Typical scale sounds: Clunk-2-3-Clunk-2-3-4-Clunk-2-3-Clunk-2-3-4-5. That heavy thumb is hard to get under control. Students so often play as if they have one straight bone from the tip of the thumb to the elbow. They actually seem surprised when I show them that the thumb can move all by itself.
Exercises abound for the independence of fingers, including the thumb. A good one is the old-fashioned exercise where all 5 fingers are depressed on 5 notes, then just one at a time is lifted and repeated, while the arm is still but not stiff.
Chopin said something worth pondering in his unfinished Sketches for a Piano Method. He considered the thumb as technically not belonging to the hand, but as serving as the counterpart and auxiliary to the four fingers. Its role was to renew the hand, “making a new beginning when the four fingers have played through. It must stay the least possible on the keys, near the end of the keys, ready to assume its renewing role.”*
I love that word and concept – that of a renewing role. It removes tension and imparts energy. A few years ago I took advantage of an opportunity to learn Biblical Greek; my instructor’s mantra was “Words Matter.” They do make a difference in our understanding and, therefore, our thoughts, speech and actions.
Words like “renew” and “supple” – see quote – can go a long way in our mental, and therefore, physical, approach to the piano. These words have a relaxing effect physically and an energizing effect emotionally and musically. I’m eager to go to the piano now to start with my warm-ups and sight-read more Chopin (I’m up to the B flat minor Scherzo, opus 31 – good thing I’ve played that one through a number of times, so it won’t be difficult “sight-reading”), thinking about the renewing efforts of my formerly clunky thumbs.
*as quoted in Symmetrical Warm-Ups by Christos Tsitsaros