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.