Fingering Follies

Even with the best, most intelligent, logical and carefully worked out fingerings written by editors and composers, there still may be reasons to change it to better suit a particular student’s hand size or ability. In the quest for comfortable, speedy and smooth phrases, I spend a great deal of time with my students working out a decent fingering for their pieces.

Back in the 19th century when fingering for scales was being systematised and pedagogues such as Türk were developing general principles for piano playing, certain ideas became de rigueur and remain with us to this day.

If you observe editorial fingering for long enough, you will see that these rules are often followed without regard to the musical context.

It appears that editors subscribe to at least some of these rules:

  • Avoid fingers 4 and 5 at all costs (because they are seen to be weak?)

  • Always change fingers on repeated notes

  • Believe that certain finger make different sounds so should be employed in particular places

  • Avoid crossing wherever possible

  • Use consecutive fingers no matter how stretchy it may be

  • Avoid using 1 and or 5 on a black key

  • Always use the same fingering for sequences, even if the black/white key combination changes

Besides all the times that these very same composers and editors will break their own rules, the rules are well entrenched.

Students of the piano can similarly be inflexible when it comes to fingering: what is printed on the page is seen to be the first and final word on the passage.

There are also cases where the fingering is plain wrong! With all the dots and lines on a single page of music, the chances of something going awry in the editorial/printing process is huge.

Composer’s Fingerings

It is always interesting to see what a composer suggests for fingering a particular passage – sometimes it can illuminate a novel way of dealing with a passage, other times it may give us an insight into the hands of the composer.

Flexible Composers

There is a lovely anecdote I read in a collection of works by Australian composer, Miriam Hyde. In a footnote she recalls that she was teaching a student one of her own pieces when the parent of the student suggested an alternative fingering. She saw how much better it was than the fingering that she had suggested as the composer and promptly changed it!

Not So Flexible Composers

On the other hand, some composers are quite insistent on their fingering: they say they have chosen a fingering to create a particular effect.

Still, I find it hard to give up my scepticism entirely if something is not going into the student’s hands or if I see it violate principles of alignment or good technique.

In all cases, we must look for a fingering that honours the composer’s musical intentions (which is surely the sound, not the fingering?). Perhaps the composer won’t mind as much if you create the effect that they intend even if a different finger was used.

Teaching Your Students to Think

Our job is to teach our students to be critical and to analyse in their music lessons. Students should be taught to seek out a fingering that makes them feel the most comfortable for the speed and that best serves the musical intentions of the composer.

In terms of fingering indicated on scores, we should be prepared to use what is good and discard what is second-rate.

As teachers, we should always be open to the exciting possibility of an even better fingering no matter how many times we have played or taught a piece.

I have seen exciting changes in students when they are given “permission” to change a fingering that simply won’t go into the hand to then see them play with greater ease than before.

What will the examiner think?

Another reason for the reticence to change fingering is that teachers and students are worried that they will be marked down for using a different fingering from what is published in an examining institution’s books.

I definitely don’t speak on behalf of the AMEB when I say this, but given the huge number of pieces in the piano syllabus, it would be an extraordinary feat for an examiner to have memorised every single fingering. For them to spend the whole exam checking every fingering against the scores (from memory) seems silly.

The syllabus asks them to judge students on accuracy and fluency, rhythmic and metric stability, articulation, phrasing, dynamic range, tonal control and balance, stylistic playing and reliable pedalling.

If poor fingering causes some issue on one of these things, the examiner may comment on it. Indeed, they may well comment on the student not executing something well, even if that student played the printed fingering but it did not suit his/her hand.

Crazy, uncoordinated fingerings that cause issues in the projection of the musical details will no doubt be commented upon, but we are not talking about crazy fingerings, just alternatives that serve the music.

For what it's worth, here's a quote from the latest series of AMEB books: "Fingering and pedalling are treated as entirely editorial... Players are encouraged to try what has been suggested, while not hesitating to devise alternatives if they appear to provide better solutions. Fingering can be a very personal thing, influenced by the size and shape of the hand, the characteristics of the particular fingers and the musical effect that is being sought."

So there you have it. Carte blanche to take responsibility for the fingering of the pieces that you play.

And now to some examples of fingering follies that students have brought to me recently.

Example: Changing Fingers on Repeated Notes & Fingering Consistency

This example is from the second movement of Kuhlau’s Sonatina in C Op 55 no. 1.

In bar 59-60, the editor makes a fingering change in the LH from 1-2-1 for the repeated Cs, which is totally fine.

At bar 66, the application of the rule on what appears to be a similar passage causes problems.

The change from 1 to 2 on the repeated middle C notes takes the fifth finger well away from the C an octave lower, which is the very next note. The speed is vivace, which makes this fingering doubly bad.

In this case, the editor has applied the same fingering rule (must change fingers on repeated notes) to what appears to be the same music, without noticing that the proceeding passage is different.

This might be obvious, but not if we believe that we must follow all editorial fingering advice.

Example: Avoiding Thumb on a Black Key

The idea of avoiding 1 on a black key is a fine principle – our system of fingering scales is based on this premise. The pedagogues back in the day probably saw that some students would twist or otherwise lurch/thrust the thumb in order to get it to the black key. But when we are not playing ascending/descending scale passages, there are plenty of times when we might use 1 on a black key.

This is a passage that is often brought to a lesson in search of a solution to get it smooth and at tempo.

The editor of this edition of Haydn’s Finale (Hob XVI/10) from the upbeat to bar 15-18 has fingered the sequence the same way the first three times but the last time he has fingered it to avoid the thumb on a black key. In doing so he causes a stretch between the 2 and the 3 from F-sharp to A on beat 2 of bar 18.

I weigh up the pros and cons with my student: if we play with a thumb on the black key, we have to move the finger/hand/arm IN towards the fallboard (con) but in doing so we maintain the same fingering over the course of the sequence (pro) and we avoid a stretch between the 2 and the 3 (between F-sharp and A) (another pro).

I’m happy enough with either choice as long as the student weighs them both up. For a student with a larger hand span, either is usually possible. For a young/small handed student, the stretch over 2-3 may cause problems with the tone, evenness and speed.

If I have to, I can show my student three other editions with alternative fingering and Haydn's with no fingering indicated.

Example: Odd Fingering Choices – Possibly for Consistency

In bars 11-14 of the same piece, the beginning of each phrase is the same, but the first time has a strange 1 in the middle of the passage. Bar 11-12 fits under the fingers perfectly well without a 1 cross in the middle of it. Is this a typesetting mistake?

Probably not. It seems the editor wants bar 11-12 to be consistently fingered with bar 13-14 even though the passages go in different directions.

For consistency’s sake, we would take a 2 on the F-sharp in bar 13 as was done in bar 11, but he indicates a 4 on the G in the next bar. If we are to do the cross, wouldn't it be easier to go straight to 3 on the F-sharp (so the 4 is already in place for the G)?

Personally, I’d avoid all this complication and try the alternative fingering that I have indicated above 13-14.

Example: Excessive Reliance on Legato fingering

Legato fingering is fine if it possible in the hands, but it seems that editors obsessively work out fingering so that the pedal never needs to be used, which is more the pity. Kids love to use the pedal and there is a place for pedalling to create resonance and various tone colours.

In the Schirmer Edition of Burgmüller’s Op 100 (The Little Reunion), there is a fingering given for sixths at the end of the piece.

In my hands (reasonably large) this fingering is fine, but it does feel stretchy and the hand shape constantly changes. It definitely doesn’t work in a small hand.

I’m guessing that the editor’s intention is to make the sixths as legato as possible. The bottom part is legato 1-2-1 but the top (melodic) part has two 5s in a row, which will not allow the top line to be legato. I think this misses the point of the legato indication and I would be on the lookout for something that would connect the top line rather than the inner line.

I like the solution better in the Schirmer Performance edition, though even here I would experiment with a 4 on the third beat, which has the added advantage of taking out one hand position change.

Example: Stretchy fingering in beginner repertoire

“The Lost Cat” By Bartok (For Children Vol 1, No 3) appears in a Hal Leonard edition (Getting to Grade 1) and asks the (usually) little student to make a really big stretch in bar 16-17. Maybe it’s an error, but my little students are super relieved to find that they are allowed to change the marked fingering to 1-5 to 1-2 rather than 2-3. Try it for yourself. Definitely stretchy.

For those of you who want a perfect legato between all parts, the pedal can be used. For most, a legato connection between and 5 and the 1-2 is legato enough.

Similarly in bars 19-20: if this was for white keys only, the fingering might be okay. However, the combination of being in the black key area to play the thumb on the F-sharp means that the black keys can wedge the student’s hand even further apart, creating a bigger stretch. The alternative fingering is shown below.

Example: Changing Fingering on Repeated Notes, Use of Consecutive Fingering for Melodies

This is a truly bizarre example of taking a rule to an extreme. It comes from the Peter’s edition of Chopin’s Etude Op 25 no 1.

Right at the beginning we see that the editor believes we should change finger between the repeated note in the RH, which might be fair enough if you care to do so. It doesn't cost anything. But why 3 to 4? Looking at bar 1 in the RH, we have an A-flat major chord spread over an octave, so it would make sense to use a 5 on the first E-flat of bar 1 to cover an octave. When we read on to bar 2, we see the editor wants us to save the fifth finger for the F – because the melody proceeds from the beat notes – first on E-flat and then to F. This would be fine if we ignored all the notes that are played in between.

In my mind, this is an example that uncritically applies editorial rules for fingering that I mentioned above – but does it in a totally inexplicable way – the E-flat and the F notes are not consecutive notes. Worse still would be if the editor’s intention was for the student to hold the E-flat and actually connect it to the F in the next bar.

The point is that the pedal is indicated, the five repeated E-flats were not physically connected to each other (that's impossible) and so it is totally unnecessary to connect the E-flat to the F either.

Seems obvious? I have had plenty of students bring this passage to me from this edition (freely available on IMSLP and online) and wonder why they have difficulty playing it. Best to throw this edition out.

(A similar fingering can be found in the Schirmer Edition.)

So next time you are learning or teaching a piece of music, put on your sceptical hat: if anything feels weird, strange, way too stretchy, overly complex or that you practise and practise but just won’t go into the hands, it might be time to see if it is an example of a fingering folly.

As with anything, don't take my word for it. Try these examples for yourself. Keep what works, or come up with a better solution.

Feel free to share your fingering follies and solutions below.

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