This post, 6 Common Beginner Student Problems and How to Solve Them, is a two-part post by Ivy Belk Pirl. 

In part one, Ivy discusses three of the six common beginner student problems.

Teaching beginners is so wonderful, isn’t it?

Their excitement can brighten up our days and remind us why we started teaching in the first place!

Seeing music through their eyes can freshen up our view and give us a renewed appreciation for being able to make music.

But, teaching beginners comes with some heavy responsibilities, too…right??

We want to keep their spark ignited, and we also have A MILLION AND ONE things we feel we must teach them!

Over my years of teaching beginners, amidst the novelty and excitement, I have also come to recognize some common problems that pop up at this level of study.

Here are 6 of the most common beginner student problems I see and how I go about solving them!

1. Poor Hand Position

We teach our students at the first lesson what a good piano hand shape looks like. We tell them how important it is.

And still they keep coming in week after week with collapsed hands, flat fingers, drooping wrists…

And we remind and remind and remind! So how do we fix this super common problem for good?

I believe that, 90% of the time, poor hand position can be fixed by correct bench positioning.

The other 10% can be fixed with some kid friendly reminders (gentle nagging??).

Most of the time I find that students are sitting too low. This makes it very hard to keep a proper hand shape.

They need to sit high enough so that their hands can approach the keys from above. Their hands should be level with the wrist and forearm and parallel to the keyboard.

This is especially important for small beginner hands that need the support of the arm behind each finger to depress the keys with ease.

Obviously you can only control this set up at the student’s lesson, and if they are sitting incorrectly the rest of the week, they will have some bad habits to correct.

I like to have my students text me a picture of them sitting at their piano at home. This way I can really see what’s happening and offer suggestions for improvement if need be.

For young beginners, having the parent involved in this process is imperative!

So once their set up is correct and they are physically able to play with a proper hand shape, what do you do when problems still persist?

That’s where some fun, kid friendly reminders can help.

I use small, animal puzzle erasers for this. If you’ve never used them in your studio, you should! They have so many uses! You can buy them in bulk on Amazon.

  • So your student chooses an animal eraser friend, let’s say, a unicorn.
  • Once she is sitting properly with a good hand shape, you can place the unicorn under her hand and show her that she has just built a house for the unicorn.
  • The unicorn is so happy and cozy in her perfect house. (But, if your student’s wrists droop or her fingers become flat, the unicorn house will collapse. Poor, poor unicorn!)
  • You can also have the unicorn walk the magical path from forearm to wrist to hand.
  • It should be smooth and flat with no hills or valleys. (If the unicorn falls into the Valley of the Drooping Wrist, she may, sadly, perish! Oh the horror!)

After doing this activity a few times you will probably only have to call out “don’t smash the unicorn!” and your student will make a quick adjustment.

2. Collapsing Finger Joints

I’m sure you’ve had a piano student with this problem! It is so common and can unfortunately be very persistent.

Students need to learn to keep that lowest finger joint strong, because a collapsing joint does not allow them the full or efficient control over how the key is played.

Consequently they will not have as much control over the sound that they make, and an inefficient technique is a stunted technique.

With my beginners, we will make ‘O’s” (or glasses or owl eyes, if you prefer). They can practice this with each finger.

  • First make an “O” with thumbs and second fingers.
  • Tap the fingertips strongly together several times, feeling that firmness and not collapsing.

I always make sure to show my students how to do it the wrong way, with a super collapsed finger.

  • This is the “wimpy” finger (cue the sad trombone: womp, womp, womp).
  • And then I show them what a strong finger looks like. Wimpy, strong, wimpy, strong… they love pointing out my wimpy fingers!

Another fun way to help students with this problem is to use some playdough or silly putty.

Have them balance a firm fingertip on the playdough and then use their arm to press the finger into the dough several times without collapsing.

The playdough provides a bit of resistance and something to focus on.

This is also fun if you use firm fingers to press some chocolate chips into the playdough. Of course eating some extra chocolate chips after is the most fun part!

3. Non Playing Fingers That Are Raised, Sticking Out, Or Generally Wonky Looking

This common problem is really a symptom of a larger issue.

The “T” word. TENSION!

The source of that tension could be anywhere in the body, so teaching students what a relaxed body feels like is so important.

But, as you know, we cannot simply say to them “Relax!!” because that is the last thing they will do!

For pianists, a relaxed body has a tall spine, is grounded, supportive, breathing freely, and it has heavy loose arms that hang from relaxed shoulders.

I love the way the Piano Safari Method teaches students about arm weight and relaxation. It is called the Lion’s Paw, and you imagine that you have heavy, sleepy, lion arms.

  • We practice this away from the keys first, having the student imagine that she is a sleeping lion and I come to lift up one of her sleepy, heavy arms.
  • When I let go of her sleepy, heavy lion arm it should drop right down.
  • I also have the student check if my arm is asleep by trying to wiggle it around and then lift it up and drop it.
  • We practice this at the keyboard lifting our heavy, sleeping arms from our lap over the keys and dropping into no particular finger or key, and then being able to drop into specific fingers one at a time.

Another way to help this problem is to make students aware of their tension. (You can use those animal erasers for this as well.)

  • Place the unicorn on the student’s shoulder.
  • Have her raise her shoulders. (The unicorn cries, because she’s afraid of heights!)
  • Then have the student drop her shoulders, and the unicorn breathes a sigh of relief.
  • The unicorn can travel down to the arm, wrist, hand, and fingers checking for tension.
  • Sticking up fingers can be told to fall asleep.
  • Or we take our hands, lift them in the air with floppy wrists, dip them down into an imaginary bucket of water, and then bring them back up to shake off the drips!

A couple more ideas about fly-away fingers, tension, and hand shape…

There is so much to think about in the beginning of piano study.

Often when a student is learning to read music, she struggles to keep a good hand position, she has tension, and she can’t even notice because she’s staring at the page for dear life.

I find it helpful to focus on rote pieces in the beginning while you are establishing this very important technical foundation. That way the student can really give attention to how her hand shape looks and how her body feels.

Also, students should not be made to play legato at the beginning of their study.

Playing legato too soon, before a good hand shape and arm/finger coordination is established, will almost always invite tension in.

Click here to check out part two of Ivy’s fantastic post, 6 Common Beginner Student Problems and How to Solve Them.

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