Thumbs up for the Thumb!

Featured Image: Anthony Kelly

Guest Post by Mark Tanner

Pianists tend to think of the thumb as being the root cause of unevenness, bumps and a host of other undesirables…

The Truth about The Thumb

In truth, the thumb is the most articulated, powerful and adaptable digit we have. Without it, we’d find it indescribably harder to negotiate the expansive register of the modern keyboard, either by stretching or leaping – let alone execute the humblest C major scale.

Beyond this, composers entrust our thumbs with some of the juiciest tenor melodies, such as Rubinstein with his Melody in F, and I love to use my left thumb (rather than the more conventional 4th or 5th finger) when reaching deeper down the keyboard to pluck out isolated quieter notes.

Borrowing the thumb to play notes written for the other hand is something pianists could be even more alive to, especially in romantic and contemporary pieces. And in thickly textured repertoire, notably by Liszt, Rachmaninov or Messiaen, a willingness to play two notes simultaneously with the thumb opens up a raft of possibilities.

When Debussy composed his thumbless Étude No.6, he of course knew precisely how indispensable the thumb usually is, though this may seem a far cry from the pre Bach era when the thumb was perhaps less pivotal to how keyboardists moved around their instrument.

Two phalanges!

The thumb is my go-to digit for playing trills in the left hand; and when tackling repeated notes, either thumb can be trusted to pull its weight.

But to think of the thumb as unruly is to miss an opportunity to spot weaknesses in our posture, arms, wrists orelbows, which are from where many of a pianist’s ailments actually stem.

Passing the thumb is something pianists need to revisit and self-police on a regular basis to ensure that optimal movement – supple and tension-free – is really taking place.

As for the knotty issue of black notes and thumbs, pianists need to be imaginative and resourceful, not slave to text book dogma concerning ‘correct’ fingerings. The piano will not explode if we dare to be unorthodox, especially if a workable finger pattern can then be mirrored up and down the keyboard.

Certainly, if we minimise using the thumb in leggiero passages we can iron out unnecessary rough spots or jerkiness, but bear in mind too how useful it can be to coincide the two thumbs in complex passagework, both to give anchor points and as an aid to memorising.

With the lightest of wrists, the thumb can play with agility and impressive dexterity. And where would we be without our thumbs when reeling off octaves, chords and arpeggios?

So, let’s hear it for the thumb, the only digit with two rather than three phalanges, yet the only one equally capable of lateral as well as up-down movement, and a rescue digit par excellence.


EPTA Piano Teacher Talk No.5 (January 2019)

This article is drawn from the EPTA Teacher Talk newsletter. If you would like to read more from and about EPTA UK, please download:

pdf-logo   Piano Teacher Talk No.5

Special Thanks to Murray McLachlan, Karen Marshall, and Carole Booth.

Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs Keyquest Music - his successful independent music education business, private teaching practice and creative outlet.

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