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Natural Fingering – A Topographical Approach

“The black keys belong essentially to the three longest fingers” – CPE Bach

“Please do not think that I am so naĂŻve as to ignore the logic of the circle around which our scales are built and the center of which is C. I merely stress that the theory of piano playing which deals with the hand and its physiology is distinct from the theory of music.” – Heinrich Neuhaus

The art of fingering is a huge subject, not least if studied historically. While many professional players stress the importance of good fingering we often find fingering suggestions offered by renowned editions to be clumsy, odd or simply out of place.

New York pianist and teacher Jon Verbalis book Natural Fingering is a rich resource on the subject of piano fingering. Verbalis delves into fingering techniques focusing on a topographical approach, and how they relate to the ideas found in F. Chopin´s un-finished Piano Method (Projet de Méthode).

Thomas Fielden appears to be the first to have introduced the term “topography” in relation to fingering in his 1927 work “The Science of Pianoforte Technique”. Fielden stressed knowing how muscles and tendons work and how the arms and hands move. He scientifically analyzed which of these muscles and tendons a pianist used when playing and described the function of the finger, hand and arm as a lever used in the act of touch.

Verbalis also talks about equal temperament and how it affected composers’ choice of key signature. Further, he discusses the significant influence of Charles Eschmann-Dumur, who extolled the virtue of new fingering patterns. These patterns balanced groups of notes in major scales with equal numbers of fingers, which is a concept called equal construction. Equal construction allows the pianist to invert the finger pattern and keep the desired symmetry. This technique is especially apropos to contrary motion, where the two hands move in opposite directions. Verbalis quotes Dumur’s Exercises Techniques Pour Piano in order to buttress his conclusions. He also develops a fingering strategy based on the physiological construction of the human hand.

According to Verbalis the three working principles for a basic topographic fingering strategy are:

1) Long fingers on short keys (black), short fingers on long keys (white)
This represents the very essence of a topographical approach; from it the basic patterns and their pivotal functions evolve.

2) Fourth on black, thumb on white
The fourth finger is the ideal black-key pivot in diatonic scales and arpeggios.

3) No unnecessary stretches or adjustments
In regard to range of movement, it is most important to strive for fingerings with the aim of reducing or eliminating any unnecessary stretches or adjustments.

Example 1: Beethoven – Sonata op 13, 3rd mvt.
This descending scale does not suggest a traditional c minor fingering. The 4th on e flat allows the thumb instead of 4th on b and the 3rd on a flat becomes the pivot (principle 2) avoiding any positional stretch (principle 3).

Example 2: CPE Bach – Solfeggietto
Traditional fingering suggests the thumb on c (right hand). The 4:th finger on e flat supports the previous scale idea in c minor. 54323 from the g (right hand), is the c minor chordal position with a long finger (3rd) on black key.

Example 3: Chopin – Fantaisie Impromptu
The descending alternatives are to be tried from a hand size point-of-view. 453 from the d sharp gives us a diminished chord position down to the a, with a spread hand. The 342151 solution means two positions in the run. 4351 (g sharp, f sharp, a, e) supports the idea of long finger on black key.

Example 4: Debussy – Clair de Lune
The right hand descending basically follows the pattern of an E major scale (thirds). The 5th and 3rd on g sharp and e on the 6th beat in the second bar anticipates the chordal position of f sharp minor. The full f sharp minor 7 chord of the left hand is obtained through the 4th on f sharp, 3rd on a, 2nd on c sharp and 1st on e. Long finger on black key.

Example 5: Prokofiev – Diabolical Suggestion, Op. 4
The right hand is presenting major and minor thirds chromatically descending by using the 1st and 2nd fingers. The top voice descends through the 5th and 4th alternatively 5th, 4th, 3rd and 2nd (in bar two) in order to safeguard the legato line. The pattern is favouring a longer finger on black key.

Available on the Natural Fingering companion website (accessible through an access code) are excerpts from the repertoire which are provided with topographically correct fingerings illustrating the principles and strategies applicable to the content of each chapter.

Historical background

General concepts of fingerings can be traced to different schools of training and traditions but should ulitmately strive for the best solution in the given musical situation. We also must come down to the individual player´s situation where size and construction of hands will be crucial for the choice of fingering. We might ask us if there is an actual gain in knowing about Mozart’s scale fingering when his fortepiano displays no resemblance to a modern grand piano what so ever.

Chopin’s fingering principles

Chopins fundamental hand position

Chopin's fundamental hand positions for the right and left hand

Chopin’s un-finished Projet de MĂ©thode (Piano Method) was a groundbreaking study piece when he died in 1849. Although it was incomplete at the time, the work outlined a new pedagogy of the piano. Chopin brought this to the fore by pointing out the symmetry of both the keyboard and the music he and others had composed for it.

In contrast to other pedagogues of his time, who sought to equalize the fingers by means of laborious and cramping exercises, Chopin cultivated the fingers’ individual characteristics, prizing their natural inequality as a source of variety in sound.

“For a long time we have been acting against nature by training our fingers to be all equally powerful. As each finger is differently formed, it’s better not to attempt to destroy the particular charm of each one’s touch but on the contrary to develop it. Each finger’s power is determined by its shape: the thumb having the most power, being the broadest, shortest and freest; the fifth [finger] as the other extremity of the hand; the third as the middle and the pivot; then the second [illegible]. And then the fourth, the weakest one, the Siamese twin of the third, bound to it by a common ligament, and which people insist on trying to separate from the third-which is impossible, and, fortunately, unnecessary. As many different sounds as there are fingers.” (F. Chopin)

As an example of pure technique exercises that apply the concept of “keyboard’s proper relationship to the physiology of the hand,” Chopin would suggest that his students begin the study of scales with B, F# and Db Major (“following the basic fingertips 1-2-3-1, 2-3-4-1 and 2-3-1, respectively”). He considered that these scales follow the natural, comfortable position of the hand, due to the fact that the longer second, third, and fourth fingers would be playing on the black keys.

Neuhaus’ fingering principles

Legendary pedagogue and pianist Heinrich Neuhaus agrees with Chopin’s principle of each finger’s individuality but also refers clearly to the concept that the chosen fingering ultimately should serve the musical idea. Neuhaus says: “That fingering is best that allows the most accurate rendering of the music in question and which corresponds most closely to its meaning. That fingering will also be the most beautiful. By this I mean, that the principle of physical comfort, of the convenience of a particular hand is secondary and subordinate to the first, the main principle.”

Reader question

Which fingering principle do you use when playing the piano?
Please leave a comment below.

Examples reprinted from the companion website for Natural Fingering: A Topographical Approach to Pianism (April 2012), by Jon Verbalis with permission from Oxford University Press © 2012 Oxford University Press


Do We Judge Music by Sight More Than Sound?

During the summer several interesting articles that deal with the conception of audibility vs. visibility have been presented by international media.

It may seem counterintuitive, but an expert from University College London, concert pianist and psychologist Chia-Jung Tsay has brought forth a theory that general physical appeal and visual aspects of performance are more important than actual playing in the judgment of musical competitions.

In fact, experts polled as part of this study were given three musical examples of just the contestants’ playing and were asked to evaluate. The experts chose a consensus winner from among the recordings as the best musical performance; however, in many cases, their choice was not the eventual winner of the competition.

The author notes that inferior playing won the day by looking more passionate, skillful and composed. The author conducted six other experiments in addition to the experts listening to recordings.

Nrp.org: How To Win That Music Competition? Send A Video

The new visual generation

At the same time new generations of musicians investigate the possibilities of audiovisual composition. Recently, there were two performances of special note at the Bristol Proms.

At one performance, a choir sang in complete darkness from memory and without a conductor. At the other, pianist Jan Lisecki performed Chopin with 20 cameras studying his every move.

A master’s degree student attended both performances, and her impressions were intriguing. She noted the special bond necessary between musicians when performing without a conductor and in total darkness. The performers must feel the rhythm of the ensemble in addition to the rhythm of the music and rely on each other for entrances, cues and cutoffs.

She then remarked that the technology present in the piano performance was distracting because the transition between cameras was always a split-second behind despite the best efforts of the technical team. She praised the team, however, for an exceptional effort in an extremely difficult medium.

Artsjournal.com: How do you like your music: with visuals, or without?

Edited: 31 Aug 2103

Reader poll

With an increased share of classical music consumed in various audivisual formats in relation to audio only, a relevant question to ask is whether it disturbs or enhances the musical experience of a classical composition.

We have selected four distinctly different types of videos with respectable performances of the same work, Liszt’s Sonata in B minor. Listen and watch a few minutes of each and then cast your vote!

1. Audio only (listen with closed eyes)
Khatia Buniatishvili

2. Follow along score
André Laplante

3. Live performance, close-up footage
Daniil Trifonov

4. “Video drama” production
Khatia Buniatishvili

Which visual category do you prefer for an optimal experiece of the musical composition?

View Results

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After voting:
1. Post a comment below about your choice and whether the different versions are enhancing or distubing the musical experience.
2. Share this page with any of your friends that would be interested in voting.


The Music’s Secret Language

Ever wonder why a certain classical piece evokes a consistent emotional response?
Scientist and musician Manfred Clynes has done extensive research on the topic and discovered that many of the great composers all had their own unique signature of underlying emotional “pulse” in their music. But he was not the first to explore the music’s secret language.

During the Baroque era, there existed a school of thought called the Doctrine of Affects. Composers, theorists, and musicians during that time opined that certain musical styles and techniques could elicit specific emotional responses from the listener. Werckmeister and Heinichen were steadfast proponents of the Doctrine and subscribed to the idea that different keys evoked different moods. Indeed, in these heady days before equal temperament, the sound difference between key signatures was marked and substantial.

Beethoven at the piano evoking emotions in his listeners

At that time, the use of pure intervals, usually pure fifths, in just temperament was in fashion. As one advanced around the Circle of Fifths, one noticed that the last fifth of the sequence was not the same as the beginning note. Eleven of the perfect fifths that existed between the two notes of the octave would have an exact ratio of 3-to-2. As an example, the frequency of a higher note in a perfect fifth might be 300 hertz (cycles per second) while the lower would be 200 hertz. In order to close the circle, Baroque era tuners would have to increase the size of the last fifth to get to the right place. This was called the wolf fifth because the out of tune beating of the two notes sounded almost like a howling wolf. This would mean that key signatures with more than about three sharps or flats would be unusable. Werckmeister created his own tuning system to “tame the wolf,” so to speak. Werckmeister made some of the fifths in his tuning system smaller, some larger, and some pure. In his system, there are two smaller wolf fifths. This would allow a composer to use more keys, and, by extension, evoke more moods.

The basics of how key affects mood are, as experienced by proponents of the Doctrine, thus: large intervals elicit joy, small intervals elicit sadness, rough harmony elicits fury, and the complicated counterpoint of unchanging lines elicits obstinacy. Composers since then have used music to inspire, infuriate, and ingratiate listeners the world over. Baroque proponents of the Doctrine would have been proud of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” no pun intended. They would have marveled at Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” or Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony.” Before Ludwig sat at the brook composing, however, the Doctrine of Affects reached its early pinnacle in Mannheim.

The experimental musical factory in Mannheim

Mannheim Palace, Germany

In the first half of the 18th century, the orchestra at Mannheim was the best in the world. Music historian Charles Burley called it an “army of generals.” The best players from around the world descended on the northern Black Forest and made music the likes of which had never been heard. Under the baton of Johann Stamitz, and, later, Carlo Grua, they created what were, at that time, astounding effects. Two of the most famous were the “Mannheim Crescendo” and the “Mannheim Rocket.” In the early Baroque era, composers used what are known as “terrace dynamics¨. The musical line would go forward quietly for a time and then, abruptly, become loud and forceful. The Mannheim Orchestra pioneered the technique of getting louder or softer gradually. Audiences were stunned but appreciative. The rocket was a rapidly ascending collection of intervals, usually spanning at least an octave or two. Generally, this was accompanied by the aforementioned crescendo, which created a stirring effect. Audiences cheered in the middle of performances and gave thunderous ovations at the conclusion of works. Even without intense, empirical evidence or meticulous studies, one can see how music affected listeners in Mannheim.

Mattheson’s famous handbook

Mattheson's opus magna on Affect and Retoric in Music

Even those musicians who were devoted to the Doctrine found it difficult to put the evocations into words. When referring to dance forms, Mattheson said in his 1739 treatise, “Der Vollkommende Kapellmeister,” the gigue would elicit a response of “heat and eagerness,” while the courante would evoke “sweet hope and courage.” Of course, other writers expressed equally valid opinions that differed markedly from Mattheson’s.

When referring to Baroque era instruments, scholar Alec Harman stated: “Baroque composers were primarily concerned with rendering and translating into music the temper, disposition or frame of mind, passions, and mental reactions characteristic of man.” According to Harman, timpani, for example, indicated heroism. Plaintive flute lines indicated modesty. Trombones indicated melancholy.

Even ancient Greek scholars noted the mathematical precision in pure intervals. In them, it evoked respect and awe at the innate balance between the two tones. Their painstaking work in creating a musical tonality, beginning with Pythagoras, was so influential that, even 2,000 years later, musicians were playing using a tonality based on the Greek model of successive
pure fifths.

Music – a universal language?

Almost 350 years after the end of the Baroque era, Dr. Manfred Clynes applied a clinical touch to to Doctrine of Affections. He opined that one could determine a subject’s response to music by studying electrical reactions of the central nervous system. These electrical responses are based on the central nervous system’s innate connection to time forms. Music has, as its most basic root form, rhythm. Even in the absence of melody, harmony, articulation, or intonation, one can perceive rhythm. This primal relationship between sense of time and the human nervous system can manifest itself in gesture, sound, or touch.

Dr. Manfred Clynes

In fact, Clynes experimented in 1988 with two groups of people. One group was white, urban Americans, and the other group was Australian Aborigines. He played music of different types for the Americans, who transmitted their feelings by touching a button in a certain way. Short, quick stabs, for example, indicated anger. Soft, gentle touches indicated joy. Long, soft touches indicated sexual desire. Clynes then used those same touches of the Americans to create sounds. He played the sounds for the Aborigines, who correctly guessed the emotional state indicated by the sounds created by touch.
Skinner would argue that these were learned behaviors since free will and innate feelings did not exist. How, though, would residents of the Outback have learned about a European neurologist’s experiments on urban Americans 16,000 km away? Clynes’ data support the conclusion that music and sound have a universal impact on the human central nervous system, and vice versa. Werckmeister and Stamitz “knew” it in 1700, though. They just could not explain it.


Master Technician Peter Salisbury on Piano Sound and the Magic Ingredient in Quality Grands

During a recent visit to South Bank Centre in London to find out more about “double action” pianos, Piano Street’s Patrick Jovell had a chance to speak with the in-house piano technician Peter Salisbury. He has worked with almost every famous international concert pianist who has played in London over the last 20 years and in this article he shares his thoughts about the current situation on the concert grand piano market.

PJ: You are not only working with the instruments here at London’s South Bank Centre, but you are also traveling the world with your expertise, right?

Piano technician Peter Salisbury

PS: Here at the South Bank Centre, we are able to cultivate instruments in an extraordinary way. I follow each instrument closely. It is quite a long process, actually. The journey takes an instrument from the factory, where it has a blank, standard voicing, through an extreme amount of daily adjustment and care. I have to tinker with all the instruments until I know which instrument to pair with which performer. I also have to determine which piano will work best with which repertoire. Finally, I must also consider the hall where a specific performance is to take place. For instance, when I go to Singapore every few months, I have to adjust the instruments because a lot has happened to them in the interim. It usually takes me three years to get an instrument to an optimal point that displays its full potential. There are only a few in our select fraternity. We travel the world optimising concert instruments at the highest possible level. The industry as a whole, by and large, does not appreciate our work. It does not capture their imagination. I am thoroughly grateful to this place, though. It gives me the chance to excel, and almost no other place gives me the funding that I enjoy here. One of my colleagues, Thomas Hubst, enjoys the same respect and funding in Berlin, however. I am also grateful that he and I can operate in a similar way.

PJ: You have worked closely with the chief technicians of Steinway, Bösendorfer, Bechstein, Yamaha and Fazioli. Which ideas do you have on instrument brands?

PS: There are only good and bad instruments, and the gladiatorial battle between brands is really both naive and ridiculous. It is akin to saying Schubert is better than Chopin! The argument is useless. One should look for that magic ingredient in every piano, regardless of its brand. I have heard that magic quality in Bösendorfers, Steinways, Faziolis, and Yamahas. Therefore, I think this Steinway dominance is not good for the environment. By 1914, there were many other instruments extant. There existed a variety of sound concepts and ways of playing different instruments. I am a fan of individuality in musical expression and concept, so I want to prevent Steinway from totally diluting the environment.

When I was caring for the instruments at the Royal Academy of Music here in London, they took a very bold step. They wanted to change their piano stock and purchased 70 percent Steinway, 20 percent Bösendorfer, and 10 percent Fazioli and Yamaha. This reflected the same percentages one would encounter in concert arenas around the world. The Royal Academy could then have one Steinway and one Bösendorfer in a teaching room. I thought this was quite intelligent! Pianists could try different instruments and switch between them after evaluating what was working or not working. This is an incredible education for the ear and preparation for the future. I am, therefore, in favour of the “school of all brands.” Supporting only one brand would foster a system that bred performance robots. Everybody and everything would sound the same.

PJ: Here in the basement under Queen Elisabeth Hall, you have let me try a fabulous Yamaha CFX!

Patrick Jovell trying out the Yamaha CFX in the QEH basement

PS: The Yamaha CFX is a series of very competitive instruments.

PJ: Can you notice an effect since Yamaha´s acquisition of Bösendorfer a couple of years ago and the exchange of instrumental knowledge?

PS: They are very cagey about what they have done, and it´s hard to find out, but yes there has been an amazing feedback and input coming out of Bösendorfer. For instance, the projection in this is much bigger than in the Steinway and that is what the Bösendorfer does, but when you sit on a Bösendorfer it doesn’ t sound that way so the pianist often force. That´s not needed as it´s all going out. It also has a much bigger projection than it´s predecessor CF3.

The treble in the CFX has the most stunning sustain. The tones just ring on and on and on. I don´t know of any piano regardless of brand which has this. It´s quite extraordinary. This is something you cannot put in a piano. Usually you either get singing OR projection, normally they never go together. In the Brahms’ concertos it can deliver all the substance that you need but the character in these concertos has become associated with something that Steinway does, highly debateable though… For example there is a very special character in Brahms’ d-minor concerto which a Steinway can deliver. Not all Steinways, but some Steinways. As a matter of fact we have one in Royal Festival Hall which has this quality and it also has double action for this reason. But of course it also comes down to the player. Garrick Ohlsson for instance can get sounds out of a Bösendorfer which nobody else can, things you normally can´t do, he does…

PJ: Working closely with top pianists for so many years, what exactly do you consider creating a personal piano sound?

PS: Great artists project the sound they have in their head, and they will achieve it on any instrument you provide them. Shura Cherkassky, for example, when he was here for instrument trials, used three or four Steinways and eight stools! It took him longer to choose the right stool than the right Steinway (laughs). Each Steinway we gave him he sounded exactly the same. I knew they could not, because it is not possible. Each piano sounded like Shura Chekassky. I do not know what he did, but this man carried his sound around like a fingerprint.

The generation of pianists who could do that is no longer with us. He was the last of that batch. Within five bars, you could recognize who was playing — Rubinstein or Horowitz, for example. Now, what you hear is generally the Steinway piano, and you listen to stylistic idiosyncrasies in order to distinguish who is playing. I am generalising, of course. In those days, almost all pianists had that type of rugged individuality. It seems to have been lost down the line, though. It has to do with piano competitions, of course. “Play the way you ’should’ and not the way you ’should not,’” seems to be the mantra nowadays. Also, pedagogues have changed their approach. They “teach to the paradigm,” as it were. In other words, they teach the kind of “perfection” necessary to succeed in a piano competition.

Read the first part of the interview:
More is More and The Art of Perfection – Master Piano Technician Peter Salisbury Turns a Steinway Into Two


More is More and The Art of Perfection – Master Piano Technician Peter Salisbury Turns a Steinway Into Two

Rumors circulating in the recording industry tell of a famous piano technician who has introduced a new innovation: Turn a Steinway D into two! How could this be possible? Piano Street´s Patrick Jovell decided to go to South Bank Centre in London in order to find out.

Peter Salisbury among the instruments at Southbank Centre, London.

Peter Salisbury among the instruments at Southbank Centre, London.

The world regards Peter Salisbury as one of the finest piano technicians today. He has worked in the piano industry for more than 33 years and has collaborated with pianists like Brendel, Barenboim, Kissin, Demidenko, Andsnes, Kovacevich and Hamelin. Many of his recording projects have received awards. He also earned the contract for concert tuning and maintenance at London’s South Bank Centre. There, he is responsible for overseeing the widely renowned International Piano Series.

Patrick Jovell: What is a Steinway with Double Action?

Peter Salisbury: It is an instrument specifically prepared for two different sets of actions. These two sets are instantly interchangeable. Most pianists get a feel for the tone through what they hear. Some do not even realise that this was the way the tuners prepared the instrument. For example, pianist John Lill was happy with the instrument he tried when he was here. We had to persuade him to try the second action, and he was utterly shocked at what he heard from the piano! He told us he could not believe it was the same instrument.

I know which of the two actions to show pianists. I know how they play and what they need. Therefore, I have set up certain criteria based on my experience regarding certain pianists. It also matters in which concert venue these pianists will play. We have both the Royal Festival Hall and Queen Elisabeth Hall. An amateur will not hear any difference based on the acoustics in either hall, but the professional knows what will work in each environment.

Peter removing the first action for an instant switch.

Peter removing the first action for an instant switch.

My experience has also taught me this: Whenever a pianist is able to sit down and play without thinking about how he or she is doing it, the music just happens. If the pianist overthinks everything, his or her inspiration suffers. We aim to ensure that the tone each pianist wants simply leaps from the instrument. We do not want the performer to need to think unnecessarily about it. I have found that most performers prefer one action of the double Steinway or the other. As long as I have helped the performer find the proper sound by manipulating the voicing and regulation, I have done my job properly!

PJ: How can the Double Action facilitate for the performer?

PS: We have deliberately prepared our set of instruments for any contingency. Through research, we know what all different types of pianists will seek. We have it all covered. Pianists do not sound the same. In that way, the Double Action supports a new way of thinking; you can even choose to play the second half of a recital with a totally different sound. This allows the performer to choose a different sound for different composers. Certain colors for certain types of music become available, creating a platform for those magical moments that are so rare and only happens in great performances.

The second action waiting to be installed.

The second action waiting to be installed.

For example, listen to Benjamin Grosvenors´s latest album that includes piano concertos by Gershwin, Ravel and Saint-Saëns.

We have used different actions in different movements here to get the optimal sound. Benjamin knew which nuances he wanted to get from the instrument. The best part is that he did not have to fight to get it!

Benjamin Grosvenor, Double Action Steinway Recording:
Amazon sampler

First action safely placed in its wooden box.

First action safely placed in its wooden box.

PJ: Tell me about the instruments you have here at the South Bank Centre. Which instruments have Double Action?

PS: We have ten concert instruments in our fleet here: two Yamaha CFXs, one Bösendorfer and seven Steinway Ds. After contemplating it for years, we decided to go ahead with Double Action and had tremendous success in the Royal Festival Hall. Two Steinways now have Double Action capacity, and we are currently outfitting a third. You might be interested in knowing this; two days from now, in a recital, Krystian Zimerman is going to play the same Double Action Steinway D that you tried out. He will reap the benefits of the Double Action innovation.

Piano Street's Patrick Jovell trying the Double Action Steinway D on stage at Queen Elisabeth Hall.

Piano Street's Patrick Jovell trying the Double Action Steinway D on stage at Queen Elisabeth Hall.


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