Helpful tips to improve your piano fingering

Fingering is a crucial element in piano playing and, surprisingly, it’s often overlooked even at advanced levels, says Melanie Spanswick. 


Fingering is necessary because it helps a pianist to remember which one of their four fingers or thumb (in each hand) is required to play a particular note or notes. It’s a really useful skill to cultivate as without it, piano playing can become haphazard and uneven, and it’s challenging to achieve any kind of consistency or fluency without sticking to the same finger patterns in a piano piece.

Some pieces will have all the fingering written in whilst others will need it annotated on the score. A good teacher will write the necessary fingerings on the music so that when you practise you will know exactly which finger goes where. This is vital for smooth, fluent playing. Initially, your piano scores will show you how the fingers are numbered (from 1–5, starting with the thumb). It is advisable to use the same fingers each time you practise your pieces so that the fingering becomes a habit. This will help you play the piece accurately every time.

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to fingering as every one of us has a different-sized hand, but, hopefully, the following suggestions may be helpful.

  1. Aim to know all the standard fingerings for scales (particularly contrary motions), arpeggios, and broken chords. If you know these fingerings, you will have a substantial advantage when learning any repertoire, but especially in Baroque and Classical styles, where scale passages, arpeggios and broken chords abound. It might be prudent to learn two or three different fingerings for chromatic scales, and a couple for chromatic thirds as well.
  2. Know where your thumbs are at all times, and where they should be! Even when passage work isn’t symmetrical, the thumbs can stabilise the hand and being aware of where they fall in rapid figurations aids the memory, making fingering easier to grasp.
  3. I advise my students to play ‘in position’ as much as possible. This involves limiting turning the hand or changing hand positions. Many hand turns can easily lead to a bumpy, uneven musical line (this happens when there are too many thumbs on the scene!). If you can use the outer parts of the hand, or the fourth and fifth finger, as much as the inner part (the thumb and second finger), not only will the hand appear balanced, but it should also feel more natural to play without so much movement. However, the fourth and fifth finger will need to be sufficiently firm in order to do this.
  4. Finger substitution and finger sliding both ultimately provide legato. Changing fingers or finger substitution involves playing a note, and, once the key is depressed, quickly replacing whatever finger you used to play the note with another, whilst keeping the key held, allowing for smooth note transition, honouring the musical line. Similarly, sliding fingers, using the same finger to slide, from one note to another, almost without breaking the musical line, virtually connecting the notes, also offers an overall impression of legato.
  5. Once you’ve decided on your fingering, DO NOT change it. This is a cardinal rule: when you change or substitute fingers after working at the original fingering for a while, the brain has already wired these finger movements and cancelling them will be awkward, to say the least. Practice tends to make permanent, so spend some time writing your fingering in the score before you begin studying a piece, and be quite sure your chosen fingerings suit your hand and you are happy with them.

About the author

Melanie Spanswick
Melanie Spanswick

Melanie Spanswick is a pianist, writer, teacher, adjudicator and composer. She is the author of Play it again: PIANO (Schott) a three-book piano course for students who are returning to piano playing.

www.melaniespanswick.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

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