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  • Adam Hope

Silent Finger-Substitution – 5 Principles of Fingering!

Updated: Jan 31, 2021

In previous blogs, I've explored two issues around silent finger-substitution:

  1. Issues relating to excess tension and overuse of the technique;

  2. The correct method of musical thinking where this technique is concerned – i.e. each action within the substitution should be rhythmical and timed as part of the substitution.

(You can view both of these blogs by clicking on the links above.)


In today's blog, I want to explore yet another aspect of this technique: fingering. Like all aspects of technique, we need a few hard and fast rules for applying to the music we play. I'll also include a few keyboard exercises for the application of these fingering techniques.


*As an aside, I think that learning the rules of fingering is much more important than learning the keyboard patterns of scales and arpeggios straight out of a scale and arpeggio book. Why is it that so many young people learn their scales for the purposes of exams, but never properly learn to apply scale-fingerings in sight-reading or to learning a piece?! Why is it that so many students depend on editorial fingerings for getting through a piece – they learn the prescribed fingerings, but never learn the logic (or, in some cases, lack of logic) that underpins them. I think the science of fingering, and the hard and fast rules that we can learn, are bread and butter for keyboard players.*


Silent Finger-Substitution – Principles of Fingering


All of these Principles effectively serve as a guide to the role of the thumb in finger-substitution. I've taken these rules from Frederic Archer's 'Organ Treatise', published in 1875. He places them under the heading of special exercises for the organ, with the aim of culturing legato and sostenuto, both of which are so central to the Organ-Touch. Archer advocates the 'Old-School' method of practice – hands separately, slow tempo. Once confident, hands together, and gradually increase speed. I include this as a nod to Archer as they're his exercises, but that's not to say it's the only way to approach them.


The First Principle: When the passage uses only white keys, any finger can be substituted on any note. This applies to single-note and double-note passages. Using one hand at a time, sit at the keyboard and improvise melodies, freely exploring the technique of finger-substitution.

Try creating scale passages using different rhythms, and endeavour to be musical whilst experimenting with technique – the best results come when we combine technique with musicality! (See my blog on Musicianship & Execution.) 

You could also play contrary motion, and experiment with scales in thirds and sixths.


The Second Principle: Single-note scales containing black keys which occur in isolation – try to avoid the thumb on a black key. Instead, when black keys occur, practise passing the thumb under in place of a substitution. Broadly speaking, this holds good for G, D, F and Bb major!


The Third Principle: Single-note scales with two black keys in succession – use the thumb on the first black key but not the second:


The Fourth Principle: Single-note scales with three black keys in succession – really an extension of the Third Principle i.e. use the thumb on the first two black keys but not the last:


The Fifth Principle: Double-note passages that involve black keys – the rule for white key double-notes came under the First Principle. For passages containing black key double-notes, the Second, Third and Fourth Principles hold good. For example:



*In all of the above exercises, be sure to learn the descending versions as well, with the fingering principles reverses.


Remember: Rules always have exceptions, they can be broken and bent where appropriate, and they only serve to give you a method and an approach to interpretation. Always work out your fingerings carefully, and only use finger-substitution when it is completely necessary. Most of the time, its most useful application is connecting fingering/ hand positions and scale patterns that require a perfect legato.


Once you've learnt the rules, forget all about them and just make music!


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