Purposeful fingering choices

December 15, 2014

I have gotten into the habit of grilling my students about their fingering choices: “Can you tell me which fingering you used for the last note in that phrase, and why you chose it?” Often they take this (and often correctly so) as an indication that I disapprove of their choices: “Oh, I guess I should have used the other fingering.” But I would like them to actually answer the question that I asked—why did they use the fingerings that they did?

Usually the answer is either that he or she has a “usual” fingering for that note and didn’t bother to consider any others, or that he or she finds the alternative fingering to be physically awkward or hard to remember. As you might guess, I do not find these reasons satisfactory. Professional-level command of an instrument requires a thorough knowledge of fingering options, a thoughtful, purposeful approach to choosing from among them, and conscientious practice to habituate them.

photo, Gala Medina
photo, Gala Medina

Ideally, there should never be a situation where a woodwind player falls back on a “usual” fingering for a note; each possible option should be considered and weighed each and every time. (Training and experience can automate this to some extent within common patterns of notes, such as scalar or arpeggiated passages.)

In some situations a student knows that a different fingering is the “right” one but shies away from it because they can’t remember it or have difficulty executing it. (One example is the left E-flat fingering for beginning oboists; reaching for the left-hand key can move the ring finger enough that it fails to cover its hole.) These situations are resolved simply through careful repetition until they become a part of (so-called) “muscle memory.” There are a number of method/exercise/etude books that provide material for practice of unfamiliar fingerings (the Klosé clarinet method and the “Universal” saxophone method are some time-honored examples.)

An amateur tries to get the job done with a few low-quality tools. A professional keeps his or her toolbox fully stocked with sharp, high-quality tools and knows just which ones to use to get the job done right the first time.