Fingering schemes: help or hindrance?

“The most dangerous thing is ‘finger memory’; if you really know a piece harmonically, it doesn’t matter what finger you use, but if finger memory fails you, it falls apart utterly.” Peter Feuchtwanger, quoted in The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart.

From our earliest time at the piano, we are taught a 5-finger position, and learn that consistent and carefully-thought out fingering schemes help us to get about the music comfortably and economically. It enables us to play legato, or vivace – and everything in between. Fingering schemes are not set in stone, but once learnt, a scheme tends to stay in the fingers forever. A good fingering scheme informs the muscular memory, ensuring accuracy and fluency of playing. A good fingering scheme should be both logical and comfortable.

One of my latest activities with my students is to get them to work out their own fingering schemes (with me sitting beside them to offer guidance). Not only does this help them see how a logical scheme can be easily worked out, with the hands on the keyboard, it also encourages them to examine the music in more detail before they have had an initial play-through. It is also more sensible to allow a student to suggest his or her own preferred fingerings than for me to add what I think they should be doing. Many editions, especially study books and music for children, come with quite involved, suggested fingering – but it should be remembered that these schemes are just that: suggestions, and if a scheme does not work for a particular student, it can be overruled!

When I approach a new piece of music myself, I will sight read it, just to get the “gist” of it, looking out for any pitfalls or particularly finger-twisting passages. Then I go back to the beginning and, with pencil behind my ear, embark on the detailed work of marking up the score. In the Bach Toccata (from the Partita BWV 83), a consistent fingering scheme is essential to maintain the flow of the music, especially in the semi-quaver passages (of which there are plenty!), and in one or two places, it is necessary for the right hand to play notes normally assigned to left hand, which can be awkward if one is not forewarned. There are also a few places where I simply do not like the scheme I have worked out with the help of my teacher (a fifth finger or a thumb on a black note, for example). Here, we have added articulation, usually staccato, as if to highlight the more awkward passages; interestingly, this adds more colour and texture to the music – and I can play it comfortably too!

Sometimes a specific fingering scheme can alter the mood or colour of the music. For example, at the opening of Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor beginning with a third finger in both hands, and then switching silently to a fifth in the left hand, and a third to a thumb in the right gives a greater sense of forward motion in that figure as it rises so grandly up the register. Almost a metaphoric rather than physical change. As we become more skilled at the piano, we begin to recognise a particular finger’s strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes, a change of finger on a particular note can transform the sound of that note.

I agree in part with what Peter Feuchtwanger says in the quote at the top of this post: knowing the piece harmonically is essential, but I feel that harmonic knowledge goes hand in hand with good finger memory. If you combine the two successfully, there’s a good chance you’re going to play a piece fluently and accurately, and with the requisite attention to details such as dynamics, articulation, mood, colour, texture and contrast.

One of my teacher’s great skills is in working out a fingering scheme that is both natural and musical, thus avoiding unnecessary strain on the hands (something I am all to aware of with my chronic tenosynovitis in the right hand). She has written widely on this subject (she contributes a regular column on technique to Piano Professional magazine) and has published a book The Art of Piano Fingering, which offers unique and enlightening explanations of how to finger scales and arpeggios, and discussion of how to apply these principles to specific pieces of music. It contains some surprising innovations, and is a must for all advanced pianists.