Commonly-fudged woodwind fingerings

Beginning woodwind players, including doublers, sometimes cheat a bit on fingerings, using fingerings that are almost right. If you’re doing this, it’s likely that you have notes with poor tone, intonation, and/or response. If you think you are getting away with it, you’re probably mistaken, and you may be cementing bad habits that are going to become even more apparent as aspects of your tone production improve.


The most common culprits at a beginning or intermediate level are the right-hand pinky and the left-hand first finger.

  • The pinky should stay down for virtually every standard fingering, with the exceptions being anything below the low D, anything above the high (4th-ledger-line) A, and the D in the staff. This is not only crucial to the pitch and tone of many notes (you’ll hear it as your embouchure improves!), but also helps to stabilize the instrument.
  • The left-hand first finger must lift for second-octave D and E-flat. You can probably make the notes respond without doing so, but you’ll sound better and struggle less if you do it right.

    Make your own diagrams with the Fingering Diagram Builder
    Make your own diagrams with the Fingering Diagram Builder


It’s tempting to be a bit lazy with the various octave mechanisms: the half-hole, the first (thumb) octave key, and the second (side) octave key. Practice slowly and carefully: Continue reading “Commonly-fudged woodwind fingerings”

The few, the proud, the woodwind doublers

I’m back from the the excellent Region VI conference of the North American Saxophone Alliance. I went to soak up some good saxophone playing and to deliver what is becoming more or less my standard spiel on woodwind doubling.

This time I gave away half of the handouts I brought with me. That’s a dramatic improvement over some of my earlier presentations. Unfortunately, it’s not because attendance has gone up, but because I no longer find it realistically necessary to bring extras “just in case.”

photo, Benson Kua
photo, Benson Kua

As usual, my presentation was scheduled first thing in the morning, in a distant corner of the conference venue, and conflicting with a masterclass by one of the conference’s most admired performers. But, also as usual, the stalwart few who came were there early and already bubbling over with questions. Some were people I had previously been in touch with through this blog. And, as usual, they were all extremely attentive, and many of them went out of their way throughout the day to offer gratitude and compliments.

I really don’t blame the conference hosts or attendees (of this conference or any of the various others) for giving a woodwind doubling presentation relatively low billing. Woodwind doubling is a niche topic. Most of the conference-goers are probably better served by attending a good masterclass on their instrument. Plus, it works out well to give these presentations to small but enthusiastic groups, with lots of opportunity for questions and discussion. I preach to the (woodwind) choir.


“Tip of the tongue” mythology and the flute

As woodwind players we are often taught that articulation requires the use of the tip of the tongue and no more—to use more than the tip would just be wrong!

For reed instruments, I think this is essentially true, but I don’t think it works that way on the flute. Try this:

  1. Using a reed instrument mouthpiece, or substituting a (clean) finger, simulate “tip of the tongue” articulation. Find the very tip of the tongue and touch it lightly to the tip of the reed (real or imaginary). With the tongue frozen in this position, apply some air pressure. If you allow the lips to “unseal” from around the mouthpiece at this point, air escapes.
  2. Now try it with nothing inside your mouth, in the manner of a flutist. Touch just the very tip of the tongue to your favorite articulation spot (palate, teeth, or maybe lip, depending on your pedagogical pedigree) as though about to tongue a note, and apply air pressure. Notice all the air leaking out? Me neither.

Are you really holding back  all that air with just the very tip of your tongue? While I think “tip of the tongue” is still a useful fiction for flute playing, it seems to me that I must actually use a surprising amount of tongue to seal off the air from escaping—the sides of my tongue contact my molars to help contain the air until I am ready to release it.

Photo, drurydrama
Photo, drurydrama

(The tip of the tongue is effective for reed instruments because it is only necessary to prevent the reed from vibrating as the air pressure is applied—a very small amount of tongue is quite effective for this.)

The “tip of the tongue” is a good concept for helping flutists to keep their articulation light, crisp, and relaxed, and I don’t particularly recommend teaching the sides-of-the-tongue thing to students as it can easily be misunderstood or taken too far. But I do think a clearer understanding of the invisible parts of woodwind playing can help advanced students and their teachers diagnose and solve subtler problems.

Sorry, but you still can’t bring your reed knives on US flights

There has been some buzz (no pun intended) among US reed players about an announcement from the infamous Transportation Security Administration that some knives will be allowed in carry-on luggage starting next month. But make no mistake—your reed knife will still need to go in your checked bag or it will be confiscated at a security checkpoint.

There are a couple of catches to the some-knives-allowed rule that will eliminate virtually all common reed knives. One is that carry-on knives must be folding knives, with blades that do not lock into position. While there are some reed knives in common use that meet this qualification, the other catch is even more significant: the blade must be no longer than 2.36 inches (6 cm) and no wider than ½ inch (2.27 cm). Most reed knives fall somewhere in the 3–4 inch length range, and some push the width limit, too. (If you’re using a good-quality reed knife with a folding, non-locking blade that is small enough to qualify, I’m curious to hear about it).

The newly-permitted knives seem essentially to be limited to those small keychain-type Swiss Army knives.

Additionally, the TSA reserves the right to make judgment calls:

The final decision rests with TSA on whether to allow any items through security checkpoints.

Nope. Photo, APMus
Nope. Photo, APMus

Check out these resources for more information:

 Keep those valuable and razor-sharp reed knives in your checked bags.