The Importance of Fingering

Firstly, a Happy New Year to all! I’d like to welcome 2016 to our blog – we’re honored to have him as a reader now. 🙂

Secondly, the post.


There are a lot of tips and tricks one picks up through the years, but the more I play the piano and learn about music, the more I realize this: fingering is crucial.

For those who don’t know what exactly fingering is, dictionary.reference.com describes it as:

1. The action or method of using the fingers in playing on an instrument.
2. The indication of the way the fingers are to be used in performing a piece of music.

Fingering is a huge staple in music – or at least, in piano. (Note: Maybe fingering isn’t so important for other instruments, but because the piano is so big and there are so many confusing ways to play it, fingering matters in piano. When I discuss fingering throughout this post, I’m discussing it in terms of the piano.)

Fingering is often used incorrectly, but it isn’t just bad fingering that inhibits your playing. If you aren’t absolutely certain about what finger goes where, then that is, guaranteed, a spot you’ll make a mistake at – sooner or later. Especially when playing Bach, the importance of fingering cannot be emphasized enough. I’m not the type that enjoys working out every finger and phrase for a piece, but it’s crucial when playing Bach.

Once you’ve mastered fingering and experimented to find what’s comfortable for you, you can switch it up to create little nuances in Bach’s music. Maybe there’s one note that sneaks up on you and gives itself the harsh and important boom of a sforzando. By switching around the fingers, the thumb doesn’t play that one note, and the problem is already fixed. Or perhaps you’re trying to transform a blank string of notes into a passage of melody and harmony entwined together. Once you have an idea of the direction you want a piece to go, you can be sure the fingering accommodates your melody line so it isn’t lost in the complex mass of three other lines of music.

When one is unsure of fingering, it means butchered phrases and many incorrect notes, such as in a chord. Another reason to use fingering is to smooth over those difficut legato phrases that never seem to float along as they do when, for example, Glenn Gould plays them. A minor tweak and a series of drills on it usually sets it to rights.


The Inconvenience…

Now, notating every little detail is tedious and sometimes unnecessary. When playing a simple scale, it’s usually going to stick to the expected fingering. One doesn’t have to write in the fingering for that.

However, as one gets to know a piece, certain passages crop up again and again, tripping one up in one way or another. For this, the best remedy I’ve found is to go through it—and not just skimming over it, as though I were playing it, but really, slowly, tediously going through it. (Note: Hopefully I’ll be writing a post on slow or “deep” practice soon, which addresses just this topic of slow practice. It’s a fascinating subject, and fingering makes up only a small part of it.) When I go through a piece slowly, it’s easy to find where I went awry – and it’s frequently a mixup of fingering. The fix is to write in every last fingering in the problematic measure(s). This not only makes me figure out and stick to one set of fingerings, but also it draws my attention, when playing, to the fingering on the page rather than on just the notes or my fingers.

Sometimes I have to learn the piece’s notes better to be able to nail the fingerings, but writing it all out helps tremendously at any stage of the piece I’m at. And the best part about this remedy of mine? It only takes ten minutes to fix a problem forever. You’ll have one tenth of the trouble you used to have if you use this simple technique.


Experimentation

Don’t just follow one editor’s choice of fingering. There is no limit to the possible fingerings in a piece. I frequently strike out the editor’s fingerings if I like mine better. Sometimes it’s a hard choice, and I try them both out until one stands the test of time. And yet countless times I’ve used my fingering and then returned to the editor’s version. Even if you don’t agree with the editors at first, they really do know their stuff… sometimes their fingering is the best.

It’s good to keep in mind that some editors notate fingering to accommodate a larger hand than yours. I once tried playing a certain passage of octaves, switching among fingers 1 and 5, 1 and 4, and 1 and 3, and it wasn’t comfortable enough for me – my teacher had me switch to just 1 and 5. (In case you’re wondering, it was Mozart’s Sonata in A Major, the 1st Movement, Andante Grazioso, Variation III – 4:57 in the video.)

Now, editors know what they’re doing. They’ve tried out a lot of fingerings for every measure in the piece. Their fingering is the way it is for a reason – be sure, when writing your own fingering, to check if any phrasing has been compromised in the process. This is especially true for Bach, again, when the editor’s phrasing and fingering correspond. Also, if you’re playing a Baroque piece (so you’ll be using very little or no pedal), holding a note through the measure can be difficult with a different melody being played at the same time. Just observe the details about the measure before changing the fingering the editor gave you. Generally hesitate to change any fingering, because it’s hard to change it again once you’ve been playing it that way for long enough.


And that concludes my “Fingering 101” post. I hope it has convinced you of the importance of fingering. I don’t enjoy all of it myself—I’d much rather just play the piece—but whether I like it or not, fingering is a key element to playing the piano with precision and ease.

Thanks for reading!

~ Maggie

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