Beethoven’s Innovative Prepared Thumb: Beethoven was not only the greatest pianist of his day and arguably the greatest composer, but he was also a great innovator of piano technique. Among the techniques he invented was the “prepared thumb” for scales and arpeggios. My piano instructors can trace their training back to Beethoven. How? Well… working backwards, I studied for 14 years in Detroit with Mischa Kottler. Kottler studied in Vienna with Emil von Sauer in the 1920s. Von Sauer studied two summers with one of the greatest pianists ever, Franz Liszt. Liszt studied with Carl Czerny – the greatest writer of piano exercises of the classical era. Czerny studied with none other than Beethoven, himself.
Beethoven’s Innovative Prepared Thumb: for Playing Scales
In the figure below, I share how the principle of the prepared thumb is executed in motion. The C major scale, as played by the right hand, shows the correct fingering with the corresponding letter names of the pitches.
Letters: C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C
Fingers: 1 2 3 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 1 2 3 4 5
As you ascend the scale note by note, the moment you strike your 2nd finger on “D”, tuck your thumb under the palm of the hand to prepare to play the “F”. The hand must be held in a high arch to make room for the thumb so it doesn’t scrape the keys below. When you place your 3rd finger on the key to play the “E”, the thumb is already there waiting on the “F”.
As you proceed further into the scale a slight variation occurs, three notes G-A-B are played before the thumb is reused. The thumb is tucked under in the same fashion but when you play “B” with your fourth finger the thumb does not reach the “C”. So, the hand glides horizontally in a tiny jump to land the prepared thumb on the next “C”. This way you prevent strain.
Playing Scales Smoothly
The prepared thumb should contribute to evenness of tone as one plays up and down the piano. Nothing is as annoying than hearing a thumb go thumping on the keys after every third and fourth finger during scale work. When playing scales, the top of your hand from its knuckles to the forearm should be still. The scale work in Beethoven’s concertos and sonatas often require speed and fluidity. For that purpose, Beethoven had to “build a better mousetrap”.
One Full Year of Study and Practice
Mischa Kottler told me, it takes a year of training to have good hand position. Kottler played with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra until age 93 without injury. I have a limited number of openings for piano students in the Sarasota area. In season I play six nights weekly at the Gasparilla Inn in Boca Grande Fl. If you are interested in studying, E-mail me for schedule availability.