Stop the fingerings!

I suppose on of the main perks of a blog, for some the raison d’etre, is having a forum in which to rant about one’s little pet peeves. Given this facility, it’s a small wonder that I have not yet had a good little rant about one of my pet hates- fingerings in music.

I happen to be a cellist who writes almost nothing whatsoever in my music. If I do write things in, it is done to appease my chamber music colleagues, not for my own benefit. I find if a bowing works for me and fits the music, I will remember it, and if not, I’ll continue to change it. Sometimes, playing a new bowing and reading an old one will create a little brain friction and cause me to make a little flub of some kind. Given this, I’d prefer to simply play from a clean page. I don’t advocate this -it’s just what works for me.

However, I like fingerings far less than I like bowings in my music. Fingerings for me (and this is completely personal, and many of my heroes finger every note in their music) are like little mistake factories. I like to have a grab bag of fingerings that I can call upon depending on how I feel on a given day.

Now, I will tell you about the worst piece of advice I ever got about cello playing.

When I was first learning the Rococo Variations, I asked someone about the octave C#s at the end of the theme (they come back later). This leap is a nervy moment, and many cellists fall off the string here.

My colleague/teacher/friend’s advice was to pick one of the many possible fingerings on the day I started the piece, and practice it 20 times every day for a year, and whatever happened, never, ever to change it.

I can’t begin to tell you the kind of mind strain that approach creates. When I came back to the piece as a wiser person, I erased every fingering and varied the fingering for that shift so that I never had a thing about it. As soon as I missed it, I just switched and would be solid for a long time. If I started to get a thing about it, I’d change, I might start alternating, I might even do something insane. Whatever- that shift is hard for the psyche, not the hand.

I kind of despise fingerings in orchestra music- I used to be a very good sight reader, but one thing that could always throw me was trying to figure out what the heck the last cellist was thinking with that crazy fingering in the part. Fingerings are so personal- what helps one player will only mess up another.

Also, just for the record, there are few things ruder than to insist to your stand partner that they must read off your part because it has your fingerings in it.

That’s like asking them to wear your trousers in rehearsal because they also make you feel comfortable. Your stand partner won’t say no because they are polite, but really, it’s bad form.

I suppose, though, we must tolerate fingerings in music if that’s what it takes for some players to do their job. That said, I’d really appreciate if people erased their fingerings from my parts after concerts (or just didn’t write them in my parts).

However, one group of musicians who should REALLY, REALLY know better than to put fingerings in music are PUBLISHERS.

Really, what are these idiots thinking?!?!?!?!

Everyone rolls their eyes on quartet gigs when we come across ludicrously old-fashioned and un-stylistic bowings and fingerings in those old Peters parts. Bach editions from the mid-20th c., not long ago in publishing terms, look comical today with all their Romantic slides and up-the-d-string trickery. What makes a publisher today think a fingering of our time will hold up in 50 years?

I recently got the new Breitkopk Urtext edition of the Dvorak Cello Concerto. My main interest was in comparing the score with the Sourek  Critical edition, but I was really shocked to see the cello part was full of spurious bowings and fingerings from Heinrich Schiff.

Heinrich Schiff is a great player and fine musician with an awesome sound, but I don’t want to use his fingerings any more than I want to wear his pants. Ew.

At least the dodgy Rose and even-dodgier Starker editions don’t make any claim to scholastic validity. This edition claims to be an Urtext, but has been given more fingerings than JOKE REMOVED – EMAIL KEN FOR JOKE IF YOU ARE NOT EASILY OFFENDED.

Also, there is no differentiation between Dvorak’s suggested bowings (and Dvorak did mark some bowings)  and Schiff’s. Ugh.

I’m getting old enough and OCD enough that I am actually thinking of scanning the part and removing all the bowings and fingerings in Photoshop, then re-printing it, but I probably won’t. I’m doing 90% of my practice off the full score anyway- I’d just like to have a usable part for running large chunks without turning pages.

As a general rule, the music should just show us what the composer wrote. Leave all decisions for the performer to the actual performer, not just any performer. A cellist playing the Dvorak should be mature enough to finger and bow it themselves. (Sadly, for students at conservatories,  their teachers will also try to get them to “wear their pants” for the year that they study it, then spend 10 years out of school realizing that the piece was nowhere near as hard as they thought if they used means that fit their body. A good teacher helps a student come up with good and helpful bowings and fingerings, a bad teacher makes a student copy their bowings and fingerings).

Of course, few cellists are as loony as I am about not writing anything in their music. It’s absolutely fine to write your own bowings and fingerings in YOUR copy of the Dvorak Concerto. But when we open a part and see printed bowings and fingerings NOT from the composer, it deters the player from thinking creatively about how best to execute the composer’s wishes. It makes the player less aware of their own bodies and their own strengths. It really is like suggesting to everyone who walks into a store-

“Here, try these size 42 trousers.Try them on. Go on.  They’ll fit you…. Trust me….. They fit me perfectly….”

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Spread the word. Share this post!

About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

24 comments on “Stop the fingerings!”

  1. Elaine Fine

    Like most mortals (or perhaps most violists, who have to solve so many fingering problems in half position and second position), I really like to put fingerings in my parts. If some clever violist has figured out how to play a really difficult to configure passage, and it happened to make its way into a printed edition of an orchestral piece, I am often eternally grateful. I am also grateful for having bowings in orchestral parts that are specific to a particular performance. Really, really, really grateful.

    I have always been lucky enough to have stand partners who are not offended by my markings, but I do imagine that if I had a fingering-writing fiend mussing up a part, I might find it annoying.

    When playing solo music or chamber music, I also find it a luxury not to have to stay with a particular set of fingerings of bowings, but I find that my general ability to be accurate has a lot to do with practicing passages the same way, even if they end up being different in performance.

    Your pants would look really funny on me.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Elaine!

    I’m certainly with you on orchestral bowings!As far as clever fingerings in printed parts, of course there are those magical ones we’re all excited to find out about, but I wonder if we were all trained early on how to figure out fingerings rather than spoon fed them by our teachers, maybe we wouldn’t need the prompting!

    Thanks so much for reading and for writing, as always, and I’m glad you’re wearing garments that suit your needs!

  3. Laurent

    Everything you write about fingerings applies 100 % to piano scores, too. So many pianists are so intent on using the “right” fingerings that they forget their #1 goal should be to make music. There are no ”theoretically correct” fingerings, only fingerings that work for a particular performer in a particular context. Nothing should stand in the way of finding the most musical, most felicitous, most effective path through the score.

    (And please do send the joke :-))

  4. Lucia

    “Heifetz would agree with you. He never wrote anything in his music and wouldn’t let his masterclass students write anything in either. (Of course, he was also a bit nuts:-)”

  5. S Mordecai

    “Oh, I LOVE Catholic jokes! But I’d almost rather not hear it…the way you leave it hanging there, the implication of all the absurd Catholic jokes it COULD be is likely more wicked than the intended one!

    Right on, Ken. So when do we storm the publishing houses with torches and pitchforks?”

  6. Nicole

    “Everyone is built differently, Snowflake.

    Same thing happens in dance. An instructor of mine once tried to get me to take steps as large as she was taking. She is built like a gazelle. My legs end in the same space her calf meets her knee. It was an awkward lesson, to say the least.

    Thanks for the rant!”

  7. Mattew

    “At least in string music, a fingering is just awkward, not wrong… my euphonium player brought me a part to a piece with the wrong fingerings written in… in ink…”

  8. Allen Simon

    Laurent’s right that this applies to piano scores as well. But when I play piano I can easily tune them out and play with my own fingerings, just looking at the notes. Is that so hard for cellists?

  9. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Allen

    I suppose it depends on the cellist. If I’m preparing a piece properly, it’s certainly no problem. If I’m sightreading at some speed, I’m still likely be okay, but every once in a while, the sheer absurdity of some spurious marking will be enough to distract me. More worrying is the impact on young players, who don’t understand the difference between the information in their part that comes from the composer and that which comes from the editor. Better to teach them to problem solve than to spoon feed them possibly dubious solutions.

  10. Martin

    “The last time I had size 42 trousers I was in clown college…and they still fitted perfectly!!”

  11. Greg

    “I need to have fingerings in certain wicked parts because I won’t remember them (such as the repeated dotted rhythms in 18th position in Shostakovich 5 1st movement), but I try to keep it minimal. We once had a conductor candidate who gave us personal Sheherezade parts with his nonsensical bowings written in red ink. He was not hired.

    I had a roommate in my Mad years who returned a sonata to the Mills Music Library, with his teacher’s fingerings and bowings written all over it, unerased, because “they were right”. LooooooooooL. Good times.”

  12. S Mordecai

    “This is a persistent problem in percussion music as well. Invariably college students are given some 4th-generation photocopy of the part for practicing or auditioning purposes and stickings are scrawled in chicken-scratch all over the thing. It must be a nightmare for left-handed people.”

  13. Michael Monroe

    There’s an interview with Glenn Gould in David Dubal’s “Reflections from the Keyboard” where Gould describes much the same bewilderment about published fingerings. He goes on to say he once looked through all his early scores and found he’d never written in any fingerings. Of course, he’s Glenn Gould. I don’t have the book nearby to get the complete quotes, but you can see samples here:

  14. Michael Monroe

    Here’s part of what Glenn Gould has to say about fingerings:

    “When I was a child, I was profoundly mystified by the fact that most of the editions, even the best ones, in circulation at that time – Bischoff’s Bach, say or Schnabel’s Beethoven – contained, among other indulgences, fingerings. I would look at those fingerings, even try them out on occasion, and find that they rarely corresponded to what I had been doing or wanted to do. And I was always amazed that people were actually paid to sit there and add extraneous, perhaps erroneous (and in many cases mischievous) data to a fugue or a sonata.

    Well, I still am, I can’t really get over it. For me, a fingering is something which springs spontaneously to mind when one looks at a score, and is altered, if at all, when a shift of emphasis alters the way of looking at the score.”

    (from David Dubal’s “Reflections from the Keyboard,” p.180)

  15. Allen Simon

    Did Gould ever look at the editions of Renaissance motets from back in his childhood days? Fingerings are nothing compared to all the extraneous dynamics, articulation marks, tempo changes and other claptrap which routinely disfigured early music editions a half-century ago. Occasionally those editions turn up in music libraries, and those markings are much harder to ignore than fingerings.

  16. Kenneth Woods

    On one hand, I’m excited to find I share preferences with Heifitz and Gould, because, well, they were gods.

    On the other hand, I’m concerned, because, well, they were both batshit crazy

  17. Coleen

    Ken, you would really get along with my Tim! I have slowly migrated towards your school, but my tendency towards compliance really stunted that progression.

  18. Iain

    Just out of interest (and this has probably been discussed on your blog at some point already) are your conducting scores clean as well? I suppose following through this discussion would lead to the idea that if you mark things in your score it distracts you from other possibilities eg. marking an entry as important means you don’t consider what else is going on. Personally I’m a fan of trying to keep scores as clean as possible, I’ve never been able to understand why people want to mark things up in multiple colours because if you study well enough you shouldn’t need reminders. Everyone is different though and I know that it helps a lot of people.

  19. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- A View From the Podium » Teach them to finger themselves

  20. Patti

    As you say, fingerings are an intensely personal thing. For myself, as an orchestral player (viola) primarily, I need to find a way to get through the 90 minutes of difficult music I’m playing this week, which will be superseded by another 90 minutes next week, and so on. I write as little as possible into the music, but certain passages demand that I make a decision about which way I’m going to play it this week, though that may change the next time round. And the convention in every orchestra I’ve ever played in is that the outside player’s fingerings go above the notes and the inside player’s go below. Maybe it’s a viola thing, but nobody seems to have a problem with that.

  21. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Iain

    There’s an old post here on the general subject of score marking which somehow got picked up by Gramophone Magazine. As you can see, I’m a political independent on score marking- I do make quite a few analytical notes as I go along, and I often mark entrances because the layout on every page can be different. On one page the top line is flute, but the next page it might be oboe and another 2nd horn. Better safe that sorry, but I do keep clean copies of most standard rep because it is good to go back without preconceptions and think about a piece afresh.


  22. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Patti

    Thanks for the comment. That sounds like a good system- the most important thing is not to get in your stand partner’s way with your markings. Thanks for reading!

  23. Tom Teague

    I detest playing from a part with someone else’s fingerings or bowings pencilled in. I rarely write my own, for the reasons given by Mr Woods. Sight-reading becomes immensely complicated if you have to discern the notes and printed expression markings through a galaxy of distracting pencil markings. The most idiotic marking I ever came across was at the very end of the cello part of the last movement of the second Rachmaninov piano concerto, where some tin-eared predecessor had written the word ‘END’ in huge capital letters. Did he really wonder whether there was something more over the page…? Fortunately, when I play chamber music, I nearly always do so from my own copies, which are virtually unmarked.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *