All Opposed! Training Your Thumb to Play Well With Others

The fingers must be educated, the thumb is born knowing. Marc Chagall


In the absence of any other proof, the thumb alone would convince me of God's existence. Isaac Newton


Naturally, as a human, I am grateful for my opposable thumbs. But as a harpist, I often wonder why my thumbs often seem to do the opposite of what I want.


When I want a seamless scale, my thumb fumbles the crossover. If I jump for an octave at the top of the harp, my thumb misses the mark. When I try to create a beautiful melodic line, my thumb sound sticks out like...well, a sore thumb. I don’t think I’m alone in this; I’m sure you've experienced the same thing. Thumbs just don’t always play well with the other fingers. 


I remember struggling with my double-jointed thumbs as a young harp student. My thumbs would bend backwards, and the middle joint would collapse inward. As my teacher pointed out, the result was that my thumbs were difficult to control in terms of volume and timing. There was also tension in my hands which made it harder to play smoothly at a fast tempo. And those were just the obvious issues.


When I finally focused on training my thumbs properly, I discovered that there were other technical problems that solved themselves almost miraculously. It probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me.  The thumb is the ballast for the hand, and when it is strong and playing well, the whole hand is free to play at its best. My tone improved and my sound was richer and fuller with less effort. The tension I had felt was gone. My scales were even and smooth. And all because I trained my thumbs.


The process of training your thumbs can take a bit of time and a lot of concentrated effort. However, there are only three fundamental steps to the process, and they aren’t difficult to do. With careful attention and some patience, you can make sure your thumbs will support your playing, not sabotage it. 


Step One: Position

The position of your thumb in relation to your hand is critical. While different methods of harp playing place the thumb higher or lower on the string, there is general agreement on this key principle: there must be space between your thumb and second finger. 


Too often players allow the middle knuckle of their thumb - the one by the webbing of the thumb - to collapse. When that knuckle collapses, the thumb ends up very close to the second finger very little room to move. This creates tension, prevents the thumb from playing with a full sound and throws the hand off balance. Of course, this lack of space also makes the finger crossings in a scale clumsy and dynamically uneven.


In contrast, when the middle knuckle is held away from the second finger, a space shaped like the letter “C” opens up between the thumb and second finger. Now the thumb has room to play and the entire hand is open and relaxed.  


Step Two: Motion 

Now that your thumb has room to move, it must move. Just as your other fingers close into your hand to produce a full sound and to stay relaxed, your thumb will move across that C-shaped space and close on top of the middle knuckle of your second finger. That motion provides the same benefits as closing your other fingers. It keeps your thumb relaxed and allows you to have control over the dynamic and tone of each note you play.


You will also find that your thumb’s range of motion helps create a healthy balance with the rest of your hand. Your fingers move more freely and you may find it easier to reach octaves and tenths. Your hand will feel more flexible and more supported at the same time.


Step Three: Listen

It is impossible to watch your thumbs all the time. When you work on technical exercises, you can and should watch your hand carefully so you can spot any irregularities. But when you play music, you can’t pay the same level of attention; in fact, paying that much attention to your fingers would severely impair your ability to play musically. So what can you do to train your thumbs while you play and practice? You must listen.


Listening to your thumb when it plays is the best way to be certain it is playing well. If the sound is not balanced with the other fingers, check the position and motion of your thumb. In fact, playing some scales or other exercises with your eyes closed and ears open can be illuminating. You will be able to hear and feel when your thumb needs correction, and with just a little practice, you will be able to make corrections to its position or motion without ever looking at it. 


That’s a strong start to training your thumbs to play well. Give yourself a big “thumbs up!”


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