Developing Fingering Confidence

Question: I am a senior citizen who has dreamed of learning to play the piano since childhood. I have learned a lot on my own, and started taking lessons two years ago. I am very frustrated and feel like giving up as I cannot seem to master a fluid sound. It always sounds so choppy and mechanical as I am so focused on getting the right fingering, that I hesitate between notes until I’m sure I’ve got the right ones with the right fingers.

My teacher tells me to let go of my ego and just keep going, but I have always thought that striving to get it right is the goal. This is so hard for me, I told her today that maybe it’s just something you’re either born with or not, and I wasn’t. I practice everyday, and work at this very hard.

Why is it that some people can just float through the music and then people like me have to work so hard at it? I’ve bought so many books on fingering skills and none of it seems to help me. I want to be a musician, not just technically correct, but it isn’t happening for me. What can I do to help me overcome this handicap? Thanks for any advice and for the free lessons. You play beautifully.

– Barb (Springfield, Virginia, USA)

Albert’s reply: Thanks very much for your question and your kind compliment. To address the issue of practicing first, it’s absolutely correct to be absolutely certain of the note, your finger and the corresponding key before you press it. Never allow yourself to stumble in practice, hitting the right keys by chance. This will only be destructive to the learning process. Don’t let yourself “let go” until you are absolutely certain of each note. You must learn the music first!

As for fingering, be sure to write in your fingerings. You don’t necessarily have to write in every last one, unless you’re learning very complex music such as fugues. Your goal should be to be able to look at any measure and know immediately which finger plays which note.

Additionally, stare at the music while practicing, for three primary reasons: First, you’ll practice with consistent fingerings. Second, keeping your eyes on the music will allow your brain to absorb the visual information in the music; you’ll thus take a “mental photo” of the score. Third, ironically, it will give you greater security and confidence in your fingering. The more you can train yourself to play without having to look at your hands, the more confident you will be.

Finally, I suspect that a major cause of the choppiness you describe is the lack of fluency in your movements. There’s something quite mysterious about the piano in that while it’s a purely mechanical device, our movements above the keys really do matter in that they influence the sound. There should be in effect one fluid motion of the hand and wrist per “unit” of music (a unit being anything that belongs together as part of a single, coherent musical idea).

Choppy motion creates a choppy sound. Even where we need to displace the hand, such as in a left hand accompaniment with leaps, we should not break up the hand movement by first moving the hand to the new key before playing it. Only touch the key at the exact moment you press it! This is a rule that will give you greater confidence in your fingering and learning as well as greater musical fluency.

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