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I just started to learn piano, and I notice that practice sheet music for beginners sometimes specifies for all or some keys which fingers should hit them. It seems that some authors consistently teach to change the finger if the same key is played twice (e.g., Carl Czerny), while others don't (e.g., Elena Gnesina).

I'm wondering if there are any important benefits to either technique.

The thread Is there a specific finger for playing a specific key on piano doesn't seem to answer this, but the answer to Should I lift my finger before I hit a key when playing a piano? seems to suggest that it's fine to use the same finger.

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Note: fingerings are usually not by the composer, but by a pianist hired by the editor. (Though perhaps the Czerny fingerings are authentic, because no credit is given for the fingerings in my edition.) Note as well that fingerings are quite personal, though in some cases (like the case you are asking about) there is a definitive fingering: the one described in BobRodes' answer. –  11684 Mar 19 at 23:34
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@11684 Your statement that fingerings are usually not provided by the composer is a bit too broad. Many composers do provide fingerings; others (such as Debussy) explicitly criticized the practice of providing fingerings at all. In fact, the statement that "fingerings are quite personal," while relatively uncontroversial these days, is a relatively new attitude championed primarily by Debussy; previously, fingerings followed certain orthodox "rules" (you may have heard a couple of the ones that have managed to stick around, such as "never play a black key with your thumb"). –  Kyle Strand Mar 19 at 23:52
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It is also not true that there is a "definitive fingering" for repeated notes; everything depends on context. At slower speeds and in certain contexts, using the same finger may be desirable; even at fast speeds, one can choose between repeating 321, repeating 4321, or even alternating between the hands. (There may also be more exotic options; for instance, if the thumb is occupied, then repeating 432 might be the best choice.) –  Kyle Strand Mar 19 at 23:55
    
@KyleStrand comment 1: interesting. I didn't know. Comment 2: I oversimplified there. You're right. –  11684 Mar 20 at 15:31
    
Note that suggested fingerings are just that, suggestions for how to handle something that might otherwise be difficult. If another fingering works better for your hands in a particular context, don't be afraid to use it. On the other hand, if your teacher recommends a specific fingering, discuss it before changing it; the difficulty you're having may be due to a bad habit you need to fix, and there are advantages to having "practiced in" patterns even if they aren't optimal in all cases. (This advice is true for all instruments.) –  keshlam Mar 21 at 2:10

6 Answers 6

up vote 18 down vote accepted

If you would like to see a tour de force in the use of repeated notes, have a look at Martha Argerich's performance of Scarlatti's D Minor Sonata:

You will notice that she uses 321321 for the rapid notes. Since the accents fall on the first, third and fifth notes, you will see that a different finger is used for each accented note. As such, she isn't doing this because each finger has a different tone quality--it's safe to assume that she doesn't want the tone quality to vary on each note. (Tone quality differences are more noticeable in slower, more melodic passages.) Rather, it's because she can play the notes a lot faster with three fingers than one. Also, because there are six repeated notes in each group, she can keep playing 321 over and over again so the fingering is quick to learn. (Getting them even is the tough part!)

The reasons you can play quicker with three fingers than one are simple biomechanics: with three fingers, one finger can be on the way down while another is on the way up, and each muscle has three times as much time to recover before it needs to fire again as it would when using one finger.

I might mention that I play this piece (maybe half as fast and with quite a few more wrong notes) myself, and there's no way I could begin to do it with using the same finger twice in a row on the repeated notes.

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+1 because I love Argerich's take on this piece. –  Kyle Strand Mar 19 at 23:53
    
Thanks. Me too; I'd say it's my favorite. –  BobRodes Mar 20 at 1:59
    
It took me a while to look into all suggestions here, and I think speed really seems to be the crucial factor. However, @Mikhail also made a very important point about changing fingers to adjust the hand configuration for the keys that follow. –  Ivan Kapitonov Apr 1 at 19:48

Getting an even touch with alternating fingers might feel hard at first. However, try knocking the table with one finger and alternating two or more. You find you can tap a lot faster in the latter case. This speed reserve gives you more overhead and more control.

On the other hand when you're playing two different notes you're mostly using different fingers. Like playing the scales. The idea behind alternating fingers in playing the same note is that you have a uniform technique in both cases.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with playing the repeating notes with one finger if you have time and it's not a strain. However, the alternating fingering is usually faster but takes more learning at first and that's why its use is often endorsed for beginners.

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I'm wondering if there are any important benefits to either technique.

Where speed is needed, alternating fingerings on the same note really do help, and it pays off to take the time to learn this, however unnatural it might seem at first.

Of course, you'll find up to a certain speed you'll be able to tap out the same note again and again without an issue, and in sections where the speed of this is relatively slow then using the same finger isn't an issue at all.

However, for faster sections you don't really want to get into the habit of just using one finger - it might seem fine to start with, but when you take the piece up to speed you'll reach an inherent cap and simply won't be able to take it any faster without altering your technique.

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The "inherent cap" is the "skeletal muscle twitch speed" in the fingers. –  BobRodes Mar 19 at 18:21

Several factors are involved in the process of deciding, which finger must be used to play the key. Reasons to change a finger in sequence of repeating keys may be one of the following:

  • If in the continuation of the piece it will be needed to change your hand position, so you can play next part easily.
  • A key played with different fingers sounds more interesting and various, because each finger has different strength and attack level.

So, on the other hand, if an author has written the same finger for repeated key, he may have wanted the performer to play this part monotonously. Besides, this kind of playing teaches how to get the same sound from the same key and to play smoothly.

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While it's true that the fingers are different, you can use this to get different sounds (Chopin was a big advocate of this), it's important also to learn to make the fingers consistent. My teacher once said to me "Bob, you have two enemies. One is your left thumb, and the other is your right thumb. :) –  BobRodes Mar 20 at 2:01

To change or not to change. This depends.

You've got three choices here:

  1. to play the same key with the same finger - Piano Sonata No. 21 (Waldstein), First movement: Allegro con brio by Ludwig van Beethoven
  2. to play the same key with another finger - Étude Op. 10, No. 7 by Frédéric Chopin
  3. to split the same key between different hands - Toccata in D minor, Op. 11 by Sergei Prokofiev

If You have to play fast repeated notes, then usually You have to change fingers. My advice is to use the most active fingers ("3" and "1") on the strong beat. Usually, "3" for triplets and "1" for quadruplets. That way You will be able to play repeated notes really fast. Note, that Your instrument must support high level of repetition required for the music piece though.

There are some rare situations when You have to perform fast music fragments with the same finger. For example You have to perform the beginning of Toccata in D minor, Op. 11 by Sergei Prokofiev with the same finger. That is because all the notes in this fragment should sound equally. If You will use different fingers here, then the sound won't be so "disciplined" (controlled). However, to make it more easy for the pianist Prokofiev divided those repeated notes between the two hands.

If You have to play slow repeated notes, then changing fingers is not so critical. In such fragments fingering should be dictated by the melody that is performed. Weather it should be played legato, should sound equally, etc.

Some recommendations:

  • Research all possible fingerings that a composer, editor or pianist recommends / uses. You can find that from sheet music editions, videos, books and sometimes urtexts.
  • Try to understand the reason behind the fingering for that specific individual music piece.
  • When playing fast repeated notes, You should especially pay attention that Your wrist is not locked.
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Good point about the instrument requirement. Some instruments don't have a fast enough action (key doesn't return to starting position quickly enough) to allow rapid repeated notes. Steinway action is probably the fastest by a small degree. –  BobRodes Mar 20 at 17:49

I thought I would add an organist's perspective to the already excellent answers. On the organ, you often start playing a note with one finger and without lifting it up, finish the note with another finger. This is due to the lack of a sustain pedal, and the fact that the most comfortable fingering from the previous note to the current note might not be the best fingering from the current note to the next note.

This is not as critical on the piano, but the principle still applies. In addition to increased speed, as the other answers covered well, switching fingers on a repeated note (or even the same note) can make it easier to find the next interval.

For example, consider moving up by octaves. If you hit a note with your pinky, then with your thumb, it makes it easier to find the next octave. Other fingering examples may be more subtle, but still employ the same principle. This may not be the primary reason in your examples, but it's something additional to consider.

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I find I have to do a great deal of finger substitution to get a good legato in Bach's fugues. He very often requires a note to be held down while other notes are changing rapidly in the same hand, where it's hard to connect the notes with the pedal because you will muddy the rapid notes together. –  BobRodes Mar 20 at 17:52

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