Moving to Baroque fingerings?

I am an amateur harpsichordist who studied the instrument when I was in college and for several years thereafter. Then other life commitments came along and I scarcely played at all for about 25 years. Now I am retired and have begun the process of getting back into playing.

I am wondering whether I should start using Baroque fingerings. I do not doubt that the use of such techniques enables us to reproduce more accurately and stylishly the way that the pieces were originally performed. My question is how difficult is this to learn and how much difference it makes relative to the effort involved. I am finding that I have to work very hard just to get back to the level at which I used to play (not a great surprise). If I were younger, I would certainly try the original fingerings. But I’m not sure that it’s a good idea for an old dog like me.

I’d be very interested to hear from people who have gone through this transformation in their own playing and/or who have guided students through it. I do have Claudio Di Veroli’s books that provide excellent guidance.

David Perry

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Thanks David for your kind words.
I started studying the piano aged 4, playing the harpsichord aged 16.
It became my main instrument aged 25, and I kept playing the piano all along, though more sparingly.
The difficulty was not playing the two instruments (though I found it was best to do that on different days!), but indeed, as you say, learning the Baroque fingerings and technique, something I started to do with Maria Boxall’s Method when I was already 33. By that time I had almost 30 years of modern fingering and piano-banging technique!
Changing both proved to be difficult indeed.
Now as an old man I can say that it was not because of intrinsic difficulties in Baroque technique, but because of my three decades with the modern one.

I only felt really confident with the new technique after about 5 years. At this point I could already play the most involved works by Bach in public.Yet, I still felt it easier to play them with the modern fingering, but this soon was overcome as well. It took, however, about two decades before I would sit at the keyboard, put in the music desk a piece to read at first sight, and see my fingers doing it automatically with old fingerings.

I have witnessed similar experiences from a few students of mine. They had the advantage of not having to rely just on a book (and however pioneering Boxall’s was, it had the problem of trying to teach many different – and arguably also incomplete – techniques at the same time: this did not make things easy!). Anyway, with or without a teacher, you go through a book in weeks or months, but you may need years to feel at home with a different technique. But I guess it varies a lot with prior modern-fingering experience, age and personal disposition.

I also would like to read about other people’s experience as either teachers or students.

Claudio

About 6 years ago I started on Ritchie & Stauffer’s Organ Technique: Modern and Early. It took about two years to complete on a local tracker instrument under the guidance of a wonderful teacher.

I have a three manual digital instrument at home, but with contemporary keyboards. Not the place to continue my work on early fingerings. I decided it was time to purchase a harpsichord and was fortunate enough to purchase a two manual Flemish instrument under construction by Glenn Guittari at Harpsichord Clearing House. An incredible instrument and the perfect instrument for me to continue my practice of early fingering. You certainly need the appropriate keyboards to make early technique function naturally.

It has been an effort, and a continuing one I might add, to make early technique fit beneath my fingers naturally, but it has been worth all the work.

I find the music far easier to play because it fits so elegantly under the early technique hand. Gone are many thoughts of phrasing. The fingering itself phrases the music and allows it to speak naturally. I feel early fingering helps one gain a better understanding of the music.

I would urge you to make the switch. At least this is been my experience.

  • Bob Lorenz
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Ah yes I remember Maria Boxall’s book - where I first learned the ipsy wipsy spider early fingerings. Here’s an interesting very old interview with her (1977):

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I studied piano starting at age of 8 or 9. I didn’t enjoy much the instrument nor playing the music written for piano. At 14 my father (who was not a musician) came home with two LPs of Bach concerts for harpsichord. Played on an actual harpsichord! I was definetely taken but I couldn’t get a harpsichord until I was 32. I still own it, Claudio, you have played on it.

There were no teachers in my area, and I had my work eating most of my time so until I was 44 (now I am 55) I just could play piano in the harpsichord, so to say: banging, rigidity, no real understanding of baroque style, and of course modern fingering.
Then I encountered a great teacher, Enrico Baiano. Under his surveillance I gradually developed the right harpsichord hand and arm technique and my understanding of the baroque styles. As for fingerings, however, I still don’t find the baroque fingering natural and instinctive. I have to write down the right fingering and to concentrate while playing in order to actually use it.
Sometimes I find myself using a baroque fingering in Bach whithout even thinking, it’s like the keyboard itself is asking me to do so. So, I guess I’ll be good at baroque fingering in another twenty years. I can confirm what Claudio is saying: once got a modern fingering, it’s very hard to abandon. Don’t let the kids even touch the damned piano!
(Just joking, of course)

However, I don’t practice as I should. Practice, practice, practice.
Dom

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As a rule of thumb, learning should take place in the zone of proximal development, and the motivation to reach perfection in each small step could come from a sense of belonging or recognition from others.

In my opinion learning to play keyboard music starts with proficiency in sight reading (for example trying to get easy continuo playing perfect first), but also in technical exercises (which may involve specific fingering) or group improvisation. It is difficult to discuss the subject because these different skills are conflated and opinions are not always helpful.

I recently watched a discussion with the organists Ben Sheen and Jonathan Vaughn on what it is like to attend school and hold organist jobs in different countries. The subject of education came up, and this reminded me of Lars Mortensen’s criticism about harpsichord education three years ago.

Sheen commented that American education focuses on concert playing, while in Oxford there is more of a mentored immersive learning. This sounds a lot like what Mortensen advocated for at the harpsichord: how continuo playing should play a central role in harpsichord education in order to understand musical style better.

Recently I started helping out as an organist at services in a rural church in Belgium a few times per month. Although I’ve received positive feedback so far, it is clear that I’m inexperienced. When services are allowed, COVID measures require more time for the (assistant) priest to complete more tasks. It goes without saying that the organist is expected to improvise to avoid awkward silence. Even more so when singing is very limited.

I started playing the organ as a child 20 years ago, but I never really prepared myself for service work as an actual church organist, and I didn’t play much for a few years years myself. In fact, I’ve always just wanted to enjoy playing and never decided to become a professional musician or to be immersed through higher education organ studies. In stead I play some harpsichord, piano and accordeon, and with some agility I can harmonise some songs prima vista and do so while singing, except when the text is too far from the score. But being more familiar with early music, I’m not sure how different kinds of more modern Gregorian chant is supposed to be harmonized.

So to conclude, learning should take place in the zone of proximal development, where fingering technique initially flows from (in my opinion) your best attempts at sight reading. But to be honest, I wasn’t coached impressively myself and I have very little experience in continuo paying or harmonization of Gregorian chant. In light of COVID, maybe we should get a score with basso continuo at our level of proximal development and play along a recording of it at half the speed?

good luck

Yes, do it!

I also started the piano as a child but did not get on with it very well. I started organ lessons at about 15, luckily with the man who modernised the approach to organ playing and organ building in Ireland (he had been a pupil of Thurston Dart in Cambridge) but he did not use early fingering. I soon became a church organist, and I bought a second hand clavichord when I was 18 but it was not a very satisfactory instrument.

My keyboard technique was never great, and I also was working full time so practice time was limited. I struggled with some of the great organ works for years.

Then sometime in my late 30s I did a one-day course on early fingering and I was hooked.

So my suggestions: though the techniques are similar there are many contemporary and modern treatises on fingering and there are differences between nationalities and periods. You only need one, and then adapt as necessary. I followed the English method from the period of Byrd, using the thumb for ascending scale passages in the left hand. The trick is to decide which finger to begin the passage with to avoid the thumb on accidentals.

Almost overnight my playing improved. As finger substitution was abandoned I only had to play each note once, reducing the risk of wrong notes by 50%. I even used - and still use - early fingering when accompanying hymns on the organ. Also articulation becomes clearer and phrasing easier. Frescobaldi, Froberger, Scheidemann, Weckmann
became comprehensible, Byrd and Byrd became possible.

I managed to trade up my clavichord for a harpsichord (a Trasuntino copy) in my 40s, I retired at 62 and changed this for a new Flemish 8’ + 8’ harpsichord. Now in my mid 70s, I have much more time to practice, though I have many other affairs also. I will never be as great a player as Claudio but I enjoy playing what I play, and cannot imagine how I would play it using modern piano fingering.

  • David Bedlow
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Sorry, I need to edit this. What I thought I wrote is:

Frescobaldi, Froberger, Scheidemann, Weckmann became comprehensible; Byrd and Purcell became possible. Bull, and most of Bach remain impossible.

  • D

Come on, David, you are perfectly fit for Bach. What happens is that you do not like it! Which is perfectly OK: one should not necessarily like all composers! I still remember once in your home watching you playing a new harpsichord of yours, and when I asked you to play just some Bach, you told me: “Oh Claudio I do not play that music, too modern for my taste!”. I loved that! :slightly_smiling_face:

Oh well, Claudio, I may just have meant too difficult. I do of course play choral preludes on the organ and a few stringed keyboard pieces, some of which may not be by Bach, for example, BWV 823, 895, 900…

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Thanks for all the replies! It’s very interesting to read people’s accounts of their development in this aspect of playing.

The takeaway seems to be that, while one can learn the principles of Baroque fingering in a reasonable time, it takes a lot longer before they become a really natural part of one’s playing, depending partly on how long one spent with piano technique before taking up the harpsichord. That makes perfect sense.

i was particularly heartened to read that switching to early fingerings has improved some people’s playing, making it more natural and/or easier. That gives me real encouragement to try!

I assume it’s better to pick some new pieces and learn them with Baroque fingerings rather than redo pieces that I already know, at least as I start making the transition.

David

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I began piano lessons at age 4 because I was already reading music and creating my own fingering systems, which I discovered some years ago, were essentially those we know apply to Baroque fingering. As such, I found switching very natural.

That said, I definitely recommend starting new repertoire since we have so much kinesthetic memory. That goes for playing the harpsichord in general if one has played the piano for many years. It is best to start fresh, to help escape the engrained muscle memory.

That gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “early fingering” – fascinating!