“No You’re Wrong, THIS Is Your Fourth Finger”

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“No, you’re wrong. This is your fourth finger.”

One of the young musicians I overheard having this argument was a guitarist and the other was a keyboardist, so they were both right and they were both wrong.

We tend to teach pianists that the fourth finger is the “ring” finger, while guitarists are told it’s the pinky. Considering the mechanics involved in playing each instrument, the labels are logical — logical, but not as significant as the aforementioned debate would make you think.

The topic of finger numbers isn’t that important once technique is acquired and muscle memory sets in. Even in the instances when an experienced performer feels the need to scour the small print for fingering suggestions, they’re free to disagree with the publisher based on experience or even hand size.

Like many of music’s “rules,” finger number systems are stepping stones on the way to larger goals, rather than noteworthy end results in and of themselves.

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Still, arguments about semantics are common in music, and in my case, digging into just these kinds of details is part of the job description. It would be fair to say that throughout my musical upbringing and subsequent career, my theory and composition skills have often outshined my abilities as a performer. On principle, I try to be proud of my strengths and comfortable with my weaknesses, but when my confidence is shaken, I cling to my technical understanding of obscure musical details like a security blanket.

When we’re new to music, we often believe it has clear-cut solutions and that great composers abide by a definite set of creative laws. Though most of us eventually outgrow that mentality, elements of it tend to linger — sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

To paraphrase Debussy (Claude, forgive me): The art created the rules, not the other way around.

Through Opera, Debussy Reaches a New Audience - The New York Times

Growing up, I did my best to steer clear of Bach. I found the process of learning his pieces meticulous and the emotional payoff limited. However, because of my interest in composition, I couldn’t run from his work forever.

Once I accepted there would be no escape from the careful counterpoint and formulaic writing of the great man, I attempted some immersion therapy. I carried a collection of his pieces in my bookbag, analyzing excerpts when I found a spare moment. My analysis skills grew, but so did my irritation.

Week after week, measure after measure, I found his writing impressive, but often tedious. But then came the day when I saw it:

Bach broke a counterpoint rule.

I ran to a piano and played through the measure. Why would he leave one note out of place in a piece that was otherwise technically flawless? I played it again, replacing the “incorrect” note with potential solutions, but of course, none of them sounded right. My fixation with that note ended up teaching me a valuable lesson: Knowing how to follow the rules gives you the ability to expertly stray from them.

I can’t remember what the “incorrect” note was or even what piece it was in. I’m actually proud of that, because it proves I walked away with more than a snarky thought about Bach.

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Look, it’s definitely important to seek out accurate information and a thorough understanding of foundations. What’s more, theory’s rules often provide comfortable entry points into complicated topics. That said, challenging those rules can lead to creative outbursts and allow you to really test your knowledge.

There will always be musicians who struggle to understand theory largely because they’re resistant to it. There are also those who wear it like blinders and cling to the notion that music can be right or wrong. (Period.)

As someone who works in music education, my aim is always to help students develop a clear understanding of foundational concepts with context.

If I find myself describing something that could be interpreted as a rule while working on one of our courses, I try to make a point of explaining why and how it functions in a practical sense. That way, the resistant student is given assurance that what’s being taught is worth learning, while the stubborn student is kept from sophomorically fixating on details without seeing the big idea.

But let’s get back to that fourth finger debate. Eventually, remembering I was there in a teaching capacity, I weighed in. Had I stepped in right away, I would have been hard pressed to present the explanation in a way a group of kids would find interesting, but because they first put stakes in the fire, hours later, it remained the topic du jour.

However, the way they talked about it changed. They were no longer arguing about something kind of arbitrary, they were basking in a sort of enlightenment. One of music’s mysteries had been solved, but in a way that revealed more questions to ask and more rabbit holes to climb down. Rather than stubbornly clinging to what they knew of their own instruments, they compared and contrasted the mechanics of pianos and guitars, opening their minds to a new world of musical realities and creative possibilities.

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