For those who want to improve their piano playing and know more about the art of fingering.

Lars
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Why is it important?

Tom And Jerry Piano finger stretch

When watching Bugs Bunny playing Liszt's Second Hungarian Rhapsody, it is hilarious and funny to see how he plays with his feet. But it is also intriguing for looking beyond what is common at finding pianistic solutions Fingering is, to most amateurs, the only problem in which they try to find a solution. Yet, it is so much more complex than that. In this blog, you are going to learn a more in-depth approach to fingering in piano playing.

The first problem we encounter is that many scores don’t have fingerings printed for all passages, or OFTEN MUCH WORSE, SUGGEST BAD FINGERINGS. I prefer scores that don't suggest fingerings at all, a "clean" score. Often it is better to come up with your own fingerings or your teacher's fingerings. But how to choose the proper fingering? And what makes a GREAT FINGERING for you and why so?

Well, there are two grounds to consider when choosing fingerings. The first aspect to reflect on is piano technical reasons. And the second aspect is all about musical interpretation. So we need to balance the two by asking the right questions in each situation.

Tom And Jerry Piano finger stretch
Piano Technical considerations:
  • Size and shape of your hands; no two hands are exactly the same.
  • Each finger has a slight different function and thus its own strength and weakness.
  • Rhythm and accentuations.
  • Pianistic articulation; leggiero, staccato, legato, portato.
  • The choice of arm movements has a direct consequence on the selection of fingering.
  • Finger dexterity of each individual finger at a given moment in your pianistic development.
  • Your experience and purpose of learning this piano piece. 
Musical considerations:
  • Musical articulation; how each note connects with the previous and following notes.
  • Phrasing; where does the note come from, and where does it lead?
  • The character and color of sound that you want to achieve.
  • The character and color of sound that you want to create.
  • The rhythmical and lyrical character of a passage. 
  • The tempo you decide that the final speed should be.
Dilemma:

Many of the musical and pianistic considerations overlap. For example, the arm movements we choose are strongly interconnected with a passage's exact phrasing and therefore may ask for a different fingering. Or, to finish a passage softly is easier to do with any finger other than the thumb. On the other hand, giving a heavy accent is more effortless with the thumb or even two fingers combined on one key. Likewise, a different tempo may require adjustments in fingering.

Approach:

The way to choose which fingering to use is to start to think from the musical perspective. Then this will lead to the question of the techniques it takes for every musical decision to execute. Fingering is one part of that technique. 

Let's get into how these considerations affect the fingering to choose?

Bugs Bunny covering fingers at piano

The size and shape of your hands are to be taken into account; no two hands are exactly the same. A particular fingering can cause too much stretching in small hands, and you can’t do it. It seems simple and straightforward, but it not always is. While we advance, we want to "stretch" our limits, so we grow as pianists.

A reason that most like to keep a secret, still sometimes unavoidable, is the limitation of one's finger dexterity. Every stage of development brings new possibilities, and not to forget that new possibilities carry new responsibilities. Take that challenging fingering if it makes your music come out more convincingly. NEVER AVOID FINGER WORKOUTS to speed up your pianistic development and thus your means to express music.

We shouldn't always be easy on ourselves and take the challenge to try, at least for a while, some fingering that makes good sense for achieving a specific result. It might feel difficult in the beginning, but try we must. Suppose it doesn't go with certain confidence after some serious work. In that case, you can always return to the simpler variant... and yeah, so often you'll find that easier variant even simpler than before...

Liszt 2nd Ballade first measure fingering
Liszt 2nd Ballade first measure fingering

In this example of the beginning of Liszt's second Ballade, I play this chromatic passage using ALL fingers switching from 1 on the note C to 5 on C♯. When executed right, this fingering results in a very frightening effect; a dark pianissimo atmosphere. It isn't the easiest fingering to come up with, and it took me some time to get it smooth. But after many exercises, smooth arm movement, and the correct form of the hand. IT SOUNDS LIKE NO OTHER FINGERING CAN SOUND. 

Liszt Mazeppa start fingering
Liszt Mazeppa start fingering

Another Liszt example is from the transcendental etude Mazeppa. Here Liszt himself indicated 4-2 for each third, which is harder to do in this fast tempo than 1-3/2-4. I use this fingering but change 2-4 here and there with 2-3 so that 3 goes over 4. This creates a bit more flexibility, in my opinion. Liszt's idea of this fingering is to make each third sound very brilliant and "super-articulated," and it is definitely worth the extra effort.


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Articulation

Articulation, how each note stands out from the other notes, is both a technical consideration as it is a musical decision of how much clarity we like to hear like we see in the previous example of Liszt's Mazeppa

A simple example is repeating notes on the same key. We can play them with alternating fingers on one note (1-2-3-4), like we do in Liszt's ‘Der Totentanz’ or (3-2-1-3-2-1) in Scarlatti's sonata in d-moll K141, both wonderfully performed by Martha ArgerichTo execute the notes fast and clear on the same key, we need to change fingers. 

We can use the same finger in repeating very rapid notes. Like at the beginning of Scarbo’ of Maurice Ravel played with both 2-3 together continuously on the same key so that the key doesn’t entirely come up. This is because alternated fingers on one key give more articulation, and the tempo is almost limitless. Using one finger (or two together) one the same key when playing repeating notes gives a more sustained sound. It is excellent for pianissimo playing creating a more vibrating tone.

Phrasing

Another musical reason is phrasing. What comes before a note, and where does it lead? Do we finish a phrase or sub-phrase in diminuendo or crescendo? Selecting an arm movement that improves a particular phrasing may require a special fingering that enhances the arm movement.

Haydn sonata F-dur first movement start fingering
Haydn sonata F-dur first movement start fingering

In this example of Haydn's F-dur sonata, we see short phrases of 3 notes. To ensure a smooth execution and finish the phrase with a light detached note, avoiding accents, I play this with an upward arm movement. On the third note, I don't play with the thumb but with the 2nd finger. The fingering, in combination with the arm movement, results in a precise execution without much effort.

Haydn sonata F-dur 2nd movement measure 5 fingering
Haydn sonata F-dur 2nd movement measure 5 fingering

Here we have another example out of the Haydn F-dur sonata, in this example from the 2nd movement Adagio. Here the fingering is mainly chosen because of how the fingering enhances the sound quality of these beautiful subtle melodic passages. The character is "poco espressivo" with a "free" sound. The arm movement goes hand in hand with the fingering; a slight up action on the first two notes followed by an upward motion towards the eighth note at the end of each small phrase. Gliding from D♭ to C in the first phrase, a quasi gliding from B♭ to A♭ with the help of a smooth arm movement.

Sound Colour

Scriabin prelude opus 11 no. 2 start fingering
Scriabin prelude opus 11 no. 2 start fingering

The Colour of sound is one of the most important motives for choosing fingerings. Chopin was perhaps the first pianist to talk about the different characters of each finger and the importance of this when deciding on a good fingering. Rachmaninov taught his students precisely that. I have a copy of the complete Scriabin preludes opus 11 with Rachmaninov’s fingerings. I was fortunate to get a copy of this score from Jean-Marie Cottet during a lecture he gave on fingering. He studied with Gina BachauerBachauer was Rachmaninov's pupil and learned all these Scriabin opus 11 preludes with him. Those fingerings are unconventional, using a lot of consecutive thumbs in fast passages to emphasize those notes.

Chopin Etude opus 10 no. 12 'Revolution Etude' fingering
Chopin Etude opus 10 no. 12 'Revolution Etude' fingering

The 4th and 5th fingers are naturally weaker and thinner, therefore easier to achieve specific sounds. However, that doesn’t mean that the thumb isn't able to play a beautiful pianissimo, or the 5th finger can’t play a colossal fortissimo. I broke most strings, and there were plenty that I snapped in my student years, with my 5th finger in the right hand! And often, they must exactly do that! In this example of Chopin's "Revolution etude," we see how the weak fingers 5 & 4 need to play vigorously and brilliantly. I tried to avoid it by using 5-3 instead of 5-4, but it didn't sound as well as 5-4. The key to making this passage succeed is a very fixed form of the hand. Being creative in choosing fingerings and arm movements will hugely increase your musical color palette.

Octaves

Octaves are very interesting in piano technique. They are very frequent in both melodic lines that are doubled in octaves and in virtuosic passages. They require good fingering and supple arm movements. Since the stretch in the hands when using 1-4 and even more so 1-3 in playing octaves increases, it is essential to use smooth arm movements and keep the wrists as loose as possible.

Chopin Nocturne opus 48 no 2 fingering legato octaves
Chopin Nocturne opus 48 no 2 fingering legato octaves

In this example from Chopin's nocturne opus 48 no. 2, we see the main melody doubled in octaves, as we often see when the expression intensifies. But the upper voice must be played "molto legato," meaning that the note must be held down until the following note is pressed. To achieve this, I use a lot 3-4-5 in the upper voice where 3 and 4 often cross the 5th finger. This, combined with a good arm movement, works very well. The thumbs also need a lot of flexibility and more vertical thumbs playing close to the black keys. There is a stretch, but we must find the right muscles in the lower arm, and then the stretch gets comfortable.


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Chopin octave etude opus 25 no 10 fingering
Chopin octave etude opus 25 no 10 fingering

When we look at Chopin's octave etude opus 25 no. 10, we see that Chopin writes "legato" at the very beginning of the etude. Of course, some composers weren't so accurate in writing pianistic instructions. Yet, in the case of Chopin, we need to take them very seriously. Chopin was very exact in writing what he wanted. He understood the pianistic implication of what he indicates more than any other. Also, in this etude, we need to use 5-4-3 in the outer voices of both hands to realize this legato

When learning this etude or any other octave passage, I make many outer voices exercises alone and special exercises for flexible thumbs. Don't be afraid for a little stretching and stretch from the lower arm with free wrists.

Note: Play octaves more into the keys. The thumbs shouldn't be further than one centimeter removed from the black keys. So legato playing gets possible.

Conclusion & Advice

Remember that each situation is different and asks for another solution depending on your experiencemusical intentions, pianistic intentions, hand shape, etc. But also know that being creative and experimental makes you a much more skilled pianist. So experiment, yet be aware of your intention.

When you find a fingering that serves your purposes best, WRITE IT DOWN. Perhaps later, you may come up with a more 'sophisticated' fingering, then again write it out. However, be consistent and aware of the fingering you use. Just randomly change fingerings causes you to play mistakes and results in an insecure performance. However, the more experienced you are, the easier it is to quickly change a fingering.

Trying out complex fingerings can increase your technical skills a lot. AND IT CERTAINLY IS NOT TRUE THAT THE BEST FINGERING IS ALWAYS THE ONE OF LEAST EFFORT. So in this sense, it is good to pick fingerings sometimes for practice purposes only and change them later on. Thus you can work on making specific fingers strongerfaster, and more flexible. Do this in technical etudes or even difficult passages in repertoire pieces. But only if you have enough time for it, meaning you don't need to perform it any time soon.

Bugs Bunny surprised looking at the music score

Steps towards Great fingerings

1.

Read the music and decide your first version of your fingering using as much information you have at the moment to make an intelligent choice. Then, take up a challenge and do plenty of exercises!

2.

Start to practice with these fingerings. As practice improves, you start to feel the music better both pianistically and musically. You may change the fingerings where needed and write them down.

3.

As you progress and start to play the piece, experiment with different fingering in places where you want to improve the sound or articulation. Sometimes a new fingering can do the trick; other times, it is just a matter of more practice.

4.

Eventually, stick with precise fingerings and master them thoroughly as not to mess up in a performance. When under stress, we rely on a solid muscle memory even more so.

5.

BE AWARE OF CHANGING FINGERINGS TOO CLOSE TO A PERFORMANCE.

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