What to Do When Your Fingers Won’t Listen

Sometimes, my fingers follow the notes but don’t seem to end up at the right places–they cross over and jump around all over the place and it just doesn’t feel right. How do I find the correct fingering so playing is easier (and I play the right way)?

– Vivianne

Hey Vivianne– sounds like your fingers are out of control!

This is common; we just need to roll it around a little, so hang on tight.

It’s great that you’re stepping up and admitting that this is something you’re struggling with.

Many people would just stumble over the same thing over and over again (ahem).

I’m going to show you how to make it work with something that stumped me while ago.

It works with any type of piece. :)

1 – Mark it Up

Let’s look at what you’re playing, one hand at a time.

In pencil, mark down where you’re having the most trouble.

How does the music flow? Are there jumps?

Does it remind you of anything else you’ve played? (For example, scales, arpeggios, Hanon, or even a different piece.)

If yes, then use as much of that fingering as possible.

This is an actual photo of my Un Sospiro (Liszt) score.

(Here’s a video of Hamelin playing, this photo is at about 2:54)

I try to use pencil for smaller, non-permanent things, unless it’s a huge issue that hasn’t been fixed for a while.

The colour on the top outlines the melody in the left hand, which is permanent.

(The chunked bits– more on that later– and the little C fish that I drew, in the left corner, are still there!)

What to Do When Your Fingers Won't Obey You

The first thing I think when I see this: it’s very chromatic. And dang it looks like a web. A Presto web.

Why not use chromatic scale fingering?

This edition gives you the fingering, which is like the chromatic scale fingering anyways… why not use it?

Side note: I recommend this edition of Un Sospiro because the fingering is workable all the way; believe me, it’s a pain when you have to invent your own fingering on a piece like this.

I never used to follow any given fingering. One of my former teachers said that I “invented my own fingering”.

I have to admit, it makes more sense to try what they give you first. Then invent when it doesn’t work.

Unless, of course, there isn’t any fingering given.

For something that looks like a scale, try to stick to scale fingering.

I like to write out the fingering under or above the notes.

Sometimes we learn to trust the score a bit too much…

But half the time, I think we just need a little push to find a better way to play the same passage.

When you’re stuck, there’s always a point where enough is enough and you should play around with new fingering.

Try it out, hands separately, and play with it until it feels comfortable. (It’ll feel weird at first, but that’s normal.)

2 – Break it

Once you have comfortable fingering worked out and you’ve tried it out a bunch of times (to make sure it works), take a break. 10 minutes will usually be enough, but sometimes I like to have a full day.

Leave the music and let yourself do something else for a while. It helps you absorb the material psychologically.

It’s actually called the pattern interrupt, and you’ll be more than ready to take on the piece when you come back.

(Most people miss this step and slave away for hours. Just skip the frustration and bring on the good stuff!)

I am such a perfectionist that I like to get things down the first session. As in, when I sit down there, I want to make progress.

Breaking the playing up like this actually lets me do that because I’m fresh when I sit down again; I’ve got the fingering figured out, now all I have to do is chunk it and work it into my muscles (which isn’t that hard).

3 – Chunk it

Cut the music up into chunks and focus on one small chunk at a time.

Just one. Don’t worry about anything else.

I call this chunking.

If you play music, then chunking will save you hours of work.

Here’s a different passage that took a bit of work, from Un Sospiro (link to listen is above).

I cut it up into big chunks, but you can go as small as you like. (The long pencil lines)

I actually cut the second chunk here into two when I first played it.

What to Do When Your Fingers Won't Obey You

Sometimes, drawing long lines gets confusing (are those chunks or bar lines?) so I use square brackets for smaller chunks (on the right side).

I used the long lines for the first chunks because the first section had really long measures.

You can see the smaller chunks on the right.

Chunking helps you go into flow— you’ll play better and it’ll be easier to memorize (always great for showing off).

Think of one piece where your fingers went “out of control”: What did you do? Click here to leave a comment.

4 Comments

Want more of this?

Get fresh music tips, leadership inspiration, and stories in your inbox each week, by joining below!

  • Marla April 5, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    yesterday! practicing the music for that evening’s choir rehearsal. one passage just stumped me completely and no matter what I did, nothing worked. oh, it would work when I did it slowly, when I did just the section that was trouble, but when incorporating it into the passage – fuhget abou it! so I just walked away and did some other work and then came back about 2 hours later and -presto! all went well. just had to let the left brain/right brain duke it out for awhile…
    Now, there are some days that NOTHING goes right and they are what I call “dumb days” and that has happened on and off since change of life and these are times I just have to deal with – maybe walk away from everything and take a mental health day!

    • Grace Miles April 6, 2013 at 9:47 am

      Yes! It’s not necessarily a bad thing when we don’t get things right away; it means that we’re growing when there’s a challenge. If everything were easy, then I’d imagine that we’d be bored and apathetic by now. :)

  • Carson Chandler October 21, 2015 at 9:13 pm

    I wish students would do this on their own. I feel like I always have to do it with them during our lesson.

  • Ellen Jane March 2, 2016 at 8:18 pm

    I really want to learn how to do the proper fingering but the problem is I have a short fingers and it made me feel so hopeless. I am the keyboardist of our church band but I just play piano chords. What to do with my short fingers? Hope you could help me with this. Thanks and God bless!