro beats.

I wish I had a bee puppet for this activity. Since I do not, I took construction paper to create a beehive. I made bees out of construction paper by cutting a tear drop shape from yellow construction paper and heart shapes from white construction paper (I made four different sizes). I then drew stripes and smiley faces on each one. I set this on the floor with the different size bees hiding underneath. Each time I repeat the chant, I pull out a new size bee and reflect the change in my voice – baby bees will have high voices, large bees low voices… maybe one is a sleepy bee so he sounds drowsy. Kids respond really well to choices, so I try to ask the student: does this bee buzz really loud or really soft? Which one the student chooses does not really matter because if I mix up the options each time we will get through a range of different voices.

“The Seals on the Bus” – Activity for Vocal Exploration

I have very few children’s books in my collection right now so I stopped by the Canton Public Library this week. While perusing the shelves I found this adorable book – “The Seals on the Bus.” The book’s concept is super simple –  it just takes the song we all know (The wheels on the bus go round, round, round…) and changes it for each animal that gets on the bus.

This is PERFECT for vocal exploration! We make different animal sounds on each page, like the monkeys go:

“Rhythm of the Popcorn” – Macro and Micro Beats, Vocal Exploration

During my first lesson with this little guy I was having trouble getting him to sit down with me and participate in the music (he liked to walk over to the piano and was very distracted). I tricked him though by asking if I could play with one of the Spiderman toys he brought with him. He handed me one of them. Then I asked, “Does Spiderman feel the rhythm in his hands or feet?” I went on with my chant and moved the toys legs to the macrobeats….he was hooked. I gave him choices between the body parts and he joined in and copied what I was doing with the Spiderman I was holding with the one he was holding. I then started doing the movements with just my body parts and he started moving to the macrobeats in his body too. He loved the choices (the one time I asked him to come up with the body part without a choice there were crickets!) and chose shoulders, legs, feet, hands, etc., etc.

I have lots more activities so I will keep sharing them as well as their effectiveness in this private lessons setting as I go along.