Thumbs are wonderful digits to have, but trying to make them behave when you play the harp can be a frustrating experience. They don’t sound the same as the other fingers and they don’t move the same way. The truth is, it takes a lot of care and attention to have your thumbs blend in with the rest of your fingers.
Before you can really try to fix your thumbs, you need to recognize one important fact. We tend to think of our thumbs as shorter than our fingers, but they’re not. In fact, your thumb is probably as long as your longest finger. You don’t think so?
Look at your thumb. The first section of your thumb, the distal phalange, goes from the tip of your thumb to the first knuckle. The next section, the proximal phalange, connects the first knuckle to the second knuckle which is near the webbing between your thumb and your hand.
But your thumb doesn’t end there.
There is a third section of your thumb which connects to your hand at the first metacarpal near your wrist. These three sections form the length of your thumb.
Why is this important?
Because to use your thumb most efficiently, you need to use ALL of your thumb, meaning the motion of your thumb needs to initiate from the base of the thumb, all the way down near your wrist. Remember your high school physics: the longest lever moves the load with the least amount of effort. So when you use your entire thumb (or finger, for that matter), you can get the best sound with the least amount of effort, keeping your hand relaxed.
This full motion also allows you to have control over the dynamic and tone of your thumb. You can even out the sound of your thumb and the other fingers, because you are using them the same way.
Now that you have a new understanding of your thumbs, try these exercises to put theory into practice:
(Note: my technical background is from the Salzedo school. Your technical background may be different. However, these tips will help your thumbs regardless of what technique you use.)
1. Place your fingers on four adjacent strings. Move your thumb up, so it is higher than your fingers. You are trying to create a space between your thumb and your second finger. The space will be shaped like a “C” or a “J.” This “thumb up” position will allow your thumb the room it needs to move as it plays. Play your thumb, being sure to initiate the motion from the lowest joint. Follow through with your motion after you play the string, so that your thumb lands on top of your second finger. As you play your thumb, concentrate on the strength and range of motion of your entire thumb. Listen to the tone of your thumb as well.
2. Using the “thumb up” position of the previous exercise, vary the dynamic of your thumb. Try making a crescendo and a decrescendo, developing the control you want to play expressively. You should experience a much greater dynamic range when using your entire thumb than when you just use the top knuckle or two.
3. Play each finger and your thumb in turn, making sure each has a full range of motion. Listen carefully as you play, and match the volume and tone of each. Be sure to stay relaxed.
4. Practice your thumb in a scale crossunder or crossover. Put your fourth finger on a D and your thumb on the C below it, as they would be at a crossover point in a scale. Play your thumb, being sure that your thumb is high enough that it has room to move fully. As you play, strive for the best tone. Then alternate playing your thumb and fourth finger, matching the tone and dynamic between them. Remember to keep the space between your thumb and your hand.
And here is a quick bonus “thumb” fact: the muscle bulge that you see when you squeeze your thumb toward your second finger contains one of the most well-known acupuncture/acupressure points. It is called the “hegu” point, and is said to relieve all sorts of ailments, particularly headaches.
What is your biggest complaint about your thumb?