Chromatic Scale Fingering 

Claude Mottier at the 2001 Artur Schnabel Symposium in Berlin, Germany.Below are Claude Mottier’s description and comments on the Schnabel fingering for the chromatic scale on the piano. The text has been extracted from an essay by Werner GrĂĽnzweig in which he remembers Claude as the grandson of Karl Ulrich and great-grandson of Artur Schnabel.  The complete and unedited e-mail exchange of 2001 can be found here.

 

“The fingering [for the chromatic scale] is a classic example of Schnabellian »thinking outside the box.«  Scales – whether major, minor, pentatonic, whole tone, or chromatic – repeat at the octave; thus, pianists generally devise fingerings that repeat at the octave. Hence the usual fingering for chromatic scales:

Classical chromatic scale fingering taught to piano students.

The problem with this fingering is that each threading of the thumb underneath the hand takes time. A fingering that allows more notes to be played before the hand must be moved would be faster. This is what the fingering mentioned in the film »Con Brio: Karl Ulrich Schnabel, Master Teacher of Piano« does by repeating only every two octaves (brackets mark hand positions):

Alternative fingering for chromatic scale taught by the Schnabel disciples.

 

The general rule is simple: use the thumb on every other white key. My grandfather taught me this fingering to use on the final run of Chopin’s first Scherzo. I had been trying to increase my speed with the traditional fingering for weeks. With the new fingering, I got it in about three hours.  (For that kind of speed, the fingering is not enough by itself – use Karl Ulrich Schnabel’s »position technique«.)  A few years later, in a sight reading class, I had a chance to show off my chromatic scale (I was a horrible sight reader).  The professor stopped me, horrified, »What fingering are you using?« I showed her. »It will never be even!« she declared, »use this.«  She showed me the traditional fingering, which every second year piano student knows. And, to drive home her point, played me a chromatic scale. »I like my fingering,« I said, and demonstrated.

Mine was faster.

She liked me even less after that. Oh well.”

Karl Ulrich Schnabel’s Position Technique

In a handwritten note Karl Ulrich Schnabel contrasts the »general technique« (used in scales, arpeggios etc.) with »position technique« (that required for a particular bit of some piece).

“The position technique is a way of playing, and especially practicing, fast passages. Traditionally, we practice fast passages by first learning to play them slowly, then gradually increasing the tempo (probably with the aid of a metronome) until the desired speed is achieved. Position technique is about practicing positions of the hand – or more accurately, changes in position. Fingering becomes very important for position technique; the more notes that can be played in a given position, the fewer changes in position, and since changing position takes time, the fewer changes in position, the faster we can play. The relation of this concept to the »good fingering« for the chromatic scale should be obvious.

Since position technique is not about learning the sequence of notes within a position (although doing so may still be necessary), we practice the group of notes in a position as a cluster, concentrating on the change of position between the first cluster and the second, then the second and the third and so forth, and so on. When the position changes between pairs of clusters becomes easy, practice three in a row then four… to the length of any given passage. When the sequence of positions is learned, the clusters can be »broken« by moving the wrist – i.e., the way chords are broken. With some additional practice to get it even (and not very much at that), the quick succession of broken chords will be a blazingly fast run.

A note of caution: practicing this way will allow virtually anyone to play far faster than they even dreamed possible – it will NOT, however, enable the same pianist to play the same passage slowly. It just doesn’t work that way.”