On Teaching

September 30, 2017

Helping Students Choose Fingerings V

I ended last month’s column with a couple of short digressions. I open this column in the same way. Then I will return to the train of thought from last month.

To help myself muse about teaching the art of making purposeful fingering choices, I have done a certain amount of reading: not what I would call “research,” not looking for concrete information, but just part of the process of thinking, gathering, and examining ideas. I happened to come across some extremely interesting comments by the eminent Ukrainian pianist Vladimir de Pachmann, who lived from 1848 to 1933.

De Pachmann became convinced during the course of his career that there was something blocking him technically. He eventually decided or figured out that he was allowing his hands to turn out too far, both out and in, from a position that was more or less straight with the forearm. His own discussion of this in an interview is fascinating. (“Should Piano Playing Undergo a Radical Reform?”, Vladimir de Pachmann, Etude, December 1923.) This is a short excerpt:


I discovered that the whole trouble lay in the wrist. The wrists were not free. Easily said—but WHY?

Perhaps a simple experiment will serve to illustrate. Put your elbow upon the table and let your forearm fall with your hand in comfortable playing condition. 

Now, with the hand and forearm in this position, move the hand (without moving the forearm) as far as possible to the left and hold it in that position for a few moments. You will notice at once that there is a strain at the joint of the wrist. Now move the hand in the opposite direction and there is likewise a strain. It is this strain that, to my mind, distorts the muscular and the nervous condition of the hand and the forearm and results in much horrible playing. The tone cannot be musical and beautiful if the wrist is stiff or strained in this manner. Therefore I never move the hand from side to side. 

Having discovered this, I began to find that, whereas I had been unable to practice for long periods in later years without fatigue, I was now able to play for hours and hours and ‘never feel it.’

What was the result? I resolved to rework, re-arrange my entire repertoire upon this new basis. This meant refingering hundreds and hundreds of pages of music.


This interests me because it ratifies what I have long observed about the problems with turning the wrist, though I feel sure that turning out is worse than turning in, whereas Pachmann does not distinguish between those. It is also interesting to me that he presented this as a new discovery. It seems to have been new in relation to his own work and to whatever he had learned from his teachers. Elsewhere, however, he says about Muzio Clementi, who lived from 1752 to 1832, that he “was against the use of the thumb on a black key. I wondered why, and thought it over until I discovered that Clementi’s reason was that there was an undue strain on the wrist, with consequent fatigue.” So, as with a lot about music and life, this was perhaps an instance of “what’s old is new again.”


Fingering principles to
offer to your students

I resume my list of suggestions of principles or ideas that we might offer students in advance of their working out their own fingerings for pieces. 

6) Don’t finger for something that you don’t want or need to do. That is, don’t make a fingering unnecessarily complicated by asking it to create a difficult result when that result is not what you really want. This usually manifests itself as something very specific: constructing an unnecessarily difficult fingering in order to achieve legato, when that legato is not actually wanted. If you do want legato, and the fingering necessary to achieve that is complex or tricky, then this gets turned around the other way: you have to accept the difficult fingering and practice it enough to make it work. But that is usually not the problem. It is definitely a problem for many students that they think that it is lazy or unconscientious ever to use a disjunct fingering. (Often this feeling is entirely subconscious or reflexive.) But that is only true if you honestly don’t like the musical results of that fingering. The most conscientious and efficient thing that you can do in sketching out a fingering for a passage is to give yourself the freedom to use any fingers whatsoever for any two successive notes or chords that are not meant to be legato, and take it from there. 

7) Concerning patterns: on the one hand, it can be very useful to finger something that is reiterated as a pattern in the same way each time it comes along. This is true first of all because perhaps that fingering is the best fingering, considering everything. But also, the patterned fingering is itself easier to remember because it stays the same, and this has the nice benefit that when you practice one instance of it, you are also practicing the others. This is efficient and enhances security. However, it is even more important to recognize that sometimes a musical pattern is not a physical pattern. This happens most of the time and most strikingly because of the presence of sharps and flats. If the keyboard were all white keys, then this concern would largely go away. The other cause, more subtle, is that the feeling and thus the fingering needs of a repeated pattern can also change because of position on the keyboard. The same note-shapes a couple of octaves apart have different implications for hand position in particular, and therefore, sometimes, for fingering.

The two examples above show situations in which the relationship between musical patterning and fingering come out different. In the first case (Example 1), there is probably something to be gained and little or nothing to be lost by playing each four-note grouping in the same way. For any number of reasons, such as relative finger length, some players might prefer 4-2-1-2, some 5-3-2-3. (Those are not the only possibilities, but they probably cover what would feel best for almost everyone.) 

However, in Example 2, with three sharps, the consistent application of a pattern of this sort would conflict with good hand position and create problems with the use of the thumb. I have put in a fingering that fits the native shape of the passage very well for me, and there are other possibilities. A student could make the choice that the pluses of repeated patterning outweigh the negatives of thumbs on black notes or other turnings of the hand. However, that should be thought about as a conscious and careful choice. (For me, the 4-2-1-2 fingering as a thorough-going pattern would be disastrously bad; the 5-3-2-3 would be rather bad, mainly a problem in the second group of four eighth notes.)

Another thought about patterns is that some students have learned default fingering patterns for certain note patterns prior to working on any given piece. These are usually scales and arpeggios, and the fingering patterns have been learned because the note patterns have served as exercises. This can be very useful and quite a time-saver if the learned fingerings actually work well, given all of the circumstances of the piece. They often will, but also often will not. It is important to use them only when they are right, and not to let them interfere otherwise. 

It is worth remembering that even though it can seem like a shame not to take advantage of the comfort of patterned fingering for patterned notes, abandoning that patterning only brings those passages to the level of fingering-complexity of the rest of the music. It is never a particular problem, just sometimes an opportunity that we would rather not pass up.

8) Don’t confuse unfamiliarity with difficulty. That is, don’t judge the easiness or difficulty of a fingering before having gotten somewhat used to it. In choosing between two or more fingerings, the one that seems the least comfortable right off the bat might just seem the best once you have explored them all a bit. On the other hand, if a student is more or less observing all of the precepts above, is trying out a possible fingering, and that fingering simply cannot get comfortable, then it is probably one that should be changed. And that leads to another principle:

9) If you can’t come up with a fingering that you are reasonably happy with, don’t accept an unhappy fingering or try to get used to one that is really awkward. It is better to leave the passage un-fingered and un-practiced until you have had a chance to bring it back to the teacher or, perhaps, just to go on thinking, analyzing, and finally finding something better.

Are these last two principles in actual conflict with each other? Not quite. Taken together they point to the need for a student to develop the ability to tell when a fingering seems wrong because it is wrong, and when it seems wrong because it is unfamiliar or conforms to a new idea, or just hasn’t been practiced enough yet. This is one of the senses that will be strengthened by independent work on fingering. It is fine if it takes a while to develop, and it will kick in earlier and earlier in the process with each piece that the student works on. 

A list can seem so cut-and-dried. Do these nine headings outline all of what I want to tell a student before that student goes off to create fingerings for a piece? Do I always outline all of these things in this exact way? No, of course not. This outline is in part an exercise in thinking about the sorts of things that I think that we can offer to students as pre-established guidelines in lieu of specific “use this fingering here” input. Someone else might have a different specific set of ideas, or ones similar to these but put rather differently. Someone might decide that a few of these are worth outlining and discussing quite specifically in advance and that others of them can be left to be added along the way, in response to particular situations. I have never yet written an outline like this to hand to students. I do it all verbally. But the act of writing it out for the column suggests to me that I might like to try that. The danger in writing something and presenting it as a sort of document, especially as from teacher (or any supposed authority or “expert”) to student, is that it will be interpreted too hard and fast.

I think that it is necessary, whether this is all done in discussion or partly in written outline, to be very careful to remind students about flexibility and balance. This is reflected in my brief comments about “no thumbs on black notes” last month. I am still very aware that I have sometimes seemed too adamant about that, right and important though it usually is, and that a student has wasted time or even risked tendon injuries by using awkward stretches to keep thumbs off black notes that they should indeed have been playing. (I would love to know exactly how Clementi framed that.)


Students working


I have alluded a lot to a student’s going off to finger a piece, any piece, autonomously. There’s an interesting question as to whether is it ever useful to choose pieces in the first place not to (just) teach something about execution or rhetoric or even fingering as such, but as exercises specifically in thinking independently about fingering. I think that this can be a good idea, as long as it doesn’t shade over into asking a student to work on pieces that lack musical interest. What constitutes a good piece for working on fingering choice depends on the student. However, there are things to analyze about how a piece relates to the process of working out fingerings. How much will it be necessary to think about choices of hand as they differ from what the distribution on the staves seems to suggest? (As I have written before, I feel very strongly that staff distribution shouldn’t influence hand distribution in mapping out and playing organ music. But it doesn’t hurt to clear the decks, so to speak, for this kind of work by choosing pieces where that isn’t an issue.)

The next step is to see what sort of work each hand has to do. A student can and should learn to think about fingering with any sort of texture. But it is important to be clear about the fact that different textures require a somewhat different approach, or at least feel like they lead to somewhat different processes. For example, if either hand has only one note at a time, as is true of both hands in something like a Bach two-part Invention, then the hand is free of a whole host of constraints. It’s just a question of mapping five fingers onto a succession of notes. If a hand has actual chords, that is one thing. If it has a more-than-one-note texture that arises out of counterpoint, that is something else. (Maybe the principal practical fingering difference there is that chords often change over all notes at once, whereas counterpoint, almost by definition, does not.) Many or most pieces out there have a variety of these sorts of textures. To choose an example out of thousands, many of the pieces in the Vierne 24 Pièces en style libre have long stretches in which one hand is playing a single line while the other is playing chords or some other multi-note texture. 

It is possible that at first (when a student is relatively non-advanced overall or is not yet too comfortable choosing fingerings), pieces that have one sort of texture in each hand for long stretches might be the most comfortable. That situation allows a student to focus on one sort of analysis of what the texture requires of the hand. Within reason—that is, avoiding real blockbusters—I don’t think that overall easiness or difficulty is that much of a concern. A more difficult piece just takes more time and patience, as much during the fingering phase as during the practicing phase. In fact, an extremely challenging piece can be used as an interesting laboratory for thinking about fingering, whether or not the student goes on to practice it and learn it for performance. Using a piece this way can be a challenge to the yearning for completeness and closure that most of us have, but as a learning tool it is perfectly valid. The most compelling reasons to do it are, first, that a student might actually find it intellectually interesting to think about fingering a piece that would be a stretch to play, and that the student might simply like that piece and want to engage with it. If a beginner or intermediate student works carefully on the fingering of a piece, or part of a piece, that is a real (or unrealistic) stretch now, that student will be well positioned to go ahead and really learn that piece later. That is in contrast with the situation that can be set up by more or less just stumbling through a significantly difficult piece without dealing with its challenges seriously and systematically enough.

A brief closing return to de Pachmann. In my reading I encountered this statement, one that we should all always bear in mind: “If . . . a difficulty . . .
does not disappear after one hundred repetitions . . . play it a thousand times!” (Exclamation point mine!)

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