On Teaching

May 30, 2017

Gavin Black is director of the Princeton Early Keyboard Center in Princeton, New Jersey. His website is gavinblack-baroque.com, and he can be reached by email at [email protected].

Helping Students Choose Fingerings II

This month I want to pose a most fundamental question: should we give fingerings to our students, or should we instead ask them to work out their own fingerings, with guidance from us? It is likely that with most teachers, for most students, the answer will be some of both. But that leaves the question of how to arrive at the right balance. And it also leaves a whole set of questions about how best to carry out each approach. This is not a cleanly separate issue from questions of what constitutes good fingering or what good procedure for working on fingering would be in general. But it is interesting to try to tease it out a bit on its own. 

I will start by confessing my own bias, the same bias that governs my thinking about most matters. My orientation is always towards letting students figure things out for themselves. It seems logical to let students start as soon as possible (not sooner) practicing whatever it is that we want them to learn to do. And that is (almost) always the act of working something out, not the act of executing something. This is true as to interpretive matters, concrete ones such as registration or choice of tempo, and more diffuse or flexible ones such as timing, rhythm, articulation, phrasing, and so on. It is more important for a student to engage in the process of learning how to work out interpretive matters than to give a performance today or tomorrow that you or I would like, or even that the student would endorse or enjoy listening to some years down the road. This is a version of the old “teach someone to fish” idea. 

This is subject to all sorts of nuance. For example, when does someone stop being a student? When does the execution of an effective performance become the most important priority? Are we not all to some extent continuing to learn the various processes, and don’t we all hope that our performances will get better and better, whatever that means to each of us? Looking back on our past performances, we should probably hope not to like them entirely, but to be grateful for what we learned from them. It is not a bad idea to invite your students to reinvent the wheel if you are hoping to teach them not how to use wheels or how to make wheels but how to invent wheels.

I confess this bias not to embrace it, but to push back against it or at least to examine whether and how it makes sense here. There are some things that need to be taught in a different way. The clearest of these tend to be practical. For example, if someone asks me to show them how to make the loop at the end of a harpsichord string, I will not just hand them a piece of wire and suggest that they figure it out. I will make a loop for them and describe to them in detail what I am doing. Then I will repeat that as necessary before asking them to try. There are some wheels that really don’t need to be reinvented. Likewise I don’t leave students to figure out entirely for themselves what sort of practice protocols and strategies work best. I can show a student many things that do work, but it is open-ended; they can also figure out others for themselves. I do take a sort of “re-invent the wheel” approach to the art of registration, for another example, but not to showing a student how the combination system works. When I have out-and-out information that a student does not have, I share it.

Even though no one would disagree that the long-term goal is to teach students how to work out fingerings, rather than to teach them fingerings, there is room for debate about how best to do that. Does an approach of letting students come up with their own fingerings with some discussion of principles, some feedback, and maybe occasional suggestions (what I might call my approach just for short) actually lead students most efficiently towards being able to work out fingerings for themselves? Or does it work better to show the student many examples of really good fingering, in one piece after another, and let the student learn from observation what good fingering is and how to achieve it? 

For the moment, we are taking this to be independent of the question of what good fingering is. For the latter, more teacher-oriented, approach to work, it has to be understood that the teacher knows a lot about how to concoct good fingerings. I will deal with that more directly in subsequent columns, and in the end it interacts with what we are discussing here.


Advantages of two approaches

I would like to outline some pluses and minuses of each approach, as I see it. I start this with a few thoughts about my approach and continue next month with corresponding thoughts about the more interventionist approach. First, a few advantages or strong points about the approach of largely letting students concoct their own fingerings: 

1) It is an opportunity to practice autonomy and thinking for oneself. This is particularly relevant because, largely as a result of editors’ fingerings being found in so many printed editions of music, it is easy for fingering to take on an oppressive feeling of authority. The particular form in which a student asks a question about fingering is often this: What is the fingering for this passage? That reflects an unconscious acceptance of the notion that there “is” a fingering, that the fingering for the passage is somehow a given, handed down by those who know. There is plenty in life that must be treated this way. Fingering doesn’t. Sometimes when I respond to that question with “there ‘is’ no fingering. The fingering will be what you work it out to be.” That is immediately and significantly liberating to the student, even a revelation.

2) It involves practicing as directly as possible what the student needs to learn to do. As I said above, I have a bias in favor of this in general, all else being equal. Every instance of a student’s thinking, “Does this feel better or does that? Does it sound different with fingering x from fingering y? Does using this finger here make it easier to get to that finger there? What specific part of the passage demands a particular finger, and how can I shape the fingering around that, before and after?” makes it easier and more natural for the student to apply that kind of thinking later. 

3) A student knows his or her hands best, or can learn to. Sometimes no matter how self-evident it is to me that a given finger lies naturally over a given note, that conclusion indeed turns out to be just about my hand, and for the student it is different. Take this chord:


If the student and I would both put 2 on the F# and 5 on the C, we might comfortably put any of the remaining three fingers on the A. I would play it with 3, assuming that there was nothing before or after to make that problematic. I could also be happy with 1: definitely not 4. But I have known a player to find 4 much more comfortable than the other two choices in this exact situation. This is something that no one but the actual player knows, whether that player is a student or not. And the differences can be subtle. For this:


I would definitely want 1 on the A, not either 3 or 4. Others could prefer any of the three. A note about this example: I would respect any student’s choice about a finger for that A. However, I would try to convince the student not to play the F# with 1. See #1 below!

4) Working out a detailed, specific fingering in as analytical a manner as possible is a magnificent way to learn the notes of a piece, or to solidify that learning. It is so effective in this respect that if a player becomes accomplished to the point of not needing to work out fingerings in a purposeful manner, that dimension of learning the piece has to be replaced by something else. This is related to the fact that a danger for really great sight-readers is that of giving un-thought-out performances. Executing a fingering that has been provided by someone else doesn’t fulfill this function.

There is an interesting paradox to be found here. If you work out fingerings really well and carefully for a passage, the learning that that process entails would also make it easier and more secure for you to get through the passage without a systematic fingering. But that stage is by then already past. However, it is possible that working out careful fingerings oneself leads to better sight-reading of subsequent pieces.

5) Some students enjoy this process, find it intellectually interesting, challenging, and satisfying. 

6) Every student will from time to time think of a really good fingering that the teacher would not have thought of. Thus learning can become a two-way street.



What are some disadvantages of this approach, or things to watch out for? 

1) The student may create and use fingerings that are actually physically damaging. That is almost always a result of hand positions that involve twisting the wrists too far outward, or that are otherwise stiff or painful. A teacher should always be on the lookout for this and be prepared to explain to the student what is wrong with such fingerings. If fingering creates a physiologically bad hand position, then it is not acceptable to live with that fingering even briefly.

2) More often than the above, a student will devise fingerings that are just not the best musically or logistically. It simply reflects that we are dealing with something that has to be learned, and that we are in the early stages of that learning. To the extent that we choose to let students work out, and then drill and use, their own fingerings, we are saying that the advantages of that approach make it worth it for the student to live through a period of using “bad” fingerings, fingerings that a more expert player would not have chosen. When these are fingerings that do not have the characteristic of being physically harmful, then that is possibly an acceptable situation. But it needs to be thought about.

3) This approach takes more time. For a student to work out fingerings carefully takes longer than for the teacher, an experienced player, to lean over the music desk and write fingerings. (Even quicker is for the teacher to have worked out fingerings for pieces in advance, independent of who the student is going to be. The quickest of all is for there already to be fingerings in the edition. Both of these are problematic, though, for reasons that I will get to later on.) The trade-off here is between this concern about time and point #4 above. Is the time that is put in this way repaid by learning, or is it just time that could have been spent better—for example, working on more pieces?

4) Some students specifically don’t want to work out their own fingerings. This can come from different places, and an awareness of where it comes from can help us think about how to deal with it. A student may feel incompetent to think independently about fingering. This in turn may be a simple acknowledgement of the fact of inexperience, or may come from a temperamental lack of comfort with autonomy. It is never actually true, it’s just about comfort. A student may be aware of the time-consuming nature of careful fingering work and prefer to spend that time a different way. A student may be unconvinced of the notion that different players’ hands, and other aspects of their playing, may require different fingerings, and therefore simply not be aware of the value of chipping in his or her own perspective. The student may feel unprepared to think about fingering for a specific reason, like an awareness of the historical component of fingering, coupled with an awareness of the student’s own lack of the relevant historical knowledge. 

I will continue this discussion from this point next month. However, I toss in here one fingering example. It is a bit random, just a sort of souvenir of the column. It is a rare fingering that I was specifically proud of when I first thought of it. It helped me turn what had been a difficult-to-impossible passage for me into something at least bordering on easy, and certainly very reliable. It was quite a few years ago, I don’t remember when exactly, a milestone for me in deriving fingering from hand position and in thinking outside of what was at the time quite a small box. I suppose that my particular excuse for including it here is this: that one of the pleasures of fingering is that of sharing neat, surprising, useful discoveries with other people who happen to share this arcane interest. That can be our students, among others, and remembering simply to enjoy that is part of the pleasure of teaching. This is the upper two voices of a bit from very near the end of the fugue from Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in F Major, BWV 540, in the right hand. (See preceding page at top.) Try it out. Does it work for your hand? Enjoy!

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