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I've been learning to play piano for couple of weeks, and I've faced a question that has some controversial answers on the internet:

What is the correct position of 2-3-4 fingers on white keys (WK) when playing an arpeggio - between black keys (BK) or below them?

When I press WKs below BKs - it's way easier to jump from one position to another without missing keys, but I feel some over-tension (and even some pain eventually) in my wrist because my arm turned too much to outer side in an unnatural way (despite the fact that I try to keep it relaxed as it possible).

OTOH, when I press WKs between BKs (somewhere between their bottom end and 1/2 of their length, depending on chord and hand position) I feel that my arm is in a more natural and comfortable position now, and moreover, I've found out that it's easier to navigate the keyboard with less visual control (because I can feel actual finger position by feeling adjacent BKs by lateral parts of my fingers), BUT! it's become way harder to not press adjacent keys by mistake when jumping to a new position, because the “goal” (the space between BKs) is smaller and it requires way more precise movement to hit it accurately.

So, the question is "What should I master more? Hitting WKs below BKs (and try find a way to reduce tension while my wrist is turned to outer side), or hitting between them (and focus on movement precision to avoid pressing adjacent keys)?"

Internet's given me mutually exclusive options, so now I feel confused a bit :)

Update: okay, to be particular: in this composition ("Waltz" by Eugen Doga, from the movie My Sweet and Tender Beast [A Hunting Accident, 1978]) it feels more comfortable for me to press WKs between BKs, until I have to jump to another chord where root is between BKs (to Am or Dm at the beginning of the 5th, 7th and 10th measure, and so on) where I often hit BK together with WK by mistake :)

"Waltz" by Eugen Doga

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    Please consider re-asking this question in the context of a specific arpeggio. Questions of that sort are routinely answered here. – Aaron May 10 at 14:02
  • Now that you posted the score and measure numbers, the problem seems less clear. Mm. 5, 7, and 10 are all white keys, no black. My longer fingers 2,3,4 do go "above" the black key line a little, fitting between the black keys. That's just nature hand position. The fingertips touch at point along an arc, not a perfectly straight line. You might specify measures, beats which notes you are missing and hitting B/W keys simultaneously. – Michael Curtis May 10 at 17:46
  • Are you playing with the fingerings give in the score? – Michael Curtis May 10 at 17:50
  • At a few weeks into playing piano, and considering this particular score, did you do any five finger studies yet? – Michael Curtis May 10 at 17:52
  • I usually miss the first notes of specified measures, when I jump into a new position. all other notes are easy to hit bacause they are the part of chord built from theese first notes. – AlexandrX May 10 at 17:57
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When it comes to fingering questions, the broader the question the more the answer will be: "it depends." That is probably why you find conflicting information online, too many answers that don't provide the specific context for one fingering approach versus another.

You can say that generally your fingers get placed about mid-way along the length of the keys toward the fallboard, this yellow space...

enter image description here

...but you can see that space overlaps the start point of the black keys. Some of that yellow space is "above" and some "below". You need a few example of particular chords or scales to see what happens in that space.

enter image description here

For an A major chord in root position, fingers 1 and 5 need to stretch for the octave and probably need to be "below" to black keys to make the reach, finger 2 with a longer reach toward the fallboard then is "above" the other fingers to play the C#.

For an F#m chord in root position, fingers 1 and 5 are on black keys so the hand is already placed "above" into the black keys space, finger 2 drops down between black keys to play the A natural.

My fingertips end up roughly in these positions...

enter image description here

...blue for A, red for F#m. I have to reach in pretty close to the fallboard to play F#m with the octave stretch and my fingers dropping down in a relaxed position for the inner two keys.

The point is that fingers 2, 3, and 4 are not one or the other between or below the black keys. It depends on the other keys that need to be played and the shape of your hand.

I've been learning to play piano for couple of weeks... it's become way harder to not press adjacent keys... it requires way more precise movement to hit it accurately.

You should be thinking in terms of a few years playing piano to establish a foundation in fingering technique.

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  • Merely to illustrate that we are all different, while I play the F# minor exactly as above, I find for the A major my thumb and fifth fingers are right at the bottom of the note and my third finger is just below the E♭. – Ian Goldby May 12 at 7:11
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    @IanGoldby, I used to play an A chord like that, anything with white keys in the outer fingers I could reach from the far edge of the white keys away from the fallboard. A long time ago the black keys were tricky, fingers slip off, get stuck between black keys, etc. I think the overall goal was familiarity and accuracy with black keys. Moving toward the middle of the keyboard to the fallboard was a big part of getting there. – Michael Curtis May 12 at 12:59
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Answer is - it depends!.

Since our fingers aren't all the same length, each will press down its individual note at a different point anyway. Thumb, being a couple of inches less reach than the middle finger, will usually press near the end of the key nearest to the player, while middle will generally press close to the black keys' ends.

But - there are going to be times when that isn't the case. Sometimes when using black keys as well, we press half-way along the white keys. If I'm playing a 'crush note' going from a black to the next white, I may well press the black key, slide off and be between that black and the next one up.

There's also the dynamics to consider. Needing ff means playing close to the end of the keys, playing pp may benefit from playing further in.

And, of course, how far away from the piano you sit will be a deciding factor, along with the differing lengths of your fingers, as mentioned earlier.

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  • Since our fingers aren't all the same length, each will press down its individual note at a different point anyway. Aren't you usually supposed to curve your fingers when you play? That usually makes your fingers line up with each other as a general rule. Of course, mixing white and black keys can usually make your fingers not line up, but in general aren't you supposed to curve your fingers? – Chipster May 11 at 20:19
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    @Chipster Yes, you are supposed to curve your fingers, but how much you should curve them depends on your hand position. When I play A major root position my 2nd finger on C# is curved but not nearly as much as my 3rd finger on E. – Ian Goldby May 12 at 7:14
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    @Chipster - sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. And to get them all level with even a straight pinky is non-productive - if I bent that one as well - 'cos the 'rule' says to - they'd be almost bent double! It just doesn't work like that - for me. – Tim May 12 at 7:42
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This clearly is a question that does not make sense answering without the context of actual piece, general fingering method employed, and actual mapping of the passage to fingers.

As a general rule, contortions and unnecessary strains are to be avoided, and that gives advantage to certain fingering patterns for typical melodic fragments, and for various strategies (crossing over, finger changes and others) for tying together fragments that don't provide a seamless fit.

In that context, you will want to keep your finger tips around the black/white key threshold. This suggests to use fingerings that are supported by hand curvature and play black keys with a preference towards the middle three fingers and in particular avoid playing black keys with the thumb.

Like with any rules, there are exceptions: the rules apply most strongly when playing fast scales and arpeggios, stuff you practice daily as an essential component of play. But of course you would not avoid using the thumb for black keys when hammering octave parallels.

Any hard and fast rule you can find on the Internet is likely to be foolish when applied absolutely.

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    "clearly does not make sense answering", and yet .... ;-) – Aaron May 10 at 14:04
  • And 4 upvotes for a non-specific answer that didn't make sense to give in the first place. – Michael Curtis May 10 at 17:48
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In addition to the points made in the other answers, there is one other thing to take into consideration, and that is hand size. If you have large hands and long fingers, you can get away with keeping your palms further away from the keyboard and still be able to reach both black and white keys more easily. But if you have smaller hands (and I have seen some small-handed pianists who still manage to be excellent performers, typically but not always younger and/or female - women tend to have smaller hands on average, and children obviously have smaller hands than adults), you may need to move your hands further up the keys in order to be able to reach them all. This may also involve rolling larger chords and more pedal-work to account for the lack of reach.

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In addition to the other answers, it can also depend on how wide your fingers are. I do not have pianist fingers; my middle finger especially is so wide that it is a problem on most pianos to play a white key with it between the black keys. Even when perfectly parallel to the keys, it rubs on the black keys substantially on typical keyboards. I guess I'm better off just playing the harp.

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There is so much to unpack here. I'm not going to go into too much detail but this is something you need to work on with a knowledgeable teacher. The keys of a piano are a fulcrum. They are lightest on the outside edges and heavier on the inside. If you have ever played on a see saw, you may have noticed that you weigh more the further out you sit and if you sit further in, you weigh less. Depending where both you and the opposite person sit, you may control the fulcrum despite the other person weighing more. So, it behooves the pianist to play as far out as possible. This requires the pianist to move their hand from the arm, in and out. To play too far in will cause uneven playing, heavy keys, the feeling of weakness and strain. Playing in/out not only equalizes the fingers and gives each finger its own weight but also provides speed. Playing in one positions static loads the other muscles.

Because your fingers are all different lengths, many pianists are taught to curl their fingers in an effort to equalize them. This creates instant tension. A more practical movement is to play in and out to allow the arm to equalize the fingers. You can't both flex and extend at the same time and since all the forearm muscles (they move the fingers) are interconnected, to use two muscles at the same time will create tension. Each muscle moves one bone in one direction. To use two muscles to move one bone will create tension as they strain for control of the one bone. Curling places the fingers in a constant state of flexation.

Many pianists play from their flexors (in the forearm) but the flexors are designed for gripping. Initiate all movement from gravity or arm weight. As you learned in HS physics, ever motion MUST have an equal and opposite motion. Throw a ball and you back swing first. Kick a ball, back kick. Walk forward, push backward. The piano too requires an up motion before you can play down. Play any chord and you will see. Well, that must be in individual fingers, too. There are several ways to accomplish an up. Lifting the arm and forearm rotation are the two most popular. NEVER ISOLATE A FINGER AS THAT IDIOT HANNON PRESCRIBED. Remember, you can't flex and extend at the same time. Combined with using your pronator and supinator muscles (around the elbow) and gravity, this gives you the first three or four notes for free, with no effort. If the movement of the arm (the notes) changes directions, this gives you another three or four for free. It is possible to play an entire piece effortlessly with no tension. Totally from the arm.

Effortless and accurate playing comes from in/out, up/down and gravity. So, your concern should not be where to play on the keys but where the arm should place the fingers. If you play from the fingers there will be tension and grasping at notes. The arm can place a finger much faster than you can twist, contort and stretch.

You mentioned wrist strain. The wrist is a conduit between the power of the arm and the fingers. It is another fulcrum for the gravitational weight of the arm to transfer to the keys. Don't play from the wrist but allow power to pass through it. Much like when you lose alignment of your foot and sprain your ankle. All your gravitation weight goes into the ankle instead of passing through it into the ground. Most of our strain, pain, injury and tension comes from improper alignment.

That is another thing which gets in the way of fingering. Stretching out the fingers. This is known as abduction. When you abduct and flex at the same time, guess what? You are using two muscles to move one bone and tension will ensue. Slowly wave bye bye with all five fingers together. Now abduct them and wave. Feel the strain? Why play the piano like that? Let the arm play the fingers. The arm can execute distance without straining the fingers.

Go to Youtube and search for Art Tatum - Yesterdays (1954) Notice his in/out, up/down, rotation of the forearm and grouping of fingers to facilitate the direction of the arm. YOU may hear 64 consecutive notes but Art is playing three notes, changes direction, four notes, changes direction, two notes, changes direction, etcetera. It may LOOK like he is playing with flat fingers but what you are seeing are the fingers he is not using. The ones playing are either played from the arm and are curved, not curled. His playing is more like poking rather than flexing. Dangle and relax your arm to your side. That is the optimal position of the fingers when you raise them to the keys. Notice Art can play large leaps. That is because he is playing from the arm. Another Art solo to watch is ART TATUM LIVE [EXTREMELY RARE FOOTAGE]

Other pianists to watch and who play from the arm are Adam Makowicz, Oscar Peterson, Dick Hyman. When the arm plays the fingers the fingers look and feel effortless because you are not using the incorrect muscles like the flexors, abductors and extensors.

We have been mis-trained for the past three hundred years. If you get a chance to play a tracker organ, do it. It will reveal your every technical flaw. If you can't play it, you are probably doing everything wrong. If you can play it effortlessly, you are doing everything right. The tracker reveals all.

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  • His playing is more like poking rather than flexing. We must be watching different videos 😉. I see him lifting his whole hand from the arm when he plays a succession of chords (as we all do, admittedly with rather less skill in my case), and playing from his fingers (flexing them) when he plays runs of individual notes. – Ian Goldby May 12 at 12:24
  • Possibly we are using different language to describe the same thing though. Here's another example from an awesome concert pianist: youtube.com/watch?v=uOyWTlH6iQE. Look at the right hand around 30 seconds in. No one could doubt that if his technique were not top notch he would just not be able to play this. – Ian Goldby May 12 at 12:27

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