Writing in Fingerings

Question: I am returning to playing the piano after 20 years. I took lessons from the age of 8 until I was 17. My problems are fingering, sight reading and arthritic fingers. It’s a real struggle. When I play a piece each time I use different fingers which really complicates the situation. I’m getting discouraged. I think maybe I should go back to more beginners’ pieces. Thank you.

– Christine (Topeka, Kansas, USA)

Albert’s reply: There is a very simple solution to your problem: Write in your fingerings. You should be able to look at any measure of your music and know instantly which note is to be played with which finger. If you’re unsure in the slightest, you need to write in your fingerings.

The purpose of writing in your fingerings is clarity. Obsessively writing every single fingering in every piece of music can be counterproductive; in some pieces this practice impedes clarity and will interfere with learning music. The fingering for many passages will be obvious. While Liszt’s music is among the most physically complex, very often – I dare say even most of the time – the fingering is self-evident; there is often only one option. In such cases, writing in every last finger number will sometimes make the music harder to read rather than easier.

There is one exception, fugues. The fugues of Bach are especially complex and they are enormous challenges for the memory. There is no room for any uncertainty, and writing in all fingerings in a fugue will provide the utmost clarity.

I learned this technique of writing in fingerings from Jörg Demus, who has the most astonishing memory of any pianist I’ve ever witnessed. Even in his eighties, Demus is able to play any work of Bach, Schumann, Debussy and other composers perfectly from memory. While it is clear that he has an unusual gift, he insists that he cultivated it through this technique of writing in fingerings and keeping his eyes on the score during practice. This is the way to reinforce the visual memory of your music.

(Note: I’m afraid I can’t address problems of arthritis, as I have neither the experience nor the qualifications to do so.)

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