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Piano Fact

Lesson 35: Right Hand Fingering, Part One

We get questions from time to time regarding the proper use of right hand fingering. Unfortunately, this isn't an easy one to answer.

The problem stems from the fact that in pop music, we are encouraged to improvise with the right hand as much as possible. By definition, improvising means we play different notes each time we play a song. The question of fingering is so much easier to tackle in classical music, because for the most part, the performer of classical music does no improvising. Thus the best fingering can be figured out (somewhat subjectively), and indicated in the music notation, using the digits one through five.

When one follows the suggested fingering in a piece of classical music, two good things happen. First, the aspiring pianist will be presented with the easiest, most logical way to play a song. Second, he gets to play the music the exact same way each time, using the exact same fingering, thus kinesthetically reinforcing the learning process each time he plays the piece.

But what about the pop pianist? How does he cope with fingering problems? There is no magic formula for this. But we do have some suggestions. First, some pop music does include suggested fingering for the melody only. This would be a good place to start. Remember, thumb is one and little finger is five. TRAP: We learn to play just the melody note in the right hand at first, ignoring any other harmony notes. If you have present such harmony notes in the right hand part of the music notation, you will have to disregard this strategy.

It's true we have no hard and fast rule for fingering. Every song is different and everything depends on context. Yet we still have some basic rules we can follow.

Rule One: Maximize the number of fingers you use.
The least efficient way to play is by using only one finger. On the other hand, if every song consisted of just five contiguous notes, you would use one different finger for each note for maximum efficiency. Try this. Start on middle C, and play the 10 note melody Row, Row, Row Your Boat, Gently Down the Stream. Notice that you can easily play one finger per note. Of course, most songs aren't so finger friendly. But play with this concept in mind.

Rule Two: Minimize your hand travel.
Try this. Play a few melodies using only the index finger of your right hand. When you do this, your right hand is constantly travelling, which is tiring and very inefficient. By maximizing your finger usage (Rule One) you will minimize your need to travel so much. These first two rules complement one another.

Rule Three: Avoid playing black keys with your thumb.
The thumb is a short digit. The sharps and flats are short keys. To play a black key with your thumb is awkward. Although it's not always completely unavoidable, avoid the thumb/black-note combination as much as you can.

Rule Four: Keep your little finger off black keys.
Pretty much the same reasoning as Rule Three.

Rule Five: If you find a good fingering for a certain passage, write it down so that
a) you don't forget it, and b) you can practice it consistently. Remember, it's not that "practice makes perfect." It's "perfect practice makes perfect."

In the next Mini Lesson, I'll talk about good fingering strategies for improvised passages.

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