Fingering Myths or Facts?

Question: My question is, how important is “correct” fingering when playing?

I recently downloaded (THANK YOU) your scales reference, which showed all twelve scales. I’m already familiar and comfortable with the scales, but your fingering was different than I’m used to.

When I learned to play the scales, I learned to play them all the same way, and with both hands simultaneously. I have no problem with it; it’s easy for me and I don’t make mistakes as a general rule.

I noticed that your written-in fingerings were different for each scale… why? What is so bad about playing them all the same way?

Along the same vein, I recently overheard a player mention that you should never play a black key with your thumbs. Internally, I thought, “I’ve been happily and accurately playing black keys with my thumbs for years… why not?”

Fingering rules like these seem to complicate and limit my playing, rather than help. Am I missing something? Is there a good reason for the fingering rules that I don’t realize?

I’ve always believed that music was ultimately about making beautiful sounds, and it seems counter-productive to me to make “making beautiful sounds” harder than it has to be with seemingly arbitrary fingering rules like these. In other words, if it sounds good, what’s the problem?

I’m asking because maybe there’s something you know that I don’t…

– Pedro

Albert’s reply: There’s no counterargument if you’re indeed making beautiful sounds. I do have to ask, though: Are you making the most beautiful sounds? Can you do so with ease using your fingerings? Can you do so at any tempo necessitated by the music? Do your fingerings permit any desired articulation or dynamics? If all of this is the case for you, then it would be pedantic to argue with you.

There are many instances in which I use nonstandard, and often outright unconventional, fingerings in my music. Some of my fingerings for the fugue of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata are so idiosyncratic that it would surprise me if other hands could use them comfortably. As I like to say, “Finger it out for yourself!”

That said, there are some essential rules of piano fingering, and these apply particularly to scales. There is a very good reason for the standard scale fingerings, and all standard scale fingerings derive from the first rule of piano fingering, namely the natural hand position. In this hand position, the longer inner fingers play the shorter (black) keys, while the shorter outer fingers play the longer (white) keys. The standard scale fingerings also allow for the greatest ease in passing the thumb, which is the primary technical difficulty of playing scales on the piano.

Thus, to address your question of whether the thumb may ever play a black key, the answer is of course it may; however, as a literal “rule of thumb,” it is usually impractical and clumsy to do so in scale passages.

I suggest first mastering the standard scale fingerings and then applying them in your music. If one or another scale passage in your music gives you less than ideal results, try altering the fingering, not for the scale in general, but only for that passage.

The opening page of Mozart’s famous Piano Sonata in C major, K. 545, is an ideal example. It would be awkward to the point of ridiculous to attempt to apply the standard fingerings for the C major scale literally:

Instead, logical, commonsensical rules should be applied to this passage:

This latter fingering makes it simple to learn and play the passage.

I recently recorded a whole course, Mastering Piano Scales, that will allow you to learn scales very quickly, with all the standard fingerings. In it, I also teach techniques with which you’ll learn to play scales fast and evenly and greatly increase your technical fluency.

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