Doing warmup exercises and technique work on piano is not the most exciting part of your piano practice. That’s okay, it doesn’t have to be. Warmup is not the fun part of playing a sport, but it’s still important.
Like in sport, the right exercises can help prevent injury and improve overall technique.
These exercises start with the easiest drills and work their way to the hardest, but they are all suitable for beginning players.
We’re working on technique, relaxation, tone, dexterity, speed, and time. Let’s dig in!
5 Finger Drill
This drill teaches you to maintain proper form through your wrist and fingers and promotes relaxation while you are playing. Relaxing while you are playing is incredibly important. Being relaxed builds speed and prevents injury.
Here is how to perform this drill.
- Set your metronome to 60 BPM.
- Play the notes C D E F G F E D with your right hand. Use quarter notes – one note per beat.
- As you go up the keyboard (C D E F G) roll your wrist down and out in a slight semi-circular motion. Take your time. Keep your fingers curved, do not let them collapse.
- As you go down the keyboard (G F E D C) roll your wrist in and up in a slight semi-circular motion. Maintain your curved fingers.
Repeat this exercise 4-5 times with your right hand. Keep things smooth, keep your wrist relaxed. Your focus should be on maintaining the wrist motion and keeping your wrist and finger relaxed.
What we’re working on here is the ‘Over Under’ technique. This seems obvious, but all of your fingers are different lengths. This makes some fingers easier to play with than others.
If you sit at the piano and straighten your wrist, you’ll notice that you can still reach the keys of the piano with your third and fourth fingers – the middle and ring fingers – but your pinkie and thumb may not reach the keys at all.
That’s why you have to roll your wrists to the outside. It naturally curves the pinkie, making the notes easier to reach.
For someone who has played piano for a long time, you may not even think about this motion. I urge players of any skill level to spend 5 minutes paying attention to their wrists, you may be surprised at the results.
To finish the exercise, you need to do it with your left hand and with both hands.
Here is the left-hand process:
- Set your metronome to 60 BPM.
- Play the notes C D E F G F E D with your left hand. Use quarter notes – one note per beat.
- As you go up the keyboard (C D E F G) roll your left wrist in and up in a slight semi-circular motion. Take your time. Keep your fingers curved, do not let them collapse.
- As you go down the keyboard (G F E D C) roll your wrist out and down in a slight semi-circular motion. Maintain your curved fingers.
And now try with both hands together. Set your metronome slower if you have to!
Relaxation Technique For Both Hands
As mentioned before, a big part of working on your technique is improving your ability to relax while playing complicated or fast passages.
Playing with a relaxed feel improves your speed. Watch any great pianist – it looks effortless. Even if they are really digging in, their wrists and fingers are perfectly curved and relaxed.
It also improved your tone. Piano keys (especially on an actual acoustic piano) are not just buttons. Each key is a complicated set of mechanisms, and your fingers and wrists are a part of that mechanism.
The tone created by playing a note with a stiff wrist and firm pressure is different from the tone created when you relax and press it smoothly. That is a big part why your piano teacher (or professional players) will sound better even when playing the same notes as anyone else.
This exercise trains your hands to relax. When you just start out, you won’t know what proper technique feels like. This will help.
Take your right wrist in your left hand. Let your right arm go completely limp. Relax it completely, and hold all of the weight with your left arm.
Use your left arm to lift your hand slightly and then drop it and let it flop onto the keys. Don’t let your arm tense up when it is falling, let the weight hit the keys.
This will feel weird, but that’s the point.
Flop With Purpose
Repeat the first step, but this time you’re going to let the fall of your right-hand end by hitting a note with your third finger. It can be any note.
Make sure that your finger does not collapse, keep it curved. Let your wrist naturally fall below the keys and roll to the outside.
Repeat this will all of your fingers. Your pinkie will be the hardest, as it is a weak finger. You can always drop your hand from a lower height if that works better for you.
Take Off The Safety Wheels
Now, do the exact same thing but do not use your left hand to help your right hand.
Put your right hand over the keys, lift it up a little bit, and let it go limp. Let your third finger catch the fall. Then your second finger, fourth, and fifth.
It is hard to truly let go and let gravity do the work, but it is important. Gravity is your friend. Learning to relax like this will help you play with speed, accuracy, and tone.
The last step in this exercise is letting your hand drop, and catching it with a chord. Let your arm drop onto the keys, and catch it with a three or four note chord. Try to use your pinkie finger!
Once you’ve gone through this progression with your right hand, it is time to try again with your left hand. If your left hand is your non-dominant hand, it might be even more awkward!
Start by using your right hand to help you ‘deaden’ or relax your left hand. Don’t worry about where it lands.
Next, continue using your right hand to help, and pick a note to catch your fall with. Go through all of your fingers like this.
Remove the help of your right hand and work on relaxing your left hand. Catch your fall with individual notes and cycle through every finger.
Finally, play chords with your left hand.
Don’t practice this for hours on end. This is a fundamental drill and you can do it every day, but only for a few minutes before you really dive in.
You can also take out a few of these steps as you get better at it. For the first week, do all of the steps, but as the weeks go on, you can eliminate steps. Eventually you can practice just step four before your main practice session.
The point of the exercise is to teach our hands how to relax at the keyboard and remind them before every session.
Scales for Everyone!
Who doesn’t like scales? Oh, almost everyone? Darn.
Unfortunately for us, scales are very useful. You can use them in your warmup as a way to increase your understanding of how harmony works in different keys, finger movement, time, and dexterity.
Here are a few ways to use scales – these are great for the beginner and for the experienced piano player. You can pick a few of these to do, or do them all in order.
Slow, Legato Scales
Playing scales slowly, evenly, and legato seems like it would be easy. It’s not. The slower you go, the harder it gets. It’s a practice in patience, meditation, and tone.
Set your metronome to 40-50 BPM and start with the C Major scale.
Play it up and down one octave with your right hand. Then, play it up and down one octave with your left hand. Then, put your hands together.
Focus on consistent tone and correct fingering. If your fingering gets scrambled, start over.
When I do slow practice like this, I do not allow mistakes. You are going slowly enough to focus properly. Take your time and nail it.
Do this in all twelve keys. Not necessarily in the same day, but over time. Make sure you aren’t just playing C Major over and over.
Start Quiet And Grow Your Dynamics
Next, we’re going to awaken the dynamics in your fingers.
Set your metronome a little quicker – a comfortable pace – and work your way up one octave major scales.
Start the scale as quiet as you can possibly play. Grow over to time to the loudest and most confident fortissimo!
Start with your right hand, then your left, and then put them together.
Legato Going Up, Staccato Going Down.
Set your metronome to around 60-70 BPM.
Start with a C Major, one octave scale. On your way up, play legato. Smooth, connected, and in time. On your way down, play staccato.
The important part here is being accurate with your staccato, and confident with your legato. Staccato is easy to rush, don’t rush. It’s the same number of beats, but the note is short.
Again, make sure you’re practicing more than just C Major. Try starting with different scales and changing scales chromatically. You can also cycle through the circle of fifths when your practicing chords.
Claw Chords – Broken and Solid
Next, we’re going to work on our chording.
Sit at the piano and practice the earlier ‘flopping’ exercise, but skip to step four where you land on a chord.
Take your right hand, let it go limp, and then let it fall onto a chord. That is the feeling you should have when you are playing a chord. Relaxed, but strong. A nice ‘claw’ shape with strong rounded fingers and a relaxed wrist.
Solid Claw Chords
Set your metronome to 60 BPM.
With your right hand, use fingers 1, 3, and 5 to make a C Major chord (C, E, G). On the next beat, maintain your nice, relaxed ‘claw’ shape and move it up to play a D Minor (D, F, A).
Work your way up the C Major scale, but play chords on every beat instead of notes. C Major, D Minor, E Minor, F Major, G Major, A Minor, B Diminished, C Major and all the way back down again.
Repeat the exercise with your left hand. This exercise builds dexterity and muscle memory for chords.
Broken Claw Chords
This exercise is basically the same as the previous, except that instead of playing all of the notes as a chord, you are going to play them as arpeggios.
Set your metronome to 60-80 BPM or something comfortable. Start with your fingers in a C Major chord shape.
Play C, E, G in quarter notes. One note for every beat. When you reach G with your pinkie finger, move your thumb underneath to play D, F, A. Then, E, G, B and so on.
It is essentially the same exercise as above, but the chords are broken instead of solid. This is an exercise you can work up to a quicker tempo as you improve.
This is the hardest drill of the 5 we are presenting today, but it isn’t physically demanding, it is demanding on your sense of time.
How you feel ‘time’ is everything. Time and feel are what separate good players and great players, once you’ve reached a certain level of dexterity.
This drill will teach you to subdivide a beat into two, three, four, five, six, and even seven. This not only improves your ability to play triplets and odd groupings of notes, but it improves your basic sense of time.
Note that to do this drill you need to be able to play a C Major scale with both hands together. I believe this is best served as a hands-together drill. You can do it in whatever key you want, but C is easiest.
The trick is to go slow. The slow you go, the harder it is. At first, you’ll rush or drag. Slowly, this will get better. Here is the exercise:
- Set your metronome to 30-40 BPM. Again, the slower you go, the harder it will be. I don’t recommend going any higher than 40 BPM.
- Start with both hands on a C. Go up the C Major scale in quarter notes. One note for every beat on the metronome. This will be hard! Focus on burying the click. Subdivide out loud or in your head and try to nail it.
- When you get back down to your starting position, start over. This time go up and down the scale in eighth notes – two notes for every beat. This should be a little easier.
- When you return to your starting note, do it again, this time in triplets.
- Next, play the scale up and down in sixteenth notes. Four note for every beat. At this point you might want to do two or three octaves of the scale in order to really get in the groove.
- When your done with sixteenth notes, play the scale up and down in groups of five. This will bend your brain a bit!
- Next, go up and down the scale in groups of six.
- And finally, go up and down the scale in groups of seven.
- When I’m done the group of seven, I often like to work myself all the way back down to quarter notes, but that’s up to you. I also change the scale with every new group of notes, I usually just go up through scales chromatically.
This exercise will cement your scales, especially if you practice it in different keys, but it is mostly for your groove and time. Learning that a beat can be subdivided in so many ways makes you a better player!
Final Thought; Take Time To Warm Up Before Using Piano Exercises As A Beginner (Or Pro For That Matter)
Warming up can frustrating, slow, and boring. Do it anyways. Shift your brain from ‘boring’ to ‘meditative’ or ‘relaxing’. Repetitive exercises can actually be very peaceful!
Last year, I suffered a pretty painful wrist injury that prevented me from playing for more than 30 minutes at a time. That sucked. And it was all due to poor technique and playing a bunch of shows in a row without any warmups.
I’ve learned my lesson, and I now find joy in my 15 minutes of warmups!