The videos complimenting this blog can be found at I recommend you watch Black Key videos 1-20 before you read this article. I will answer any and all questions therapists, parents and teachers have about this method. So get emailing as soon as you have a question. The Black Key Exercises are designed to address two principle areas of special needs. The first area is that of fine motor skills, the second is the building of confidence and emotional stability at the keyboard. Simply put, the hand cannot grip and tense if the single finger has to release, relax and move on to play the next key. It is important to practice these exercises every day. Repetition develops familiarity, muscle memory and confidence. I cannot emphasize this enough.

Most special needs kiddos will encounter fine motor skill challenges in some form. Many kiddos will find difficulty in moving all five fingers independently, whether the kiddo has poor muscle definition or very rough motor skills. What I see most of all is the kiddo who’s hands bunch into a tight fist, only opening with the application of furious concentration. After the note is played, the finger then disappears back into a clenched fist. The kiddo gets frustrated, then bored and then gives up. After that the next most popular group is the hand and arm with poor muscle definition. This article will discuss the tight fist scenario first.

So let’s break this cycle by breaking the task down to its simplest form. Ideally the kiddo’s hand will move along the keyboard in a graceful fashion. What we need to do is to begin not by playing multi finger note combinations, but by playing single finger exercises. In short we have to use the keyboard as a therapy tool before we can even begin learning to play piano. We can use the keyboard as a therapy tool to help the kiddo relax the fist, open the hand and articulate each finger independently. It sounds like a tall order, but this method has been tested many times in an OT PT setting and has delivered success.

Let us explain why we start with single finger exercises. What we are looking to change in hand behavior, is the million year old instinct of the hand to grip and close at the slightest excuse. Starting with the right hand thumb at the right hand end of the piano slowly play all the black keys moving from right to left all the way down the piano. Make sure the kiddo leaves a small break between playing each note. Do not play quickly. There is an important reason for this. If the kiddo attempts to play too quickly the entire arm will lock all the way from the back of the neck all the way down to the ball of the hand. But if the kiddo learns to play slowly then all the muscles along the arm from the back of the neck down will learn to flex and relax. Thus the kiddo learns the rhythm of arm movement, a type of movement that is built not around gripping but releasing. With the new rhythm of releasing we build a new regime of relaxation into the kiddo’s neurological pathways. The flex and release sequence is of course reinforced by the tactile sensation of playing a different black key each time, and each reflex is assigned its own unique sound by the keyboard.
The pincer twins.

The sight of a student’s fingers gripping the keyboard, unable to let go is a familiar one, one that holds many students back from making any progress. The breaking of this gripping instinct requires patience. The two most powerful grippers are the thumb and the index finger. I call them the pincer twins. The index finger is so strong many kiddos will do nothing but play piano with the index finger. If this is the case then the first finger to encourage them to practice with is actually the fourth finger, a finger usually associated with weakness. The hand never moves to grip anything with just the fourth and index finger. So when the student is practicing the fourth finger exercises (BK Exercises 7 & 8) the index finger will not feel any impulse to move at all.

The thumb is different from all the other fingers as it has its own muscle system built into the hand and moves in a way that is completely different from all the other fingers. While the fingers will naturally move vertically up and down, the thumb moves horizontally left to right and right to left. This is an important point to remember and one that is very easy to overlook for the following reason. Piano playing requires the thumb to move vertically, a motion that is not natural to the thumb at all. This is an action hard enough for the most dexterous of neuro-typicals to master. Try moving any finger, say your middle finger horizontally. It feels forced right? That is what we are asking the thumb to do when playing the piano; we are asking the thumb to master a motion it was never designed to perform, the up down motion.

So with the bad news out of the way, let us get on with solving the problem. The pincer twins domination of the hand is best handled by practicing Black Keys Exercises 5-10, addressing the third, fourth and fifth fingers in each hand. Over the short term, building muscle memory in the generally considered weaker fingers is the best way to unlock the tight fist. The kiddo will experience conflicting muscle signals as a new set of muscle memories are established. So allow lots of room for failure and second attempts.

The four fingers have their own muscle control in the lower arm. Yet the thumb will also draw on arm muscles to increase its leveraging strength, muscles that can be very reluctant to relax as instinct dictates that once king thumb moves, all other arm locking muscles are called into play. The three areas that will relax after much practice will be the inside elbow of the lower arm, the outside shoulder and the side of the neck. The shoulder and side of the neck will only relax after about eighteen months of practice. Remember that tension in these areas will keep the third, fourth and fifth fingers fairly stiff, so give the kiddo as much as two years if necessary to finally unlock tension in severe cases. I have one student playing Imagine, Dream On and Stairway To Heaven and he is still battling tension in these zones.

Palmaris longus
The palmaris longus is a unique muscle in the lower arm that does not connect to the fingers at all, rather it connects to the ball of the hand. This muscle is the super gripper, enhancing all other gripping instincts and can be one of the most difficult muscles to train to release and relax. After the pincer twins, the palmaris longus is the next biggest obstacle preventing the kiddo from mastering the keyboard. It will be the practicing of all 10 separate exercises that will unlock the palmaris longus, not any one finger exercise in particular.
Some students actually prefer to stand at the piano rather than sit. This really helps students who’s backs may be weak. Many like to slouch along the keyboard while playing. Other students may prefer to have the keyboard down on the floor. The road to unlocking the bunched fist and altering the complex emotions surrounding fear of failure is a long and complex one. In this, the Black Keys keyboard therapy method is a very familiar one and demands all the knowledge the therapist has built up across the ABA therapy spectrum; eternal patience, reward systems, discipline and or stopping the exercises all together and doing something else instead.
Like so many other techniques, this is not a magic bullet, it is not a one stop fix all remedy, rather I see it as a technique that compliments all the other tools at the therapists disposal, one that allows the therapist to take up a keyboard method in a familiar and structured manner that is consistent with all other methods and strategies at the clinic. This technique merely opens the door allowing the kiddo discover the world of the keyboard. In my next blog I will discuss how these techniques can lead the kiddo into playing very, very easy pieces such as Twinkle Twinkle, Brother Jack or May Had A Little Lamb. Please send any comments to Thank you so much for reading to the end and I look forward to you reading the next installment.