Curved Fingers, or Flat?

This post is an exclusive excerpt from the new monthly online newsletter from the UK branch of EPTA, The European Piano Teachers’s Association.

In order to reach a wider audience, Chair of EPTA  Murray McLachlan  has kindly agreed to Pianodao exclusively hosting the newsletter for non-members, as well as picking a short piece each month to feature as a guest post here.

This month, I’ve picked this short but very helpful and thought-proving piece written by Murray himself… and below you can download the full newsletter for additional free articles!


Curved Fingers or Flat Fingers?

Guest Post by Dr. Murray McLachlan

A big subject, but in essence I would say a lot depends on the style of the music…

If I want to play rapid semiquavers in pre-Beethoven repertoire then I naturally curve my fingers for more articulation.

If I wish to have more legato and sonority in the romantic repertoire, then they tend to flatten instinctively.

Of course, we should all try to find power, focus and physical control from the knuckles. It is fundamentally bad practice to collapse the first and second joints of the fingers.

However, pupils with hypermobility may well find it difficult not to collapse their finger joints inwards as they play. Perseverance, patience and awareness of what they are doing can help.

Stress, tension and stiffness should be avoided at all costs. It can certainly help to focus on the knuckles and visualize internally a mental picture of finger movement from the ‘bridge’ of the hand (knuckles).

But in terms of how curved fingers should be in terms of a default position, try experimenting:

To find a pianist’s natural finger curve, get them to pick up a pencil without thinking about it. Just say have the thumb on one side, and the fingers on the other. After this is done, look at the curvature of the fingers.

What is there is what is comfortable – the correct curvature for that pianist at that time in most normal contexts.


EPTA Newsletter, September 2018

If you enjoyed this post, would like to read more, or find out about EPTA, please download the full Newsletter here.

Special Thanks to Karen Marshall, Murray McLachlan and Liz Dewhurst. 

Graded Exams: Friend or Foe?

Pathways for Teaching

In the minds of many students (and in the case of children, their parents), two questions are constantly lurking –

  1. How well am I doing?  and,
  2. How can I improve?

I believe teachers should routinely answer these questions, but how best to frame those answers? As a general principle I would suggest that pupils will gain confidence if they have a clear, honest perception of their progress, and goals which are detailed and encouraging.

Graded exams can offer one way – and an important framework – for pupils to gain the meaningful, quantative answers that help foster confidence.

While exams are certainly not without their issues, most of the concerns I see raised relate more to their misuse than to their appropriate use. 

In this article I will consider both, and offer a personal perspective on some of the most common concerns. And in conclusion, I will try to provide an answer to the question: Graded Exams – Friend or Foe?

Continue reading Graded Exams: Friend or Foe?

Why Bother with Scales?

Pathways for Teaching

“For many, scales and arpeggios are an academic, dry and soulless part of learning the piano, and have to be practised because, like cod liver oil, they are ‘good for you’.”

Anthony WilliamsThe Piano Teacher’s Survival Guide (Faber, 2017, p.31)

Why bother with scales? (by which, for the purposes of this article, I also mean arpeggios and broken chords) …

In order to properly answer this question, this article will consider these related questions, of vital importance to students and teachers concerned to know about the purpose and value of teaching and learning scales:

  • What are the benefit of learning scales?
  • Is it important to use consistent fingering?
  • What are the benefits of cumulative learning vs. exam preparation?
  • How can scales practice and creativity go hand-in-hand?

Let’s get started by considering the core benefits of learning scales…

Continue reading Why Bother with Scales?

Active Repertoire Challenge 2018

What can you play?

This is a question which for too many pianists leads to such answers as:

  • I’m working on Allegro, but it’s not yet ready to play;
  • I finished learning Andante last month, but I’ve forgotten it now;
  • I don’t have my music books with me, so …

What a pity!

The reality is that too many of us can’t sit down at the piano – without notice, without notation, and without embarrassment – and simply play something!

Continue reading Active Repertoire Challenge 2018

The Summer Holidays are coming!

Many of my students and teacher colleagues will no doubt be breathing tired sighs of relief at the prospect that they will soon be “on holiday” … a time not just for sandy beaches, but for taking a break from the routines and responsibilities that can crowd our lives throughout most of the year.

Even those of us who continue teaching in some capacity throughout July and August will no doubt enjoy the more relaxed atmosphere and warm evenings over the coming weeks, and hopefully be able to catch ourselves at least some time away from the job!

But I noticed early in my teaching career that, come September, my returning students had often all but forgotten how to play the piano! So that’s a concern…

The relaxation of August can give way to a rather depressing start to the Autumn Term. Is there any way that as teachers (and parents) we can address this common problem?

One common approach is for teachers to set students a summer challenge of one sort or another – and for those students who haven’t yet developed an Active Repertoire this might be the ideal moment to introduce the idea…

Continue reading The Summer Holidays are coming!

Another 20 Great Jazz Pianists

When I published a blog post sharing clips of 20 Great Jazz Pianists – with the disclaimer that, “these aren’t necessarily the 20 greatest jazz pianists of all time” – I was hopeful that by exploring the included clips readers would get a glimpse of the length and breadth of the wonderful world of jazz piano.

But no sooner had I posted than I began musing over those many brilliant pianists who I hadn’t included, and in a jiffy the idea came to me – publish a follow-up post with another 20 pianists!

In the event this list was far more difficult to collate – and here I must thank my good friend Mark Polishook for pointing me in the direction of a few players I might otherwise have overlooked. And having covered some of the most obvious seminal players in my first list of 20 great jazz players, this post has offered a chance to explore some less predictable paths!

In the event, including everyone we both thought deserved a moment in the spotlight wasn’t possible. On the plus side the 20 I have selected include something for everyone, and once again show how immersive and varied the world of jazz playing is, from the stride of James P. Johnson to the beautiful and experimental introspection of Tord Gustavsen, and from the sophistication of George Shearing to the explosive force of nature that is Hiromi Uehara – it’s all here.

Or at least some if it is! Because there’s a whole world of amazing music out there waiting to explored.

So without further ado or comment, Welcome back to the world of the jazz pianist. Here are the clips – I hope that you enjoy them!

Continue reading Another 20 Great Jazz Pianists

20 Great Jazz Pianists

Jazz is caught, not taught!

So goes the cliché (although I believe this also applies to classical and other styles too). So much of the nuance, the energy, the essence and the inflection of piano music cannot be expressed away from the instrument, whether in words or using notation.

As I write this I am about to deliver a workshop entitled Introducing Jazz Piano for the Piano Teachers’ Course UK, where I am a guest tutor. And as I consider the point that listening to jazz piano playing must be our starting point, this raises the question, “where do we start?

So to that end I’ve compiled this list of 20 seminal jazz pianists, with clips of their playing and a suggestion that you go on to more fully explore their recorded legacy.

Understand, these aren’t necessarily the 20 greatest jazz pianists of all time (and it isn’t, in any case, a competition!). However, they are all genuine greats, and between them they represent a wide range of styles and approaches within the very broad world of jazz music.

Dip in now, and keep coming back, because ongoing exposure to the genius of these players is the key to developing as a player and teacher of jazz music…

Continue reading 20 Great Jazz Pianists

Piano Tuning – What’s Under the Lid?

Guest post by Simon Reich

I have a recurring nightmare. It involves me and a piano…

I see the instrument from the other side of the room and then move stealthily, not too fast mind you, over to sit down on the stool waiting patiently for me. Everything seems like it’s going well up to this point. The horror only kicks in as I press down the notes for that first D minor 7 chord. The piano is totally out of tune with sticking notes I can’t avoid.

I’m sure some of us have also encountered this outside of our sleeping times, me included. Apart from our instrument, a piano tuner is our next most important point on our must have checklist.

With this in mind I decided to interview Nathan Winterbine, a piano tuner (based in Melbourne, Australia) who I only met last year, but instantly warmed to. His prompt service, fixed price and then excellent workmanship cemented him as my “go to” tuner.

I sat down with Nathan and plugged him with questions I wanted answered…

Continue reading Piano Tuning – What’s Under the Lid?

The Pianist’s Motivations

The Pianist’s Reflections Series

  • What is it that motivates us as pianists?
  • Why did we start learning to play the piano? ..
  • And why do we continue to play?
  • What are our piano goals for the future? ..
  • And how do they excite us?
  • How can we motivate and inspire our students?

Ask these questions to a hundred pianists, and there’s a good chance you will hear a hundred different answers – but some common themes will most likely emerge.

In this article I am going to consider the many and complex motivations we all experience in life, focussing in on the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, and how each pertains to our piano playing.

Continue reading The Pianist’s Motivations

Fancy Footwear?

My wife Louise and I recently visited my cousin and her husband for a delightful evening meal. At some point in the evening, conversation turned to footwear, and my cousin was appalled to learn that I often wear slippers when teaching in my home studio.

Inevitably, I was quickly ganged up on, the object of much mirth. To be honest, it was a bit harsh. Jibes included:

“How old did you say you are again – 87?”

Followed by,

“Do you wear pyjamas and a dressing gown too?”

And even …

“Are you trying to look like Hugh Heffner?”

Now I ask you, what kind of question is that?

Gamely, I tried to defend myself with:

“…but slippers are really comfortable when playing the piano…”

But of course this quickly led to:

“So do all your pupils bring slippers to wear too?”

Which got me thinking …

Continue reading Fancy Footwear?