On Teaching

May 2, 2017

Gavin Black is director of the Princeton Early Keyboard Center in Princeton, New Jersey, teaching harpsichord, organ, and clavichord. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

Helping Students Choose Fingerings

After two months spent on something interesting and useful yet rather tangential to organ teaching (the clavichord), I have decided to tackle something probably the most direct and nitty-gritty of anything in the whole field: how to help students choose fingerings for their pieces. This topic is tricky and subject to different approaches.

I have certainly alluded to this from time to time while writing about other things. But I have yet to write about it directly and systematically, or in a sustained way. It is fundamentally important. To start with, there is no such thing as a student’s playing a piece, even playing through it first time slowly, or playing one hand or a brief passage, without there being a fingering. (The fingering on an initial play-through might be largely random, and that might be a problem or might be fine. That is part of this discussion.) There is also a way of talking about what it takes to learn a piece that though laughably formulaic is also not untrue: namely, if you have a fingering and then practice efficiently you will learn the piece. I have written a lot about efficient practicing. I now focus on the first part of that formula.

All of the above also applies to pedaling. I focus on fingering here because I think that the technical issues involved in making fingering choices and those involved in making pedaling choices are different enough that juggling a discussion of both would just be confusing. (Confusing for the writer!) Fingering choices are more multifaceted and the questions more complex, though similar in some principles. I hope that the process of thinking about not teaching fingerings but teaching how to devise fingerings will suggest a useful framework for thinking about the same thing with respect to pedaling. I will write about that in the future, separately.   

It was a premise of the way that this column was originally established nearly ten years ago, fairly short, but appearing every month, that I could afford to write in a leisurely way about an important topic, and that I wouldn’t have to try to get any subject sorted in any one column. I take full advantage of that now. We will probably spend the whole summer analyzing and musing about fingering. If you have a fruitful approach to guiding your students towards making good fingering choices for themselves and also can help them learn how to practice well (and can cajole them into wanting to practice well, at least much of the time), then you have done by far the largest part of what you can or should do as to the practical core of the teaching process. The more soundly and smoothly this can unfold, the easier it then is to delve into interpretive, artistic, historical, philosophical, matters, and to issues arising out of the particular musician-like personality of each student and his or her goals and aspirations.

This month I write about fingering and some of the issues involved in choosing fingerings. Along the way I will mention a few somewhat random ideas, thoughts, or images that I think are interesting.

Let’s start with one of those. I have always found it hard to grasp the notion that the “fingering” used by legendary great composers or performers of the past was the very same kind of thing that we do when we come up with fingerings and apply them. Did Bach or Franck or Sweelinck or Widor really just push keys down with the fingers of perfectly normal hands, and in so doing choose from among the same kind of patterns that we work with? Yes, of course they did. But as with every aspect of the notion that the great figures of old were people just like the rest of us, this is something that I find it hard to comprehend. (This is especially true as to Bach, but otherwise it tends to feel more difficult the farther back I go in time. Did Cabezón or Schlick have hands much like mine and sometimes sit there wondering whether to reach for that note with 4 or 5? Yes!) One point of musing about this is to try to demystify fingering itself a little bit. Everyone who has ever played a keyboard instrument has had to think about fingering and has faced the same broad constraints about how fingers can or cannot grapple with keys.

Not everyone has always been grappling with the physical act of fingering, its logistic limitations as well as its possibilities, towards the same ends. This is true along the various axes of performance style. Some player/composers and their musical cultures were looking to create a lot of legato, others were not. Some were frequently required to deal with thick chords, other much less so, or nearly not at all. And so on. One of the big questions about fingering and about the challenge of guiding students toward being able to choose fingerings is how to integrate our awareness of how any composer might have approached fingering with other (logistic, musical, practical) considerations.  

But there are also two distinctions related to each other that are perhaps even more interesting. First, most players of the past were mostly improvising. This is probably truer the farther back you go. The relationship between fingering-planning (which is pretty much what we mean when we talk about fingering as an act) and the music must be different if you don’t know what the music will be before you sit down to play. That suggests a concept of the act of fingering that must include some blend of real planning and maintaining habits that permit fingering on the fly. Fingering on the fly is something that we mostly discourage when helping students to learn repertoire. What does the ubiquity of that practice over many centuries tell us about possible approaches to planned fingering?

The second point about old-time performing circumstances is that for the first many centuries in the history of organ playing, it was not the norm for players to play much old music or to be concerned at all with playing old music in the way that the creators of that music would have played it. That is not to say that no one prior to, say, the early nineteenth century ever paid attention to music of earlier eras. Some musicians studied such music. We know that Bach studied Frescobaldi and de Grigny, for example, as well as composers who were more recent or more directly part of his own musical lineage, such as Buxtehude and Pachelbel. But there is no reason to believe either that he engaged in public performance of their music or that when he looked through their pieces he was thinking about their fingering or other performance practice issues. He may have done so, and other composer/performers who paid some attention to older music may have done so, but if so it was under the radar screen of history.

The first issue that we have to think about in teaching fingering to students is what students. And the answer is a usual one: that the more of a beginner a student is the more systematically we need to address things that are practical and basic. This is both an obligation and an opportunity. If someone is studying with a teacher as a beginner, then that teacher can do things “right” from the beginning, whatever that means. A student who has already accomplished some playing or who is already quite advanced will already have an approach to fingering. That approach may be fully worked out and successful, or may be deeply problematic, or somewhere in between. It may be intuitive and successful, but still benefit from being made more analytical. It may be intuitive and insufficiently efficient or fit any number of different patterns. Then with organ (and harpsichord or clavichord), unlike with piano, we have the situation that seems like a special case but is in fact the most common—namely, that a student comes to us as an established player of the piano with established piano fingering habits. In this situation, work on fingering necessarily keeps coming back to questions of the differences in fingering considerations between piano and organ. 

I want to sketch out my thoughts about all of this with an eye mainly on the student who is at least near the beginning of studying. It seems like the best way to teach myself or to invite any other teacher to think about how to teach fingering is to start with a conceptually complete picture. How can we teach a student good fingering habits from scratch? What is the overall framework or concept involved in that work? But the notion of re-shaping, steering, helping someone who already has well-established relevant skills, but also possible problematic habits, always must be kept in mind.


Factors in choosing fingerings

What considerations shape fingering choices? There are quite a few, and they sometimes complement one another but also sometimes seem to push in different directions. Some of them are: 

1) What would the composer have done? I mention this first not because I think that it is most important, but because it ties in with some of what I have already discussed above. What do we know about how a composer would have fingered his or her music? Do we know that from the composer directly or from students or contemporaries of that composer? How much detail do we have? How much are we filling in or extrapolating? Whatever we know, or reasonably believe, that a composer did, do we know why? Can we make plausible deductions about why? What were the musical goals if there were any? Or were the goals more practical or logistic?

2) What about physical logistics or comfort? Are there ways of executing passages that are easier than others? The answer to this is sometimes yes. Also, quite often the answer is a modified yes: there isn’t one fingering that is the easiest or most comfortable, but there are some that are more so and some that are less so. The comfort or ease of fingerings may well differ between one player and another. When it seems to differ, the question is whether that results from some legitimate difference that should be respected or just of habit, which perhaps should be respected or perhaps challenged.

3) Habit. This is worthy of its own category. Anyone who has ever played at all has certainly become more accustomed to some patterns and approaches than to others. Some of these habits are limiting. For example, it is common to observe players avoiding the fifth finger as a general rule. That can be a very bad idea: endless problems can cascade from this. Many players have habits when it comes to trill fingerings, usually using fingers 2 and 3 as a default and avoiding 4 and 5, or sometimes orienting trills around the thumb just by habit when that is actually physically awkward. It is crucial, especially when working with established players, to think about what habits can be relied on for ease and comfort and which ones should be questioned. (Come to think of it, this is most important and most difficult working with oneself!) 

4) Hand position. I have written about this in passing quite a bit. In this series of columns I want to explore the relationship between hand position and fingering directly, and with an eye on how it shapes choices. There are ways of holding the hand in relation to the wrist and arm that are physiologically sound and other ways that produce tension and possibly pain, and that can even lead to injury. Since the keyboard is fixed and the player’s sitting position is more or less fixed, addressing keys with particular fingers ties in very closely with hand position. It is interesting to think about the causality going both ways: “this is the fingering I want, so let’s see what it implies about hand position,” but also “this is the hand position I want, so let’s see what it implies about fingering.”

5) Repetition. If the exact same passage is repeated, it probably makes sense to use the same fingering. Sometimes there maybe a reason that it does not, but it’s always worth thinking about.

6) Patterns. Passages that are similar in shape to one another might well suggest similar fingerings. Sometimes patterns that are musically very similar or identical are not the same physically, usually because of something different about sharps and flats. Patterns are useful but should not tie us in to doing things that are actually not the best. 

7) Memorability. Repetitions and other patterns are useful for fingering planning in that they increase our ability to remember fingerings without extra effort. If it is possible to take ease of remembering into account in planning fingerings, that can be useful. 

8) Interpretive considerations. The most common and straightforward of these is articulation. If two successive notes need to be really legato, then the first one must be played in such a way that it can be held through the beginning of the second one. This usually means that the two notes must be played by two different fingers. If two notes don’t have to be legato, or if the choice interpretively is for them not to be, then that fingering restriction is lifted. 

9) The instrument. Are there some instruments that suggest different fingerings? Are there situations in which working out a fingering in the abstract, however conscientiously, will not help produce the best fingerings when it comes time to play on a particular instrument? This could be about feel and keyboard logistics, or about intrinsic instrument sound, or about room acoustics. It can also be about controlling pipe speech or winding in instruments that are sensitive to such things.

These are some considerations about the content of fingering choices. That is a separate thing from how we help students learn to think about these choices, a necessary precursor. The main fork in the road about working with students about fingering is this: how much should I as a teacher give my students fingerings directly, and how much should I talk to them about principles but ask them to concoct their own fingerings? I will discuss that next month.

People’s hands are more different physically than you might think. This has to do with overall size and with the relative long/thin or short/stubby aspect of the fingers. But it also has to do with specifics that affect keyboard fingering directly, like the length and position of the thumb with respect to the second finger, the length of the fifth finger, the question of which is longer as between the fourth and second fingers, and how they both relate to the third finger. The accompanying scan is of my hands: short thumbs, long fifth fingers, fourth and second fingers very close to each other in length.

Take a look at your own!

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