Presenting alternate fingerings: Letter to the examiner

Those of you who attended my recent presentations on the new AMEB (Australian Music Examinations Board) technical exercises at APPC and the Taubman workshop with John Bloomfield know that I have concerns over the restriction printed in every chapter that the written fingerings must be adhered to.  I have an adult hand with a 9th on white to white keys, yet I feel discomfort caused by stretching and also crowding the hand together using the given fingering in some  exercises. Apart from the discomfort itself, my concern is that students will develop an expectation that it is “normal” and “correct” to feel uncomfortable playing the piano, and be disconnected from learning to give feedback to the teacher as to how something feels in their body, and fingering choices that feel good for them. If a student begins to expect discomfort, they are also less likely to tell a teacher if the problem escalates, and we lose the opportunity to avoid a playing-related injury. 

At this stage, although members of the AMEB gave permission for alternate fingerings to be used in public sessions at APPC, this has not yet been formalised and promoted by the AMEB. The exception so far has been to allow alternate fingering for “very small hands”, which does not include my hand, nor many others. AMEB examiners I have spoken to have shared my concerns, and reassured me that they would not mark down a student who presented alternate fingering, but emphasised that piano teachers need to speak up and give feedback to the AMEB.

In the meantime, my students are working only from the old syllabus, which does not require the new technical exercises. If the ruling on compulsory fingering has not been reconsidered when the old syllabus is retired next year, I intend to send my students in to their exams with fingerings that allow them to play comfortably, while realising the technical and musical intentions of the exercise. They will give this letter to the examiner, which you are welcome to use it as a draft for your own students. If you have also found that you or your students have found alternate fingerings that are more comfortable for your students’ hands, I encourage you to contact the AMEB also and ask them for permission to use alternate fingering. In no other musical situation is fingering insisted upon, even different Henle Urtext editions of Beethoven sonatas will differ in their fingering. We would never know which fingering a pianist uses in a recording, we simply listen to the final musical result.

 

Dear Examiner,

The candidate today presents a system of scale fingering which differs on occasion from the AMEB technical workbook. This fingering has been specifically chosen to avoid stretching, particularly between fingers 3 and 4, as stretching is one of the primary causes of playing-related injury.

Fortunately, the AMEB is flexible in this regard. The Piano Technical Work book states: “Candidates may alter the written fingering for scales, provided a logical and systematic approach is adopted.” It was also necessary to alter some of the fingering in the technical exercises, as the student felt that the given fingering was at times stretchy, uncomfortable, or awkward.

In the past, the AMEB determined that “The Board does not specify any particular system of fingering. Examiners may comment on inappropriate fingering if it results in technical or musical problems”. Further, the previous AMEB Piano Technical Workbook states “Standard and systematic fingering is indicated as a guide. However, as suitable fingering is dependent on the physiology of the individual hand, alternative fingering is suggested in some cases. Teachers and candidates should decide on the most appropriate fingering to achieve maximum speed and fluency”. It seems a shame that this philosophy has not continued into the current required Technical Exercises.

In this case, alternative fingering was necessary for the technical exercises to be performed at maximum speed and fluency considering the physiology of this student’s hands. Please find the revised fingering attached, in order to understand the changes made to preserve comfort and ease in this student’s developing technique.

Thank you for your understanding and sensitivity today.

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