The other day I opened up a working score of the Frank Bridge Sonata I inherited from one of my teachers, Peter Wallfisch, and was struck by all the markings he had added. Some of these make obvious sense, performance directions such as “rall”, “late” and “canto”. Another word – “spell” – presumably means either that each note needed a certain clarity or that there was some magical atmosphere he wanted to create. There are copious fingerings, as well as more arcane squiggles in at least three different colour crayons that he obviously needed for personal reasons but which make little sense to the casual observer.

Peter Wallfisch's score of the Frank Bridge Piano Sonata

Peter Wallfisch’s score of the Frank Bridge Piano Sonata

I had to smile, as I suddenly remembered a word Peter had written in the last movement of my score of the Chopin op. 35 Sonata. It was totally illegible to me for many years. Each time I played the sonata I would stare at this word trying to decipher the scrawl, but I could never make out what it was. And then one day – eureka, I finally saw it. “Hallucinatory” was what he had written! My last teacher, Nina Svetlanova, almost never wrote anything in my score. A student of Neuhaus, she had inherited an opposite tradition. If something was important enough it would resonate deeply within you and no markings were necessary.


For me, working out a fingering that suits my hand is absolutely essential.  I am a stickler for fingering as I know that with regular repetition, the muscular movements become reflex. This bypasses the need for conscious thought about what note or what finger comes next, freeing the mind to focus on the musical intent. Fingerings that appear in editions are generic, designed to suit the average hand. But just because they appear in an Urtext score or any other score in no way compels us to use them. Try them out, experiment a little and settle on something that makes musical sense and fits your individual hand. I am always having to come up with different fingerings for students, when I see that the printed fingering is not actually working for them. For small hands, you sometimes have to be rather creative. The main thing here is WRITE THE FINGERING IN THE SCORE! Here is Andrei Gavrilov’s heavily annotated score of the Goldberg Variations. You will notice that even great virtuosos write in detailed fingering!

Andrei Gavrilov's score of the Goldberg Variations

Andrei Gavrilov’s score of the Goldberg Variations

I will never forget as a graduate student learning a piece from a library score, writing in my fingering and then returning the score after I was done with it. Years later, I needed to play the piece again so I bought my own score. As soon as I started working on it, I realised I had forgotten my fingerings and had to start over from scratch. Apart from being an unnecessary waste of time, it turned into something of a problem when after some days my old fingering gradually started returning and I had several conflicts with the old and the new. I advise everyone to have a pencil at the piano every time you practise, you never know what you might need to add to your score not just for now but for posterity, when you return to the piece later. For youngsters, knowing they are allowed to write in fingering, or to circle a note they stumble over gives them a sense of ownership of the score. It is their score, and not just for teacher to write in.

Speaking of fingering, there isn’t always as much time as I would like to explore all the options in a lesson. We all know the Petrucci Music Library. This is an excellent research resource for fingering, as there are often numerous different editions of the same work for download and study. To supplement the score you’re working from, I recommend taking a look at a few different editors’ solutions. There may be something here you didn’t think of yourself.

Other Markings

Analytic markings help clarify the music’s shapes and structures, and help you understand what is going on. This could be adding harmonic chord symbols, bracketing or labelling the motives and how these are developed, etc. I also like to add phrasings, sub-phrasings, some pedallings, accentuations (and my favourite cup-shaped sign meaning don’t accent – either an individual note or a whole bar), and some character words or even something that might spark my imagination that would mean nothing to anyone else. Our scores are very personal and I think irreplaceable, a record of our association with a particular work.

A Good Thing…

Thanks to a recent post on Facebook, I ordered a handy accessory that now sits on the table by the piano, a pen that draws a stave in one stroke. If I want to add something to a score I can do so, with the help of a Post-it note and a Noligraph.

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