Teach them to finger themselves

I’ve been delighted to see how many responses I’ve had to my last post on fingerings and bowings. By a complete coincidence, I found this morning I have another comrade in arms, Alban Gerhardt, who writes –

I don’t know how it sounded out there in the hall – but at my seat in the (acoustically very dry) hall it was quite fulfilling, and Walter Weller, the conductor, couldn’t believe when I told him afterwards that this cello had just been varnished 10 days ago, he absolutely loved the sound of this modern instrument. Not only old Italian instruments can play…

Thomas, the luthier, asked me afterwards how it was possible to adapt so quickly (I had about 90 minutes practise time on the cello before the concert) to a new instrument with completely different measurements. My answer brought me back to what “taking risks” means:

Each performance, never mind if it’s Bach or Chin, I try to go through the creation process meaning I kind of pretend of improvising or composing the piece as I go along. If you look at my parts, they are blank; no fingerings, no bowings, no phrasings, no other words of wisdom – I want to leave myself the space to explore many different options. When going on stage I have not decided on exactly what to do at any given spot – I kind of go with the flow, let the music lead me while forming the phrases as I feel them in the moment. No, I don’t play every single performance differently, I don’t try to play differently, but I try to “speak freely”, not tied to an absolute game plan. And this by itself presents a huge risk – it is easier to play perfectly (hit every single note) if there is only one option (or two), but if you speak spontaneously, you might get some words wrong.

And for playing the cello in a technical sense it is absolutely the same: There is hardly any automatism in my technical approach, but my fingers more or less follow what my ears want to hear, and that’s why they find their way on any instrument. In masterclasses I always use the instrument of the student, which used to throw me off when I came back to my own cello, but not anymore. After a minute or two my fingers understand the instrument, they find the invisible keys and press them down, being lead by the ears. Gosh, I don’t know if this makes any sense, it’s very difficult to explain the sensation of exploring a new instrument, which is so much fun.

Again, I’m not dogmatically advocating that everyone go out and erase everything in their parts. In fact, I think the best of all possible worlds would be to have one clean set of parts that you practice and perform from and one marked set that you put in everything you want to remember in five years when you come back to the piece.

One comment I’ve heard, which I am sympathetic to, is from people who feel they need those fingerings in there to avoid mishaps. The music should come first- do what you need to do in order to play well, rather than sacrificing the product to conform to some idealized idea of what you should be doing.

However, some of the best advice I ever had (from Parry Karp) was to try avoid ever feeling that there was something I “need” in order to play well. Alban’s story is a case in point- sometimes you just have to pick up another cello and play. When you need a certain chair, a special fish meal 90 minutes before hand, 50 minutes warm up time in the hall at 6 PM, your lucky cufflinks (how anyone plays with cufflinks is beyond me) or even your carefully marked part, you’re making trouble. I’ve had to borrow or print off parts for recitals and chamber concerts twice. It happens.
I know people always say of the Alban’s and the Gould’s that they’re “just that kind of player,” but I think teachers can do a huge amount to help increase their student’s creativity and resiliency under stress.

When I was in school (particularly at IU), so many teachers would either photocopy their parts for their students, or simply write in their own markings in their students music, and the students would then spend months learning those exact fingerings and bowings. A student trained in this way will be able to do a good job of mimicking their teacher, but will they do when they have to change and adapt under pressure. What do they do when a slipped peg means they can’t use an open string or any of those sneaky harmonics?

Far better to teach the student to come up with fingerings- LOTS of them, and to encourage them to continue to experiment and challenge themselves.

This is not the same thing as leaving all interpretive and technical decisions to the student.

Simply saying “if that’s the way you feel it, then that’s great, sweetie” is not teaching. The “old school” way of teaching only teaches one possibly right way of doing things, but doesn’t teach how to find a right way of doing things, nor does it teach why those right ways are right, nor why some other means might be wrong (and yes, there are “wrongs” in music). The modern day, touchy-feely, let-them-do-whatever-they-like method never subjects ideas to rigorous inspection and self-criticism, it encourages complacency and limits flexibility. A teacher shouldn’t hesitate to say, in the nicest possible way “that fingering sucked, can you show me 8 different ones?” It’s even perfectly fine to say “try this one,” but best to follow that immediately with “now try this one instead.” Then, ask the student to articulate the qualities of all the bowings and fingerings they come up with- all fingerings involve trade offs, it’s important to understand the strengths of all possible ways of executing a passage.

A student who has been challenged to re-think things in lessons and master classes as well as the practice room for 6 years is going to grow into a far more resilient and flexible professional.

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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 www.kennethwoods.net

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2 comments on “Teach them to finger themselves”

  1. Joanna

    “I’m with you, Ken. I have fresh parts and marked parts, and I have found the duplication to be invaluable. Alban Gerhardt performed the Elgar with the Madison Symphony last season, and I was fortunate enough to end up speaking with him at length at a post-concert reception about many things musical and otherwise. Great guy, great cellist – sounds like you, only without the conductoring!”

  2. Lucia

    “Good article. As we musically grow, we change. Some of my old markings just feel stale. I also have new clean music that I use most of the time.
    Here is a true story from my school days. I played Beethoven concerto for Mr. Gerle and after I finished the first movement he suggested I borrow his part and relearn his bowings (and fingerings). I was not happy about this, but I was his brand new student on a full scholarship so I memorized it and played it his way at the next week’s lesson. He let me finish it, but told me he hated it. I was stunned and told him that I have used his part to learn it. I gave him his part back, he looked at it and he said:”well, it is very old stuff, and I would’t play it that way anymore”. He threw the score at me and said:”do this instead”. I went home and said, well fuck this, I am going to play it my way and if he wants to throw me out, so be it. But I did study the score a lot more from that point on ….and he didn’t threw me out:-D”

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