There has always been a debate between teachers and students over the fingerings written in scores. Even Bach wrote fingerings out for his students to use! I constantly have to remind students to use the fingering written and they always counter with a whiny, “why can’t I just use my own fingering!” It’s very frustrating to constantly have this conversation, so I’m going to definitively explain why fingerings are so important and when using exceptions over what is written in the score is acceptable. However, most of the time, you should use what is written!
Fingerings Stabilize Muscle Memory
When learning a piece of music, the success comes from consistency, (i.e. perfect practice makes perfect). The earlier on you set fingerings, the easier it will be to learn the music. If your fingers are constantly guessing where to go, they will never learn what to do. Using different fingerings confuses the fingers and creates problems for muscle memory.
Instead of exclusively paying attention to the notes, look at your fingerings from the very beginning. For young students especially, use what is written unless your teacher instructs you to do something different. For those that are more advanced, at least give the written fingerings a try before throwing in the towel. Editors are very well versed in the instrument they are writing fingerings for--they put a lot of effort into their markings, so don’t ignore them.
You Should Consider What’s Written
As I mentioned previously, the editors of scores usually know what they are doing when choosing a suggested fingering. Editions such as Urtext, Henle, Vienna, Durand, International, and other well known publishers, contain top of the line fingerings. It is important to try them out from the very beginning, as they are written to aid your playing.
Despite my urgency to obey written fingerings, there are a few exceptions:
Exceptions To The Rule
When in doubt, use the written fingering. However, there are some exceptions. One – perhaps obvious – exception is if there simply isn’t a fingering written. You will notice that fingerings aren’t written out for every single note--that would be a huge waste of ink! Most fingerings are written when there is a change in position. In this case, you must try to keep your fingers in the same position as long as possible. The goal in playing any instrument is to keep it stress free and effortless. The less movement you have to make, the better.
This brings me to the only other exception: discomfort. If you have small hands, or even large hands, you may run into fingering discomfort. NEVER play something if it causes too much stress to your hand. If it’s a far reach, or you find something easier, you may be able to change it. But ask your teacher just to be sure you are making the right decision.
There are a few things to always keep in mind about fingerings.
Play through the piece initially with the written fingerings to determine if it works. Always consider the written fingering first.
If a fingering is too uncomfortable, change it.
Maintain hand position as long as possible, minimizing excessive movement.
If you change a fingering, check with your teacher to be sure it works.
Decide your fingering early on and STICK WITH IT. This optimizes your memorization and muscle memory.
Now get to practicing, and NEVER ignore your fingerings!