piano student with only 7 fingers

Danielle Kolb said: Nov 12, 2014
 Piano, Suzuki Early Childhood Education, Violin
1 posts

I have a prospective beginning student who is missing 3 fingers on her right hand, leaving only her thumb and pinky. She is five years old and eager to study music, but her mother tells me she has already been turned down by 3 piano teachers. I was appalled to hear of this exclusion.

Does anyone have any experience teaching children with similar obstacles? Any advice on modifications that need to be made, etc. would be greatly appreciated!

Barbara Zuchowicz said: Nov 12, 2014
Barbara Zuchowicz
Suzuki Association Member
Ottawa, ON
2 posts

Catherine Walker, Canadian Suzuki Cello Teacher Trainer in has had experience with a cello student born with mis-formed hands. He is now a professional! She would doubtless have some great ideas that you could apply to your young student.
I wish you and your student the very best.

Jennifer Visick said: Nov 12, 2014
Jennifer VisickForum Moderator
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Suzuki in the Schools, Violin
998 posts

I have no expertise in teaching piano but, having heard of multiple different kinds of instruments adapted for people with a different number of fingers available to them, it seems a few basic principles would apply:

    1. adapt or arrange the music itself for 7 fingers (since there are the ‘famous’ examples of concertos or piano works written for the left hand at the advanced levels, it seems you have some advanced repertoire to “aim” for in a similar category, so perhaps analyze that body of repertoire’s technical needs and consider how composers wrote for 5 fingers, and then go ahead and adapt the beginning and intermediate repertoire for the number of fingers available to this student).
    2. adapt or arrange the music itself for piano four hands—or for piano three hands? Collaborating to play music with other musicians is a good thing, and maybe this will work to your student’s advantage, creating more incentive for collaboration with other musicians, especially as keyboard instruments seem (to a string player) rather “lonely”, having fewer possibilities to play in groups.
    1. consider adapting the instrument—another thread a while back mentioned a 7/8ths size keyboard which might make getting around the keyboard easier?
    2. And thinking a little outside the “piano” box, what if this student were introduced to another keyboard instrument—organ? While the music for the manuals would still need a similar kind of adapting that piano music would need, the addition of training the student to use the organ pedalboard may give the student access to more musical possibilities than an instrument that does not use feet to play musical pitches.

(The Suzuki organ method integrates short songs for pedals only into book 1 alongside the pieces for manuals, and perhaps might possibly be adapted to lean more towards integrating pedals in a more complex manner into the pieces that include both manuals and pedals, sooner than would be with a student using 10 fingers on the manuals. If you are not familiar with organ yourself, perhaps there is an organ teacher in your area you could contact to consult about that possibility?)

It is also easy to find, with a quick internet search, people with no fingers using their feet to play piano, cello, guitar, etc., so—no reason not to consider using legs and feet in more unconventional ways.

  1. Search for videos or news stories highlighting the way other keyboard students or professionals with similar challenges handle the instrument—again, given the works written for left hand alone, the idea of playing music at a high level with fewer than 10 fingers is not un-heard of, so you know these examples are out there, somewhere.

Hopefully someone with more practical experience adapting keyboard instruments can chime in!

Rosetta Springer said: Nov 12, 2014
Suzuki Association Member
Lubbock, TX
7 posts

I do not have concrete answers, but consider what a mallet player can do on a Marimba with only 2 mallets! She already does life without those fingers, so she probably has more dexterity than we can imagine! Of course ‘logical’ fingering is out the door-She can do it!

Sent from my iPhone

Jennifer Visick said: Nov 16, 2014
Jennifer VisickForum Moderator
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Suzuki in the Schools, Violin
998 posts

P.S. You may want to take a look at some of the other threads about adapted instruments, although none of them are specific to this instance, you may find some ideas, inspiration or principles of adaptation (or people to contact for further information…)https://suzukiassociation.org/discuss/tags/adapted-instruments/

Heather Reichgott said: Nov 19, 2014
Heather ReichgottPiano
South Hadley, MA
94 posts

I was intrigued enough by this that I sat down and played the RH to everything in book 1 with only fingers 1 and 5. It’s perfectly doable without any changes in the music. The technical adjustments that seemed to be necessary were:
- Twisting the wrist more than usual, especially to cross 5 over 1 to play the interval of a third. Would have to be worked on carefully with lots of relaxation to avoid wrist injury later.
- Finger substitution on a quarter note has to be taught with French Children’s Song, and finger substitution on a 16th note has to be taught with Christmas Day Secrets.

Some of book 2 will require adjusting the music: legato parallel thirds must be detached, 3-note chords in RH must be 2 notes, and so on. But the music won’t suffer much and there will be so much in the repertoire she can play, with no alterations or with minor alterations, if she continues. What a great opportunity!

Community Youth Orchestra said: Nov 25, 2014
Community Youth OrchestraViolin, Viola
70 posts

There’s no issue teaching a child with fewer available digits to play piano or any other instrument, provided the family understands that at some point the child will have to confront the reality that they must adapt their technique to continue to grow as an artist. As others have pointed out, that might result in taking on another instrument where the number of available fingers isn’t an issue (woodwinds are a bad idea, but most brass and percussion come to mind).

I’ve seen a violin student at Aspen that didn’t have a right hand that could still play the violin exceptionally well. A viola teacher we met in the Czech Republic was a former member of the Philharmonic and played better in tune than any of us despite missing the ring finger on his left hand. I did a concert with a blind pianist on a historical instrument (a fortepiano).

As a teacher, I’m really interested in is the desire of the student to learn and thus be able to work together creatively to solve playing challenges.

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