On Teaching

November 1, 2017

Helping Students Choose Fingerings VI

At the beginning of this series of columns I mentioned (warned?) that I was planning to let myself muse about the subject in a leisurely fashion, spread out over quite a few months. The importance of the subject justified this, and so did its open-endedness. There are many ways of looking at this aspect of our work that are worth talking about and taking seriously; there are several angles from which to approach it. I am beginning to feel, however, that six columns spread out over seven months is getting close to being enough for now. So this column and the next one—which constitute a long “to be continued” on the same specific aspect of our subject—will be the last ones on this matter for a while. 

The specific agenda for these two columns is to talk about what to do when a student comes back with a worked-out fingering. I will also address a couple of loose ends and include a random thought or two. I certainly have not exhausted the overall subject, and I have to take a deep breath and remind myself that exhausting the subject is never possible and is never the point. I will probably come back to it someday, perhaps in part to address some interesting and useful comments from readers that I have already gotten, and others that I may get. Meanwhile, in January’s column, I will move on to other things.


Feedback for student fingerings

If you have sent a student off to work out a fingering for a passage or a piece, perhaps with some guidelines similar to mine from the last two columns, then presumably that student will come back with the worked-out fingering. The next step, in which you give feedback, is crucial: that’s where a lot of the learning comes in.

The actual dynamic of this part of the process is subject to a host of variables: how much of the passage has the student felt comfortable actually fingering, and how much has been reserved for discussion? How much has already been practiced, and how close is it to being learned? (Included in the latter are questions as to whether the student has put the hands together yet, or added pedals, if that’s relevant, and at what sort of tempo is the piece in relation to a possible final tempo.) Questions about how the student relates to the particular piece or the sort of repertoire might be relevant. Is the piece an exemplar of a kind of music with which the student is already very familiar (their sixth Orgelbüchlein chorale, say, or eighth movement from a Widor symphony), or is it relatively uncharted territory, a first step into the twentieth century for a student who has been at home in the eighteenth, or vice versa? Does it happen to be a two-manual passage? 

Then there are the psychological/temperamental matters. Is the student one who is self-confident in general and likely to feel good about fingering choices, perhaps regardless of whether the choices seem good to the teacher? Can the student be relied on to push back against teacher suggestions that he or she really doesn’t like, or at least to be forthright about the rationale for choices? Or is it someone who is almost waiting to be told that they have gotten it wrong—someone whose first impulse will be to shut down in the face of any inquiry and be embarrassed to share the thought process that led to the fingering choices? Or is the situation somewhere in between? Do you know the student well, and are the two of you comfortable together? Or is it someone whom you are really still getting to know?

All of these are surprisingly practical concerns given our delicately balanced goal: to coax students into greater autonomy, confidence, and independence without letting them persevere with fingerings that are going to be really problematic. If we think that a fingering is just plain really bad (to put it bluntly), how do we tell that to the student? It is important not to seem to go back on the promise of autonomy and independence. But it is also important for the student to end up with good fingerings. (Well, maybe. I’ll talk about that more below.)

Of course this is a version, appropriate to this stage of the process, of the whole set of questions about how much autonomy to give students in choosing fingerings in the first place. The premise for now is that we are opting for a great deal of autonomy. But that takes on a different dynamic as the moment of solidifying fingerings in actual use draws closer.

At an earlier point in planning out these columns, I had thought that I would try to concoct a “case study,” that is, that I would choose a passage, create a fingering for it that a student might have come up with, and then go through the passage, reacting to that fingering as I might do with a “live” student. But as I thought about all the variables of the situation, I decided that that would be artificial and limiting. It is a process that perhaps could form the basis of a video or live class demonstration. To be useful it would need to be made up of multiple examples. I think that here it is more fruitful to keep discussing the process, again not expecting to be exhaustive, but to cover enough points to be useful.

To start with, let’s assume that the student comes back with a fingering with which they feel pretty comfortable and that they are ready to play, perhaps (or probably) below the eventual performance tempo. How should we watch and listen, and what should we be looking out for?

The answer to how we should watch and listen is “very carefully, very closely.” And although listening to what our students do is always critical­—this is music after all—in this situation watching is if anything more important. We need to see and keep track of a host of things: what the written fingerings are, what the actual fingerings are, where on the keys the fingers are landing, and, always, everything about the student’s physical being: hand position, tension or relaxation of the hand, and signs of tension or awkward or unnatural positioning of the rest of the body. For this specific kind of work with a student, the most practical use for listening is as an aid in noticing tension. A persistent wrong note, which we might either see or hear, can be a sign of a fingering problem that should be dealt with, but it is more often about practicing. (More about all of this below.) 


Concerns about student fingerings

The bedrock, non-negotiable concern about a student’s worked-out fingering is that it not be dangerous. Everything else is part of a discussion. Fingerings that are non-historical, or different from what the teacher would do, or that create certain articulations, or rule out certain articulations, and so on, might be good, bad, both: everyone will think about them a bit differently. Fingerings that are awkward and inefficient can still be made to work with enough practicing, though that practicing might be less enjoyable than it could or should be. That’s not to say that a fingering that is bad in that sense should go unnoticed or unchallenged: part of the point of this process is to get students to recognize such fingerings and get better and better at avoiding them. Fingerings that might hurt the hand, usually by an uncomfortable stretch or by twisting out, are fairly rare. But they deserve first mention here because it is absolutely out of the question to let them pass.

This does indeed shade over into the next item to pay attention to: anything that looks tense or awkward. Are there spots where the student looks uncomfortable or tense as a matter of overall attitude? Are there moments where you can see the hands, arms, neck, or (especially) shoulders appear to tighten? These signs can mean either that the fingering in those spots is actually a problem or that the student is uncertain about those fingerings. In any case, these are places that should be flagged for discussion. Even if the tension or awkwardness is not so severe that our judgment suggests that it could be harmful, it is still not best for musical performance and should be corrected if possible.

With awkward-looking fingerings, it is a matter of your judgment and the student’s whether they cross a line into being potentially physically harmful. You must bring this up and discuss it if you are concerned. That is one situation in which your sense of the student’s temperament and attitude comes into play. If the student says that something is not painful, is it OK to leave it at that? If a student needs to wring out a hand after playing a passage and says, “no, it’s all right,” is it acceptable to leave it at that? If a student is wearing a pained facial expression, is that more likely to be about general anxiety than an immediate extreme discomfort?

If a fingering is somewhat awkward and we can’t come up with a better one, then we are likely to stick with it and try to relax out of whatever tension it creates as promptly as possible. If the only possible fingering for a passage is one that honestly seems so wrong physically that it could be damaging, then that is actually a reason to consider not playing the piece or slightly rewriting it. This latter is rare—presumably because most keyboard composers write their music to be playable. When it does happen it is often because of a mismatch between the hand size of the player and the expectations of the composer. We are all lucky that composers with extra-wide hand spans mostly bore in mind the needs of the rest of us!


Hand position

Watching hand position is important and is really the foundation of all of what I have mentioned above. If you see an awkward hand position, then it is worth querying the fingering, pointing out what looks awkward, and asking the student about the rationale for the fingering. Sometimes bad hand position is the result not of actually bad fingering, but of holding notes longer than necessary or leaving fingers over notes that they have released when they should be free to float away and wait over other notes. This is actually a surprisingly important aspect of the relationship between fingering and hand position. No fingering in itself implies anything about where the relevant finger should be or what position that hand should be in once that finger has released its note. That can be clearly determined by the next note, but if it isn’t, then the situation is turned around, and the proper place for a finger to be is defined by the act of returning the hand to a relaxed comfortable position. It is possible to be misled as to how good or bad a fingering is by letting that fingering influence hand position more than it actually has to, and in an uncomfortable direction.

When bad hand position does stem directly from a questionable fingering, sometimes that in turn comes from the next thing to watch for: the student’s neglecting part of the hand for no particular reason. As I mentioned in one of my sample guidelines two months back, there is a tendency to avoid fingers 4 and 5, especially 5. If you see a student indulging that tendency, you should question it. And you will see this, whether or not you remind students in advance to think about it. If you see a busy passage being played with just fingers 1-2-3, and if it looks awkward, then ask the student about it. Often there will be a plausible musical logistic reason. Often that reason, though plausible, is in fact a false one: an excuse, not a reason. (And this is usually subconscious, so it is fruitful to alert the student to it.) The avoidance of “weak” fingers is instinctual and can be stubborn. It also reflects different realities for different students: that is, for some people, the fifth finger really is a problem, for some it is just a fear. This is a difference that should be sorted out. My Diapason column from September 2016 was all about the fifth finger and includes my ideas about how to work on it when it really is a problem in and of itself.


Avoiding use of certain fingers

A couple of side notes: I have only fairly recently become really comfortable playing trills, especially long trills, with fingers 4 and 5. I didn’t notice the moment when this happened, but it was probably in about my 25th or 30th year of performing and teaching. I have noticed that the availability of that fingering for trills sometimes can make the rest of the fingering for a passage remarkably more straightforward. This reminds me, in turn, that it is important in all circumstances not to avoid the use of any fingers arbitrarily. Sometimes the avoidance of certain fingers is indeed not arbitrary, but has a musical (often historical) purpose. If a student, in collaboration with you as the teacher, is applying some of the principles of “early” fingering to a piece, and therefore perhaps using at the least the thumb and maybe the fifth finger less than one might otherwise, it is important to do this in a way that is comfortable. That is, almost certainly, a significant part of the actual original purpose of that approach to fingering. The main enemy of comfort and natural hand position with fingerings of this sort is an attempt to hang on to legato when the fingering is specifically geared towards non-legato: for example in a 3-4-3-4 fingering in the right hand in a rising scale passage, turning the hand nearly upside-down between the second and third notes.

Another thing to look for is any place where your student is actually using a fingering different from the one that they have worked out and written in. This is one place where your watching closely comes into play! When this happens, it can be just a random one-off that doesn’t mean anything. It should be queried though, in case it is more than that. It can turn out that the written fingering is really best, and that the task for the student is to be more assiduous about following it. That often means slower, more targeted practice. (Though it can also be a sign that the student needs new glasses. That sounds flippant, but is actually a frequent serious issue. If you can’t read the notes easily, that is always a problem. If you can’t read the written-in fingerings easily and spontaneously, that is a problem as well: a source of inefficiency and potential insecurity.)

It can be useful to go over the reasoning behind the fingering again. This can help fix it in the semi-memory so that the need to read it in real time will recede and eventually go away entirely. It is also very possible that the actual fingering that you saw is better than the written-in fingering. This should be explored in discussion. If it turns out to be true, that creates an excellent opportunity for the student to learn through analyzing and comparing the two fingerings and analyzing why the written-in choices were made and why they don’t seem to be best in practice. 

Next month, in continuing this discussion, I will, among other things, write about how to recognize, in these particular circumstances, when a fingering issue is really a hand distribution issue. As an appetizer to that part of the discussion I include a couple of examples of spots where I happened upon ways of solving tricky fingering issues by what I like to think of as clever hand distribution. (See Examples 1 and 2.) These both arose in my practicing of pieces that I will be performing this fall, and indeed they both arose during the same days during which I have been writing this column. They are both Bach harpsichord pieces. The first is from the fugue of the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, the second from the fugue of the Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro. No very specific pedagogic point to either of them: I just like them.


To be continued.

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