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The Piano Repertoire: Does making fingering/hand adjustments constitute a “swindle?”

Seymour Bernstein, author of With Your Own Two Hands, remarked that “Chopin wrote out an outline for an intended method of teaching piano. And when he died he left it to Charles Alkan who never finished it. Wouldn’t you think that Chopin would stress at the beginning that everything depends upon a deep emotional involvement with the music, or something like that? Well at the outset, Chopin wrote, ‘Everything depends upon the correct fingering.’ He knew that unless you were comfortable, there was no music-making.”

Bernstein had forwarded me a few of his tried and true fingering/hand shuffles as he’d notated them in a Romantic era composition. Did they amount to “swindles,” tongue in cheek, of course, incubating for a full length volume on the subject?

I’ll get back to that later.

In Conversations with Arrau, by Joseph Horowitz, the pianist weaves stories about fingering, and how his specific choices or those of his teachers, unlocked the mystery of playing bravura passages smoothly and effortlessly.

As testimony, one of the maestro’s former students, the late, Philip Lorenz, who assisted him with editing the complete set of Beethoven sonatas commented that fingering appeared to be “a conspicuous editorial feature” of their collaboration.

For example, in the opening of the Sonata Appassionata, Arrau’s autograph is revealed by these choices.

As Lorenz described them: “They insured tremendous security by keeping the hand balled and totally relaxed. It was like lining up the fingers in a natal position.

“The right hand makes a little circle down to the thumb; the left hand does the opposite, starting with a low thumb and circling up to the fifth. This way you don’t have to play with the hands spread open, which already risks tension or nervous trembling at the very beginning.

Horowitz then prompted Lorenz to discuss Arrau’s fingering of staccato bass notes in measure 10, where the pianist assigned fingers 3 to 5 in a stepwise interval, instead of ending with 4.

True to the form and attitude of his mentor, Lorenz emphasized that Arrau believed the sound could be “more controlled with the fifth finger than with the fourth.”

He elaborated:

“Because the fourth finger doesn’t have a separate tendon in the hand—you can’t move the fourth by itself.

“Going from the third to the fifth–you have more possibility to rotate.

“So throughout the Beethoven Sonata edition, you find that he goes from the third to the fifth finger skipping the fourth.

“The fourth he eliminates quite rigorously for being weak and hard to control.”


Seymour Bernstein disclosed his own particular fingering secrets as applied to playing various measures of the Faschingsschwank aus Wien Intermezzo by Robert Schumann. It was with an eye and ear toward executing extremely tricky passages that would otherwise be incomparably challenging. Above all, phrasing and nuance were at the top of his list of considerations.

In any case, the Romantic era composer, by and large composed music for solo piano that frequently appeared to require more than a single pair of hands. Inevitably, performers would have to make fingering/hand accommodations as needed.

Here’s Nikolai Lugansky playing the Schumann Intermezzo in its original form followed by Bernstein’s page 1 fingering changes and hand re-assignments as pertained.

In the same spirit, I found myself scoping out scores, often changing the editor’s fingerings, etc. so I, too, could more easily achieve technical/musical mastery.

My decisions were driven by what felt comfortable together with how these choices improved phrasing.

For example, I might take a whole section of music denoted for the left hand, and shift it to the right, largely because it sounded better and was easier to execute. Some might say, I was guilty of a swindle. (There’s that verboten word again) Or perhaps, a strict, conservative teacher would argue that I would more efficiently spend time improving my left hand.


In Gershwin’s opener to the Prelude no. 2, many pianists cannot reach a tenth between C# and E in the bass, yet the composer doesn’t show a roll for these notes. And to make it doubly challenging, Gershwin has indicated a smooth flowing legato in these introductory measures. The bass, in an ostinato form, will recur at various points of the piece, except in the contrasting middle section. Breaking the tenth would be less noticeable within the fabric of other voices as the composition progresses. Yet the very naked and exposed opening could definitely use a fingering fix. (Seymour Bernstein again titillates by using the term “swindle.”)

One solution, at least as applies to the beginning, is to re-finger a whole set of measures, with a hand/finger shuffle as demonstrated by this pianist in a You Tube video performance.

You can get a good close-up of how he avoids the broken tenth from C# to E scored for the Left Hand, and then the way he continues in later measures. Once the piece adds more voices, the shuffle is no longer possible.

Here’s the original scoring before adjustments were made:

This video could not be embedded:

His alteration worked and smoothed out the opening.


So now that I’ve delivered my brief sermon on why these “swindles” are just innocent, well-intended fingering adjustments meant to improve musical performance, I can relieve myself and other pianists of any guilt attached to them.

Feel free to share your own personal finger/hand shuffles, and don’t be afraid to come out of the closet.

Birds, Birds Book 1 composed by Seymour Bernstein, Birds Book 2 composed by Seymour Bernstein, Manduca Music Publications, music with bird themes, piano teaching repertoire, Seymour Bernstein, Seymour Bernstein composer, Seymour Bernstein pianist, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog, Shirley Smith Kirsten, With your own Two Hands by Seymour Bernstein, word press,, you tube, you tube video

Birds spring to life in these collections for piano!

Here’s a case of music composed by a pianist who has an abundance of talent in so many directions that it’s dizzying!

If I thought LEONARD Bernstein was the renaissance man, with gifts as a conductor, pianist, composer, and mentor, well here comes SEYMOUR Bernstein in a shimmering spotlight of his own!

I’m awestruck!

Having composed my own collection of miniature character pieces (Moonbeams and Other Musical Sketches) they are no rival to Seymour’s well developed Birds tableaux. I say well developed, because though some are quite short in length, they all have musical substance.

Birds, Book 1 attaches a fascinating anecdote which Bernstein relayed to a receptive audience at the University of Missouri. He described and played the compositions as he went along.

The opener was worth a chuckle and a gulp of emotion.

As Bernstein wove the story, during a composing summer in Maine, he met up with a neighbor’s child of 10-years old who was a beginning piano student and played for him. Bernstein being very impressed with the child’s progress in such a short time was inspired to compose 3 pieces in the frugal space of one hour that could be taught by rote. One of these called for smashing fists over a series of notes to imitate the raucous sound of The Seagull.

As it was charmingly related, when the child excitedly returned home to play this delightful musical morsel, he managed to pound away on his piano, promptly shattering hammers in the treble range.

Bernstein woefully reported that the cost of repairing the hammers exceeded the price of the piano so a new one was no doubt on the horizon. (It took a year for the family to forgive the teacher)

Apparently, on a whim, Bernstein submitted the three composed pieces to a publisher. Though well received, they were needing expansion to a larger set, so Seymour hopped to the task creating five more that filled out the delightful first collection that includes The Purple Finch, The Humming Bird, The Woodpecker, The Sea Gull, The Chickadee, The Vulture, The Penguin, and The Eagle. (Upper Intermediate to Advanced Level repertoire)

Once this first group is sampled, it’s enticement to check out Birds, Book 2 which comes with surprising special effects.

Here are both links to Seymour Bernstein’s performances:

(Performed at the 92nd St. Y)

Birds 2
A Second Suite of Nine Impressionistic Studies for Piano Solo
Seymour Bernstein

“The nine masterful studies are somewhat more difficult than the pieces in Birds 1. There is a great variety in articulation. The piano is used as a echo chamber in the Phoenix. Musically the trills, glissandi and clusters give a wonderful picture of each bird. The pedaling is very specific and will teach pianists a great deal about resonance. The birds included in this set are Myna Bird, Swan, Robin, Owl, Roadrunner, Condor, Nightingale, Guinea Hen, and Phoenix. These pieces have been used by students and teachers worldwide for their evocative qualities.”

Available at Manduca Music Publications

A young student plays Birds, Book 1
Note the use of fists in SEAGULL–1:43 into the video

If you’re curious to discover additional repertoire composed by Seymour Bernstein, run to check on RACCOONS!