The General Principles of Piano Fingering
Good morning this is Duane Shinn and today I’d like to talk about which finger goes where and why- in other words, piano fingering. People ask me all the time which finger should I use on certain passages. The first rule is don’t play hunt and peck like you might on a typewriter if you didn’t know how to type, but use all five fingers. There are eight notes in a scale, so you only have five fingers so it’s obvious you have to use some fingers more than once.
Let’s start talking about a scale first of all and then we’ll talk about passages in a song. If you play a scale, a scale starts, if a scale starts on a white note use your thumb and then pass your thumb under your third finger as smoothly as you can. And then you’ll have enough fingers to go up, so use three and five, which of course is eight. Coming down it’s the same thing; the third finger over.
Now if a scale starts on a black key you don’t want to use your thumb on a black as a rule. Why is that? Well look at the size of your hand. Your thumb’s way back here and your long fingers are up there, so I may as well use long fingers on the black keys. Let’s say we’re playing in the key of D flat which goes like that. You start on a long finger like your second finger, then your third finger, and then when you have a white key bring your thumb under, then long finger, long finger, long finger, thumb, long finger. That can be the second or third or whatever you want. You see that principle.
Use your long fingers on the black keys whenever possible. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but for the most part you can use your long fingers on the black keys. Use your thumb on the white keys. Now if you have a scale that has two white keys in a row, let me see if I can illustrate this somewhere. What would that be A, no A’s okay. That’s okay. I guess there’s no scale where you run into two white keys in a row, but in a chromatic passage you do.
Say you’re playing a chromatic passage in a song, use your thumb on the white key again and use your long finger on the black key. I like to use thumb, third, thumb, third. Now when you have two white keys in a row use your second finger. You see the logic there. Then you have your third finger for the long key and then back to third thumb, third thumb, third thumb, second. When you have two white keys in a row you can use your second finger, otherwise use your third finger and your thumb. It works, again because of the size of your third finger, it’s the longest of any and your thumb’s the shortest, so that’s a good way to play a chromatic passage like that.
Song, you say I don’t want to play a scale, that’s right, but songs are made out of parts of scales aren’t they? All the time you run into passages where the songs are made out of scales; that’s the nature of the beast. Or the scale is used in a chord. For example if I’m playing a C minor 7th chord, I’m playing the notes of the C scale, but they’re altered to form a minor chord, or a major chord, or whatever.
The rule in chords is to use whatever fingers are logical so that it’s not awkward. In other words, if I have a three note chord I can play one, three, five. My thumb, my third finger, my fifth finger, can’t I? But I have a four note chord then I have to change fingers a little bit so that I have enough fingers to get out there. If you have a five note chord, it’s obvious you have to use all five fingers, obviously right? It depends on the situation as to what that… and your left hand. I just used the right hand, but the left hand is the same principle. You use the same. Let me just improvise a little bit.
You see that. I’m using my thumb on the white keys, my long fingers on the black keys. When I have a chord then I use whatever fingers fit right. Now fingering is not written stone; I hope you understand that. Nobody, Moses did not pass a law; send down a law from Mount Sinai on fingering, Bach didn’t either. Nobody has laws on fingering. But there are some general principles that I just outlined that apply to fingering, so you do well to follow those general principles without getting paranoid about it.
There are a lot of pianists, particularly jazz pianists that use alternate fingering that would drive a classical pianist crazy, but it works. It works for them. If you find something that works for you and you can do it well then use that by all means.
Thanks for being with me today and hope that helps a little bit in your understanding of piano fingering. If you enjoy these little piano tips they’re all free so come on over to playpiano.com and sign up for them. Hope to see you there. Bye, bye for now.