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Let's first define the methods:

Thumb Under (TU): the thumb is brought under the hand in order to pass the 3rd or 4th finger for playing the scale. The thumb has movement up and down (to play the key), and to the sides (to do cross-over, to transition between group of notes). Here is how it looks like:

Thumb Under

Thumb Over (TO): the thumb is treated like the other 4 fingers, the thumb has only up and down movement (no lateral movement), so there is no thumb cross-over. The transition through group of notes in the scale is done with arm and wrist movement. The term is sometimes disliked because the thumb doesn't really go over anything, but that's what we'll call it for simplicity. It can also be seen as avoiding the Thumb Under method. We can see TO in action here.

Which are the particularities of each method? When one should be preferred over the other? Seems that some teachers go so far to prohibit the TU method and use strictly and exclusively the TO method. Why? This implies that it is not about preference, those teachers do believe the TU method is detrimental to their students. So, what's bad about the TU method? What does TO has that TU doesn't? And similarly, what does TU has that TO doesn't?

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3 Answers 3

To me TO is linked with more modern piano methods which rely on the use of gravity in order to limit the force and tension needed to play a note. When the thumb goes up and falls on the key, you have more power over the sound created and it costs you less energy. TU is more popular, though. And I'm sure some excellent pianists do fine with it. I'd say people tend to use whichever they were taught first.

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Some say that TO is much more better for fast playing. Some have analyzed that what very fast TU pianists are doing resembles a TO technique, and as the pianist gets faster the TU method transforms/distorts and approaches more and more the TO method. There might be more than "whichever you learn first" since these claims imply that TU pianist play fast despite TU, not thanks to TU, and they would benefit from using TO in fast passages. What do think about that? (I've found many sources in the subject, one of which is: pianofundamentals.com/book/en/1.III.5.1) –  JCPedroza Jun 26 at 2:03
    
How do you play legato with TO? –  Mark Lutton Jun 26 at 2:49
    
@MarkLutton Seems that the transitions become so fast that they are unnoticeable. It also seems that it is a controversial and heated subject, as the question is already getting downvoted! I saw some of that grumpiness in forums and talks regarding the subject, but didn't expect to see it here! Seems that the subject touches a lot of veins and nerves in the piano world. Some take this TO vs TU very personal. –  JCPedroza Jun 26 at 2:52
    
@JCPedroza I suspect (but cannot prove) that the downvote was more about the feel of the question than about the topic. Particularly, the term "pros and cons" sends up a red flag for me that the question might be looking for opinions/lists. Reading closely, it's clear that that is not the case here. But it may be good to edit and make the need for this information more apparent. –  luser droog Jun 26 at 6:12
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@mm2703 Speed was something that came out in many texts I came by. I like your answer, I love it. My only point is that the speed theme should be brought by the one answering, not the asker. I found it weird that you thought it was necessary for me to bring it up as the asker, that's all. I didn't feel like my comment would came up aggressive, personal, or anything worth of "calming down". If it did I apologize, it wasn't my intention. I have absolutely nothing against you or your answers, I really appreciate your time and help. –  JCPedroza Jun 26 at 11:26

I think that eventually most players will adopt their own version, with some of each. Right hand moving from left to right will need the thumb to traverse the keys in some way, obviously. Thinking about it, the hand will move to the right also,to be ready positioned for the subsequent notes further to the right. Therefore there will inevitably be some lateral movement of the thumb, in combination with some movement of the hand, and because it's attached, the forearm, if not the whole arm.Possibly the body will move sideways, too.So, I don't think it's a matter of which one gets the vote, which one is better, but more a case of how much of each movement is involved in a particular passage, and that will vary piece to piece and player to player.

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What about speed? Are both methods equally optimal for both slow and fast speeds? Is there no difference at all? I found that many teachers teach both, and suggest that both are needed. Chopin, for example, taught both methods. It's like it often goes beyond what technique you adopt. –  JCPedroza Jun 26 at 10:50
    
The fact that we are humans, rather than machines means that there will be no one size fits all, reflecting so many facets of life.I believe that there is a grey area between the two, which players often use, rather than having a foot firmly in one camp. –  Tim Jun 26 at 10:52
    
Learning both and implementing one or the other depending on the scenario is unheard of? –  JCPedroza Jun 26 at 10:55
    
I can't understand why it's so important to differentiate absolutely, particularly for a beginner. Learners will not need to play as fast as to address this issue. –  Tim Jun 26 at 11:29
    
Practice carves your technique, no matter what skill level you have. The question is skill-level agnostic, and relevant to all the skill range. It's important to differentiate absolutely because one can make a choice in pursuing one, the other, or both. I find it odd that you underrate the value of practice as a beginner, since it's which everything else will be built into, the base. I don't want to build patterns that I will regret later. From the info provided, if I think one method suits me better, I can practice using it from the very start. –  JCPedroza Jun 26 at 11:40

Look here http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1999/oct/21/on-playing-the-piano/ for an article by Charles Rosen on this subject. Unfortunately you can only read the first three paragraphs for free, but you find out a lot in those three paragraphs. You learn for instance that Dinu Lipatti once remarked, "You know, it has been at least ten years since I last crossed my thumb under the third finger."

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