Do you love your thumbs?
We harpists have a love/hate relationship with our thumbs. They can carry the melody well with their power. But they can also be a weak link in scales and arpeggios. They have a knack for being too loud when we need them to blend and too weak when we want them to be beautiful.
Thumbs play several crucial roles in our playing. Physically, they balance and stabilize our hand. Have you ever tried playing a scale without using your thumb? Try it and you will see instantly how much you rely on your thumb just to keep your hand steady.
Our right thumb is our “melody finger,” so it must have a variety of tone colors and a full range of dynamics. Developing an expressive melody line starts with developing an expressive thumb.
Thumbs link chunks of scales or arpeggios when we cross under or over. In these moments, accuracy, stability and even tone are all required from our thumbs.
Our thumbs also anchor octaves and chords, and play harmonics and trills. That’s a lot of responsibility for such a stubby digit.
But is it really so stubby and short?
Certainly your thumb looks short. But trace your thumb back to its first joint, near where it connects to your wrist. You’ll see it actually has three sections, just like any other finger. Your thumb’s strength doesn’t come from the knuckle at the bottom of the webbing between your thumb and index finger. The source of your thumb’s strength is at its base near your wrist. And the muscle that allows your thumb to work in opposition to your fingers help you develop and control that power.
Let’s outline precisely what you need your thumb to do and how to start training it properly.
Your thumb should:
- Contribute to stability for your hand, placing accurately and helping your hand center over the strings.
- Blend seamlessly in tone with your other fingers, when needed.
- Have a wide expressive range to promote the melody line, when needed.
- Be relaxed and flexible.
There are hundreds of exercises devoted to helping your thumb play well and play well with your other fingers. Any and all of those exercises will give your thumbs practice in the necessary skills. However, you will get the best results from them if you attend to the following three things:
Create Space for Your Thumbs
My early harp studies could almost be summed up in the phrase, “Thumbs up!” That is an essential part of the method I was taught. Even though you may subscribe to a different method, the principle is, I believe, a critical one.
In order for your thumb to be able to play well, it needs space, room to play. It cannot make a good sound if it is glued to the side of your hand so that only the tip can move.
When you create space between your thumb and your second finger, you allow the muscles that control the thumb to work their magic. When you hold your thumb tightly toward your index finger, your muscles are not able to do their job and you put limits on what your thumb is able to do. By holding your thumb up, or at least away from your second finger, you give your thumb the freedom to play evenly, expressively or however you like.
Create Mobility in Your Thumbs
Now that you have given your thumb space, you must allow it to move. Like a good golf swing requires a follow-through, each of your fingers, including your thumb, needs to follow through after it plucks the string. You fingers should close in toward your hand. Your thumb should close toward the middle knuckle of your second finger.
Closing your thumb has several important benefits. It allows you to control the tone of your thumb: its core sound, its volume and its musical affect. It releases any tension that has built up. And it develops those muscles that allow your thumb to be nimble and strong at the same time.
In short, when your thumb can move, you have much more control over the sound it produces.
Remember to listen as you play your technical exercises and your pieces. Is your thumb sound balanced? Is it making a beautiful melodic line? Often, concentrating on the specific musical results you want will help you recognize the role your thumb is playing and whether it is performing that role well. Your ear and your attention are your best tools for improving your thumb, o just about any other aspect of your playing, for that matter.
Try a hand over hand scale or arpeggio and listen for the blend of your thumbs. If you aren’t satisfied with what you hear, try creating some space and mobility for your thumbs and hear the difference. It will take some time for the muscles of the thumb to develop, but with time and patience, your thumbs will be beautiful!