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Perfect Fingering or Sight-Reading: Reconciling Two Opposites

In my work as a guitarist, I find I have gravitated towards two simultaneous extremes. On the one hand, I am meticulous about fingering. Every detail of execution is carefully mulled over and the most efficient and advantageous one chosen. At the same time, I am dedicated to the constant honing of my sight-reading skills. During sight-reading, of course, there is by definition no advance fingering. How do these two disparate skills interact and support one another?

Where fingering is concerned, I am a bit of an efficiency addict. I've heard efficiency mavens described as belonging to a cult: as if the practice of efficiency were not only a fringe activity, but were also slightly deviant or anti-social. This notion strikes me as odd. I agree that relying SOLELY on efficiency for anything is unlikely to acheive the desired ends, but to utterly eschew efficiency seems equally misguided. 

For instance, government efforts to find solutions to global climate change need to address the big issues such as carbon-based fuel consumption and uncontrolled timbering of forests. But they also need to include incentives to cut back consumption such as energy-efficient cars, building standards and appliances. Without both, the efforts will certainly be doomed. Similarly, while a clear perception of a piece's architecture, an understanding of its style, and a firm sense of desired phrasing are all critical for a successful interpretation, without good fingerings, the net result will inevitably fall short. 

All fingerings are done with musical interpretation in mind; I never make a passage convenient at the expense of the musical idea. (Of course, in the face of an idea which is impossible to execute clearly, I look for another musical idea!) So my fingerings are careful. I am highly alert to the possibility of easier, more elegant ways of executing the music. 

If everything is done well, then the audience's perception of my playing will be that it appears effortless. They normally will not see my left fingers stretch out or my wrist over-flex; my shifts will be smooth and subtle, not sudden and jerky. My right hand will appear to be perfectly still. The most complex and challenging material will emerge easily, with clear and natural rhythm and beautiful sound. 

This result is always the product of hyper-efficient fingering. There are no notes in my concert music for which I am unsure which left-hand AND right-hand fingers I am using. It is all completely mapped-out. I am at pains to make even the smallest adjustments for the sake of ease. I often describe this as being lazy: I refuse to make unnecessary efforts. I save my energy instead for the really hard part: interpreting the music in a compelling and irresistible way. In other words, if the physical part of playing is sufficiently comfortable, then the artistic part comes to the fore. 

In the case of sight-reading, nearly the opposite is true. With no opportunity to prepare in advance aside from a global glance to assess basics like key and time signature, range and rhythmic character, one uses whatever fingers flow most naturally to the notes at hand. There may end up being the kinds of sudden movements and "surprised" stretches that would never appear in a prepared performance. The fingers occasionally end up approximating a pretzel or the tangle of limbs more associated with the floor game "Twister" than playing the guitar. 

But not usually. The more sight-reading is practiced and the looser one becomes, the more readily one can see the necessary fingering in time to actually use it. The more music you've played, naturally, the more familiar your hands will be with various shapes and movements and so the more easily you can navigate new material without the above-mentioned pretzel effect (Twister-effect?). So experience helps. 

But if inexperienced, it's ok to let the hands go wherever and however they need to to "grab" the notes in question. One learns by doing. The critical elements, rhythms and pitches, are the first concern. Elegance of fingering is strictly secondary. 

What is undeniable though, is that the better you finger your music for performance, the better you'll finger while sight-reading. You get accustomed to certain (efficient) ways of using the hands and they become default modes of playing. In other words, your hard-earned knowledge and experience doesn't go to waste just because the score is new. 

Those who improvise know intimately the sensation of going where your ear takes you. It is a delightful and emancipating experience. Fingering is strictly secondary while following the impulse of the moment. Improvisers who are knowledgeable about detailed fingering, though, as for sight-readers, tend to use their hands better. They can do more of what they imagine, in better time, because their hands are being used with more efficiency. 

Does sight-reading have an impact on our ability to finger well? This is a harder case to make. But I'll wager that the more music one plays (reads), the more open one becomes as they carefully finger the score. 

In the end, these two skills are opposite ends of a spectrum of activity necessary to be a successful guitarist. Honing the skills necessary in sight-reading is just as critical as fingering in a detailed way for performance. They compel us to look at playing differently and so encourage flexibility and open mindedness. They require different parts of the brain. And they are complimentary. 

So if one is a terrific reader, his/her ability to convey the music in the moment without prior consideration does not mean that, with some careful planning, it couldn't be rendered more beautifully, whether for the sake of legato, voice-leading, timbral shading or just plain ease of execution. Similarly, if one is adept at detailed fingering, he/she should still work to improve their ability to sight-read, in real time, and endeavor to make credible music in the process. They are two equally important sides of our musical experience. 





Grammy Winner Jason Vieaux with harpist Yolanda Kondonassis at Oberlin.

Grammy Winner Jason Vieaux with harpist Yolanda Kondonassis at Oberlin.

Oberlin's New "Stroud Classical Guitar Entrepreneurship Scholarship"

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