One of the aspects of piano technique that varies from pianist to pianist is their choice in fingerings. Fingerings are the pianist’s choice of which finger to use on which note. There are often multiple “correct” fingerings for a particular passage, but there are several fingerings you want to avoid. Using awkward fingerings often affects the pianist’s hand position and can lead to inefficiency in movement, as well as discomfort and even pain. This is why it is important to learn about proper fingerings, and how to choose what works best for your hand shape and size.

For many beginner pianists, fingering seems unnecessary and in result, they usually practice playing with bad fingerings and they become engrained in their playing. This creates a tedious second step of unlearning the incorrect fingering, and relearning the correct fingering. I always tell students to play the correct fingering at least the same number of times they played it incorrectly in a row. For instance, if they just practiced the wrong fingering three times in a row, they must also play it correctly at least three times in a row to confirm that they have processed this information and it will stick in their playing. If they play it correctly twice, then play it incorrect, they must repeat the process until they get it three times.

Common mistakes in beginner pianists include randomly skipping fingers or moving their hand when they are just playing a step (i.e. from C to D or vise versa) when it is not necessary in the context, such as if they were playing a passage in their right hand that goes: G, F, E, D, C. A common mistake would be instead of playing 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, they would play 5, 3, 2, 1, and run out of fingers for the last note. Usually because the 4th finger, one of the weakest fingers, is tense or an unstable hand position. Sometimes this also happens because the student is not looking ahead in the music, to see what makes sense for the entire passage before they choose the fingering.

For intermediate and advanced players, fingerings become more personalized; to suit the pianists hand size/structure as well as their interpretation of the music. One of the biggest rules of fingering is to AVOID stretching whenever possible. It is necessary to open your hand up when playing big chords or octaves but there are many times when we can avoid it. Finger legato (connecting the sound of the notes with your fingers, not just holding them with the pedal) is a big reason why a lot of pianists use stretchy fingerings. A perfect example of this is with octaves, for example, if you the pianist starts off playing the octave of C4 and C5 at the same time, and plays the whole C major scale up and down in octaves. Octaves are usually played with the fingers 1 and 5, but they are frequently connected by 1 and 4, and sometimes even 1 and 3, for pianists with larger hands. Most hands that can reach a span of 9th – 10th or more can usually play octaves with finger legato (1 and 5 followed by 1 and 4 and back, etc.) relatively comfortably. However, if the pianist has very small hands, this can cause extreme amount of tension, and cause pain. In that case, the pianist can opt to play 1 and 5 for each octave, and connect the sound by listening extra carefully and sometimes with the help of pedal. Finger substitution (switching fingers while the note is already down) can also help sometimes in these situations. It is important to make sure that you are not causing extreme amount of tension in your body, because it often leads to injury. Small-handed pianists often avoid playing pieces that require a lot of stretching because the physical restrictions eventually affect their ability to interpret the piece.

Injuries in musicians have not been talked about much until recent years, with the injuries of prominent pianists including Gary Graffman and Leon Fleisher, who experienced focal dystonia, and the influence of the Golandsky Institute which teaches the Taubman approach. The Taubman approach has a goal of teaching pianists to have play with ease, and injury-free (often helps pianists in post-injury recovery to restructure their technique in a healthy way).

Interpretation frequently affects a pianist’s fingering choice, and not solely based on technique. We generally say don’t use the thumb on a black key if you can avoid it, such as in keys that have few black keys. It would be nearly impossible if you were playing in a key like F# major which has 6 sharps including all 5 black keys (however, notice that we do not use any thumbs on the black keys in the F# major scale). However, let’s say if you want to create an accent on a black key note, you could use the thumb to easily make a bigger sound, because it is a heavy finger. A good example is in the 4th movement of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Sonata, which I have played. There are reoccurring C#s that are marked as sforzandos that I used my thumb to play.

Another example would be a fingering chosen to emphasize the phrasing and character of a passage. For instance, if you have multiple two-note slurs in a descending C scale, instead of using 5 4 3 2 1 3 2 1, the standard fingering, you could use 3 2, 3 2, 3 2, 3 2 to bring out the groups of two notes, even though it involves more movement. The time period from which the piece was written in will also strongly affect the grouping of the notes, such as in Baroque pieces, where there are stylistic conventions for fingerings.

Finally, the tempo will greatly influence your choice of fingering. Sometimes a fingering feels great at a slow tempo, but when you speed up your tempo, it does not work. This is why it is as important to practice in tempo as well as slow practice, as it will influence your decision making. If your tempo is fast, you will have to choose the fingering that is most efficient, which is usually the one with the smallest number of movements. Once again, you will have to judge whether that fingering will still meet the interpretative ideas as mentioned above, such as reflecting on whether it suits the phrasing and other needs of the music. Ideally, you want your fingerings to achieve both. In some difficult passages, it often requires some compromise or more brainstorming.

There are certainly many more factors that affect a pianist’s choice of fingerings, and every pianist must discover what is best for their own playing. My goal as a teacher is to help my students establish a solid foundation of knowledge so that they are prepared to successfully problem solve while choosing fingerings on their own. For my online studio, I chose to have multiple camera angles including above and from the side of the piano, in order to properly demonstrate the importance of fingerings and how it affects our playing to my students.