What Is Fingering?

WHAT IS FINGERING AND WHEN DO WE USE IT?

Think of the fingers at the piano as a hand ballet, with complex interactions between the fingers, from hand to hand.

All those dazzling finger movements, to the layman, are incomprehensible. Imagine watching a great pianist for the first time and having no idea how their fingers are producing that glorious sound.

But there must be some order to those flying fingers, some categorizing principle that makes them usable as a human music machine.

And of course there is, and we call it “fingering.”

Since the early 1800s the fingers have been numbered as in the drawing below.

Diagram of piano fingering

Now imagine being a child of six, and you are being asked to learn new ways to use your fingers. Remember that the average child has never given two seconds of thought to their fingers before piano lessons, except perhaps to play “This Little Piggy.”

Children know the colloquial names like pinkie and pointer finger, so they have begun to distinguish between them. But no one ever suggested which fingers to use except perhaps to hold a pencil or tie shoes.

At the piano, the fingers are numbered and given certain regimented functions and configurations. It may seem a simple task to an adult to put the five fingers in a row, with the hand flat.

But if you put that task together with the maze of piano keys, kids start to have big problems navigating the keyboard with anything other than their index finger, their dominant finger.

It may be an easy thing to plunk out a song like Jingle Bells, especially with the index finger. And it is, if you use a simple starter method that relieves kids of the necessity of reading music in addition to the other mountain of tasks they must master at the piano.

But as soon as you introduce the idea that, “You played the right keys of Jingle Bells, but with the wrong fingers,” you have defeated the child’s naturally adventurous nature.

Let them find the keys first, then later restrict which fingers play. At least then you are building on some degree of confidence on the child’s part.

My suggestion is to defer the use of fingering until later. And I think the same thing about reading music. These things must obviously be mastered, but when they must be mastered is an entirely different question. The answer is resoundingly, “Not in the beginning.”

The dogma is, of course, “Fingering must be instilled in the beginning, or bad habits will be formed.”

That’s a statement I actually agree with, partially, that fingering needs to be an early part of the lesson curriculum, I’m just modifying it by saying, “Early, yes, but not right at first.”

The reason for deferring fingering is that children are overwhelmed by the multiple tasks conventional lessons demand right from the beginning.

Rather than begin with frustration about fingering, let them play with their index finger(s) so they start to observe the keyboard while they play, and are generally comfortable and not stressed at the idea of the piano.

Your very first objective should be to let the child gain a general idea of what it is like to make music at the piano. If you don’t establish that, you really haven’t done anything, and have nothing to build on. It’s not time for criticism; it’s time for a sense of what the rewards of the work will be.

So let them play Jingle Bells for a while with whatever finger comes to their mind. Observe what choices of finger they make. Suggest but do not insist on any finger configuration.

As soon as they are comfortable with one finger, start asking them to play with two index fingers. Praise the use of multiple fingers.

Next, start playing finger games with the first three fingers of the right hand. I play a game called Threesies, in which the three fingers are used as a group, over and over as they go up the piano.

You must give them an idea of what fingering is as a separate element, separate from reading music, separate from everything else. That’s the only way they can absorb it for themselves.

If you were using Piano by Number, Threesies would be this sequence of keys, played with the first three fingers of the right hand:

123 234 345 456 567 678 etc.(the numbers refer to the piano keys, which have been numbered.)

If you use this approach, sooner or later children will convince themselves that putting their fingers in a row is the best solution to most of the problems at the piano. But give them the space to almost discover fingering for themselves.

When a child watches an adult play the piano well, all they can think about is, “How can you move your fingers so fast?”

When they ask that question, they have fallen into your trap, and you should answer, “I can play so fast because my fingers are all in a row. That’s what fingering is really for.”

Here are some sarcastic comments I make as they start to learn fingering:

“Oh, so you were born with only one finger?”

“Hey, I see other fingers curled up under there. Bring ‘em out, mister.”

“Well, why not just play it with your nose, why don’t you?”

And then of course play a song with your nose. This will lead to extended nose hijinks, as well as toe-playing, (yes, kids will play with their toes if you let them.) But it sets a tone of light-hearted exploration that is perfect for a child’s first few piano lessons.

Once the idea of fingers in a row is established, allow them two modes to play a song: with or without fingering. You will find this is a great tension reliever. The fact is that kids can play almost any song if they don’t have to worry about fingering, but when you ask for fingering their performance will degrade a little bit, and they will feel confused.

The solution is that when they have difficulty with fingering, insist that they stop and play the passage with their index finger so they can convince themselves that they do, in fact, know how to play the song and the piano, in their own fashion.

It’s important for their self-esteem for them to know that fingering is difficult for everyone and we understand the confusion it causes. Make sure they don’t feel “stupid,” and explain that the majority of kids have difficulties with fingering.

The ultimate law of children’s fingering is to delay it until other skills, which contribute to the overall success, can be learned.

Get them playing first. Let them enjoy it.

Once you are sure of that, their fingers still have time to learn where to go.

Deferring fingering leaves no bad habits, and in fact cures the worst habit of all at the piano.

The worst habit you can have at the piano is not wanting to play.

Copyright 2017 Walden Pond Press

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