Following the Fingering in Printed Scores

Looking at Disqus recently I saw the following question:

When we are playing piano do we really need to follow the fingering as written on the piece?

Here is my answer:

It is often a good idea to follow the fingering given by the editor, but it is far from being obligatory. It is absolutely NOT true that the fingering given is the BEST because there is no such thing as a BEST fingering for all pianists. Pianist’s hands vary in span from tiny things that struggle to make an octave to great spades that can cover an octave and a half, and fingers from spindly little things to great fat sausages that won’t fit between the black keys.

It would be absurd to think that there is a single fingering that is right for everyone. At best the suggested fingering in any edition will work well most of the time for most hands, so long as their owner accepts a conventional or traditional interpretation of the music.

Why do I say that they should be happy with a conventional interpretation? Because the choice of fingering affects the legato, the phrasing, and the distribution of stress and release throughout the music. It is not simply a matter of finding something mechanically possible and comfortable.  Different musicians have different ideas on these matters, and they affect the fingering.

Bear in mind too that the fingering suggested in an edition might be the result of years of experience by a good concert pianist, or it might be the hurried work of some hack that does not play especially well and has a deadline to meet.

In practice I have found that most editions give a fingering that is biassed towards the smaller hand. I presume that is because it is expected that most of the learners that need help with fingering are children or adolescents.  As someone with hands that are about average-sized for a man, but with a wider stretch than you’d expect, I often find that the indicated fingering just does not work for me.

Finally, published fingerings, especially in old editions, often embody some outdated ideas such as NEVER use the thumb on a black note, or ALWAYS change fingers on a repeated note, and they introduce contortions or unnatural and difficult fingering to conform to those ideas.

In the end every pianist needs to work out their own fingering.  One good approach is to learn some principles, but be prepared to ignore them if they do not produce the musical effect that you want, and/or do not suit your particular hands.

Thasya Novita (the person that started the discussion) went on to ask:

But my teacher always told me to not use the thumb on a black note and to follow the fingering as noted. Do you think that she’s wrong?

That depends on what stage Thasya is at in learning the piano.  There are good reasons for avoiding the use of the thumb on black keys most of the time, but there are situations where it is necessary and where avoiding it can involve  going through difficult contortions for no good purpose.

So strictly speaking, Yes, her teacher is wrong if she says that it is always incorrect to use thumbs on black notes. If that is what the teacher truly believes then I think the teacher has a problem. But in advising her student to avoid thumbs on black keys and to follow the fingering in the sheet music she might well be telling  her what is best for her development as a pianist right now.

When we are learning new things it is often necessary to hear a simplified (and hence incorrect or incomplete) story for now and to learn the full truth later, when we have more experience.  A lot of misunderstanding of musical matters is because many folk continue to believe that the simplified stories they were told when they were beginners are the absolute truth.

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