Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Teaching Arm Weight

Hairband SlingKeeping the arm behind each finger is a concept that should be taught early on in the piano teaching process. Here are some of the steps I use to help the students understand what I am asking of them.

  1. I start by asking the students to stand up tall; like a dancer, or a graceful tree.
  2. Then I have them try to feel their shoulders in different positions; way back, curled forward, hunched up toward their ears. The final position is the arms handing freely from the sockets, with shoulders relaxed and open-feeling. I also have them try breathing in each position and notice how much easier it is to breathe standing tall.
  3. To reinforce the relaxation of the shoulders I have them bend slightly forward from the waist and let their arms sway freely. I try to give them an image, such as wet spaghetti noodles, or willow tree branches—anything limp.
  4. Next they turn their palms down and lift their forearms a 90º angle and try to keep the relaxed feeling in their shoulders.
  5. Now we move to the piano and I talk to them about three firm joints and three relaxed joints. The three firm joints are in the fingers. The three relaxed joints are the shoulder, elbow, and wrist (the wrist being more “flexible” than loose).
  6. To get the feeling of strong fingers under a heavy relaxed arm, we practice holding a pencil with the eraser-end down, and dropping it onto a table or closed piano keyboard cover. When this feeling is mastered we move to dropping it on to the actual piano keys. Playing with a pencil may be a very crude approach to touch, but I would argue that it is a good beginning point with young students because it is so difficult for them to execute the feeling of a relaxed arm and strong finger joints at the same time.
  7. I have a “trick” pencil that is bendable, so at this point I bring it out and point out that we can’t make the same nice sound at the piano when the pencil collapses, and it is the same with our fingers.
  8. Now we look at the three finger joints and talk about how they should be shaped and held, and how they need to feel strong for holding up a heavy arm. At some point in here we also talk about the strong arch needed in the hand shape, formed by a concave palm.
  9. We work on strengthening the finger joints, preparing them to feel the weight of the arm, by making circles with the thumb, pressing each finger on an eraser tip, making “dog houses” on a flat surface, etc.
  10.  I have found that playing with just the third finger for awhile gives the student a chance to succeed and internalize this feeling. I then branch out to the second and fourth fingers, and finally the fifth finger and thumb—which need their own special lessons. Working with just one finger at a time also seems to help the student play with the non-playing fingers more relaxed, instead of sticking out all over the place.
  11.  I ask students to play non-legato until they master arm weight. Later, when we start legato playing, I go slowly and teaching them that the “walking arm” is still behind each finger.
  12.  Another tool I use is five-finger rhythms that have the student get a lot of height between notes so they can have the feeling of falling down on to the keys. It is hard to feel the weight of gravity if you are only a half inch over the landing.
  13.  Students might start to add an extra “push” behind the arm weight which results in a harsh sound. It can help to have them play the finger in the palm of their hand or on their own arm so they can “feel what the piano feels.”
  14.  When we get a firm foundation with the hand and fingers, I go back to work on the arm weight. I tell the students that each finger should feel like the arm “belongs to it” and is always right behind it. I use various tools to help them feel this weight, such as a length of fleece that creates a sling on their wrist. I work with them until I feel a completely relaxed arm as I hold up the sling. I also use girls’ hairbands on the wrist for this exercise. Having the students drop their arms freely onto their lap can help to regain the feeling of looseness during a lesson.
  15.  I point out to the student the better tonal quality they produce when their technique is good. I ask them to listen for the differences and describe them to me. Good technique can make your fourth grade song sound like you are a professional, and bad technique can make it sound like you are still in kindergarten.
  16.  In the beginning I go through all or part of this sequence every week until I feel like it is engrained in their muscle memory. After that I only make small corrections as needed during a lesson.
  17.  I have much better success with this process if the student has had no previous piano experience and there is no unlearning to do. To be honest, unless an older student makes a conscious decision to make the requested changes, you can have years of less-than-ideal results.
  18.  It is good to give students exercises to practice these skills that are played by ear, so there is no distraction of a printed page taking their focus off of the physical experience.
  19. Finally, I visit the student’s home once a year to see if they have proper sitting posture at home. After all, this is where most of their time at the piano is spent, and habits are ingrained. I often have to ask the parents to get booster cushions, and sometimes a footstool, to get the right position. This website has the best cushions at the best price: http://www.young-musicians.com/product-p/psc1.htm. They also sell reasonably priced footstools.

I realize there are many ways to teach the concept of arm weight, and much more detail that could be covered, but this is just an overview of how I approach the subject. I would love to hear back from you with more ideas so we can all keep improving.

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8 Comments

  1. Robin Steinweg

    Very thorough, Sandy! Isn’t it amazing how many steps we go through with our students? It doesn’t always seem like it until we see it laid out like this. 🙂 I like your idea of visiting the students at home once a year.

  2. Leila Viss

    This is an excellent post! Such a tricky but important subject to teach. It is a life long skill to develop proper arm weight. Your tips are so helpful, Sandy 🙂

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