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Are Editorial Fingerings Compulsory?

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Question: Is it essential to play or to require my students to play all indicated fingerings in early advanced pieces, i.e., Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu Op. 66, or Mozart’s Fantasia in D Minor? Although I can play and also teach pupils all of the indicated fingerings, I don’t understand why they are needed in some of the simplest of places, as in the latter example’s measures 20 and 35, especially while using the pedal, and in some of the more challenging places, like in the left hand of the second ending in the allegretto section. If I insist upon students’ strict adherence to these fingerings when there are what seem to be fine alternatives, am I building technical skill at the expense of intuitiveness regarding fingerings? I would appreciate your opinion very much.

– Anita (Berlin, New Jersey, USA)

Albert’s reply: There is no need to adhere blindly to editorial fingerings! Fingering is inherently something personal, suited to the individual hands. While there are passages in which a single straightforward fingering is self-evident, there is no “one-size-fits-all” fingering for most any given piece.

That said, it is essential that students learn the basic rules of piano fingering. In nearly all cases, editorial fingerings are adhered to automatically and without aforethought by piano students.

I believe students need to “finger it out for themselves!” The student’s first efforts at fingering his or her pieces should be made together with the experienced teacher. The learning process begins immediately upon any contact with a piece of music, and it is notoriously difficult to change a fingering that has been learned. If a student has been practicing with bad fingerings for the week leading up to the lesson, it may be too late to make a permanent change to good fingerings. It is much better to work out good fingerings together with the teacher in advance of learning the piece.

Some editions simply have poor fingering suggestions. In my article on so-called urtext editions I pointed out that Henle’s former edition of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier has fingerings designed for playing everything legato! The editors admittedly were in a difficult position because they did not wish to prescribe articulation (that is up to the individual performer and, most importantly, Baroque articulation is the domain of good higher-level music education), but the solution decided upon was in my opinion far worse, namely no articulation! Fortunately, the latest Henle edition of the Well-Tempered Clavier has excellent fingering suggestions by András Schiff. In the preface, he states that these are merely his suggestions and may be ignored if the player finds them unsuitable to his hands or musical concept.

Composers’ own fingerings (often indicated in italics) should be given closer attention. Still, they need to be understood in context. Some of them, such as the rare fingerings we have by Bach, may offer clues to Baroque articulation, but they are by far most relevant on an instrument of his time (clavichord or harpsichord) and may sound substantially different on a modern piano.

Other instances of composers’ fingerings should be regarded as definitive. An excellent example is Liszt’s Mazeppa, in which the hands alternate playing the bravura double thirds with fingers 2 and 4:

In this case, any other fingering would eliminate the wonderfully biting articulation of this passage. If you do choose a different fingering for this passage, you should make every effort to emulate the clear articulation and evenness attainable with Liszt’s suggested fingering.

For more information, please see the article Fingering Myths or Facts? for important guidelines on when to break the standard rules of fingering.

Finally, I wish to mention that my colleague Rami Bar-Niv wrote an excellent book of over 200 pages, The Art of Piano Fingering, dedicated to this topic, which I happily recommend.

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