Earlier this month, I was faced with the first test of my piano skills. I had none.

I'm auditing the final undergraduate jazz theory course at SDSU this semester in preparation for the jazz theory graduate seminar, offered next semester. Required of all students in the current course is a "performance project," which includes memorized scales and performance of a few tunes on the student's primary instrument as well as comping and a cycle of cadences on piano. The comping was over the changes to Wayne Shorter's "E.S.P." and the cadences were plain ii-V-Is descending by whole steps in two cycles. The cadences used rootless open voicings with the 3 and 7 in the left hand and the 9 and 5 or 13 in the right hand. Those are the standard voicings I use on guitar. The goal of the cadence exercise was to get through both cycles, stating each chord out loud, as quickly as possible. I believe 58 seconds got full credit, scaling down to three or four minutes.

I still have that crummy keyboard I bought two years ago, so I practiced on that for a few weeks. I assumed I'd choke under pressure and double my best time from practice, so I got it down to 28 seconds. I was surprised, as I've never done much with the piano, and never had to perform on it for anyone, but the limiting factor was verbally spitting out all those chord names. Somehow I didn't choke; my final time in front of the professor was 35 seconds.

All this inspired me to improve my piano chops. I've never learned a proper fingering for any chord, arpeggio, or scale. I've never played any real songs, just plunked around and explored concepts. I figured a good place to start would be to learn proper scale fingerings and get the 12 major scales under my fingers. A Google search gave me this page and this page. The former just presents the "proper" fingerings (should I trust it?), while the latter gives some guidelines before displaying a chart of the "most physically practical fingerings." I played through all the major scales in both hands from each site and found some contradictions. So I went back to the guidelines to make sense of it all:

  1. The fingering always alternates 123 1234 (or 321 4321) so that the same fingering pattern repeats every octave.
  2. The thumb always stays on the white keys, never on black keys.
  3. The fourth finger always plays a black key (when there is a black key to be played in the scale).
  4. The fifth finger is only used at a starting place, a stopping place, or a turning-around place.

Fingers are not numbered as they are in the guitar world. On each hand, the thumb is 1 and the pinky is 5.

I realized that the first two rules are fundamental and can dictate many of the major scale fingerings alone. The fingerings in the keys of Db, Gb, and B are the easiest to grasp. All five black keys are used, and the remaining two notes are white. Therefore, the two thumb notes should be those white ones, and the rest fall right into place:

Root: left hand, right hand
Db: 3214321, 2312341
Gb: 4321321, 2341231
B: 1321432, 1231234

In examining the fingerings given on those two pages, I came up with another rule that neither mentions: finger crossings always occur on the outside of a group of black keys. By "outside," I mean away from the center of the keyboard, the pinky side of your hand, the right side for your right hand, the left side for your left hand. This makes sense, because it's easier to turn your hands slightly inward, towards the center, than outward. This makes your middle and ring fingers equally capable of reaching the black keys while the thumb and index don't extend as far. Therefore, ascending with the right hand, two white notes followed by two black notes should be fingered as 1234. The next note will be white, and should be played with the thumb, crossing over.

From another perspective, any time a white note is immediately above a black note, the right hand must use the thumb on the white note and either middle or ring on the black. The same is applied to the left hand when a white note is immediately below a black note. This gives a little extra room for each crossing.

Expanding outward along the cycle of fourths, the addition of the above rule dictates the following fingerings:

Bb: 3214321, 4123123
Eb: 3214321, 3123412
Ab: 3214321, 3412312

E: 1432132, 1231234
A: 2132143, 1231234
D: 2143213, 1231234

The remaining keys are G, C, and F. G and F each have only one black key, so the rules I'm using offer two options for each hand. C is all white keys, so it could start on any finger.

In order to adopt a specific fingering for every scale that makes sense, I went looking for patterns in the nine scales I'd already established. I noticed certain fingerings were repeated more often than others, and that the ring finger hit certain notes more often than others. Going around the cycle of fourths, I indicated the note under the ring finger in each fingering:

Bb: 3214321 (Eb), 4123123 (Bb)
Eb: 3214321 (Ab), 3123412 (Bb)
Ab: 3214321 (Db), 3412312 (Bb)
Db: 3214321 (Gb), 2312341 (Bb)
Gb: 4321321 (Gb), 2341231 (Bb)
B: 1321432 (F#), 1231234 (A#)
E: 1432132 (F#), 1231234 (D#)
A: 2132143 (F#), 1231234 (G#)
D: 2143213 (F#), 1231234 (C#)

I see two patterns. As you move through the scales, either the fingering is the same while the note under the ring finger moves along the cycle of fourths, or the fingering changes while the ring finger plays the same note. I extended these patterns to F and G:

F: 3214321 (Bb), 1234123 (Bb)
G: 3213214 (F#), 1231234 (F#)

Extending to C from both sides, raising the Bb to B and lowering the F# to F, yields the same result:

C: 3214321 (F), 1231234 (B)

Some of these are not the traditional, proper fingerings, particularly the left hand for C major, but I will use them. The patterns are too perfect to throw out.