Forget the Fingering!

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What?! Forget the fingering?!Paint by number - The Astronaut

We harpists need our fingering so that we can play smoothly and musically, and so our practice will be efficient. Those fingering marks are essential for us, right? Not really, or at least, not as much as you think.

Consider this paint by number illustration. Those numbers in the picture show us which color to put where. When we follow the numbers, we can see the picture. We usually think of fingering the same way: when we follow the fingering, we can play the music. What’s wrong with that?

Simply that following the fingering instead of the music will give us the same result as painting by number. We get the basic idea, but no one will call it great art.

I will agree that fingering is important, and I usually ask my students to follow fingering that is printed in their music. But I also insist that they learn to play without marking in fingering. And here’s why…
First, fingering can become a reading “crutch.” Every time that we tell ourselves that following the fingering is important, we remove ourselves from reading what is actually inportant on the page – the notes. We should be actively involved in reading the notes when we play; after all, that is where the music is. When we read the notes, we can see musical pattern and form. We can begin to feel the energy that animates the piece and create the musical mood. When we are reading the fingering, we are merely practicing mechanics. No accurate fingering can substitute for musical sensibility.

Reading the fingering first also slows down the learning process. We can only see one note and finger at a time, instead of seeing longer patterns and phrases. These tiny bits of information are much harder to assimilate and remember from one practice session to the next.

So what are you supposed to do instead?

Keep in mind that the scales, arpeggios and exercise patterns that you practice daily all serve to “teach” your fingers how to play those patterns. One of the main purposes of that kind of technical work is to cement these patterns in your fingers so they can automatically recognize and execute them. But if you write every finger in, especially before you begin to learn the piece, you are preventing the “notes-to-fingers” connection from becoming speedy and reliable. In essence, you’ve wasted a lot of practice time. Better to let your fingers do what you have been training them to do: play on their own.

Also remember that whatever fingering you use, the end result is what matters. I had another harpist ask me once how I was able to manage such a beautiful four finger trill at the end of one piece on a recording. My answer? I only used three fingers. The trill fingering didn’t matter nearly as much as the trill itself.

I don’t mean to suggest that you should never write fingering in your music. In fact, there are two occasions that require you to write in fingering. One is when you need to choose a fingering for a tricky passage. This is a practice aid, and not a practice crutch. And the other is when you need a reminder of a finger placement. You may only need to write in one number here or there in your music.

Also, beginning harpists will need much more fingering written in to help them learn correct habits.

Make it a daily practice to sightread a piece without fingering. It may feel scary at first, but in a short time, you will be amazed at how much faster you can sightread and learn your music.

How much fingering do you write in your music?

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  • Fran McGaughey

    Anne, I think you have a very good idea. I have been alternating fingering in a new piece I just published. Both fingering approaches work, so I may simply let it happen as it does without the micro planning. Then I can proceed without the extra area of thought.

    Thanks,
    fran

    Reply

    • Anne Post author

      Absolutely, Fran! The less micromanaging the better. Also, I often change my mind about a fingering when I revisit a piece. Sometimes I keep a list or a separate copy of the music with alternate fingering possibilities.

      Reply

  • Nanci

    You mentioned fingering markings but what about bracketing groups? That helps me see chunks and helps me stay on track better. Your thoughts?

    Reply

    • Anne Post author

      Yes, Nanci, I agree with you about bracketing. I think that is a fabulous shortcut to remind us how much we need to place at once. Often, a bracket is the only thing you need to mark. But again, the brackets are a reminder, and not a crutch, right?

      Reply

  • mehlinda

    I am a professional harpist and teacher for 38 years. let us not ever compare fingering to paint by number coloring as in this article. I have a student over 50 male, who refuses to learn proper fingering on the harp and so sent me this hilarious article. I absolutely feel there is an easy way to do things and a hard way, and who needs to re invent the wheel. Every world class musician learned technique. For harp a 135 chord is played with 321 fingering, mostly, nor 234, not 431, not 421. I swear there are students that just would be happy to play with their thumb and second finger. I have an elderly student who always wants to change her fingering and never stick to whats on the page. She consistently makes mistakes and is confused. Most of my students learn proper technique and fingering and they excel, the ones that are lazy and don;t want to learn are slow to learn and a challenge to teach.Once a student learns proper fingering they naturally know how to play a piece, it gets built in, but one must work at it and build it in, just like anything, if you want to be a mathematician, scientist, athlete, doctor, you have a process to learn, an organized way, especially a surgeon, do you think a surgeon can go in and improvise, would you like someone with no surgical technique to execute surgery on you? I rest my case. There is technique in everything, a mechanical way to do things, and there is an easy way and there is a hard way

    Reply

    • Anne Post author

      Hi Mehlinda, I think you missed my point, because I agree with you. It is essential to have those efficient fingerings learned to the point where they are automatic. As you point out, the students who don’t learn those patterns will never have the foundation they need to play fluently and musically.
      On the other hand, students who never learn to make those fingering patterns automatic but feel that they have to write them in rather than learn to recognize them, also do themselves a huge disservice. They never learn to use the technical foundation their teachers have worked so hard to give them.
      My point is that we need to learn those fingerings, and then let our fingers play them, and play them properly, without having to have a number for every note. Naturally, this comes at a later stage in development, after the technical foundation is more solid.
      Hopefully, the followup to this post will clarify things a little 🙂

      http://harpmastery.com/fingering-followup/

      Reply

  • Barry Kroeker

    I’d never really considered the idea that written fingerings would interfere with developing or expressing a musical concept. Could the argument be extended further to suggest that note-reading has the same effect?
    I remember hearing somewhere that the great pianist, Arthur Rubenstein, had come to the conclusion very late in his life that using the same fingering was valuable. Oh to have such a technique that spontaneous fingering variations were even possible!
    In my own experience (on piano), I have found written fingerings to be vital in enabling my technique for more difficult selections. But I reserve the right to revise my own written fingerings for musical reasons. And I don’t always follow the “recommended” fingering if it doesn’t fit my hands and ability level.
    I’d suggest that “good” written fingerings can enable the technique and free your expressive voice. 🙂

    Reply

    • Anne Post author

      Hi Barry,
      Where would we be without written fingerings?! Good fingering lets the music come through and can help you learn a difficult passage solidly. But I have often encountered students in a workshop or masterclass situation who are unable to play a piece if there is not a finger marked on nearly every note. This is what I object to so strongly. What is technical work for, if not to provide you with the mechanical “default” fingerings that will work for most of the music you need to play?
      Once you have trained your fingers in the basics, then the fingering you write in isn’t a substitute for technique, but an extension of it, and one that is designed to serve the music and your own expressive voice, as you state so well.

      Reply

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