How to Work out Piano Fingering when Sight-Reading

Do you find it hard to work out piano fingering when sight-reading? Then read this article where I give you tips on how to figure out fingering with examples. 

 

how to figure out piano fingering when sight-reading

 

Sight-reading at the piano is hard. There are so many elements to process so if you have to work out fingering on the fly, it just makes it even harder!

 

But what if I told you that there are a few tricks you can use to smoothly navigate a score without fingering? It would be nice, wouldn’t it?

 

In this article, I’m going to show you ways to work out fingering when there isn’t any and ways to avoid getting your fingers all tangled up!

 

Within a five-finger position

Let’s start with the easiest scenario: pieces using a five-finger position. Aren’t those great? The trick here is to simply work out the lowest and highest notes.

 

For example, in the following excerpt, the lowest note is C and the highest note is G. Therefore, the thumb will be on C and the pinky on G and the first note will be played with the third finger:

passage in a five-finger position

Outside of a five-finger position

Unfortunately, once you leave the beginner pieces behind, you enter a territory that goes outside the five-finger position!

 

Below are a few tricks you can use in this situation:

 

Use the thumb as you would in scales

When you see a passage of notes spanning more than five notes, treat it like a scale by using your thumb after the second or third finger.

 

In this RH example, the notes go beyond the five-finger position in bar 2 so using the thumb helps you reach the remaining notes:

scale passage

 

Prepare for large intervals

Use your thumb and pinky to prepare for large intervals.

 

For example, in this RH excerpt, there is an octave in bar 3 so using the thumb on the first G helps you play the octave:

fingering for large intervals

 

Tucking the thumb under or using a finger over the thumb is the easiest way to “add” more fingers.

 

Use fingers 1 and 2 for large intervals

As a general rule, use fingers 1 and 2 for larger intervals preceding a passage of ascending notes in the RH, or descending notes in the LH.

 

In this RH example, the melody starts with a fourth so you would normally use fingers 1 and 4 but because the melody goes up to the E in bar 2, it’s best to use fingers 1 and 2 for the fourth so that you have fingers 3, 4 and 5 for the remaining notes.

 fingers 1 and 2 for large intervals

 

Ways to change hand position

Use articulation, rests or phrasing to change your hand position.

 

For example, in the following RH excerpt, use the phrasing to change hand position:

changing hand position at the end of phrases

 

For this RH excerpt, use the rest to change hand position:

using rests to change hand position

And in a passage of detached notes, you are free to switch hand position on any notes. This is what I would probably do in this RH excerpt but you could use other fingering:

using any fingering with detached notes

Switching fingers on repeated notes

Similarly, whenever you encounter repeated notes, you can switch fingers to prepare your hand for the following passage if necessary.

 

In this LH example, the melody goes down to an F so unless you switch fingers on the second C in bar 3, you won’t be able to reach it:

using repeated notes to change hand position

 

Substituting fingers

You can also substitute fingers silently on certain notes to prepare your hand for the following passage. Substituting fingers is easier to do on long notes but it can also be done on shorter note values. This trick is particularly useful when you get into a tight spot and “run out” of fingers for the remainder of a passage.

 

In this RH example, you could substitute finger 4 with finger 3 while holding down the F so that you can reach the A in bar 3:

substituting fingers to change hand position

 

Prepare for black keys

When sight-reading a piece with sharps or flats, try using the longer fingers (fingers 2, 3 and 4) on the black keys whenever possible. The reason is that the thumb and the pinky, being shorter fingers, force your hand to go inside the keys, or worse, twist your hand, if you aren’t used to moving inside the keys.

 

In this RH example, it is easier to play the E-flat in bar 2 with finger 2 so using the thumb on F would solve the problem:

using the long fingers on the black keys

 

Sometimes, it is impractical to avoid using the thumb on the black keys, like in this RH example. It is easier to use the thumb on the E-flat as the melody goes up to C in bar 3:

using the thumb on a black key

 

Learn the fingering of common patterns

Learning the proper fingering for major, minor and chromatic scales, major and minor arpeggios and chords will mean that when you come across a passage based on a scale, an arpeggio or a chord, you won’t have to fumble around as much.

 

Knowing your scale fingering is particularly useful as it can help you learn common fingering rules such as using the thumb on a white key following a black key.

 

Use consistent fingering

When you come across a series of sequences like in the following RH example, use the same fingering, if practical:

using the same fingering for sequences

Read ahead

And last but not least, working out the fingering at the piano involves reading ahead and preparing the hands for any major leaps or hand position changes. The tricks I’ve shared with you in this article are only useful if you are able to read ahead. I cover this topic in this article: How to Look Ahead when Sight-Reading.

 

If you have any other tricks up your sleeves regarding fingering, I would love to hear about them. Let me know in the comments.

 

 

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    Emmanuelle Fonsny

    Emmanuelle Fonsny

    Emmanuelle Fonsny, or Manu, is a piano and violin teacher, composer and accompanist based in Sydney, Australia. She is passionate about sharing her love of music and her sight-reading and practice tips to help other pianists become more confident sight-readers.

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