The Bill Evans Re-Fingering School

One of the most intricate problems of playing piano is fingering. Crossing the thumb under (the way our piano teachers taught us) can feel awkward and make the hand look like a crab crawling across the keyboard.
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by Gil Goldstein

One of the most intricate problems of playing piano is fingering. Crossing the thumb under (the way our piano teachers taught us) can feel awkward and make the hand look like a crab crawling across the keyboard. The first time I saw Bill Evans play, I was struck by how he never seemed to cross his thumb. His hands seemed to float at the ends of his arms in a relaxed position. Having had the good fortune to speak to Bill in person, and investigating his playing over the years, I’ve isolated some concepts that can help solve some of the stickiest fingering issues.

1. Rhythmic Displacement

Ex. 1 illustrates Evans’ improvisational approach of finding, developing, and rhythmically displacing musical ideas. Bill often fingered short two- and three-note ideas symmetrically, lifting his hand to place the thumb on the first note of each phrase. The thing is, the thumb doesn’t cross under the hand. The hand simply moves to where the next notes will be played.

2. Moving the Whole Hand

Play the first five notes in Ex. 2 with the hand flat, fingered 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. You now appear to be out of fingers. Evans would simply reposition his hand to play the next three notes in bar 2 as a separate statement. The trick is lifting your whole hand after the C to get the A.

3. Thumb Workout

Another fingering trick is lifting the thumb to play two notes in a row. Bill had no fear of placing his thumb on a black note, reducing the number of finger crosses his hand had to perform. Play Ex. 3 using the fingering 1, 1, 5, 4, 3, 1.

4. Pinky Practice

Evans extended the reach of his fifth finger by playing two notes in a row with the pinky. In Ex. 4, you can play the last phrase of six notes with a flat hand (instead of crossing the thumb) by simply lifting the pinky to play an extra note.

5. Land and Replace

Ex. 5 shows how to land on one finger, then replace that finger with another. In measure 4, it’s natural to land on the E with the third finger, but after, the jump to the Eb above is difficult. While the E key is still down, simply replace the third finger with the thumb, making the stretch upward easier.

Multi-instrumentalist and arranger Gil Goldstein has performed and arranged for artists such as Jim Hall, David Sanborn, and Esperanza Spalding. Find out more at gilgoldstein.us. Jon Regen