Through years of worldwide performing, teaching, lecturing, giving master classes and workshops, and conversing with other pianists and piano teachers (in recent years also through Internet groups and forums), I have often come across problems and questions regarding piano playing techniques in general and fingering in particular.
Through all the periods of keyboard music, musicians, composers, keyboard masters, and especially pianists stressed the importance of good fingering. Carl Philip Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) said: “It can be seen that correct employment of the fingers is inseparably related to the whole art of performance. More is lost through poor fingering than can be replaced by all conceivable artistry and good taste.” Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) remarked: “Fingering is the basis of good playing.”
Nowadays too, one of the primary concerns of piano teachers is finding the best approach to teaching fingering. Educators have concluded that fingering affects all aspects of performance, such as efficiency of execution, quality of produced sound, musical expression, aiding memory, and avoiding hand injuries.
Despite this, there are hardly any books that guide and teach us how to create good fingering. Throughout the generations, a few basic rules were handed down from teachers to students. The rest had to come from one’s own intuition and experience. Only a few masters actually wrote specifically about fingering in their treatises, and when they did it was mostly just a chapter out of many, or some scattered information along with other issues. It was almost always about scales, arpeggios, and their related derivations, and not much else. Not enough attention has been given in the academic literature to this subject of utmost importance. I therefore decided to address this issue solely and separately from other piano playing issues.
Of course, there are many editions of music that include fingering, but not all editions, and not throughout entire pieces. Some will even have alternative fingerings, but the fingering suggestions are specific ideas of one person – the editor, not always an experienced performing pianist or a virtuoso. At the same time one can find other fingering ideas in another edition of the same piece. The fingering given in editions may or may not be good (depending on the edition, editor, particular piece, your hand size, your technique, your preferences, etc.), but the issue remains that these editions of music do not teach you how to finger it out for yourself. They do not help you to understand how to create your own fingering, nor do they help to develop a sense for and the skill of good fingering at the piano. Furthermore, editions do not talk about the connection between fingering and piano playing technique, an important correlation that should be learned, understood, and used. Some composers even wrote their own occasional fingerings in their pieces (I am not referring here to intermediate-level educational material), but the number of such cases is negligible and there is no guarantee that the fingerings they wrote are the best choices for our modern pianos, modern piano playing techniques, and individual hands.
When I was a teenage student at the Academy of Music in Tel-Aviv, my teacher took my score of the Rachmaninov second concerto (a Russian edition with occasional fingering by Rachmaninov himself) and wrote in for me his own fingering of the entire concerto. His fingering often seemed strange, but after practicing and understanding it, it was clear that it was fingering by a great virtuoso. This teacher, Karol Klein (1908-1983), came from Poland and was a student of Ignaz Friedman (1882-1948) and Isidor Philipp (1863-1958).
My teacher at the Mannes College of Music, Nadia Reisenberg (1904-1983), used to say that although we should be able to use all ten fingers equally, since our fingers are never perfectly even and equal in ability, strength, independence, and agility, we have to use the fingering that will give us the best results. In other words, it might be good to practice towards the goal of having perfectly equal ability in each of our ten fingers, but in performance, the most secure way of playing is to use our best fingers and the best fingering for a particular case.
Chopin claimed that it was not possible to have all fingers even and equal in ability. Furthermore, he claimed that the fingers did not need to be similar to one another because each finger had its own special character and he wrote his music with this natural notion in mind. Even though we try to make them all even, the fact remains that they are not. Each finger is of a different length, width, power, flexibility, and agility, and the spaces and spans between them are different as well. The thumb is perpendicular to the other fingers (the nail is not facing the same direction as the other nails) and has one joint less than the other fingers, but it is almost totally independent of the palm. The fourth finger uses tendons which are linked to both the third and fifth fingers, thus making it difficult for it to operate independently. We all have a weak fourth finger; Chopin acknowledged it, admitted it, and even joked about it. He said that he had two faults, one was a long nose and the other was a weak fourth finger.
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) ruined his fourth finger by trying to over-train it. Franz Liszt (1811-1886) also agreed that the fourth and fifth fingers are the worst, and therefore require more attention. The conclusion to be drawn is that we should work and make do with what we have and use it to the best of our advantage rather than fight it.
The subject of fingering can not be totally independent of other piano playing aspects and facts, such as musical content, technique, and size of hands. Obviously, the choice of fingering should serve the music. Often the choice of fingering goes along with a certain piano playing technique such as vertical wrist movements, wrist ovals, forearm rotation, catching the keys, etc. Modern fingering ideas are derived from modern piano techniques, reflecting the evolution of the piano, the increased need for finger dexterity, and the virtuosic demands of challenging repertoire.
The issue of hand size brings up some questions: Is having big hands an advantage? What is the ideal size of hands for piano playing? Do fat fingers produce a “fat” tone on the piano? From my experience, it is not the size of the hands that can be an advantage, so much as the ability to stretch between the fingers. This helps in large-span chords and intervals. Anything else, other than large chords and intervals, does not necessarily benefit from having big hands and being able to stretch a lot between the fingers. As long as the hands move over the played notes, small hands can do just as well as big hands, if not better. Often, big hands might get in the way, wide fingers will not fit between the black keys, and the playing might get sloppy. Small hands, on the other hand, can be quick and agile.
As for the old notion that fat fingers produce a “fat” tone, it was like the idea that singers had to have large bodies to be able to produce great singing. According to the majority of modern piano playing techniques, which rely considerably on the weight of the hands, forearms, and arms, and not simply on the weight of the fingers themselves and the muscles responsible for moving them, we do not need fat fingers to be able to produce a good sound. If one cannot reach large chords/intervals, there are alternatives: one can roll the chord, or omit a note or two as necessary. Also, notes can often be redistributed between the two hands. Other than large chords and intervals, I generally recommend the use of small-hand fingering, which utilizes a lot of thumb crossing and pivoting. My own hand span and stretch is very large, yet I almost always choose small-hand fingering for myself.
The principles of efficient fingering at the piano should be:
1. Serving the music, i.e., helping produce the desired sound, speed, effect, phrasing, style, etc.
2. Healthy and comfortable, i.e., free of unnecessary tension which can cause hand ailments and injuries.
While this book will attempt to provide guidelines, principles, and ideas, the choice of fingering will ultimately be one’s own. For young people and beginners I recommend reading and studying the book as well as making fingering decisions with help and guidance from their teachers. When dealing with basics as at the beginning of the book, many musical terms are explained. As the book progresses, the narrative assumes an understanding of musical terms and keyboard playing.
Twentieth century composers who wrote avant-garde music used unconventional means and techniques of playing the piano, such as playing with fists on the keys, tapping fingers or knuckles on the wooden parts, plucking or strumming the piano strings, stopping the strings for the production of overtones, and even slamming the keyboard lid. Some of the music they composed is virtually unplayable as written, or requires the use of mechanical contrivances like a wooden board and other such devices. These composers invented their own unique notational systems and they were very explicit in their explanatory introductions and comments. Their “fingerings” will not be discussed in this book, except for the most popular unconventional fingering technique used for clusters.
Pianists who for years have been using a certain fingering in a particular passage may decide one day to change to another fingering, in order to get another musical meaning, phrasing, and effect. I have experienced this many times. There is not just one “ideal fingering” for any given text, but there are certainly good choices that can be made according to the aforementioned principles. Some pianists even exercise their minds and memory by practicing with different fingerings for the same text, but these will not necessarily be the best choices of fingerings. Whenever there is a dilemma regarding a choice between what seem to be several equally good fingerings, I recommend to practice (as I do myself) all the choices and master them to perfection, after which one can make a well-informed decision.
Arriving at good fingering can give great pleasure and satisfaction, which is in addition to the pleasure and satisfaction derived from the beauty of the music itself. It enables one to enjoy the playing and the music so much more. This may be an important motivation for the careful study of fingering presented in this book.
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