Fingering Followup: a Checklist

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Boy on bike in the forestA couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about why you should write less fingering in your music. I started getting quite a number of questions and some nervous reaction to the post, so I’d like to post this followup to clarify some of those questions.

Some people seemed to think I was advocating not writing in fingering at all, which is not what I meant. I do write fingering in my music, and I can’t imagine that there is any harpist who doesn’t.

But there are important distinctions to be made between which fingering is necessary or even essential, and why, and which fingering is not only unnecessary but quite possibly counter-productive. When you are using fingering markings correctly, they will help you play your pieces more reliably, fluidly and musically. When you are using your fingering markings incorrectly, you are likely actually slowing down your technical and musical development. Who needs that?!

So to help you make these distinctions and keep your harp playing on the right track, I  I have created a short checklist. Look over some music you are learning currently or have learned recently to see how your fingering stacks up. 

Two types of fingering

There are really two basic types of fingering markings. First is training fingering.  Training fingering is especially useful for beginning harpists and for developing finger agility.  It is complete; nearly every note will have a fingering indicated. The point of this fingering method is to help train the fingers, develop technique and teach the fingers the most common patterns that they will need to play effortlessly. You will see this fingering in pieces written for beginners, and exercises and etudes.

The other type of fingering marking is reminder fingering.  This is the more usual type of fingering.  When it is printed in the music, it is meant to be a suggestion to help you play a difficult or tricky passage.  This is also the kind of marking that you will see more advanced harpists make in their music. It is meant to help them in a special situation, to remind of fingering they need to use to prevent errors, or to learn a tricky spot. It is usually just a couple of finger numbers, or maybe just a measure or two. A variation of this kind of fingering is the fingering that is put in music by harpist-composers like Renie, Salzedo or Grandjany.  This fingering may be more complete, and it is the composer’s way of indicating their musical or fingering preference.

Remove the training wheels

Once a harpist has learned basic scales, chords, and arpeggio patterns, most “training fingering” should be unnecessary. Indeed, if the player continues to use it, it will likely become a crutch, a substitute for reading the notes. It’s a little like training wheels on a bicycle: they’re helpful to beginners but in order to really ride the bicycle, you need to take them off.

When you need fewer fingering markings you will discover some important things:

  • Your page will be cleaner and easier to read.
  • You will recognize musical patterns more quickly.
  • Your sightreading will improve.
  • You will learn to trust your fingers.
  • Your attention will be freed up to concentrate on musical concerns.
  • You will learn music faster.

The checklist

Here is my checklist to help you eliminate unnecessary fingering and help speed you on your way.

  1. Write only the fingering you need. For instance, never write “4 3 2 1” when just “4” will give you the information you need.
  2. Don’t finger common patterns like scales, arpeggios or intervals. Learn to recognize them with your fingers and your mind. Let all those exercises you have practiced work their magic. Your fingers know how to play these patterns – let them.
  3. Keep your page uncluttered so you can read the notes, not the numbers.
  4. Remember that fingering is not a “forever” choice. Your hand won’t always feel the same; you can change your mind. In fact, it’s ok not to use the same fingering every time, if you don’t have any trouble playing the music.
  5. Most importantly, nobody listening to you cares what fingering you use. Just make the music.

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  • Denise

    Thank you so much for these articles. I find them so very helpful. I appreciate all that you offer to us; especially your time and care for our progress. Thank you. Bless you. ~Denise

    Reply

  • BJ

    I just have to comment as despite still struggling with learning to read music, I used to write all the note names in and all the fingering numbers in too which made the score very messy indeed!

    I made a decision not to write the note names in earlier this year which has made things a bit slower BUT I never made a decision about the finding but amazingly I rarely write it in now! Perhaps this is because I have reverted to easier pieces due to the level of sight reading (grade 1) or perhaps it is because my fingers are actually learning what to do themselves.

    Your post makes a while lot of sense to me, thanks

    Reply

    • Anne

      It sounds like things are on the right track with you, BJ. When we learn to trust our fingers, everything gets easier. And that trust only comes from two things: plenty of technical drill and deciding to let go and let your fingers learn to do their job. Keep going – you’re well on your way!

      Reply

  • Cheryl Murphy

    I am probably overly concerned about fingerings. I have been playing a long time but feel like with various teachers I missed out on important “basics.” Like learning to walk without crawling. I’m going back to earlier exercise books. I feel like I never learned the “training fingerings” well. I have an extensive piano/organ background and am a great sight-reader. Sometimes I think that is a hindrance. That ability allows me to “cheat” on sound fingerings. Another reason to back up and reinforce what I have and have not learned about good solid technique as it relates to just “knowing” the fingerings through a solid foundation. You make some great points. I do know multiple fingers written in clutter up the processing of playing the music!

    Reply

    • Anne Post author

      You’re right, Cheryl – the training fingerings are critical. Without knowing the time-honored (i.e., most efficient) ways to finger the idiomatic patterns, your fingers will never feel truly comfortable and your technique won’t develop properly. But remember, those are lifetime skills – whatever you didn’t learn earlier, you can learn now!

      Reply

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