Writing Fingerings in Orchestral Parts

October 11, 2019, 12:39 PM · When you have a stand partner, what do you do with fingerings?

1. Write them in the sheet music. It helps with the more difficult passages.

2. Outside player writes them on top of the note, inside player writes them on the bottom of the note.

3. You don't write in fingerings at all. It's rude to your stand partner who finds it distracting with his/her own fingerings. Instead, you practice those passages to remember your own fingerings.

4. Other. Do share! =)

Replies (55)

October 11, 2019, 12:45 PM · As a start, I used to be #1 in my younger years, now I'm #3, and I'm thinking about being more practical and doing #2 and seeing how that goes.
October 11, 2019, 1:15 PM · #2
October 11, 2019, 1:16 PM · #2 is correct.
October 11, 2019, 2:01 PM · #2 is typical however Nathan cole told a story of how writing in fingerings wasn’t allowed while in Chicago symphony.
October 11, 2019, 2:48 PM · #2. Chicago is a weird exception; I don't know if there are any other professional symphonies that have a custom of not writing fingerings into the part.

Now, note that it's vastly unprofessional to write in a number over every note (which I've sometimes seen in freeway philharmonic parts, and certainly in community orchestra parts).

As a concertmaster, I will sometimes write in a handful of fingerings into the parts for distribution. Those are generally exclusively for when I want a particular fingering for sound reasons that's not easily conveyed by just a "sul G" or the like, or when I'm supplying an efficient fingering for a difficult passage.

Edited: October 11, 2019, 3:25 PM · My teacher said that she was associate CM of a professional chamber group (defunct after the recession) and the CM would not allow her to write any fingerings on the part--above or below. She said that he liked to spontaneously decide his fingerings and felt that any existing marks on the page constrained him. I don't think it was the group's policy to forbid marking fingerings, though.

I don't remember the "above or below" rule though. Perhaps I was rude to my stand partners for years by writing fingerings anywhere I wanted. Or maybe I have just forgotten that I used to conform to that rule.

October 11, 2019, 4:07 PM · My personal use of penciling in fingerings is minimal because I prefer to be aware of my position, key signature and "attitude" to be used (Yes, i'm one of those Doflein trained violinists). However, when I persist in making the same mistake I will write on the page.

When I played with the community orchestra I shared a stand with other player and they tended to put in a lot of fingerings as well as other visual aids.

Recently I watched the Two-Set video on this particular topic and almost fell out of the chair laughing - a compilation of the many stand partners I've had over the years.

As a music librarian for a youth orchestra... I have a large box of erasers and big jar of white-out.

Edited: October 11, 2019, 4:22 PM · #2 unless there isn't enough room. Also, stick to the minimum amount of fingerings necessary.

I'm a stickler for #2 with community orchestra stand partners because, as a violist with very small hands, I am using different fingerings from them at least 50% of the time.

October 11, 2019, 4:28 PM · I do somewhere between 2 and 3.
October 11, 2019, 8:03 PM · I play viola in three orchestras. In each case I am on the inside of the first stand, which I like because I can hear quite well from there. On the other hand, in each case I am also the more experienced player by substantial margin. So, I suggest fingerings, wait for a positive response, and write my fingerings on top of the staff. If the response is meh, then I write them below.
Edited: October 11, 2019, 10:00 PM · #2 is the rule I go with.

I am the associate CM of my community orchestra. To give our CM maximum flexibility, I write in my necessary fingering only during dress rehearsal, right before the concert.

Edited: October 12, 2019, 1:51 AM · #2
However the amount of information I add to my parts depends on the music. For example we are currently working on Shostakovich op.110 and the 2nd movement has lots of enharmonic equivalent and accidentals.so I added fingerings on every each one of those notes.I also added numbers on silence intervals or repetitive measures with similar notes.
October 12, 2019, 7:14 AM · I normally rub out ALL fingerings in the part.
If there's a "key" fingering - such as you HAVE to hit a 2 on this to make it playable, I'd put it in in agreement with my desk partner.
As an aside, I've sometimes come across (usually hire parts) with a number on EVERY note. I've heard of painting by numbers - but PLAYING by numbers! I don't know how anybody can play from such a part.
October 12, 2019, 11:24 AM · I agree with Malcolm, and use exactly the same methodology. Another reason is that my fingering won't always coincide with my desk partner's, doubtless due to my tendency to use idiosyncratic fingering on occasion - obviously as long as it works easily. I blame my previous life as a cellist!
Edited: October 12, 2019, 1:11 PM · As a violinist - #4. I usually try to agree with my stand partner about fingerings, and no matter if I'm sitting in or out, if we ever should disagree, I'll leave the "above the note" position to her. This is because, we try to avoid writing fingerings out as far as possible, and in the trickier parts I tend to rely on what she proposes since she's by far the more experienced player. Only if I'm feeling uncomfortable, I'll add my own variation below.

As a violist, it's definitely #2. There are so many possible combinations of hands + violas that it often seems impossible to find a generally acceptable version. My stand partner has huge violist's hands, but for whatever reason uses a tiny muffled viola with 35,8 cm vibrating string / somewhere < 39 cm back length. With my tiny tiny paws and a 37,5 cm VSL / 42,2 cm BL instrument I'm not sure if we could ever agree on fingerings!

October 12, 2019, 10:17 PM · I don't think the "reaching consensus with standpartner" method is a great idea; what if your hands are different sizes? I have large hands and can make use of extensions that my standpartner with her much smaller hands finds unworkable.

That's why it's so important to follow the convention of outside player's fingerings on the top, inside player's on the bottom. It eliminates confusion AND the need to agree on fingerings.

October 12, 2019, 11:16 PM · The problem with that is it's difficult for the inside player to see the printed note and quickly associate the number underneath with that note.This becomes irksome especially when the written note is on a leger line.The outside player has no problem with their written-in fingering being right near the note but the inside player has to look down to see their corresponding fingerings underneath.
I just encountered this problem last week with my stand partner politely asking me to not put in so many fingerings so she could read the notes easier.We have been stand partners for 34 seasons so I will do my best to mend my ways and cooperate better.
October 13, 2019, 12:28 AM · Mary Ellen, I'm sure that in real life you're absolutely right. In this specific case things seem to work okay, and it's not often that I need specific fingerings.
And at my level of playing, I have to work pretty hard anyway to have my scores under the belt when rehearsals start. I neither should rely on my sight reading nor my faking skills...
October 13, 2019, 9:13 AM · I agree with Mary Ellen. The professional convention is the top/bottom one, and the expectation that you'll write in the minimum fingerings necessary. There's no great reason to not use that convention in community and youth orchestras also.

I do agree that the "under the note" convention is less convenient for the inside player, but it's something you can get used to. Furthermore, professional musicians read ahead to a much greater extent, probably making it easier to deal with under-the-note convention, but it's good for all players to learn to glance a little ahead anyway.

October 13, 2019, 10:58 AM · BEWARE of this if you are ever called on to play as a "ringer" in an orchestra concert. This happened to me in 1996 when I was called to sit as CM in my previous orchestra some 450 miles from my new home (the current CM's daughter was getting married and she and most of the violinists were gone). The troublesome piece was Tschaikowsky's "1812 Overture," which I had not played before. All we had was the outdoor dress rehearsal in the morning and then the Pops concert around dusk. We played from the asst. CM's part with marked fingerings that totally threw me because they were totally different than I had done (or would ever do) when I ran through it a few times earlier back at home. So even if you don't mark fingerings, their presence can be upsetting - to put it mildly.

But to give the evening some credit, they had gotten the local Navy folks to provide a cannon (and crew) - YES a real artillery piece (looked like about 75mm and they came in at the right places - that was really something! You can't do that indoors!

October 13, 2019, 11:42 AM · Professional conventions? What if you're playing in a non-auditioning community orchestra? Then I think whatever you and your stand partner decide among yourselves ought to be acceptable. A lot of times the piece is one page, or two pages with an easy turn in the middle. In that case you can have two entire copies of the part on your stand, with different fingerings.
Edited: October 13, 2019, 8:23 PM · I agree with those who believe all of us should follow professional conventions.

In my community orchestra, we use music of the outside player. I would take a picture of my CM’s latest bowing and fingering after each rehearsal with my cell phone. At home, I write in my fingering (if different ones are needed) on my own part. My fingering normally wouldn’t be on my CM’s part until dress rehearsal.

October 13, 2019, 3:56 PM · As a side note; I make a current copy of my part available via Dropbox , after each rehearsal. But I also try not to change bowings after the initial handout of the music.
Edited: October 13, 2019, 4:56 PM · Lydia both players not putting in fingerings is also something you get used to.I was Associate CM three seasons ago and the CM and I agreed to no fingerings in the parts.It was a memory challenge for a week or so but it is something you get used to.Yes professional musicians do read ahead but it is agravating to ignore the outside players fingerings and look down to your own.
Great topic...
October 13, 2019, 4:34 PM · I disagree with those who aren't writing in fingerings until the last minute - a lot of the fingerings I write in are to counteract my stand partner's fingerings (generic stand partner) - if I see fingerings in the music, my impulse is to play them. Writing them in early in the process (even if they get changed later) lets me put in my own so as not to be distracted.
October 13, 2019, 5:11 PM · The big danger of fingerings is - you tend to play them.
I often don't play a passage in the same position twice.
I've lost count of the number of times I select a position - and then play the fingering that's there. Actual wrong notes!
I'm more likely to use a generic "restez" for stay up there.
October 13, 2019, 8:20 PM · It seems to me that a lot of variations of #2 are related to interesting dynamics between stand-partners, which is a topic for another discussion.
October 13, 2019, 11:01 PM · I've never tried to coordinate a stand partner's fingerings.

The reality of playing orchestras, at least for the experienced is that
1. the fingerings of well-trained and experienced orchestra players tend to converge, especially with string choices. When everyone is on the g string, don't be the one clueless person in first position on the D string.
2. experienced musicians often have their fingerings, at least from the standard repertoire, memorized.
One should really not be writing in fingering for Brahms, Mozart, Beethoven or Tchaikovsky symphonies or concerti or overtures.

Learn them well from the start so that you don't have to slave away each time you see them. When practicing, make a point of memorizing complex passages.

October 14, 2019, 4:44 AM · "The one on the D string"?
In my experience, an INSTRUCTION goes back from the Leader (CM) that a certain passage is sul G.
This is non-optional.
Edited: October 14, 2019, 7:31 AM · "No fingerings for Beethoven symphonies." Hmm, there's definitely a "let them eat cake" aspect to this thread.

The point of fingerings for amateurs -- even more experienced amateurs -- is to facilitate practicing (not performing) your parts. But even in the performance -- yes it's true -- sometimes we amateurs get nervous and we can benefit from a few reminders that a certain passage works better in half position or whatever.

My situation is that ALL of the local orchestras are absolutely desperate for violists. I try to help out (presently with three orchestras, soon to be four although only for a couple of rehearsals). As such, I cannot always groove my parts as well as I would like because I have so many. I'm not even a violist by training. I can read alto clef, but not as effortlessly and accurately as I can read treble and bass clefs, which I've been reading for 50 years. And a lot of parts (Copland!) have mixtures of alto and treble clef. Some fingerings help to serve as reminders that the landscape has changed. I really don't see the harm.

Edited: October 14, 2019, 11:51 AM · Well said Scott...
Edited: October 14, 2019, 12:53 PM · Maybe it is just another example of how far below full-professional skill level I am, or maybe my brain is wired differently, but I cannot fathom the possibility of playing the really hard orchestra parts, things like Hindemith and Prokofiev, without putting some fingerings into my part.
Another example would be when I last played 1st violin for Shostokovitch S. #5, that spot in the first movement. I was stumped at finding a fingering, so during a break I looked at the parts of my colleagues. I was surprised and discouraged that no one had penciled fingerings for that spot.
As a C.M. of a low-budget community orchestra, I spend a lot of time before the first rehearsal working on bowings and fingerings, finding the optimum way to play a tough passage, considering technical safety of hitting those unprepared high notes, sound quality, and intonation. I haven't heard any complaints from my sections for doing this, but I do get some thank-yous for finding solutions for these puzzles.
Sul G ? I would rather have the people behind me play in tune on the D, or avoid wolf tones.
What bothers me more than penciled fingerings is circles around things. It doesn't work and adds to the visual clutter.
October 14, 2019, 1:40 PM · Right on, Joel.
There is a reason circles don't do anything. You get acclimated to them after a couple of passes. I can have a clef change circled five times and still miss it. But then again, I'm an amateur.
I know it's more work to pencil fingerings into every part in your section, but what I don't like are fingerings that have been penciled and then photocopied Lydia's way of sending out a scan of her part is good because then the fingerings are optional AND the labor is distributed.
Edited: October 14, 2019, 1:53 PM · Yes, the perspectives of amateur/community orchestras are important. My stand-partner/CM is a much more experienced orchestral musician and a likely better violinist than I. I write in my own fingering (if needed) in the last minute because I want to benefit from a more experienced musician.
Edited: October 14, 2019, 2:14 PM · @joel "Visual clutter"

For me, a piece in a large number of sharps, including perhaps the odd double sharp (Sibelius' "En Saga" anyone?) is typographical clutter that is physically more tiring to read and interpret than something with the same number of flats, which I am usually quite happy with.

I've been wondering why this typographical problem should be. I suggest it could be because the sharp sign is a relatively big blob of ink about the same size as the body of a quaver or crochet, and this has the potential to be subconsciously confusing. The double sharp is worse. On the other hand, the flat sign is relatively innocuous and cannot be confused in such a manner with notes.

Edit added: I forgot to mention that my solution to fingering a particular passage in En Saga written in a modal key (possibly?) in 5 sharps + a double sharp was to re-write it in flats (with the occasional natural), and then the structure and fingering quickly became obvious.

Edited: October 14, 2019, 2:28 PM · In contrast to David's community orchestra experience, for me the community orchestra setting makes it more important to stick to the outside/inside convention. No matter how many decades I play, I don't think I will ever have a stand partner whose fingerings I can use, because I have never met another adult (let alone another violist) whose fingers are as short as mine. Meanwhile, in the community orchestra where I am principal violist, no one else in the section is secure enough in second position or crawl-shifting to use my fingerings. I sometimes recommend fingerings that I do not use, but in those cases I'm obviously not going to write them in for my own use.
October 14, 2019, 2:46 PM · This is a great topic. Scott suggests when practicing to make a point of memorizing complex passages. Good idea, if you can and not fall appart during performance. Fingerings are like reference posts, which tell me where I need to go. Perhaps there will come a time where I can make all my fingering decisions on the fly in the span of a nanosecond, but I am a long way from being there, especially in the higher positions. I simply need fingering to guide me. I admire those who can do without, but I am not there... yet.
October 14, 2019, 4:51 PM · Roger,
It's ok to not remember every fingering every time. But when you've played the warhorses multiple times, you get more confident and you don't fall apart. Some pieces are just plain easier if the fingerings are memorized. That crazy passage in the first movement of Shostakovich 5 simply HAS to be memorized.

I'll also add that I've been in situations where the stage lighting obliterated my fingerings--they just disappeared like magic.

October 14, 2019, 8:47 PM · Scott that is another thing that you can get away with in a low-level community orchestra. When the stage lighting is poor, you run to your case and get your battery-powered LED stand light. In my community orchestra there are a couple of violinists who have "vision issues" and they get their own entire stand. Nobody cares.
October 14, 2019, 10:41 PM · I once got a freeway philharmonic orchestra audition copy of Don Juan that had fingerings marked in over almost every single note.

If you need fingerings over all notes to get through that first page, you are hopelessly doomed, I gotta say.

October 14, 2019, 11:54 PM · Re: individual stands... one of the odd things I've noticed is that, in all the non-elite community orchestras in this area, hardly anyone shares stands at all -- as in, there are only one or two shared stands in the entire orchestra. I've never seen anything like it anywhere else. But I've always shared stands myself.
Edited: October 19, 2019, 2:05 PM · Whenever possible, I do not share but use my own stand. This is because of age-related eyesight problems. It was the same in my later years as an orchestral cellist, but then it was more awkward for me to use my own stand, and this was one reason of several why I gave up orchestral cello in favour of the violin.
October 15, 2019, 8:38 AM · If the musicians are older, there will be some, maybe many, who need it for eyesight reasons. People should share stands if possible, though. Printing the parts in a larger format, and using stand lights, will help.
Edited: October 15, 2019, 11:26 AM · Most people in my community orchestra don't share stands. I think this is mostly because we often use downsized photocopies, require a lot of anotations and fingerings and often end up with a different stand partner.
Edited: October 17, 2019, 3:54 AM · #2 for me, generally. But I did get chewed out once by a stand partner new to our semi-pro orchestra who insisted that it was bad manners to write in anything. (She was Juilliard-trained, had been in the New World Symphony, etc.)

Fair enough, if you have time to learn it cold. But especially for some of the really chromatic bits in late Mahler, for example, a few signposts here and there can be a life-saver to get you through a 28-page part. My wife had studied with a very eminent violist who said, effectively, Don’t be stupid. If fingerings help you not get sandbagged by string crossings or necessary shifts, or even changes from the last time this figure came around, write them in.

October 17, 2019, 5:25 AM · Or necessary non-shifts, as it may be. One of the most frequent ways I use fingerings is actually to remind myself not to shift. Certain figures make me shift instinctively when I see them, and there are times I need to remind myself to stay in place because the shift makes subsequent notes awkward.
October 17, 2019, 3:56 PM · Paul, I'm with you. I write in fingerings to help me should I lose track in the heat of battle. Sometimes it's a reminder of when and where to shift (especially when it's my bugaboo, second position). At other times a passage might be playable in first position, but I'll mark a fingering that shifts me to third position to be ready for the following passage that needs it. The choice between an open string and 4th finger on the next lowest string might be dictated by string crossings that follow. For an amateur player, there's sometimes too much to memorize or to figure out in real time. And my stand partner doesn't seem to care.

Like Lydia, I scan my chicken tracks and upload them to Dropbox for the rest of the section to read. I do it primarily for bowings, though, which do tend to change during the course of rehearsals.

October 18, 2019, 9:42 AM · Anyone, Juilliard trained or not, who scolds a musician in a semi pro orchestra for writing in fingerings, has very bad manners herself. Plenty of pros throw in the occasional fingering (exception: Chicago Symphony).
October 18, 2019, 8:16 PM · I like #2 and I like the authority it has behind it if someone gets persnickety about your fingerings. Last year I was playing in a semi-pro orchestra and my stand partner erased one of my fingerings because it bothered/distracted her so much. It was written in the right place, but she couldn't ignore it, she said. She was a better violinist than I--but that's why I needed the fingerings even if she didn't!
October 18, 2019, 8:54 PM · Erasing someone else's fingerings if they're written in the correct place is also extremely rude. Wow.
October 18, 2019, 10:26 PM · The inability to ignore one's stand partner's fingerings is a failing of skill on one's own part that one should not take out on the stand partner following proper etiquette.

In my own solo parts, I generally write my fingerings above the notes and a possible alternative I'm experimenting with below the notes. That also gets me used to focusing above the note.

October 18, 2019, 10:46 PM · I wonder if she was not used to sitting inside. I was sitting outside because that's where the conductor put us, not because I was the better player. I'm used to sitting outside in my community groups, so that's where I'm used to looking for fingerings. It would take a bit of retraining for me to get used to looking for my own fingerings underneath, but I think I can do it. In fact I did do so with that same orchestra for the next concert. The first stand partner dropped out and I was sitting inside, up a stand, with a different player for the next concert. Unlike the first one, the second one was very gracious. I told her I needed my fingerings for a tricky passage of arpeggio 16th notes that were in a high position, and she encouraged me to write them in her part (below the staff, of course). I did, and they helped.
October 18, 2019, 11:01 PM · That's my excuse: All those distracting mf's and pp's all over the place in my parts!
October 19, 2019, 8:06 AM · Mary Ellen:

Correct. I just nodded and smiled. She was also a litigator in her other life, and was in the middle of trying to figure out where her talent/earning potential lay.

I can see why fingerings could be verboten for a sub in a pro orchestra. After all, you might have been drafted at the last minute to fill in for the person who did know the part. And you might never use it again-- so why mess things up for the next person. Rental parts have their own issues, as well.

But this orchestra owned a lot of its parts, and so the Mahler 7 we were doing (or whatever) might not only come up again in a few years, but I might be given the very same part if I were sitting in the same stand. And if not, the person trying to learn it quickly might appreciate a helping hand on some of the nastiest bits.

October 22, 2019, 10:19 AM · I forgot to add that when I'm sitting with a colleague who does not like fingerings in their part, and I'm sitting on the inside, I will get a photocopy and mark in as many fingerings as I want.This is done concurrently with committing as much of the music to memory as I can.
To maintain flexibility with fingerings I will try two or three alternative fingerings in difficult passages which helps when you show up at the first rehearsal facing a blank part.
There's a streak of competitiveness in our orchestra to see who will " blink" and write in fingerings.I just take it as a good memory challenge which I sorely need at this stage in my life.

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