If you are a serious student of the piano you will certainly want to use an Urtext edition where applicable. Some Urtext scores come with no fingering, but others contain fingerings that are by an editor. The fingerings might be excellent (they often are not, by the way), but because this is one level of the score that is not usually Urtext (namely from the composer) they do not have to be obeyed. What about fingerings that do come from the composers themselves – are we duty-bound to stick to these? Absolutely not! The composer’s hand was also unique, just like yours and mine. There can be no standardisation of fingering, no matter whether it is from the composer, an editor, or a teacher. The only correct fingering is the one that works for your hand. Fingering in any score is a suggestion only!

Once a fingering has been selected, practising always with that fingering means that after a while the series of finger strokes will become automated – we will not have to think about which finger goes where because when we master a new motor skill, we go from active effort (thinking and concentrating) to automatic ability. If we haven’t taken the trouble to organise a good fingering or we practise with different fingerings each time, we make life difficult for ourselves – especially if we are preparing a memorised performance. Practice makes permanent, so whatever we engrave on our motor cortex is going to stick. This is why it is very difficult to correct embedded errors later – and this includes sloppy fingering.

I have just written three articles on fingering for Pianist Magazine – the first two are already published, and the third (on redistribution) comes out in the next issue. In these first articles, I discuss the principles of fingering and offer some alternatives to traditional fingerings for scales, octaves, trills, and so on.

In this post I thought I would share with you some of my top tips for choosing fingerings – here they are!

  • Have a pencil and an eraser to hand as you practise. You will need to write the fingerings down in the score.
  • It is vital to consider the eventual tempo, as well as the dynamic level, articulation, phrasing, shaping, timing and tone quality when working out a fingering (as much as is possible at the start).
  • Fingering that feels fine when playing each hand alone might not work so well when playing hands together. Try your best to organise the fingering with both hands together (after which you can practise it hands separately).
  • Working in very small sections, try the printed fingering (if present) and give it a mental mark out of 10 for comfort and security. Set this fingering 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 you think you might not remember them. As an exercise, generate as many different workable fingerings as you can.
  • Consult as many different editions as possible; IMSLP is a great online reference source, and may have multiple editions of standard works each with its own editorial fingering (even so-called “bad” editions when it comes to performance practices may contain some good fingering).
  • Make a final decision based on all of the above and write it in the score. Have no qualms about crossing out the editorial fingering if you’re not going to be using it – you won’t want to be seeing one fingering and playing another.
  • As you start embedding the fingering during the process of practising, you might find you want to change some of it. So keep it fluid and leave a small window of time (a few days, perhaps) to change your mind in case a new and better fingering leaps out at you, and continue tinkering and experimenting.
  • Very soon you will want to make a commitment to the fingering you have decided on and stick to it each and every time you practise thereafter until it becomes automatic (meaning you can play without any conscious thought). This will allow 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 them. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, when a better fingering might gradually evolve over time – or someone shows you a better one. However, I have known diploma candidates still dithering about which fingering to use in the run-up to their exam, something I strongly advise against.

Publications on 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’s Principles of Fingering includes some laws of pedalling. 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’s The Art of Piano Fingering teaches the craft of fingering using many music examples. Jon Verbalis’s Natural Fingering: A Topographical Approach to Pianism investigates fingering techniques focussing on a topographical approach, and how they relate to the ideas found in Chopin´s unfinished piano method.

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