Robert Estrin - piano expert

The Challenge of the Thumbs

Learn how to manage the power of your thumbs

In this video, Robert talks about how to manage the power of the thumbs compared to the other fingers.

Released on November 11, 2015

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

This is and I am Robert Estrin. Bringing a very important show to you, all pianists out there.

The challenge of the thumbs. That's right, the thumbs are your strongest fingers. Now why does that present a challenge? Well I'm going to talk about that today, and talk about how you can get a more beautiful sound out of the piano at the same time. If you look at the way your hands are built it's obvious that your thumbs are in the middle and that the pinkies and the fourth fingers are on the ends. Now why is this so important on the piano playing? It's because your thumbs are the strongest fingers and your fourth and fifth fingers are your weakest. And yet the melody, you want to delineate the melody on the top and the base on the bottom, otherwise you can get a sound like this, a muddy sound. Here is a second theme of the Waldstein sonata of Beethoven and I'm going to play it without making any attempt at balancing the hands, just letting the heavy thumbs dominate and the weak fingers playing weakly.

Very lacklustre isn't it? As a matter of fact, it's just a mush of sound, because you want a hear that melody on the top. Instead of this, you want to hear. If you just bring out that pinky, what a difference that makes, just on that one chord. Once again, here's just playing the hand just plopping it down letting the fat thumbs play loud, and the weaker outer fingers playing softly. Now, mitigating that natural tendency by reaching with the top and bottom notes, which are the weaker fingers. If I play the whole melody now, particularly bringing out the top but also the bass, listen to how much more beautiful the sound is.

This is something that is almost universal in piano playing. It is one of the cruel tricks of the universe that our weakest fingers are the ones that are in the middle, and the melody and the bass are what you want to hear all the time, and you've got your weak fingers trying to negotiate those. There are many ways of practicing this. Practicing by playing different phrasing, by playing the top and bottom notes legato and the inner voices staccato is one way. If you can do that, then balancing them will be easy, because that's really hard to do.

Try it with any of your music where you have chords, where you have more than one note in each hand and try to reach with your pinky and fourth finger in each hand and for great, challenging practice play all the inner voices gently staccato from the fingers so you can know which notes are the melody, your hand learns that. And that's how you get a beautiful sound at the piano, and overcome the limitations of the weaker fingers, compared to the strong thumbs in the middle.

I hope this has been helpful for you. Try it on the piano, I'm interested in your reaction to the sound you get out of the piano when you try this technique.

Once again, I am Robert Estrin here at and See you next time.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Cindy on December 8, 2015 @12:43 pm PST
Great post-- always good to be reminded to focus on beautiful cantabile playing. However, I have a different question that has plagued me regarding the thumbs. I notice that, whenever I closely analyze problem passages, determining the sloppy or missed notes (what I call "playing in the cracks"Winky Face-- by going super slow and watching really closely-- that very often, the culprit is in the thumb! More often than not, the failure to play "clean" and accurately, seems to trace to the thumbs, one way or another. Any thoughts how to address this in a systematic way? I should mention I have very small hands, even for a woman. Thanks, Cindy
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