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New Fingerings For Piano Scales

I must warn you that what you are about to read may be considered heretical by piano teachers who have learned the standard fingerings for playing scales hands together that have been with us for perhaps hundreds of years.

As a beginner adult piano student, I was making slow but decent progress until I ran into the wall of learning how to play scales with two hands together for two octaves. The fingerings for the basic scales for the C,G,D, and A major scales use the following pattern:

RH: 1 2 3 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 1 2 3 4 5 4 3 2 1 3 2 1 4 3 2 1 3 2 1
LH: 5 4 3 2 1 3 2 1 4 3 2 1 3 2 1 2 3 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 1 2 3 4 5

The thumb is numbered 1 and the little finger is numbered 5 on each hand. Click here to see a complete listing of the fingerings.

I could play patterns fairly fluently with hands separate. However, despite working at this on and off for months, this fingering causes a kind of brain freeze for me. Because the right hand starts with a pattern of three and the left hand starts with a pattern for five, the regular patterns that make sense when playing hands separate are at odds with each most of the time. Sure, the middle fingers (3) give each other a salute from time to time, but mostly you have to will each hand to do something contrary to what the other hand is doing.

I found this discouraging to the point of considering stopping piano lessons. I suspect I am not alone and that there have been a large number of promising young students who have given up on the piano over this.

I spent some time searching the Internet for alternative of fingerings and found mostly the standard fingerings and a variation by Robert Kelley. Robert Kelley's fingerings are mostly the traditional fingerings, only starting with the thumb and going into the pattern right away. The idea of starting with the thumb and avoiding starting with five fingers on the left hand gave me an idea. Why not use a parallel fingering pattern that can be started at any octave and have both hands using the same pattern up and down the scale for as many octaves as you want?

So I derived a fingering that uses the following strategies for the for the C,G,D, and A major scales:

  1. The root is played with the thumb with an option to substitute a convenient finger at the top and the bottom of the run.
  2. Both hands cross over with the same number of fingers. The traditional right hand pattern is thumb, two fingers, thumb three fingers, until you run out of keyboard or decide to end. This works well and most students know it.
  3. The left hand does exactly the same pattern as the right hand starting with thumb, two fingers, thumb, three fingers, until you run out of keyboard or decide to end or change direction.

The new fingerings look like this:

RH: 1 2 3 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 1 2 3 4 1 4 3 2 1 3 2 1 4 3 2 1 3 2 1
LH: 1 3 2 1 4 3 2 1 3 2 1 4 3 2 1 2 3 4 1 3 2 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 1

Note that both hands play the 1 (thumbs) together.

The advantages of this fingering include:

  1. Once you know the fingering strategy for the right hand, it is fairly easy to apply to the left hand.
  2. Since the pattern is in parallel for both hands, the brain does not have the remember the exceptions to play the parts together. I think most students who can play the scales hands separately can learn to play them hands together with relatively little effort. In my case it was a few minutes versus possibly never.
  3. The pattern works well in parallel thirds and sixths as well as contrary motion.

With regards to parallel motion, I am pondering the benefits of simply repeating the pattern of thumb, two fingers, thumb, three fingers on the way down as well as on the way up the scale. The standard fingerings and the fingerings I have listed above go back down in a similar to retracing steps. That is pretty easy.

The alternative of continuing the 1 + 2, 1 + 3 pattern both directions would look something like:

RH: 1 2 3 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 1 2 3 4 1 3 2 1 4 3 2 1 3 2 1 4 3 2 1
LH: 1 3 2 1 4 3 2 1 3 2 1 4 3 2 1 2 3 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 1 2 3 4 1

The main advantages of this pattern include:

  1. You only need to remember one pattern regardless of whether you are going up or down the scales.
  2. The pattern is the same for contrary motion, where one hands goes up the scale while the other hands comes down.
  3. Playing the Grand Form, which combines playing parallel and contrary motion of scales, becomes easy since both hands are always playing either the thumb plus two fingers or the thumb plus three finger pattern at the same time. Even I can do it without my brain melting down!

I lean towards this fingering, though I am still experimenting. Perhaps your preference will depend on how your mind works.

The new fingerings take me over the wall so that I can continue to explore the piano with joy.

The question is, why would everyone not use these new alternative fingerings? Here are some possible reasons:

  1. It has always been taught the other way. Most books and teachers know and use the standard fingerings. If you want to pass conservatory exams, you will likely be tested on the standard fingerings. The QWERTY keyboard we use on computers and mobile devices was designed in the days of manual typewriters to slow down the typist so that the physical arms of the typewriter would not jam. If we were to start with a fresh keyboard, we would use a layout like the Dvorak keyboard that is designed to facilitate easy and fast typing. However, the QWERTY keyboard is ubiquitous and we can move from computer to computer and find some common ground. Though dumb, the QWERTY keyboard has a lot of inertia behind it.
  2. There may be a reason for the standard fingerings that I am not appreciating yet. I sometimes wonder if the standard fingerings were perhaps designed to deliberately force the student to think of the two hands independently. There may be some benefit to that, though developing independence comes naturally through developing repertoire.
  3. The practice of starting with five fingers on the left hand likely came from the tendency of beginning piano books to have the students play melodies and exercises with only five fingers first, without reaching or crossing over. Starting with five fingers in the left hand may have seemed like it was easier.

I am open to discussion of the merits and disadvantages of the new fingerings. Please try them out and click here to send your comments.

Greg Dixon

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