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Finger Numbers

reading music

Question: I can read notes but I don’t know which finger I’m going to use with that note. I just wish to have sheet music with finger number on every note or notes/number/finger chart.

– Josh Jardinel (Philippines)

Albert’s reply: There are several things in your question that are of relevance to piano fingering. First, a universal piano fingering chart isn’t possible because fingering is different for each piece and each player.

That said, it’s essential to learn the standard fingerings for piano scales and arpeggios (broken chords). Start with the major scales for piano and then learn the minor scales. Then learn all arpeggios in root position, and finally learn all inversions.

Mastering scales and arpeggios will resolve very many questions of piano fingering, since in most cases the standard fingerings are used wherever a given scale or arpeggio is used in actual music.

I advocate the practice of writing in your fingerings as you study your music, generally following the rule of piano fingering. Write them in large enough so that they’re easily readable, and cross out any editor’s fingering suggestions that fail to fit your hand or your interpretation so that your eye isn’t confused by conflicting finger numbers.

This means that you can’t always rely on the fingerings printed in your sheet music, as they are the product of the editor (in most cases) for his hands, not yours. As explained in the article on so-called “Urtext” editions, I greatly prefer and advocate unfingered sheet music editions, since all pianists need to go through the important step of discovering good fingerings for each passage of each piece. Ideally, you should devise fingerings that are both comfortable and express your musical intent in terms of articulation and dynamics.

The more complex the music, the more important it is to write in your fingerings. For fugues by Bach I write in every single fingering. I learned this method from the great Austrian pianist Jörg Demus, who in his 80s can play any work by Bach perfectly from memory. He attributes his memory feats to this fingering method and teaches it to all his students.

At a very beginning level there will mostly likely be a single “correct” fingering for a given piece, and you should generally stick with your teacher’s or the editor’s fingering in this case. As you progress to intermediate-level music, you’ll find that there are multiple possibilities for piano fingering that change according to your hands and – more importantly – the musical effect you wish to achieve. At this point you’ll need to “finger it out for yourself”!

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