The blessing of Finger Substitution

One of the first skills I learned when starting organ lessons was finger substitution. If you are not an organist, you may not know what finger substitution is. When I took piano lessons in my childhood, I do not recall ever hearing about finger substitution. And finger substitution was also not a technique needed when I played the clarinet through high school.

What is Finger Substitution?

Finger substitution occurs when depressing a key with one finger, you move another finger onto that key. Then the original finger moves off of the key. This enables the organist to have their hand in position for the next note. This is required sometimes so notes can be played legato (no break between notes).

I learned how to do this by practicing the exercises in the Method of Organ Playing by Harold Gleason. The exercises clearly marked which fingers to use. For example, begin with fingers 1 and 3 and substitute with 2 and 4. Each finger has a number assigned to it. 1 is for the thumb and the pinky finger is number 5.

Finger substitution exercises
Finger substitution exercises

The blessing of Finger Substitution

What? How can finger substitution be blessing? As I have only been playing the organ for about 5 years, I have come to value my ability to substitute my fingers. This my sound silly to accomplished organists or those that learned the organ at an early age. For me, learning to do this and being able to appreciate it is a blessing.

Here’s how:

♦ It’s helped me appreciate that we all have different skills and abilities. While I can play the organ (and substitute my fingers) others can dunk basketballs, cut off their arm to save their life, run marathons, compose music, or help others find a new job. You name it, there is likely someone that can do it! (Herding cats may be an exception.)

♦ I am capable of more than I ever realized (you are too!!). I didn’t run away from the challenge after learning that organ technique is much different than playing the piano. Going into it, I assumed it would be like playing the piano only adding foot pedals.

♦ Something that once felt difficult to accomplish can became easy with persistent practice. At first substituting my fingers (and eventually my feet too!) took a great deal of concentration. Now, I can usually substitute my fingers without thinking about it. If you were to ask me which fingers, I used I may not be able to tell you unless I play it again and look at my fingers. Of course, sometimes I still make it more complicated than it needs to be!

♦ When I’m at my job – I currently work full time as data manager – I may be having a tough time working on that day’s tasks. Sometimes I pause, smile, and remember that I can substitute my fingers. Everyone at work can type on a keyboard but I can substitute my fingers [on a different type of keyboard]!

What have you learned that you consider to be blessing (even if it may sound weird to others)?

What I've learned since deciding to take organ lessons
Ideas for increasing attendance at pipe organ concerts
Website | + posts

Heidi Bender writes about her experiences of learning to play the organ. She started on the adventure in 2009.

She also writes on her website Tons of Thanks, which helps people write thank-you notes. Heidi is also a cat lady who writes at The Joy of Cats.

4 thoughts on “The blessing of Finger Substitution”

  1. Finger Substitution is interesting. When your Mom and I were way younger we took piano lessons. Don’t know if we had that or not though.

    • I learned finger substitution in my piano playing very early on.
      It was very useful in playing the Chopin ‘Raindrop’ Prelude in D flat Major.
      I’ve used it ever since to achieve a very smooth legato.
      Best wishes to everyone trying to learn to play piano.


Leave a Comment