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Forget the Fingering!

practicing Aug 03, 2015

What?! Forget the fingering?!

 We harpists need our fingering so that we can play smoothly and musically, and so our practice will be efficient. Those fingering marks are essential for us, right? Not really, or at least, not as much as you think.

Consider this paint by number illustration. Those numbers in the picture show us which color to put where. When we follow the numbers, we can see the picture. We usually think of fingering the same way: when we follow the fingering, we can play the music. What’s wrong with that?

Simply that following the fingering instead of the music will give us the same result as painting by number. We get the basic idea, but no one will call it great art.

I will agree that fingering is important, and I usually ask my students to follow fingering that is printed in their music. But I also insist that they learn to play without marking in fingering. And here’s why…

First, fingering can become a reading “crutch.” Every time that we tell ourselves that following the fingering is important, we remove ourselves from reading what is actually inportant on the page – the notes. We should be actively involved in reading the notes when we play; after all, that is where the music is. When we read the notes, we can see musical pattern and form. We can begin to feel the energy that animates the piece and create the musical mood. When we are reading the fingering, we are merely practicing mechanics. No accurate fingering can substitute for musical sensibility.

Reading the fingering first also slows down the learning process. We can only see one note and finger at a time, instead of seeing longer patterns and phrases. These tiny bits of information are much harder to assimilate and remember from one practice session to the next.

So what are you supposed to do instead?

Keep in mind that the scales, arpeggios and exercise patterns that you practice daily all serve to “teach” your fingers how to play those patterns. One of the main purposes of that kind of technical work is to cement these patterns in your fingers so they can automatically recognize and execute them. But if you write every finger in, especially before you begin to learn the piece, you are preventing the “notes-to-fingers” connection from becoming speedy and reliable. In essence, you’ve wasted a lot of practice time. Better to let your fingers do what you have been training them to do: play on their own.

Also remember that whatever fingering you use, the end result is what matters. I had another harpist ask me once how I was able to manage such a beautiful four finger trill at the end of one piece on a recording. My answer? I only used three fingers. The trill fingering didn’t matter nearly as much as the trill itself.

I don’t mean to suggest that you should never write fingering in your music. In fact, there are two occasions that require you to write in fingering. One is when you need to choose a fingering for a tricky passage. This is a practice aid, and not a practice crutch. And the other is when you need a reminder of a finger placement. You may only need to write in one number here or there in your music.

Also, beginning harpists will need much more fingering written in to help them learn correct habits.

Make it a daily practice to sightread a piece without fingering. It may feel scary at first, but in a short time, you will be amazed at how much faster you can sightread and learn your music.

How much fingering do you write in your music?

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