When Is Fingering Necessary?

When Is Fingering Necessary?


When is fingering necessary in a young person’s piano lesson? Some piano teachers say, “From the first moment,” but I think otherwise.

Fingering is the process wherein a child is asked to use a certain finger for a certain piano note. The indications for fingers are a prominent part of most piano books, and children are known to constantly disregard them.

Consider the diagram, in which each finger of each hand is assigned a number, as in conventional piano lessons:

The drawing shows how the fingers are numbered for piano. Start with thumbs as number 1, and then go up to 5, which is the little finger.

As an abstract concept, it is, of course, essential to learn fingering eventually in order to play the piano properly, but our question is, “When is learning fingering necessary, and may I temporarily disregard the finger indications in the piano books?”

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To put the question another way, does a child need to learn fingering at the very beginning, or may this process be delayed for a variety of reasons?

Conventional piano lessons answer with a resounding “Fingering must be learned at the very beginning, or bad habits will be formed.”

Big Book of Songs Book By MailPiano books and teachers are full of drills to get the five fingers in a row, and keep them that way.

We beg to differ and answer, “The worst habit to be learned at the piano is to not play it, and not enjoy it.”

Think of it from the child’s point of view, in a conventional piano lesson using one of the standard piano books.

Children are asked to understand three things, almost immediately

They must learn to identify the notes on the page, usually naming them (A B C D E F G) as well.

They must learn fingering, using the correct finger for each of the notes.

They must learn rhythm, which is the timing of each note.

If you really observe a child attempting to learn the notes on the page, and relate them to the correct keys of the piano, you will find that it is an intensely difficult process, and this is without asking them to name the notes as well.

Most kids use their index finger at first.

In reality, children are more successful at the piano if they are asked to simply familiarize themselves with the notes on the page, and associate them with the correct piano keys with whatever finger is convenient.

designpax1To ask them to use a certain finger at first is to cloud the issue as they struggle to learn the unfamiliar language of music on the printed page. I myself was a prodigy and learned to read music in five minutes from piano books my father gave me, but you have to accept that I was an exceptional case, and my experience with teaching kids bears this out. I don’t expect kids to be a prodigy as I was, I expect them to be themselves.

This in itself is a huge hurdle, this one single element (finding the notes and the keys) and a teacher must be an infinitely patient and creative game show host to get a child to finally be able to find the first five notes (C D E F G) with comfort and without anxiety. It can take weeks, months or years, and depends entirely on the individual child.

Teach the individual child, not your piano method or piano books.

If the child is frustrated reading music, go slower, still frustrated, go slower still.

To ask even an extremely intelligent and diligent child to do more at first is to court frustration, which leads to disaster, which leads to your child simply giving up.

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It happens again and again and again with conventional piano lessons, as the children doggedly follow the pages of their piano books.

Ask other parents and they will tell you “He loved piano at first but now he hates it.” Another comment is, “I had lessons when I was a kid, but I hated it.”

Why?

Let us consider an entirely different approach to piano books and fingering for kids who are just beginning the piano:

Allow the child to find the first five notes and associate them with the piano keys at their leisure and at their own pace, with whatever finger they wish, usually the index finger. I usually tell them, “I don’t care if you play it with your nose, but find that note on the page, and play the key on the piano that belongs to it .” When they are fully confident with this, and look up at you as if to say, “Is this all there is to it?” they are ready for step 2.

When a child is fully confident, even bored with finding notes in piano books and associating them with the correct keys, they will usually learn the idea of fingering in only a few minutes, for they now have a base of confidence to build upon (they know where the notes are, regardless of fingering.)

Make up fingering games, which are completely separate from any of their piano books and let them experience having five fingers as a game (see below). The truth is that children are only dimly aware at first that they have five fingers, much less able to use them as a coherent group or make decisions about which one to use.

This only follows the psychology of children, and allows them to grow at their own pace.

Last of all, and sometimes not until several years have passed, should you attempt to teach children rhythm, for until they can first find the notes in their piano books, play the correct keys with any finger, and then start to use the fingers as a group, it is a hopeless task to burden children with putting it all together at the correct time. That’s why the kids are frustrated with piano books.

A better approach is to teach them songs by ear in which the rhythm is already instinctively known to them, like Jingle Bells.

As for this approach teaching bad habits, it hasn’t taught the child any habits at all except perhaps confidence and patience. There’s nothing to unlearn, because they have put together the elements at their own pace.

If a child cannot understand fingering after this approach, they weren’t ready for it in the first place. In this case I patiently go back and allow them to become confident with playing notes with any fingers they wish until they are ready for more difficult ideas.

Here are the steps of this method outlined:

1. Allow the child to identify notes in piano books without naming them until you can point to any note on a page and have them successfully find it on the keyboard. Let them use any finger that they want. Start with Middle C and learn only the first five notes C D E F G. Go over and over it, again and again. Your job as a teacher is to make this process fun, fresh and exciting each time you do it. You have to disguise the repetition as a game! It’s very much like teaching toddlers their ABCs. You didn’t get impatient with that, you went at their pace, and should do the same with this.

2. Play abstract fingering games that are not part of any printed page or piano books (such as outlined below) and allow the child to grasp that the five fingers are like a basketball team and function as a group. As a practical matter, get them to use the first three fingers of the right hand (thumb, index and middle) at first.

The reason for this is that these first three fingers are the strongest and will most likely be easier for the child to use as a group. I play a game called “the pencil test” to prove this to a child: place a pencil on a flat surface and ask the child to pick it up slowly. Invariably they will use the first three fingers of their hand, it’s just human instinct. Get them to start each group with the thumb, and tell them “The thumb is the captain of the hand, always start with it.”

3. Then, and only then, try a very simple piece of music such as the first pieces in I CAN READ MUSIC or the first ones in any book such as the Bastien series, Alfred, etc, and see if they can play it using the fingers as a group. It is difficult at first, so go extremely slowly and do not frustrate them or call attention to their mistakes in a negative way.

If they cannot do this, go back and repeat steps 1 and 2 until they can, because it means, through no fault of their own, they are not ready. If they have trouble with all five fingers, try it with two or three.

THREESIES, A FINGERING GAME

Here’s the game I use to start learning fingering. Remember that the only fingers used are the first three of the right hand, thumb, index and middle, and that the numbers refer to the piano keys as numbered using our Numbered keyboardmethod, PIANO BY NUMBER, not the fingers as numbered in the diagram at the top of this page.

1 2 3    2 3 4    3 4 5    4 5 6     5 6 7    6 7 8    7 8 9    8 9 10

The only objectives are to use the fingers as a group, and to always start with the thumb.

Curriculum Outlined

Here is the general approach to getting a child started at the piano.

1. Start with Piano By Number using piano books such as Piano Is Easy. The reason for this is to begin at a neutral, fun, easy-to understand point that allows the child to start right away and avoid, initially, the complexities of reading music.

2. When the child needs a challenge beyond Piano By Number, begin to easily introduce the concepts of reading music using a piano book such as I Can Read Music

3. Then, and only then, start to introduce the idea of fingering, using the games outlined on this page.

4. At this point your child has fair chance of succeeding using conventional methods in most piano books, and we suggest the series of books by James Bastien available widely and used by most conventional piano teachers. You can use any piano method you choose.

Our Piano By Number books are designed as preparation for these piano methods, a missing link in the complex process of getting a child happily started playing piano, a missing link which causes children a lot of needless frustration with their piano books.

Copyright 2000 by Walden Pond Press

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