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Fingering means: choosing which finger to use for each note when playing a piece on a musical instrument. When learning to play a piece it is important to try to find a good fingering. Once a good fingering has been found it should always be used so that the piece is always played in the same way and the fingers learn “where to go”. Sometimes printed music has some fingering printed above the notes. This can be helpful to the player, but it is not always necessary to use the printed fingering. People’s hands are different and a fingering that is good for one player may not be good for another.
Fingering on keyboard instruments
When playing keyboard instruments the fingers are numbered from 1 to 5 on each hand: the thumb is 1, the index finger is 2, the middle finger is 3, the ring finger is 4 and the little finger is 5. The fingers were not always numbered like that. In Britain in the 19th century the thumb was shown by a cross (+) and the fingers were numbered from 1 to 4. This was known as “English fingering” while the other way (from 1 to 5) was known as “Continental fingering”. However, from the beginning of the 20th century the British used the normal 1 to 5 (Continental) fingering.
Ideas about fingering have changed during the history of music. In the Baroque times (17th and early 18th centuries) French composers writing for the harpsichord often fingered scale passages 2 3 2 3 etc. so that the notes were grouped (slurred) in twos. Later this idea went out of fashion. In the early 19th century Carl Czerny wrote lots of studies for piano which helped to exercise all the fingers equally. This is how we learn to play the piano today.
Fingering for the organ is similar to fingering for the piano. However, organists use a lot of “finger substitution” which means: changing to a different finger while a note is held down. This is useful in music such as hymn tunes which have lots of chords. It helps to make the music legato (smooth): (a pianist can use the right pedal to make chords legato.) An organist playing on the pedals also needs to decide which foot to use for each note. This is called “footing”. A v sign means: play with the toe, a square u sign means: play with the heel. When these signs are placed above the note it means the right foot, below means for the left foot.
Fingering on string instruments
Fingering on string instruments will show which position to play in (i.e. how far down the fingerboard the hand is held). The fingers are numbered from 1 to 4 because the thumb is behind the neck of the instrument. The number 0 means: play an open string (not using the finger). It is only the left hand which fingers the notes because the right hand is either plucking or bowing. Bowed instruments like the violin have no markings on the fingerboard, so the player has to get used to the exact place to put the fingers, otherwise it will not be in tune. Plucked instruments such as guitars and banjos have frets (little bumps on the fingerboard) which show where to put the fingers.
Sometimes the fingering printed or written in the music may also need to show which string to play on. A tune that could be played in first position on a D string on the violin could also be played on the G string in fifth position (with the hand much higher up the fingerboard). This is harder to do, but a good player can make it sound particularly warm and beautiful. Sometimes notes can be fingered as harmonics instead of as ordinary stopped notes. This makes them sound very light and airy.
Cellists can also play in “thumb position” if they have several notes which are high and quite near one another. This means putting the thumb high up on the fingerboard, often across two strings.
The double bass is so big that the distances between the notes are very big too. To go up from one note to the next (in semitones) they use finger 1, then 2, then 4. Finger 3 is just helping finger 4 to press down on the string. There are a few players who use a different fingering system: using fingers 1, 2, 3, 4. This means that the hand has to stretch a lot. It is difficult to play in tune like this, although it saves having to change the hand position so much.
Harp music looks like piano music: there are two staves, one which usually has a treble clef for the right hand, the other with a bass clef for the left hand. Some piano music can be played on the harp, but the piano fingering will not work. On a piano, starting with the thumb and going along the fingers to the little finger means going to higher notes in the right hand and to lower notes in the left hand. On the harp it is the other way round (the harpist sits with the high notes nearest to his body). The thumb is numbered 1 and the fingers are 2, 3 and 4. The little finger is not used in harp playing.
In woodwind instruments there is normally one basic fingering, each note is a particular combination of fingers. However at more advanced levels different fingerings can be used in order to create different effects. Beginners’ books may have a fingering chart to show how to get the different notes. A low F sharp on a descant recorder will be fingered 1 2 3 0 2 3. This means: fingers 1, 2 and 3 of the left hand and fingers 2 and 3 of the right hand. The first hole of the right hand position is left open.
On the recorder some of the notes, especially sharps and flats, have complicated fingering. This is called “cross fingering”. The flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon all have metal keys to help reach the low holes and to make it easier to play the sharps and flats. The usual system for these keys was invented in the 19th century by Theobald Böhm.
Sometimes there is an “alternative fingering” for some notes. This can be used to make it easier to play fast trills, but the usual fingering will sound better for normal notes.
Using good fingering
Good fingering is fingering which avoids moving the hand up and down unnecessarily. It should also help the music to sound good e.g. legato music for smooth tunes, clear music for fast repeated notes.