St Cecilia's Day and the March of the Thumbs

Why am I remembering the 'March of the Thumbs' on St Cecilia's Day?

Well, St Cecilia is known as the patron saint of musicians and I am thinking about the significance of music in my life.

The 'March of the Thumbs' was a memorable step in my musical development. I can still remember the excitement of my first formal piano lesson when I was about 5 or 6 years old. In that lesson Miss C taught me how to play the first piece in the beginners' piano tutor book - not only how to play it but also how to play while reading the music from the stave. I already had a love for the piano because my mother played it well. The sense of accomplishment at mastering that first lesson and performing it later to family and neighbours set me on a pianistic journey of progress, setbacks, ups and downs. Like life really - sometimes developing gifts and other times neglecting them.

The March of the Thumbs only needed the thumbs of each hand, used alternately to perform it. And it only needed middle C on the piano.

If I remember rightly, that first piece was 8 bars long, including two 4 bar phrases. Why did I find it so exciting? Partly it was the enjoyment of learning new things and partly the enjoyment of making music. There was an accompanying teacher's part that added harmony and more complicated rhythm to the potentially boring pupil's part.

You might think I didn't learn much in that first lesson plus the daily practice that followed until the next weekly lesson. You would be wrong.

What did I learn from the 'March of the Thumbs'?

  • The importance of preparation before practice or performance. This is a life lesson that is relevant in every field. In that first lesson I learnt how to sit at the keyboard, so arms and hands can be in the best position for playing. I began to learn to focus on the music. I learnt it is essential to take notice of the clef, key and time signatures before starting to read or play the music.
  • I learned how to identify Middle C on the keyboard and how to recognise it on the music stave in the treble and bass clef.
  • I learned to recognise 4/4 time signature and that a piece in the key of C major has no key signature.
  • I learned to number my fingers 1 to 5 with the thumb as 1 and that if the printed fingering under the note on the stave said 1 it meant the thumb.
  • I learned what a crochet and a minim look like.
  • I learned how to clap the rhythm of a piece before playing it on the keyboard.
  • I learned to maintain a steady beat, not too fast, not too slow.
  • I learned that I must practice every day to make progress and that I must come to lessons with clean hands and short fingernails.
Enough about me. If you want to read about St Cecilia you can find something here in St Cecilia's Day and here in Saint Cecilia.

St Cecilia is often portrayed in art as seated at a keyboard of some sort, which derives from the legend that she made music in her heart to Jesus while secular music was played at her wedding.

I think music is a good way to celebrate St Cecilia's Day, whether that is in worship or just for the joy of it. So here's a 12 year old pianist who has progressed a long way beyond the 'March of the the Thumbs'. Enjoy part of a Khatchaturian sonatina as he performs it.