Monday, July 23, 2012

Putting your finger on it

    While preparing the Samuel Barber Piano Concerto for an upcoming engagement, I have been reflecting on the importance of fingering, the highly complex and somewhat under-analyzed skill that we musicians must master over the course of our careers in order to achieve secure and persuasive performances. Considering its obvious importance to piano playing, I find myself surprised to recall that my own (very fine) teachers were rather unconcerned with my fingering decisions-or lack thereof- apart from the occasional analysis of an especially difficult passage. I suspect this approach remains fairly common, and might be based partly on issues of practicality. The unspoken message seems to be, “With so many factors at play and with all mechanisms so individual, too much valuable lesson time would be spent exploring fingering that will best suit you personally, leaving little time for more important musical matters. Do this during your own practice time.” Well, I believe I have learned how to finger quite well, so perhaps that’s a valid long-range pedagogical approach. Nevertheless, I feel that it deserves to be more recognized and taught as an indispensable part of the creative process.
     I’m not especially interested here in analyzing or comparing published fingerings, since they usually represent a safe one-size-fits-all approach. There are wonderful exceptions, like Schenker’s Beethoven sonatas and Scholtz’s complete Chopin edition, but most are useless to me (i.e. seemingly everything published by G. Henle Verlag-comments welcome!). Wonderful fingering is an uncompromising physical representation of the phrase and touches the soul of a work; in the rare cases where composers have notated fingering themselves this is often the case, and I consider these as revealing as performance directions. Useless fingering seems to always favor a legato result based on standard 19th century scale/arpeggio traditions, whether it be Bach or Carter, without taking enough into account possible variants in tempo, style, articulation, technical difficulty or character. Of course, I refer to as many published editions as possible, freely culling brilliance and rejecting the “academic,” but in reality one must have much more to go on.
     So what am I shooting for in creating a good fingering? A microcosm of the whole. Before penciling in even the most obvious scale passage I ask, “Do I feel I have discovered the innate character of this work from the evidence on the page and from my knowledge of the composer’s goals, and have I found an honest and compelling connection to it? Do I have a reasonable grasp of its form so that I will be able to reveal the work’s mysteries before an audience?” If the answer is a (humble) “yes” I will embark upon fingering. Though changes will doubtless come over time, I am now working from a basic understanding of the character of the work. This is reflected in my choice of articulations, tempo and pedaling, the basics of style that need to be somewhat in place before selecting fingerings because they are such an intrinsic part of how the hand and arm will approach the keys. I like to think of this as “linear” fingering. Working the other way around-fingering first, in a “vertical” frame of mind- will often lead to short sighted choices that may hinder the line or become annoyingly ingrained when a better option eventually presents itself. It’s a little like a painter applying unrelated brush strokes to a canvas, hoping for a painting to emerge.
     I explore the possible directions of each phrase as a prelude to fingering. Once I feel I have captured the essence of the line I begin to fashion a fingering that “reflects” this shape, and of course honors the composer’s indicated articulations and dynamics. The motion of the hand should mirror the line and the fingering used should support this motion while using as much of the hand and each finger in turn as practical. Too many intermediate changes of hand position will tend to chop up a line, even though at first an easier fingering may seem expedient. My goal is to achieve a sort of physico-musico synthesis that joins brain, body and soul together. OK, I made that term up, but this is a blog after all.
     Of course, there are less lofty things to consider, such as the size of your hand and the current state of your technique. This is why we need to learn how to find our own fingering solutions, or be guided in the process by an intuitive teacher. A firm grasp of a musical idea will go a long ways toward solving and transcending many difficulties, but there are always passages that resist any easy solution. In these cases, I will test a multitude of possible fingerings in close succession while focusing my attention on my hand/fingers/arm, seeking the most relaxed version that still reasonably supports the musical values desired. This balance of comfort and musicality will increase (but maybe not always eliminate) the chances for accuracy under pressure. Mastering an unusual but effective fingering will also require diligent practice, so one must be a bit of a seer at times when committing to a hopeful solution. Repetitive fingering patterns are also useful when they are supported by the architecture of the composition, and since they are pleasing to the brain and the memory they can help to relax the musculature.
     Though specificity and consistency are the ultimate goals here, I’ve learned to remain very open to revising, refining or even trashing earlier fingering decisions over the course of several practice sessions or weeks. Revisiting your decisions daily will reveal surprising refinements; I swear that our brains continue to puzzle over them while we sleep. Our hands and bodies change daily, musical awareness deepens and larger patterns emerge over time that cannot help but inform that perhaps less seasoned first, second or even third draft. The result of this multifaceted process is rewarding: a beautiful fingering will all but play itself.


Titus Abbott said...

Having a great teacher help you work out excellent fingerings is such a help but is there a method for developing this skill in the same way as other musical challenges (sight reading etc.)?

Martin Perry said...

Sure, Titus- just start doing it yourself, starting from concepts I have already presented (in too vague terms I'm sure) above. I would experiment at first with fingering shorter sections of a work, and then bringing them to another pianist or your teacher for discussion; various basics will begin to reveal themselves, but at least you will be discerning your particular needs first, which is vital.