The Two Commandments of Fingering

Fingering is one of those areas that drives students--especially adults - - crazy. It never seems to work the same way twice!

Don't despair. First of all, the fingering printed in the music is only a suggestion. Yes! It's not Holy Writ! You can change it!

Second, music is usually edited by adult males. Most piano students are not adult males.

Third, the editor basically puts in what feels good to his[her] hand, not necessarily what a student would select. The editor has played the piano for years and years and has lots of physical muscle memory in the hands so that they automatically go to certain fingering patterns. The student doesn't have this musical history. The student is still trying to figure out why some fingerings should be used in one place but not another.

Therefore, free your thinking!

The Two Commandments of Fingering

Here are the Two Commandments of Fingering I give my students:

I. Thou shalt not hop.
II. In any finger crossing, thou shalt use a thumb.

To illustrate Commandment I, if you are playing c-d-e-f-g-a with your right hand, you may not finger it 1-2-3-4-5-5. That is hopping. That is illegal. You'll have to tuck your thumb somewhere along the way instead. If you have a scalar passage in your music, it is perfectly acceptable to finger it 1-2-1-2-1-2-1-2. This is not the most efficient fingering, nor the most elegant, but hey! it works.

For Commandment II, an example would be fingering step-wise notes 2-3-2. Wrong! Using 2-3-1 is ok. So is 2-1-2 or even 2-1-3 (though this is an unlikely fingering for three step-wise notes). If you are going to do a finger crossing, one of those fingers has to be a thumb.

Bottom Line: Other than these two rules, use whatever fingering fits your hand and the musical demands of the passage (both before and after the place where the fingers are snarled).

Using a "New" Finger

I'd also like to add that the practice of using a "new" finger on all repeated notes is also not necessary. This is an artifact from the 19th century. Please feel free to use the same finger for all notes (unless you -want- to use a new finger). I also wish to say that there are times which using a new finger -is- a help, such as quickly-repeated notes (I am thinking of passages such as those for which Charles Hanon prepares us in his exercise #47).

While I am not advocating revolution(!), if your teacher asks you to use this fingering and it makes no sense to you in a particular context, you might ask if you could use another fingering instead and/or why changing fingers is necessary in this place. If your teacher insists, and it is an academic situation, you might as well give in and do it that way. Otherwise, I think you could make a strong case for "trying it both ways." Perhaps your teacher will allow you to make the choice based on what's best for your hand.

copyright 1996, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me about reprint permission.

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