On Teaching

July 3, 2017

Helping Students Choose Fingerings III

I continue here the discussion of whether it is better to let students work out their own fingerings or to provide them fingerings to learn. In the former case they “learn by doing.” In the latter case they learn about the art of fingering from having been given and having learned (presumably good) representative fingerings. As I said last month, the “correct” option is likely a combination of both. I should also mention that in referring to each approach in a concise way, there is a danger of caricaturing a bit. When I talk about letting students, even beginning students, work out their own fingerings, I never mean that a teacher would or should just shrug their shoulders and say, “You’re on your own.” I wouldn’t expect any teacher who is inclined to work out fingerings in advance for students to do so with no regard to the student’s own hands or to insist on the student’s using a fingering that, in practice, was manifestly uncomfortable or that was clearly not giving good results. To a certain extent, the differences are those of emphasis. 

In last month’s column I looked at some advantages and disadvantages of the first approach. Here I want to start by doing the same with the second, more interventionist approach. To some extent the advantages here mirror the disadvantages of the first approach, and the disadvantages mirror the advantages. But it is interesting to look from the other direction, and some new wrinkles may appear. 


Advantages of providing fingerings to students

First, some of the advantages of the approach of largely giving students well worked-out fingerings and expecting them to learn them:

1) The main advantage has to be that the fingerings will be really good. As I wrote last month, I will get to the question of what it means for a fingering to be “good,” regardless of whether it is the teacher or the student who has come up with that fingering. This is a multifaceted concept and one about which there must a lot of flexibility. It should be a bedrock assumption that any fingering that a teacher writes into the music will be one of the good fingerings for the passage. 

2) The student will learn what good fingering is by being led to experience it. Modeling good fingering can teach good fingering. The process resembles the old (joking?) description of learning medical procedures in medical school: “Watch one, do one, teach one.” But it should be much more than one, as it really is in medical school. If a student plays the first passage that he or she works on with a really successful teacher-given fingering, a little bit of what was good about the fingering will rub off on the student’s awareness, consciously or subconsciously. That experience will then predispose the student to get a little bit more of the same from encountering the next such fingering, and so on. The ability to recognize what is successful about a given fingering will grow incrementally. 

3) The process can save time. The more experienced a teacher is, he or she should be able to come up with good fingerings quite efficiently. Even though the fingerings have to go through a filter of “How will this work for someone else?”, it should still be a quicker process than the student working everything out from scratch. 

4) Related to #3, there may be circumstances in which the teacher thinks it best for the student to focus on some aspect of the piece or of the learning process other than fingering. It might better clear the decks by letting the teacher largely take over the fingering task while the student concentrates on whatever that aspect is.

5) The teacher can incorporate historical, composer-derived, or otherwise specialized fingerings into the learning process without requiring the student to think about all of the complexities of incorporating historicity or other specialized concerns into the fingering decision-making process. (See below for more about this.)

5) The teacher’s providing fingerings may relieve anxiety for the student. This is sometimes very important, but it is also a bit of a potential trap. In the end the student has to learn not to greet the fingering project with anxiety, or at least to control that anxiety and work through it. 


Disadvantages of providing fingerings to students

What are some of the particular disadvantages of the teacher providing fingerings to the student?

1) There is the loss of an opportunity for the student to experience the joys (and anxieties) of autonomy. It is part of the give and take of the learning process for any student to operate with limited autonomy some of the time. The danger is in the student becoming too accustomed to (or addicted to) that state of affairs. Are we moving a student towards being a mid-career player who is still looking for an outside source of fingerings? 

2) There is a danger that the student will endow fingerings with too much of the weight of authority. That is, the student will have a permanent, at least mild, nagging feeling that this must be right because it is what I was taught. I suspect that in specific cases students are more reluctant to change, later on, fingering that they were given than fingering that they worked out themselves. But there is also the danger of drawing a wrong, more abstract, conclusion: that this way of approaching fingering must be right because it is what I was taught. This is a different concept to distill from the learning process than “this is how I have learned to understand what is going on with my fingers, this instrument, and this music.” (Note: Am I right to call this a “disadvantage?” That is partly a philosophical matter, and people can and should disagree and debate about it. As a practical matter, I feel pretty sure that any sense of authority behind fingering choices can dispose players, students or former students, to stick for too long to fingerings that are manifestly not successful. I will come back to this in talking both about editorial fingerings and about historical fingering.)

3) The student loses the opportunity to imprint the notes (learn the piece) more solidly by grappling with the logistics of notes and fingers. This mirrors advantage #4 from last month. I wrote then that if the note-learning and piece-learning advantages that come from working out careful fingerings are taken away, they need to be replaced: they are that important. There are general ways in which they can be replaced, other modes of intense study. But a teacher who is providing fingerings should, as much as possible, explain the rationale behind the fingerings to the student. This interacts with the time considerations: a teacher explaining about every fingering is likely to be prohibitively time-consuming. It can be reserved for fingerings that are either particularly tricky or particularly instructive about how to handle a certain situation.

4) The most fundamental disadvantage is that the student doesn’t get direct practice in working out fingerings. The question of how much of a disadvantage we think that this is as opposed to the question of whether it is outweighed by advantages depends on what we think about the relative effectiveness of the “work it out yourself” model and the “modeling” concept.

5) Finally, it is a serious problem if the teacher does not take into account any specific individual fingering needs of the student. I would be rather astonished if any teacher consciously attempts to not do this. When I have noticed myself occasionally falling into this trap it has been through inattention or an unconscious desire to save time. (My general preference for letting students work out their own fingerings has saved me from committing this particular error too often, but I have certainly done so from time to time.) 

You can probably think of advantages and disadvantages to each approach beyond the ones that I have suggested here. Think it over. Next month I will try to describe where I come down in synthesizing all of this. A “headline” version of that would be something like this: I want to leave as much as possible of the process up to the student, but with absolute certainty that we don’t let any actually harmful fingerings slip by, and with a humane attention to avoiding frustration and anxiety. I will discuss how that approach can be carried out efficiently and with avoidance of pitfalls. I will follow it with some thoughts about how a teacher can guide the student in taking a more interventionist approach, if and when that seems best.


Historical awareness in fingering

It is well known that in different times and places keyboard fingering has been approached in different ways, and there are a number of possible ways of discussing this. It is possible to talk about an overall difference between “early” or “old” fingering and “modern” fingering. It is also possible to talk about the difference between Chopin’s reputed fingering approach, in which each finger was understood to have its own different characteristics and which harkened back to practices that were already old-fashioned, and Liszt’s approach, in which the discipline of requiring each finger to be able to behave just like every other one was crucial and which was a harbinger of the development of piano fingering ever since. We get as specific as we want, and as available information allows, about approaches to fingering in different times and places. Was there a common approach to fingering in Italy in the 1630s and did it differ from the approach in England, say, at that same time? Did it differ from the approach in Italy in the 1670s? How did Brahms’s fingering relate to that of Chopin or Liszt (or Clara Schumann or Anton Rubinstein)? Was there a consistent difference between the way players deployed fingering on the harpsichord and on the organ in, say, 1720, or between the piano and the organ in 1860? 

Were there personal differences between players in the way that they used fingering in all eras (or in any era)? That is, not just between Chopin and Liszt or between different “schools,” but between individuals, even if in some sense they belonged to the same school? Were any of these differences not about fingering as it related to personal logistics or habits, but as it related to the response of instruments? Could this have been about very specific instruments, this or that particular organ or piano, harpsichord, or clavichord? Was there a difference among composer/players as to how much they thought of fingering as influencing interpretation and how much they thought of it as being about personal habit, logistics, or comfort? What did composers who were not players or not accomplished players think about fingering, not just as to details, but at a meta level? Did they have anything to say about it, or did they leave it to the performers?

Were there composers who thought very explicitly and clearly that they wanted every player to use the fingering that they themselves used? Were there composers who specifically thought the opposite?

There are so many questions of this sort that the subject is the basis of many books and articles, and indeed of many research careers. For me, the relevance of it to our subject has two dimensions. First, it seems to me that it is a necessary part of a student’s education about fingering at least to become aware that these sorts of issues exist. It is valid, as a way of getting started and keeping things from becoming overwhelming, to allude to some of the questions about historical fingering with a student, but frankly admit that you will not be suggesting a detailed historical approach for now. (This approach might be most relevant with beginners.) It is also entirely possible to introduce some historical fingerings from the very beginning of even a beginner’s study. There is not likely to be anything intrinsically harder or less suited to the learning process about the fingerings that a composer had in mind than about other fingerings. If this aspect of fingering study is not going to form an integral part of the early stages of learning the instrument or learning how to think about fingering, that is not because the fingerings are somehow less suitable. It is because the layers of different things to think about are complex.

The teacher’s suggesting some fingerings beyond what a student would be able to devise is a valid course of action. It should be remembered that because all these questions are complex, there isn’t necessarily a clear answer to what the “historically correct” fingering is. Sometimes there are possible fairly clear answers, sometimes not. And often a fingering that arises out of considerations of interpretation and of how the instrument responds will converge with fingerings that a composer might have used.

But the second point is important and interesting. A composer’s own fingerings, to whatever extent we know them, acknowledging the complexities about what composers wanted or expected, have a sort or type of authority that fingerings provided by anyone else cannot have. It is up to all players, including teachers and students, to establish some practice about how to receive and react to this authority. Any player’s ideas about this will and should evolve. But a composer’s fingering is part of the piece, its identity and meaning, in a way that an editor’s fingering, any great performer’s fingering, my fingering, your fingering, anyone’s teacher’s fingering, cannot be. I think that it is important for a student to take this idea in as part of the honest intellectual framework for working on fingering.

As I have suggested, I am always concerned that students not feel too much weight of authority. Therefore, I am tempted sometimes to downplay the importance, or even the interest, of knowledge about a composer’s own practices. This is in spite of my being in my own performing life an “early music” specialist, and even in a sense an “expert” on some of these matters.

I think it is more fruitful to separate out the different kinds of authority. Recognizing that by definition anything that the composer wanted is part of the piece, while anything that comes from somewhere else is not, enables us to do two important things. First, it allows us to make a conscious decision about how we want to treat that composer’s authority. There is nothing illegal or presumably immoral about making an informed choice to do something that is different from what a composer would have done. But it makes sense to be aware of what we know and what we don’t know before we make that decision. Second, an awareness of the proper authority of the composer should enable us to bear the burden of other sorts of authority more lightly. It is to me a pretty clear fork in the road. If I know that some information about a piece comes from the composer, then I want to make a decision about what to do with that information based on that knowledge. If I know that an idea about a piece came from someone else, then I want to feel free to regard that as someone’s opinion or idea: maybe an interesting one, maybe a well-informed and well-thought out one, but not by definition part of the meaning of the piece.

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