Fingering Fixations

Years ago, when I lived in Aberdeen, I was horrified to pick up the local newspaper one morning and see a devastating quasi war zone photo on the front page. It was of a pile of bricks. A gas explosion had completely destroyed the home of Donald Hawksworth, retired music advisor, organist, and pianist.

Nothing was saved from the wreckage. Fortunately, at the time Donald was overseas examining for ABRSM, but on his return he literally had to replace every one of his worldly possessions. How could anyone come to terms with such misfortune? What does one say to a friend who has suddenly become homeless/possessionless?

I trembled nervously before picking up the phone to offer Donald sympathy… and was amazed at the upbeat and positive response offered in return: ‘Oh the insurance will cover everything. I am not bothered about anything… except the Bach. I had the complete organ music with all of my fingerings written in, and that is a serious loss. How to start again after so much work? I need my fingering for my recitals’.

Music may be the most indefinable, transient art. It may thrive on living in the moment and be subject to constant adjustment and change, but for many fingering remains one of the most crucial foundational building blocks for reliability, control, security, and assimilation. On a practical sense at the highest professional level, it can make all the difference. Stephen Hough is very specific about its importance:

‘So many times, in my career I’ve had to revise a piece at short notice, and I have returned to my score, seeing there all my observations from another time. It’s not just that it saves time, but it instantly reacquaints me with my research from earlier.’

            Stephen Hough

My own teacher Peter Katin always recommended concentrating on fingering in the very early stages of learning a piece. He even went as far as to suggest fingering every single note in extremely complicated passages.

Rumour has it that the pianist Michael Ponti did just that for many of the most complicated works when he was learning and memorising the complete works of Scriabin in the 1960s. But this is not only true for professional musicians. From the earliest stages in learning onwards, fingering is absolutely crucial.

Simon Bottomley is a remarkably successful teacher who has worked at Chetham’s for many years. He has no doubts about placing an emphasis on detailed, specific fingerings for even the youngest of students:

‘I think it is vitally important.  When starting a new piece, the first thing you have to do is spend as much time as necessary working out how you are going to finger every passage. Notes and fingering go hand in hand. Your fingers have to remember and repeat the same movements every time so that they don’t play wrong notes. 

Photo: Simon Bottomley

If you play a passage using different fingers every time, then you are just creating confusion in your mind and hand. With pupils it can be a constant battle reminding them to use the correct fingering! The rewards of patient hard work are worth it… and are seen when students can give fluent, stress-free performances.’

Of course, there are many who would feel alarmed at the thought of literally fingering every note in a piece, but Simon points out that practical considerations often mean that this extremely rigorous process can yield remarkable results:

‘I recently gave a 7-year-old pupil Bach’s C minor Prelude and Fugue from Volume 1. It was the natural progression, but he has small hands, he can’t play an octave cleanly yet. I wasn’t sure he would manage it, but by rearranging a couple of the fingerings that I normally use he was able to learn it fluently separately in a week and then together a week later. If I hadn’t fingered every note and made sure he stuck to it, he wouldn’t have managed to do it that quickly and easily.’

For keyboard and string instruments, the basics of fingering are often assimilated through mastery of basic scale patterns. Revision of these is akin to multiplication tables in mental arithmetic and stands as the basis for much ensuing development.

Of course, there are a number of specific principles that all instrumentalists need to be familiar with too in order to develop confidence and facility with fingering. Players and teachers should never lose sight of the fact that simplicity is most effective for secure reliability. It is all too easy to become over-whelmed with complications!

Keyboard players need to be mindful of symmetry between the hands. What works well with one hand alone can be a disaster when the other hand joins in! Pianists in particular need to make conscious decisions about where their thumbs should be placed in virtually every passage they play.

If scales are the basis, then pianists may well be wooed by Penelope Roskell’s lateral thinking in her stimulating book ‘The Art of Fingering: A new approach for scales and arpeggios’. It is fascinating and helpful, as well as logical, to see the way in which Penny takes generation of the old fingering conventions and turns them on their proverbial heads, giving players fresh alternatives for consideration.

Her fingering charts, exercises and examples are most inspiring.

However, the most systematic ‘course’ book on piano fingering I have encountered to date is The Art of Piano Fingering by Rami Bar-Niv, which serves in 200 pages as a comprehensibly logical guide from the earliest stages up to the most advanced repertoire.

Beginning with basics and principles designed to prevent injury and encourage healthy development, the book is saturated with wonderful examples and illustrations that encompass phrasing and movement as well as conventional patterns and orthodox techniques.

A fascinating yet always practical guide.

For advanced pianists and connoisseurs of pianism, The Performing Pianist’s Guide to Fingering’ by Joseph Banowetz with contributions from Philip Fowke and Nancy Lee Harper is a remarkable treasure trove of creative insights into the concert repertoire.

It is wonderful to savour ideas from Dame Myra Hess, Alfred Cortot and Benno Moiseiwitsch in particular. Banowetz writes with inspiration and clarity, whilst Philip Fowke’s presentation of Moiseiwitsch’s re-arrangements, additions and fingering suggestions are truly game-changing.

Nancy Lee Harper’s ambitious survey of the challenges faced when dealing with the universe that is pre classical music makes one all too aware of just how daunting yet stimulating fingering as a comprehensive subject truly is.

So how do we stop students feeling overwhelmed with choice and possibility? Heribert Koch is internationally renowned for his persuasive and sensitively thoughtful work as a pedagogue. How does he approach fingering with students?

‘I am very much in favour of conscious fingering. And consciousness can certainly have the result that one specific passage has one fixed fingering. But the idea as such of one fixed fingering is not my starting point’.

Photo: Heribert Koch

And how can one stimulate creativity in a student’s approach to fingering?

‘I try to make them aware about how much a fingering can influence the musical expression. Just to mention one element of my teaching in this context: I do quite often recommend practicing a fingering which seemingly contradicts principles of physical economy. So, for example, when I am on the way from one note to the next, I may on purpose avoid the finger which is already on this next key.

Because the necessity of moving to a different finger naturally encourages or even provokes a physical flexibility which can have a great impact on the flexibility of the musical declamation and articulation. The ideal result of such practice is a liveliness in which a superficially uniform texture is enriched by many subtle nuances that might be described as “micro-rubato” and “micro-articulation.

It goes without saying that this flexibility in which the musical and the physical perception interact is also the key to solving many pianistic problems from a musical perspective which may otherwise be regarded as merely “technical” issues. And it is also clear that a logical result of such practice will be a further flexibility in terms of being able to change the fingering of a passage even shortly before a performance.’

Of course, ultimately, we all need to find our own ‘fingering voice’. Textbooks and guidance from mentors are wonderful, but fingering is a highly personal art. In the preface to his ‘Douze études’ Debussy argues strongly against books printing set fingerings:

‘A predefined fingering cannot, obviously suit all the many different shapes of hands’, concluding with ‘If you want something done well, do it yourself’ and ‘Cherchons nos doigtés!’ (‘Let us find our own fingerings!’).

Clearly fingering is an organic, vital part of the creative and learning process. It is hard to over-emphasise its significance through what can often be a lifetime’s musical journey of learning, performing, relearning and reperforming and repertoire.

Let’s give the final word to Stephen Hough, who’s annotated scores, his ‘notebooks of study’ may well in future years be analysed by pianophiles, just as we can study Benno Moiseiwitsch’s scores through Philip Fowke’s wonderful scholarship today. It is wonderful to know that Stephen retains his pencilled scores for reference:

‘For me fingering is part of the creative process of learning a piece. Deciding on specific fingerings, after trying every possible alternative, and then writing them in the score is my way to delve deep into the physical side of the piece. The score is your notebook of study. Write in it!’

4 thoughts on “Fingering Fixations

  1. Valerie Joan Kraemer says:

    Abolutely. Mapping out a fingering early on. Sometimes, one can solve a fingering problem during memorization. I use alternate fingerings in Bach repeated sections when I vary the ornaments and articulations. I also am a great supporter of transfers on the note, rarely, if ever, found in editions. I keep Liszt’s and Chopin’s fingerings, unless, for a certain piano, original fingering needs an adjustment due to unusual sustain
    in the instrument. Then instead of an all-pedal wash I modify and do transfers with changes of pedal.

  2. David Galvani says:

    I love Hawksworth’s view that it is the personally marked scores that are irreplaceable on the insurance. I have started rebinding my old copies to stop their loss page by page.
    Nice article MM.

  3. Michael Smith AMusA BEdMus says:

    Fingering when learning a piece is equally as important as the notes! I write them in where needed ( more is better than less) and I try and test them and and often change them. But they must be set in concrete! Only then can you master the piece and then concentrate of the memory and interpretation.

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