Bespoke Fingerings – Practising the Piano

In my student days I learned a Scriabin sonata using a library score. Quite why I did it this way I don’t remember (because I was actively building up my music library at that stage), but I borrowed the score from MSM library and used it as my working copy. Figuring out a systematic fingering has always been important to me so I added mine to the library copy, practised it in and performed the sonata before returning the score.

A few years later I decided I wanted to programme the work again, so I did what I should have done in the first place and I bought my own personal copy. The trouble was it came minus my fingering. When I began to re-familiarise myself with the work, I had forgotten my original fingerings and had to work them out from scratch. This struck me as rather a waste of time, and it became a problem when my old fingerings started to re-emerge from my muscle memory a few days into the process of practising new and different ones.

Now I was stuck with two fingerings – the old that had worked perfectly well for me, and the new I ended up discarding. The moral of the story: Write your fingerings in the score for posterity, it will save you lots of time!

Skrjabin Alexander.jpg
Alexander Scriabin

Muscle Memory

There is a school of thought that does not believe in organising and ingraining a set fingering – the hand will find its own way if your ear and brain know the notes so well that you can transpose them into any key at will. An ideal to aspire to – especially if you aim to escape from the tyranny of fickle easy come, easy go finger memory – but perhaps not very practical, unless you can devote loads of time and energy to this endeavour.

I much prefer to spend a bit of time on the process of organising a fingering that suits my hand right at the beginning stages of learning a new piece, with a pencil (usually in my mouth as I doodle) and an eraser very close by.

Here is my process:

  • Try the printed fingering (if present) and give it a mental mark out of 10 for comfort and security, based on what I might want to do with each phrase (articulation, touch, shaping, timings, etc.).
  • Set this deliberately aside and generate another possible fingering without prejudice, marking it again out of 10 on the same grounds. Jot down salient finger numbers lightly in the score (if I think I might not remember them).
  • As an exercise, generate as many different possible fingerings as I can.
  • Make a final decision based on all of the above and write it in.
  • Practise this in, leaving a small window of time to change my mind in case a new and better fingering leaps out at me.
  • After a day or so, commit to this fingering and stick to it every time I practise thereafter until it becomes automatic (meaning I can play without any conscious thought). This allows me to concentrate on other aspects of music making or performance, knowing and trusting that my fingers will go where they need to go without my having to think about it.

Printed Fingerings

The subject of fingering is a vast one and way outside the scope of this blog post (I’ll probably end up doing a series on it at some stage), so I’m not going to get into the ins and outs of this fingering system versus that, or the various philosophies of fingering (a fascinating subject in itself).

Serious students of the piano are taught to respond to and obey all the details in modern Urtext editions of the score since these are from the composer himself – unadulterated by editors and others intent on “improving” the original.

So everything we find on the printed pages of the best of Urtext editions is reliable, trustworthy and infallible, right?

Not quite.

There is one level of the score that is not Urtext, and that is the fingering.

In the Henle Urtext editions I have on my shelves, the fingerings are often given by Hans-Martin Theopold, or by Walther Lampe. In some ways, I wish there were no fingering in these editions at all. I mean no disrespect to Theopold or Lampe – I am sure they were fine musicians – but so often I find their fingering solutions just don’t work for the particular student I am teaching at the time. In a score of Bach, these editors’ fingerings are particularly unhelpful and misleading, since they generally don’t factor in how the choice of articulations (which are so often up to our own personal taste) influences the fingering we settle on.

Their mandate must have been an impossible one, though – come up with a fingering for the average hand, and we’re going to print this in the score of the immortal classics along with the composer’s text (stripped of all other editorial tampering) and present it on the same level (by which I mean in the same typeface). Quite a daring move, wouldn’t you say? I mean, millions of faithful and devoted piano students are going to believe implicitly that these fingerings are gospel truth in the same way the notes are. At first Theopold refused, saying “For fingerings are and remain something individual no matter what their quality”, but he later relented and produced 226 fingered editions in total. 

This 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 physical proportions.

I admire the solution Willard Palmer and Alfred Music came up with to distinguish editorial suggestions from the original text, which was to print their stuff in grey. It works – really well. You can clearly see the composer’s information on one level and the realisation of ornaments, etc. on another. How about publishing houses putting their fingerings in grey? Or having multiple fingering options? Probably too costly and it wouldn’t be easy on the eye.

Composer’s Fingerings

What about fingerings passed down from the composer himself? Are we duty-bound to stick to these?

Absolutely not!

His hand will have been unique, just like yours and mine. There can be no standardisation of fingering, no matter whether it is from an editor, a teacher or from the composer himself. The only fingering is the one that works for you given your hand – its size, the length of one finger in proportion to the others, your span, physique, etc. – and what you want to do with the music.

How can I arrive at a fingering for myself? What are the fingering principles?

  • Keep the hand as closed as possible

Many problems with tension stem from retaining a stretched-out hand position after a position shift or attempting to stretch the fingers from a fixed hand position. This is particularly debilitating when the thumb remains flexed. I am a great believer in the attitude of a closed hand as default, any stretches happening at the last moment when the hand opens and then immediately closes again. This is based on the abiding principle that a stretched out hand is prone to tension, and that tension leads directly to lack of mobility. Even if we can somehow manage to play this way, it is aesthetically incorrect and beauty or richness of tone are unlikely to be present.

  • Avoid fixed five-finger positions and unnecessary stretches as much as possible

The work of the fingers is shared with the arm – keep aligned and keep mobile.

  • Don’t avoid 4th and 5th fingers

… or they’ll shrivel up and drop off.

  • Consult as many different printed fingerings as possible

When lesson time is short, rather than spend lots of time selecting fingering I often suggest using IMSLP. If the piece is out of copyright, there will usually be several different editions of a given work each with its own fingering. Try out one editor’s suggestions, then try another. Fiddle for a while 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 never use Czerny’s Bach editions (because he “corrected” the text and added his own contributions) but some of his fingering is great.

Let’s look at two editorial LH fingerings for a passage from Brahms Intermezzo, op. 118 no. 1. The lower set of finger numbers is from Brahms himself (in italics) and the upper “2” from Hans-Martin Theopold. Should you choose the composer’s or the editor’s? Not necessarily either, although there aren’t too many options in this particular case.

Op 118 no 1
Henle edition of Brahms Klavierstücke (op. 118, no. 1, bar 24-28)

The composer’s fingering means the elbow can stay slightly raised at the end of the group, whereas Theopold’s brings the elbow back into the body on the implied “1” on the last note of each bar, and tends to make the ensuing jump feel bigger. While I prefer Brahms’, Theopold’s fingering is not wrong or bad – it comes down to personal preference.

Publications on Fingering

There are only few publications I know of about piano fingering.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach devoted several paragraphs to the subject of fingering in his book Versuch über die wahre Art, das Clavier zu spielen (Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments).

Tobias Matthay wrote a small book Principles of Fingering.

Penelope Roskell‘s The Art of Piano Fingering is 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 repertoire too.

Rami Bar-Niv: The Art of Piano Fingering. The book teaches the craft of piano fingering using music examples, photos and diagrams, exercises, and injury-free techniques.

Jon Verbalis: Natural Fingering: A Topographical Approach to Pianism

In Part 3 of my ebook series, I explore scale and arpeggio playing in depth. Included are many ideas for practising, as well as rhythm charts,  practice charts, other interactive features and video demonstrations.

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