Beginners Piano Technique Explained – The 5 Finger Drill

Technique is HUGE. I honestly think it is the most important thing to develop as a piano beginner. If you have good beginners piano technique, the rest (expressiveness, sight-reading, ext.) will follow. And it’ll lead to the more advanced techniques like playing crazy fast arpeggios ;).beginners piano technique explained pic

Before I go into detail about the 5 finger technique, I want to talk about a mental shift, a different way of thinking, that can really change the way you practice piano. Just making this small shift in your thinking can help you get loads more results from each practice session.

 Beginners Piano Technique – Think “Motion”

Beginner piano players are very focused on the notes.

Try something. Play the notes C D E F G with your right hand, fingers 1 2 3 4 5. Now try lowering your wrist below the keys and playing it again. Try raising your wrist above the keys. Try raising your elbow up and out. Each position has  a different feel doesn’t they?

fdsaPlaying a single note is a complex motion starting from the shoulder, going through the elbow, wrist, and fingers to transfer the energy to the keys to produce a sound. Good technique is all about using a motion that positions your joints at optimum angles to produce the smoothest and most efficient transfer of energy possible.

Wow, that was probably the nerdiest sentence I’ve ever written haha. If you didn’t catch it, basically using the correct motion will help you play faster and better ;).

So when you’re practicing, don’t just mindlessly play the notes. Really focus on the feel of the notes. Does your motion feel smooth or forced? Pay attention to how your wrist, elbow, and fingers line up and whether or not it feels natural.

You can use the Miyagi Technique to help you get this feel of complete relaxation. Its probably one of the best drills out there for accomplishing this feel.

 Over Under Technique – The Tutorial

The Over Under Technique is one of the most basic, fundamental techniques that’ll translate to everything you’ll play on piano. Master this technique. It will make everything else you play easier and smoother. Here’s the basic rule:

Whenever you’re right hand is playing up the keyboard or your left hand is playing down the keyboard, roll your wrist down and out.

Whenever you’re right hand is playing down the keyboard or your left hand is playing up the keyboard, roll your wrist up and in.

fdsaSo for example, if you’re playing the notes C D E F G with your right hand, your hand is moving up the keyboard, you want to roll your wrist down and out in a semi-circular motion. Playing the same notes in your left hand, you would roll your left wrist up and in. The opposite would be true for playing the notes G F E D C.

So that’s the basic form. Whenever you play, you want to keep this form in the back of your mind. It translates to smooth, effortless playing and will improve your tone as well. There’s a reason why the over under technique works, I’ll explain it in the next section. Then after that we’ll talk about the #1 drill to practice this technique.

 Why the Over Under Method Works

Look at your fingers for a second. They’re all different lengths. Your 3rd finger is the longest, followed by your second and fourth, followed by your pinkie and thumb. This difference in length makes certain fingers easier to play than others.

fdsaIn order to keep good technique, it’s important to have curved fingers. Curved fingers give you more leverage to press down the key, and you can play much faster. You don’t want any of your fingers to “collapse”, where your joint bends backwards. Here’s a pretty good article on the science of collapsed fingers.

If you keep your wrist straight, you’ll notice it’s easy to keep your 3rd finger curved because it’s nice and long. Your pinkie, on the other hand, can hardly reach the notes. It has to be almost straight just to reach.

Now try rolling your wrist to the outside. It’ll naturally curve your pinkie. That’s why we roll down and to the outside; in order to put your pinkie in a better position to play the note.

Same goes for the thumb. While it doesn’t matter about “curving” your thumb, it’s short, and it’s still much easier to reach if you move your wrist up and in.

The other reason for the Over Under technique is it promotes relaxation. Relaxation equals speed and injury prevention. Keeping your wrist in one spot leads to stiffness and strain, while moving in around promotes fluidity and relaxation. It’s no different that walking vs standing. If you stand in the same spot for 2 hours, you’ll get tired and stiff really fast. But if you walk around for two hours, it’s actually easier and feels better, even though there’s more motion involved.

Ok, enough chit chat about the theory behind this whole thing, time to take action. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to do the 5 finger drill.

 The 5 Finger Drill, Step by Step

Step 1: Play the notes C D E F G F E D with your right hand, and repeat, making sure to follow the over-under technique.

Step 2: Repeat an octave lower with your left hand.

Step 3: Repeat steps one and two for different keys. For example, if you’re in D Major, your notes would be D E F# G A.

There you have it! Not very difficult, but a couple points I want to make.

First, exaggerate the Over Under motion when you do this drill. Your brain learns faster and better with bigger motions, so really make a big oval with your wrist. Like, to the point where it just looks plain stupid. You’ll learn it a lot faster, and don’t worry, it’s easy to tone it down once you’ve learned it.

Secondly, focus on the feel. The motion should feel smooth, relaxed, and produce a nice even tone. So shoot for that. Like anything else you learn, it probably won’t feel smooth and natural at first, but always shoot for making it more smooth and natural.

select qualityLastly, don’t rush it. Quality over quantity. Focus on getting a smooth, even rhythm and tone, don’t focus on how fast you can play it.

So there you have it, start implementing this in your practice sessions. It doesn’t have to be a lot, just a couple minutes a day or so will be enough.  But do it every day, and do it right at the beginning of the session. That way, during the entire rest of your practicing, you’ll already have the Over Under feel in your fingers, so it’ll naturally transfer to whatever piece you’re working on.

 Relating the 5 Finger Drill to Scales

So now that we know the 5 Finger Drill, I want to talk about how this technique works for scales.

When you play scales, whenever your thumb crosses under, you’re going to have to do a mini-reset of your wrist.  So for example, lets say you’re playing a C Major Scale with your right hand. When you play the notes C D E, roll your wrist down and out. Then, right before your thumb crosses under, you’ll have to quickly “reset” your hand to prepare for the next 5 notes. Use the down and out motion again for the next 5 notes.

This is easier to explain in the video, so be sure to watch it to really get the idea of what I’m talking about.

Anyway, put this in your practice sessions, I really hope it can help you improve your technique and tone on piano. Let me know how it works out for you!


P.S. I wanted to update you on a project I’m working on, its going to be a video series of beginners piano lessons online. I’m really excited for it, I think it’s going to help a lot of people.

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