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!