Posted 02 October 2017
Failsafe  fingering
In answer to a reader’s question, Graham Fitch addresses the complex subject of how to find fingering that works for you
Posted 02 October 2017
In answer to a reader’s question, Graham Fitch addresses the complex subject of how to find fingering that works for you
Failsafe  fingering
On the Letters page of Pianist 96, Trish Meyer observed that many teaching books and editions publish fingering suggestions. These can often be useful, depending on the size, shape and reach of your hand. However, many other editions of music omit fingering, and she wondered how pianists can work out good fingerings for themselves. The short answer is that there can be no standard fingering, no matter whether the fingering you are using is from an editor, a teacher or from the composer himself.

Now for the long answer! The only correct fingering is the one that works for your hand – given its size, the length of one finger in proportion to the others, your span, physique and so forth – and what you want to do with a particular passage in terms of articulation. In other words, there are many different possibilities for fingering. When people purchase an expensive Urtext edition, they assume that all the markings bear the authority of gospel, including fingerings. In fact, the fingerings are the work of a specialist editor who has been given the impossible task of writing for the ‘average’ hand. Trusting a printed fingering implicitly is like going into a department store to buy a jacket to find they only have one size. Forget male or female; small, medium or large – one size must fit all, no matter your age or proportions.

I recommend spending time on organising a fingering that suits your hand in the first stages of learning a new piece, with a pencil and an eraser close by. Try the printed fingering (if one is printed) and give it a mental mark out of 10 for comfort and security, based on what you might want to do with each phrase (articulation, touch, shaping, timings and so forth). Set this aside and generate another fingering of your own devising, without prejudice, marking it again out of 10 on the same grounds. Jot down salient finger numbers lightly in the score if you think you might not remember them. Generate a few more fingerings, then make a final decision.

At this stage, don’t forget to write down the fingering in your score. As you practise the fingering, leave a small window of time to change your mind in case a new and better fingering leaps out at you, but after a day or so commit to this fingering and stick to it thereafter until it becomes automatic; that is, until you can play the piece without conscious thought. Making and sticking to a decision about the fingering allows you to concentrate on other aspects of music-making and performance, knowing and trusting that your fingers will go where they need to go without your having to think about it.

Try out different editions. Try our editor’s suggestions, for example, then try another edition. Experiment until you come up with something that works for your hand. Don’t take anything at face value and feel free to come up with something that is entirely your own. And don’t discard otherwise ‘bad’ editions when it comes to the fingering suggestions. We should steer clear of Czerny’s Bach editions because he ‘corrected’ the text and added his own contributions – but some of his fingering is great.
There are a few books on piano fingering that I can recommend, at least for guidance. Tobias Matthay wrote a small book, Principles of Fingering and Laws of Pedalling (1908). In The Art of Piano Fingering (1992) Penelope Roskell takes a new approach to scales and arpeggios, and challenges the rules that have been passed down by tradition. Alternative fingerings are given in addition to standard ones, and there are plenty of examples from the standard piano repertoire. Rami Bar-Niv’s The Art of Piano Fingering (2013) teaches the craft of piano fingering using music examples, photos and diagrams, exercises, and injury-free techniques. There is also Jon Verbalis’ Natural Fingering: A Topographical Approach to Pianism (2012). All the modern volumes are readily available online.

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