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I'm noticing that as I sight read, I can sometimes get myself into an awkward hand position because I'm not really planning my fingering as I play - I'll focus on the music itself, so have some trouble focusing on the fingering. I find myself having to play my way out of a sub-optimal fingering, which works more often than not but is something I'd rather avoid.

Problem is, one I've run through a piece one it's no longer sight reading, and I know the awkward fingering is coming. How should I go about developing a "finger sense" (is there a word for that?) for sight reading in particular? I suppose it'd be good for non sight playing, but I find that I can figure it out once I'm learning a piece.

The underlying question here is: what should I be doing during my practice sessions in order to learn to place my fingers while sight reading? I would like to ensure that I'm not just wasting time by practicing without focus.

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    As always, this is just a restatement of the well-known question, "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" – Carl Witthoft May 10 '17 at 12:26
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    Work out the fingering and then write it on the score. Do that enough times and your brain and fingers will start to get more automatic about it. – Todd Wilcox May 10 '17 at 12:41
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    @CarlWitthoft: I don't necessarily disagree that practice is important (I assume that's what you meant :-) ) however, I'm starting to learn the importance of directed practice. So I suppose the question really would be, "other than just sight reading randomly until it works, what should I be doing to focus my practice in order to maximize my learning"? – Michael Stachowsky May 10 '17 at 13:50
  • Well put, Michael. That's an easier question to address. Maybe you should edit the original question? – Carl Witthoft May 10 '17 at 13:58
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Part of the solution is to get into the habit of defensive fingering: using finger sequences that are reasonably open to any continuation. Of course this has consequences like underutilizing the right pinky (since continuing upwards after playing it can be awkward) and crossing over more often than necessary.

Another is to practice until the music is not a set of finger placements for you but reads fluently as music, just like someone reading a poem on-sight rarely has his tongue and jaw surprised by the letters occuring next.

Of course, the latter is something that comes slowly and with loads of practice.

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    Another strategy is to learn how to avoid "crossing" in the traditional "thumb-under" sense. Practice a C major scale with the fingering 2 3 4 5 2 3 4, instead of 1 2 3 4 1 2 3, for example. To get from 5 to 2, just move your arm and/or "flick" your wrist from pointing left to pointing right, relative to your arm. Actually, there's nothing "new and weird" about this technique - when keyboard instruments were first invented, the standard fingering for an octave of C major scale was 2 3 2 3 2 3 4. – user19146 May 10 '17 at 17:17
  • @alephzero "the standard fingering for an octave of C major scale was 2 3 2 3 2 3 4" I didn't know about that and that's quite interesting. Where can I find more info on this? – Lolo May 10 '17 at 20:25
  • @user40212, can you give an example or two of fingerings that are 'open to continuation?' Comparing them with a 'standard' fingering would be helpful too. I hope there are some more examples to add to the one from alephzero. Thanks! – Michael Curtis May 10 '17 at 20:38
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This is one of the reasons that there is so much emphasis on learning scales and arpeggios. They give you "normal" fingerings for many of the situations you are likely to encounter. Not all, obviously, but it reduces this type of issue to the more unusual parts of the pieces.

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One thing that helped me a lot was playing the organ for my church. The organ doesn't have a sustain pedal to rely on so almost everything has to be played legato with your fingers only or it will sound disjointed and choppy. This involves a lot of interesting fingerings, and forces you to think about it a lot more. In particular, I picked up a habit of swapping fingers on a single key without lifting it, allowing me to shift positions and open up more fingers while sustaining the sound.

Chances are, you don't have access to an organ, but that's ok! There's a little trick you can use on the piano that not a lot of people know about: don't use the sustain pedal. (Seriously though, I swear some people don't even know this is an option.) Anyway, this will force you to think more about fingering and will give you some practice swapping fingers on a depressed key. Just remember that this technique should not be your first choice. Avoid it if you can, but it can be incredibly helpful to get you out of a tight spot when you are sight reading an accompaniment and can't slow down to figure things out.

Lastly, just because you have played through the piece once doesn't mean you are not sight reading. Technically you are sight reading until you have it memorized. In general you should do what you can to play through it once or twice before you need to perform. This gives you a chance to find those troublesome spots and at least be aware they are coming (even if you haven't had a chance to sit down and figure out an exact fingering). I get that you want to practice figuring out fingerings on the spot and that's a good skill to have, but going back and getting it right the second (or third or fourth) time, even though (and perhaps especially because) you know it's coming is going to be one of the fastest ways to get there.

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You need to be reading ahead while sight-reading. The best sight-readers are not looking at the music they are playing at the time but rather looking 1 to 2 measures (depending on the tempo) ahead. (Yes this is difficult since you need to have part of your mind paying attention to the music going on at the time and part of your mind paying attention to the music that is 1 or 2 measures ahead.) This allows your mind to subconsciously plan the fingering.

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