Thumbs can just plain get in the way. Sometimes our thumbs make us feel clumsy and slow when we play. They get tense; they don’t place accurately. Thumbs can be hard to control, and it can be even harder to make them sound beautiful and musical.
But with a little understanding and a little attention, your thumbs can be as nimble and expressive as the rest of your fingers.
First, it’s important to remember that your thumb is a long finger. Yes, it looks short, until you notice that the base joint of your thumb is down near your wrist. Taken all together, your thumb is about the same length as your third finger. And all that length can result in some impressive power. But you have to use the whole thumb.
You may have heard the saying “long and strong” applied to your thumbs. That’s because when you use the entire length of your thumb, you will find its strength. If you only play with the top joint of your thumb, you will never allow your thumb to develop its strength. Yet this is what many harpists do. They keep their thumb close to their hand, essentially immobilizing the large, lowest portion of the thumb.
Henriette Renié in her Complete Method for Harp says that the base of the thumb should extend outward from the palm “forming a curved space between the thumb and second finger.” Salzedo writes in his method that “the space between the thumb and the 2nd finger is the main concern of the player – this space is formed by stretching the hand.”
With those expert opinions in mind, we come to the first of our four quick thumb fixes…
The movement of the thumb is the most critical aspect to address. Once you have the “curved space” that Renié talks about between your thumb and second finger, you need to pay attention to how the thumb moves as it plays. The thumb needs to move toward the hand, not the other way around. Resist the impulse to play your thumb by pulling your hand toward your thumb instead of closing your thumb toward your hand.
Quick Fix: Place thumb and second finger on adjacent strings and play them in turn. Play slowly, keeping relaxed. Listen to the sound of each finger and match them. Feel the motion of each finger and try to match the energy and arc of each finger. Keep the curved open space between them when you replace them on the strings. A little bit of attention will go a long way.
It is important to be able to balance the tone and volume of your thumb with your other fingers. It requires relaxed control and just a few minutes dedicated time to make sure you develop the control and balance that you want.
Quick Fix: Simply play all four fingers in a row, up and down, slowly and at a mezzo-piano dynamic. Listen to the sound of each finger, including your thumb. Play them back and forth, up and down, staying relaxed and calm, until all four fingers sound equal. Repeat the pattern, but try incorporating a crescendo or a decrescendo. Can your thumb play with the tone and volume needed to create a smooth dynamic progression?
Is your thumb sometimes sloppy, playing more than one note at once by accident? Your thumb needs to close neatly and away from the other strings.
Quick Fix: Practice avoiding those extra notes this way. Place thumb and fourth finger an octave apart. Hold your fourth finger lightly on the string, and play your thumb, closing it carefully to avoid extra strings. Keep the volume fairly soft and your hand relaxed. You can also try using the distance of a tenth instead of an octave, or adding your second and/or third fingers in the middle. Just close your thumb neatly, carefully and completely. Watching your thumb will help you avoid the extra strings. Closing your eyes while you play will help you learn the motion by feel.
Your thumb does sometimes function as an anchor for your hand. It can give support to your other fingers in a scale or arpeggio, or in placing. even when it is anchoring other fingers, it’s important that your thumb never grip the string. It must rest lightly but securely on the string so that when it’s turn to play arrives, it is ready.
Quick Fix: This is reverse training. Your thumb already knows how to be an anchor. We will help your other fingers learn to function better on their own. Play a simple scale, up and down spanning two octaves, but don’t use your thumb. Finger the scale 432,432,432,432,432,on the way up and reverse it on the way down. It feels a little strange, but it’s fun and effective!