Do woodwind instruments have similar fingerings?

"clarinet fingers" by MikeBlogs is licensed under CC BY

I get lots of emails and search traffic from people trying to find the answer to questions about woodwinds and “similar” fingerings: Do they use the same or similar fingerings? Which instruments are the most similar? Can I use fingerings from _____ instrument on _____ instrument?

I’ve addressed before why these questions might be coming from misconceptions about woodwind doubling, and why the answers might not be as useful as one might think. But beyond that, some of those questions are difficult to answer in a straightforward way.

Do any of the major modern Western woodwind instrument families use identical fingerings (such as saxophones using the same fingerings as oboes, or clarinets using the same fingerings as bassoons)? No.

Do instruments within those families use identical fingerings? Kind of. For example, the members of the concert flute family (piccolo, flute, alto and bass flutes, and others), use fingerings that are at least very similar. But some use slightly-varied fingerings to improve pitch, tone, or response of certain notes: for example, piccolo players often use a modified fingering for the third-octave A-flat, which they wouldn’t use on a lower-pitched flute. And the keys that appear on flutes aren’t set in stone—some might have a special C-sharp trill key, or a low B key, that other flutes lack. And clever flute makers can add anything else they dream up that customers will pay for.

Do any of the woodwind families have similar enough fingerings that you can play them without significant additional effort to learn how? No, not if you want to play them well.

But really, which ones are the most similar? It’s not as simple as counting up the number of “matching” fingerings between two instruments. You could argue that the written note D below the treble clef staff is “similar” for flute, oboe, and saxophone. D uses the three middle fingers of each hand on each of these instruments. But the flute also requires pressing a left-hand thumb key, while the others don’t. And the oboe has more than one key for the right ring finger, and I suppose it’s up to you whether the correct one for this note feels the “same” to you as the other two instruments. On clarinet, this written note uses a very different fingering, but the note written an octave higher has similarities to the flute/oboe/saxophone note. And the bassoon doesn’t have a D fingered in a closely similar way, but its low G uses a similar fingering that falls into roughly analogous scale fingering patterns.

(While brainstorming this post, I briefly considered trying to create some kind of chart showing which fingerings were the “same” or “similar” across the woodwind families. I quickly abandoned the idea because the necessary exceptions, explanations, and context would have complicated it beyond any usefulness.)

Like asking if two languages are similar, asking if two instruments’ fingerings are similar begs an answer that is incomplete, misleading, and ultimately not useful. If your intention is to apply that answer to playing or teaching woodwind instruments, your success will depend on instead approaching each instrument on its own terms.

Teaching with your ears

"listen" by Jay Morrison is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

We have this conversation often in my woodwind methods classes:

Me: What do you hear in so-and-so’s playing?
Student: Their embouchure is too tight?
Me: Can you hear their embouchure muscles?
Student: …?
Me: Not directly, right? But what are you hearing that makes you think their embouchure is tight?
Student: Well, it looks like it could be kind of tight.
Me: But what do you hear?

Woodwind teaching isn’t, or shouldn’t be, primarily a visual activity. Crucial parts of woodwind-playing technique happen entirely out of view, inside the player’s body. And the most important element—air—is mostly invisible.

But lots of teachers like to focus on visual things. (It’s easier!) My college students often arrive on campus able to explain in elaborate detail the “right” way to sit in a chair when playing, but with little understanding of less-visible concepts like breath support and voicing. Students in my woodwind methods course, given opportunities to critique woodwind playing, often zero in on how a classmate’s embouchure looks, rather than on the sounds they are making. I see educators from beginning-band directors to world-famous masterclass teachers tackling the most immediately visible elements of a student’s approach, while ignoring glaringly audible issues.

Additionally, visual evaluation is complicated by the variety of human bodies. I regularly have to talk students literally off the ledge, as they sit precariously on the forwardmost inch of their chairs, determined that this is the one-size-fits-all correct position, regardless of the size and shape of their bodies. And I can’t count the times that I’ve seen a pedagogical book describe in breathless detail the way a player’s lips should look when playing, always assuming that those lips are of a very specific size and shape (and sometimes color).

Like many teachers, I’ve done much of my instruction in recent months remotely, via video. In the early weeks of the New Normal, I got caught up in concerns about lighting and camera angles. But I find lately that I really don’t look at the screen much when my students are playing. Most of the information I need comes from their audio feeds. Visual evaluation is at best a helpful supplement.

It’s hard to break the habit of always using our eyes first, or of jumping to conclusions about things we can’t observe directly. Start with the sound, and work from there.

Interpretation at small and large scales

"MX TV EXAMEN-RECITAL OBOE CCOY" by Secretaría de Cultura CDMX is licensed under CC BY

When I ask my students about their interpretation of a piece of music, their answers are often about shaping phrases. The phrases should have some kind of beginning, middle, and end, often expressed in some kind of dynamic shape, like starting softer, growing to a louder peak, then gradually getting softer again.

That isn’t wrong, but it’s really just interpreting individual phrases. The next step is to give those phrases some relationship to each other. Does the next phrase continue the previous one in some way? Answer it? Contradict it? Make a contrast with it? If your favorite tool for expressing your interpretation is dynamics, then the answers to those questions might determine whether the next phrase, say, picks up at the same dynamic level as the previous, or at a dramatically different one.

Then the phrases should build a larger structure, such as a theme. The individual phrases that make up the theme should have beginnings, middles, and ends, but they should join together into something bigger that also has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The themes might combine to build a movement, and the movements to form a complete work. And multiple works may even construct a complete concert program.

Small-scale phrase shaping is a good start, but mature interpretation requires thinking on a larger scale.

Giving feedback in masterclasses and competitions

As a graduate student and younger professional I started to get opportunities to teach in masterclass/workshop settings and to adjudicate competitions. I had taught private lessons for many years. But sometimes I found it challenging to give effective feedback in these newer situations, where I was hearing someone play for the first time and needed to give useful suggestions after just a quick first impression. For example:

  • I would listen to a talented competition entrant who played at a much higher level than my students, and I would find myself at a loss for what to address.
  • I would listen to a struggling masterclass student with deep fundamental flaws in their playing, but it seemed too overwhelming to tackle in fifteen minutes. So instead I would harp on some small detail like an esoteric alternate fingering or the various possible approaches to a certain grace note.

There are plenty of “right” ways to teach in these situations, but here’s the breakthrough that really helped me:

  1. Have a specific list of things in mind to listen for. In terms of the woodwind sounds I’m hearing, I generally focus on tone, response, intonation, execution of volume/dynamics, and finger and tongue fluency. Assuming these are generally in place, I might also consider non-woodwind-specific musical/interpretive factors.
  2. While listening, make a list, mental and/or written, of a very small handful of items I want to address (sometimes just one). I do my best to pick the most bang-for-the-buck ones, or the ones I haven’t already addressed with another student in the same masterclass, but I don’t stress over it too much.
  3. Have some accumulated ideas of techniques and approaches that can be applied to the problem areas. For woodwind fundamentals, which are appropriately addressed at every stage of advancement, I zero in on posture and playing position, breath support, voicing, embouchure, finger and tongue movement, and fingering selection. For interpretive matters, I might address small-scale phrase shaping, and from there work up to interpretation of larger structures like themes, movements, complete pieces, and even full recital programs.

Your lists (what to listen for, and what techniques/approaches to apply) might differ from mine, though you are welcome to adopt them if you need a starting point. The object is to have a methodical approach to listening and problem-solving, so I’m making efficient and effective use of time.

Good luck!

Advice on multiple-woodwinds graduate degrees and teaching careers

"Woodwinds" by AnnieHoney is licensed under CC BY-NC

I often have university students bring up the idea of graduate school and a university teaching career, and I have previously given general advice about that.

Perhaps since my graduate degrees and a teaching career are in multiple woodwinds, my students sometimes wonder if that’s a path they should take. Here are a few thoughts:

I’ve mentioned previously that, even for talented and hardworking folks, a graduate education is far from a guarantee of employment. Does a multiple-woodwinds degree help? I think it helped me, but I also had some significant luck.

The year I was on the job market, I applied for a small handful of multiple-woodwinds jobs and got a small handful of interviews. I landed in the job that was the best match. I kept an eye on job listings in subsequent years, and years went by without a single multiple-woodwinds job being listed. If I had graduated a year later than I did, I may well have been unemployed.

During my job search I also applied for single-instrument teaching jobs, and got zero responses. Having been on the hiring side of things a few times now, I understand why. Faculty jobs get dozens of applicants that need to be narrowed down quickly, and the ones whose qualifications and experience are laser-focused for the job in question rise to the top. Though I felt I had things to offer, my multiple-woodwinds background wasn’t a precise enough fit, and somebody else’s background was.

So is a multiple-woodwinds education better, employability-wise, than focused study of a single instrument? It’s a calculated gamble. When you’re on the job market there might happen to be a windfall of single-instrument jobs, and if you’ve been focused on multiple woodwinds instead, you may be out of luck. However, there are fewer multiple-woodwinds graduates, so if a multiple-woodwinds-geared job opens, your background might prove very valuable.

Multiple-woodwinds teaching jobs tend to be common at smaller schools with smaller music departments, and that may or may not affect your decision. I have a mixed but mostly positive relationship with my small-university job. If your heart is set on teaching at a major university, then most of the jobs won’t be multiple-instrument jobs, and your competition will mostly be highly-specialized, highly-focused single-instrument players.

One other factor to consider is what kind of multiple-woodwinds education you want to get. Do you want to have a “primary” and “secondary” instruments, or study them in an equal way? Do you want to do a masters degree and a doctoral degree both in multiple woodwinds, or one in multiple woodwinds and one in a single instrument? How you focus your studies will affect which theoretical future jobs you will or won’t be a match for. (Each degree program is a little different, so check with the schools you’re interested in to see how their programs are structured.)

Graduate study in multiple woodwinds can be valuable preparation for a career in higher education, but the job opportunities are limited and hard to predict. I suggest pursuing that path if you have additional reasons or motivations for doing so, like a fascination with the woodwind instruments and woodwind doubling.

Fingering Diagram Builder, version 0.82

Here’s a new minor release of the Fingering Diagram Builder with a few small improvements:

  • Bug fixes and other minor tweaks
  • The French bassoon diagram now supports the Ducasse bassoon. Set “Instrument” to “Bassoon (French)” and “Key set” to “Ducasse.” Thanks to Daryn Zubke for assistance with this.

Favorite blog posts, September 2020

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

Stop teaching clarinet and saxophone embouchures like this

As a ten-year-old beginning saxophonist, I was taught to form an embouchure like this:

  • Put your top teeth on the mouthpiece
  • Let your lower lip sort of roll or squish over your lower teeth
  • Close your mouth

That’s how I played for years. As I advanced and started to practice more, I would sometimes hurt the inside of my lower lip, drawing blood or forming blisters or scar tissue. I considered this a badge of honor: I practiced until I bled.

But I don’t play that way anymore, nor do I teach students that way. I made an important change to my embouchure that lets me play for extended periods pain- and blood-free, while sounding better and having more control.

The problem with the lower-lip-over-the-teeth approach is that it sets the lower lip up to serve as a sacrificial cushion, to protect the reed from the lower teeth. Sure, you can just tell your students to “stop biting,” but if you’re teaching them an embouchure that’s based on biting, then good luck.

It’s more useful to think of the embouchure this way:

  • Put your top teeth on the mouthpiece
  • Let your jaw hang open a bit, so your lower teeth stay clear of the reed
  • Keep your jaw open, and allow your lips to close around the mouthpiece and reed.

This approach makes sure the lips are used to form the embouchure, not the jaw. It improves tone, response, dynamic range, and more, and virtually eliminates lower lip pain.

Left: jaw-formed clarinet embouchure. Right: lip-formed clarinet embouchure.

If you are used to a jaw-formed embouchure concept, you might find that switching to the lip-formed embouchure leaves you feeling like you’ve lost some control of pitch and tone. If so, double-check your breath support; with the jaw out of the way you will need to depend on those support muscles more for stability.

Don’t play through pain—use a better approach.

“More air”

"Grace under Pressure" by A.Davey is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

When I use the term “breath support,” students and colleagues often echo back something like “oh, right, more air.” But is breath support the same thing as “more air?”

Measuring quantities of air isn’t completely straightforward—when we say “more air,” we might rightfully wonder whether that means a greater volume filled with air, or a greater number of air molecules, or whether we’re really thinking of something like airflow or air velocity.

For my purposes in teaching, I find a few different measures to be relevant:

First, you must set up breath support with a good inhalation, and I think it’s generally helpful to inhale a large volume of air into the lungs.

Then, you must pressurize the air by engaging the torso muscles, constricting the space in which the air is contained. (The diaphragm’s relaxation alone does create pressure, but not enough for good woodwind playing.)

The increased pressure makes the air escape your embouchure at a higher velocity. You can adjust the size of your embouchure, allowing more or less air to pass through, which is the basic mechanism woodwind players use to change (sound) volume (or “dynamics”).

I’m most directly concerned with air pressure when I talk about breath support, and in some ways in which that does translate to “more” air. But since “more” can be measured in multiple ways, I like to use a more exact term like “breath support.” That also has the concreteness of referring to something that the player actively does, rather than focusing the imagery on air, which is invisible.

Be precise in your pedagogical vocabulary, and consistent in your breath support.