Why do I need to use alternate fingerings?

person s hands with paint

Woodwind instruments including the flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone all have more than one fingering for some notes. Why is that, and do you need to learn them all? Instead, could you just learn the one main fingering for every note and get really good at using it?

Here are some things to think about:

  • There’s not always one “main” fingering. For example, the clarinet has its “pinky finger” notes that have left-hand or right-hand options, and you need to know both equally well to play above the beginner level. The flute has “1 and 1” and “thumb” fingerings for B-flat that are both common and standard. The oboe has two or three standard fingerings for F. The bassoon’s thumb and pinky options for F-sharp and A-flat and the saxophone’s “side” and “bis” B-flats are also arguably equally important.
  • Using an alternate fingering can sometimes help avoid awkward movements. One example is flip-flopping (one finger lifting up while another presses down) with F to F-sharp on saxophone or in the clarinet’s middle register. Another is sliding (moving a finger from one key to another) like going from D on the oboe to F with the right-hand F key. Sometimes these awkward movements are unavoidable, but good woodwind players avoid them whenever possible.
  • Alternate fingerings don’t always sound or respond the same. Some do, such as the clarinet’s pinky finger notes, because the pinky keys open and close the same holes. But some alternate fingerings might be a little louder or softer, sharper or flatter, more or less resistant, or brighter or darker in tone. Excellent woodwind players use these differences in artistic ways.

So alternate fingerings are important and useful. But do you need all of them?

There can be a lot of alternate fingerings. Advanced bassoonists sometimes refer to a book of fingerings that is over 300 pages long! (There are books for other instruments, too.) Sometimes there can be dozens of fingerings for a single note.

If you’re currently learning an instrument and using a method book (individual or band method) that has a fingering chart, you could check to see which notes have more than one fingering. It might be a worthwhile challenge to learn all those fingerings, and see if the book gives any hints about when to use which ones.

If you’re a more advanced student, the music you’re working on might present challenges when fingering patterns get awkward. Take on the challenge of researching lesser-known alternate fingerings that might help. (Sometimes a fingering has both advantages and disadvantages that you have to weigh carefully.) Start collecting useful fingering charts, or compile your own.

If you have my sights set on playing professionally, then you will need to know lots of alternate fingerings, have good resources to consult when you need more options, and know exactly how each fingering sounds, responds, and tunes on your instrument.

Good luck!

Is jazz swing triplety, or not?

person playing the piano

The most important rhythmic concept in jazz is swing, an intentional unevenness of note lengths. In jazz swing, downbeat notes (and rests) are long, and upbeats are shorter and later. This phenomenon isn’t represented well by classical musical notation, but sometimes it is approximated like this:

Or like this:

The examples assign the downbeat notes a length exactly 2 times that of the upbeat notes—the triplet quarter note is twice as long as the triplet eighth, or, in other words, the swing ratio is 2:1.

The debate over swing ratios

The triplet method of explaining swing rhythm is unpopular with many jazz musicians and educators, who insist that a triplet-like 2:1 ratio is incorrect. Most of them, if pressed, are unable to provide a better ratio or formula. Instead they insist on the importance of listening to jazz to aurally absorb the “correct” ratio (or system of ratios, perhaps varying with tempo), or propose that swing can only properly be “felt” rather than explained.

There are a number of things that these musicians and educators are correct about: a triplety ratio isn’t necessarily correct, and listening is important.

What these otherwise fine folks sometimes get wrong is the idea that swing can’t be measured or analyzed. In fact, it has been extensively measured and analyzed by a number of scholars, and some useful generalizations can be made. (If you want to dig into the research, an excellent place to start is the article “Preferred swing ratio in jazz as a function of tempo” by Anders Friberg and Andreas Sundström, published in TMH-QPSR, volume 38, no. 4, 1997.)

Some helpful swing generalizations

  • In general, yes, a swing ratio of 2:1, triplet-style, works fine for many situations, particularly at moderate tempos.
  • It’s fairly common for swing ratios to increase (something like 2.5:1 or even higher) at slower tempos. A higher ratio could be described as “swinging harder.”
  • It’s also common for swing ratios to get lower at faster tempos (like 1.5:1). This could be described as “not swinging as hard” or maybe playing “straighter.”
  • However, jazz performers’ ratios vary, depending on factors that are perhaps best summarized as “personal taste.” And, yes, the best way to develop this informed taste is by listening to and internalizing a lot of great jazz.

It might be helpful for classically-trained musicians to consider how they interpret something like a grace note—its individual placement, length, emphasis, etc. depend on many factors, and a “swung” eighth note’s interpretation is similarly complex.

Happy swinging!

Favorite blog posts, August 2022

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Half-holes on the Fingering Diagram Builder

Half-holes on the Fingering Diagram Builder aren’t a new feature, but I get lots of questions about how to do them, so here are some instructions I can refer people to.

Easiest way

If you’re making diagrams for flute, (French) clarinet, (German) bassoon, or recorder, and you don’t need anything especially complicated, you can open the “Keywork details” menu and click the option to turn “Half-holes” to “Upper,” “Lower,” or “Off.” For flute the options are a little different, to allow for half-holing in four directions.

Once your desired half-holes are enabled, you can hover your mouse over the keys (or look for the grey outlines on a touchscreen device) to see them. Click/tap on the desired half of the hole to “close” it, or again to re-open it. The “open” ones will not appear in your downloaded image.

clarinetbassoonrecorder
upper
lower
flute
Lengthwise upper
Lengthwise lower
Widthwise proximal
Widthwise distal

More complicated but flexible way

If you need to turn on only certain half-holes, or mix upper with lower, etc., you will have to roll up your sleeves a bit more. Open the “Keywork details” menu and look for the top-level “Half-holes” heading. Organized beneath this you will see all the available half-holes, organized into groups like “Lower half holes.” I suggest adjusting the settings as follows:

  • “Half-holes” = Always
  • Each subgroup containing a desired half-hole, such as “Lower half holes” = Always
  • Each desired individual half-hole = “As needed”
  • Each undesired individual half-hole = “Never”

That will make the desired half-holes visible when you “close” them, and invisible otherwise.

In the following example, I have set the clarinet’s left hand first finger upper hole and the left hand third finger lower hole as described.

If you anticipate using a certain half-hole configuration frequently, you can save it for future use. Set the half-holes (and other keywork) up how you want it, open the “Keywork details” menu, and look near the bottom of it for the “Custom key sets” submenu. Open that, type a name for your current set of keys, and click/tap “Add.”

Enjoy!

Listing your woodwind doubles

person holding white paper

Here is a question I’ve gotten a few times recently: if you’re a woodwind doubler, and need to list your instruments, in what order do you list them? Here are some options:

  • Use a common “score” order, like: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, saxophone. To musically-literate folks this may be the closest thing to a sort of neutral listing, giving no special preference or ranking to the instruments. (But it can of course be misinterpreted.)
  • Use a ranking, such as by which instruments you play best or prefer. If, like me, your ambition is to play your doubles equally well, and to be a hire-able professional on them all, then listing them this way may weaken that impression.
  • Do a hybrid of ranking and score order, such as listing a strongest/primary instrument first, and the rest in score order. That’s my preferred approach for general cases like on my website or business cards. For me, it’s: saxophone, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon. That highlights my strongest instrument (for now, at least), and also puts it out front for jazz, rock, and blues gigs, which make up a substantial part of my freelance career.
  • Tailor the list to the situation. If I’m submitting a brief biography for an appearance at, say, a clarinet conference, I’ll put the clarinet first. That hopefully helps people see me as a member of the group, rather than a visitor.
  • Randomize. For something like a website, it’s relatively simple with a little coding knowledge to use a different order every time, and help prevent yourself from being pigeonholed. You could also randomize photos of yourself holding or playing various instruments, or video or audio recordings. Here’s a simple example.

To sum up, you’ll have to consider your skills and goals as a doubler, what kind of work you do or want to do, and to whom you’re presenting yourself.

Favorite blog posts, July 2022

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Getting gigs on woodwind doubles

person standing while using phone

Here’s a question sent to me recently [edited lightly]:

Do you have any advice on getting gigs on doubles? I play all the major modern woodwinds, but I’m definitely an oboe/English horn player first, and saxophone is my strongest double. I wouldn’t say I’m the best flute or clarinet player, but I’m good enough to gig or perform solo repertoire. I never get gigs on anything but oboe/English horn or saxophone, which makes me feel like I’m wasting my time practicing anything else.

Here are a few things to consider:

Firstly, hopefully it goes without saying, but continue developing your skills on your doubles.

Developing a reputation in your local market takes time. Plus, your local ecosystem of musicians and gigs is a factor outside your control. For example, if there is already an abundance of well-established clarinetists in local contractors’ contact lists, then it may just take time before you get a shot.

Get to know the players in town who are doing the kind of gigs you want, and establish professional acquaintances with them. There’s also a time-honored tradition of taking a “lesson” or two with top local players so they can see what you’re capable of, and potentially recommend you for gigs (plus you might learn something).

Check in with contractors or other hirers you may be working with already. You could say something like, “Hey, I’ve been doing so much oboe and saxophone lately work that I’m not sure people realize I’m a strong flute and clarinet player, too. Just wanted to make sure you have that info in the back of your mind. Thanks!”

Also consider what you are or aren’t doing to sell yourself convincingly as a doubler. I checked out your web presence, and found social media usernames and profile pictures that identify you very clearly as an oboist, plus some vague, apologetic hints that you are also woodwind doubler. Some humility is good, but if you want to work as a flutist then it helps to tell people you’re a flutist.

You also do not have a personal web page, or not one that I could quickly find. That’s your digital-era business card. (Consider getting some actual business cards, too.) It should state clearly what you bring to the table, and ideally provide some evidence. If I visit your website and it doesn’t mention the bassoon, or it mentions the bassoon but has audio/videos of you playing everything but the bassoon, then I’m unlikely to consider you a hireable bassoonist. If your bassoon playing is only so-so, I might still need you for a gig that has less-critical bassoon parts, but hearing you play something gives me some reference point for what you can do. As a next-best thing, you can provide an easy-to-find, easy-to-skim list of some gigs you have done in recent memory.

Find appropriate opportunities to offer your services on additional instruments. “Hey, I have my flute with me today, and I can cover that third part if you like.” “I was thinking maybe this passage would sound good on clarinet. Mind if I give it a try in rehearsal?” Don’t push it to the point of being annoying, and be a good sport if the person in charge wants you to stay in your lane.

Good luck!

Teaching a college woodwind methods course

teacher giving instructions not to cheat

It’s that time of year again when I start getting more traffic to my posts on teaching my woodwind methods class, and sales of my textbook start to pick up. If you’re scrambling to prepare a new woodwind methods course, here are a few resources:

What questions do you have about teaching woodwind methods classes? Let me know.

Make your musical lines sing and dance

man wearing blue jeans doing pirouette spin

In “classical” and related kinds of music, we are often asked to make our instrumental music sing or dance. In fact, most music of this type should do one or the other.

Singing-type music may be labeled as such with markings like cantabile or vocal-ish titles like “Aria” or “Chanson.” Or it may be characterized by notational features like long, slurred lines. In any case, playing through the melody, you can probably intuit whether it is song-like (or dance-like).

To give your musical line a singing quality, focus on making long, smooth, elegantly-shaped phrases. They should sync with the underlying pulse without drawing attention to it.

Dancing music might have titles named after dances, like “Waltz” or “Bourée” or “Rumba.” Or they might include high-energy articulations like accents or staccato.

To make your lines dance, bring out the meter, by creating a sense that the beats are not all equal. This might be indicated in the notation with accents (dynamic, agogic, tonic, etc.). Or it might require some brief research into the kind of dance: for example, a quick search will show you that a Sarabande is generally in a slow three, with stress on beat 2. Some dances have rhythmic characteristics like clave that puts stress on certain subdivisions of beats.

If your music seems to have an unspecified dance-like quality, start by bringing out the typical hierarchy of beats: in 4/4, for example, beat 1 is the strongest, beat 3 the next-strongest, beats 2 and 4 less strong, and the “ands” weaker still.

It’s common for a multi-movement piece to have both song-like and dance-like movements, and even for both approaches to appear within a single movement or short piece.

Here’s just one excellent example of singing vs. dancing in instrumental music. Listen to ToniMarie Marchioni and Jacob Campbell play the beginning of the first movement (“Aria”) of the Dutilleux oboe sonata, and notice the smooth, shaped, singing oboe lines that overlay the pulse without emphasizing it:

Now skip ahead to the beginning of the second movement (“Scherzo: Vif”) and notice how the oboe line is accented, bringing the pulse to the forefront in a dance-like way:

The next time you pick up your instrument, ask yourself whether the music should sing or dance, and what you can do to make that happen.