What Fingerings Should I Use?

December 4, 2018

 

These are the inevitable questions that come up during practice and in lessons: what fingering should I use? The fingerings in the book do not fit my hands comfortably--what should I do? There are no fingerings in the book...help! In this post, I will provide some quick things to consider.

 

Do Not Always Take Fingerings at Face Value

 

Claude Debussy famously stated in the preface of his Etudes that he did not believe in providing fingerings in the music because he felt that all fingers and hands come in different sizes and shapes. Perhaps his most revealing (and my favorite) quote: 

 

"In sum, the absence of fingering is an excellent exercise: it suppresses the spirit of perversity that compels us to abandon the fingering of the composer and vindicates those words of eternal wisdom, ‘If you want something done well, do it yourself’. Let us find our own fingerings!"

 

I love this quote because it liberates pianists from following fingerings unquestionably. Instead of relying what is printed on the score, pianists should experiment to see what fingerings are suited best to their physical layouts. For example: my fingers are on the thicker side. When trilling and depending on the context, I often experiment with alternating between fingers 1-3-2-3 on white keys. On black and white key alternations, I often employ 3-5, instead of using the traditional 2-3 fingers.  

 

To be clear, I am not advocating to abandon the traditional scale, arpeggio, chord, etc. fingerings, but merely to suggest that determining fingerings can be a creative exercise—not an automatic one.

 

Be Sure to Test Your New Set of Fingerings

 

Picture this: you are going shoe shopping. You go through the store and browse the collection to see if there any shoes that are fashionable, stylish, and ultimately, the best fit. After trying on a pair that looks promising, you walk around in various speeds while feeling the heel, sole, base, etc. to test that these shoes are indeed comfortable. 


Trying out new fingerings is done in a similar way. In order to determine if the fingering is comfortable, however, I suggest breaking down the passages into tiny bits and practicing them at a faster tempo (or in some cases, faster than the intended performance tempo). This way, you can have a much better idea whether these fingerings will work for you at the end. I outlined this creative practice process specifically in an earlier post

 

Musical context should also be considered

 

Ultimately, the fingerings that you decide should be a means of conveying the appropriate musical expression. If a passage needs to be soft and light, think about the combination of fingers that could achieve the effect. Additionally, examining and considering the composer's indication of fingers can also help in communicating the essence of the music. See Example 1 (below) for instance:

 

 

Example 1. Franz Liszt, Transcendental Etude, "Mazeppa"

 

Here, Liszt's fingerings are quite revealing: notice that he indicated the thirds with fingers 4 2 in both hands. At first glance, this choice seems odd, especially when one can use an easier set of fingerings that can create a more smooth, connected sound. But that is the point...with these specific fingerings, Liszt clearly wanted a separated, short, and disconnected sound. This is a great example of technique in collaboration with the music.

 

Hope that this post was helpful and that it provided some insight into how to determine fingerings!

 

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