Changing Fingerings

Question: When sight reading new music by professional piano players, are the fingering positions subject to interpretation or are the fingerings “set in stone”?

– Don (Hillsborough, New Jersey, USA)

Albert’s reply: Editorial fingerings are essentially always to be understood merely as suggestions. The editor may (or in some cases may not!) be a professional pianist, and his (or her) fingerings were made for his hands. They were designed to work at the editor’s tempo, and not all fingerings are practical for faster (or sometimes slower) tempos.

Personally, I wish sheet music editions had no fingerings as standard practice, since piano students need to learn to “finger it out for themselves”! Unfortunately, scores without fingerings sell very poorly compared to fingered editions. Students desire to avoid the additional work of devising their own fingerings. Moreover, they generally feel obligated to use the editor’s fingerings even if they don’t fit the student’s hands. As a result, generations of students never learn the basic rules of piano fingering. By extension, they fail to develop the most effective piano technique, since a good technique makes use of the physiology of the hand and the geography of the piano keyboard.

Composers’ Fingerings

Composers’ fingerings are a different matter. The vast majority of classical composers specified fingerings only exceedingly rarely. This fact implies that the few instances of composers’ fingering are all the more significant and therefore should be considered carefully.

The above does not mean that composers’ fingerings are to be adopted blindly. In all cases, the reasons the composer wrote the fingerings must be taken into consideration. Often a given fingering is instrument-specific, as is the case with Baroque fingerings for keyboard music, which were written for clavichord, harpsichord or organ. An entire book, or at least a very long chapter thereof, could be devoted to this topic. Let it suffice for the purpose of this article to state that fingerings designed for the piano’s predecessors do not always work as well on the modern piano, with its far heavier action, longer sustain, greater key depth and wider keys.

An example is in the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in A major, Op. 2, No. 2:

This fingering may be very awkward for many pianists. It was designed for the featherlight, shallow actions and narrow keys of the fortepianos of Beethoven’s time and may be impracticable on the modern piano for smaller hands, who are free to split the work among the hands, in which case the left hand would take the first note of each triplet.

Sometimes the composer suggested fingerings for his students, as is the case with Chopin and Mozart. Chopin often wrote different fingerings for different students, in which cases we are free to choose among them or to invent our own altogether if it is appropriate.

Always consider the purpose of the composer’s fingerings. In some cases, the fingering is designed to effect a particular articulation or sound. An excellent example is Liszt’s Mazeppa:

This fingering should be adhered to, since it determines the sharp, biting articulation of this passage! (That said, I have discovered that many concert pianists change to an easier fingering. As long as it can be performed cleanly, with the desired articulation, I can’t object.)

Sometimes a fingering is designed for a given technical purpose, as is the case with etudes. It would defeat the purpose of the etude to change the fingerings. Sure, you could cheat and use the other hand, but arguably only to your detriment. You may well discover a slight variation in fingering that fits your hands better. As long as you retain the composer’s intention to the best of your ability to discern it, it’s perfectly fine to adjust such fingerings slightly.

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