Favorite blog posts, January 2016

Some nice work from woodwind bloggers in January:

Don’t see your favorite blog here? (Your own, perhaps?) Make sure I know about it.

Creating fingering charts with diagrams from the Fingering Diagram Builder

My Fingering Diagram Builder has been around for a little over five years now. I was careful to name it the Fingering Diagram Builder instead of the Fingering Chart Builder because it is a tool for creating individual diagrams, not for assembling them into comprehensive fingering charts. But the difference can be a little confusing, so I get frequent questions from users who complain that they can’t figure out how to create and download a “chart” with multiple fingerings on it.

The reason I didn’t try to build a complete system for creating fingering charts is that I assumed users would have widely-varying needs, and would do better to assemble charts using some other kind of software. Here are a few examples of how that might be done, using music notation software, using a word processor, and using a text editor to create HTML code (such as for a website). All the software I’m using here is free to download on Windows, Mac OS, and Linux, but whatever free or commercial programs you are already using probably have similar features. You’re on your own to work out the details (and feel free to share them in the comments if you are feeling helpful).

Creating a fingering chart in music notation software

I am using MuseScore here, but commercial software like Finale and Sibelius and other free software like LilyPond could be used in similar ways.

First I set up a musical “score” with the notes for the chart. I used whole notes, separated by double bar lines, but that’s up to you.

MuseScore setup

Next I created my fingering diagrams in the FDB. I sized the diagrams “tiny” with “thick” lines.

Adding the diagrams to the score is very simple in MuseScore—I just dragged the downloaded diagrams from my file manager right onto the score. If I drag the diagram and hover it on top of a note, that note gets highlighted. Then I can release the diagram and it attaches to the note.


Initially the diagrams are placed right on top of the note. I selected the diagrams and used the Inspector panel to give them a horizontal offset of -2.5sp and a vertical offset of -10.5 sp, which moved them above the staff, more or less centered above the noteheads. I adjusted the A and tenor B-flat fingerings’ horizontal offsets a bit more to make them look just right.

Here is the finished product, a small chart with a few bassoon fingerings:


Creating a fingering chart in word processing software

I am using LibreOffice Writer, but something like Microsoft Word or Apple Pages would work just as well.

First I opened a new document and inserted a table. My table has three rows and seven columns.

Then I dragged the downloaded diagrams from my file manager into the bottom row of the table.


I merged some cells together, dragged in some images of notes on staves, and added some text.


A few more little tweaks and here is the finished chart:


Creating an HTML fingering chart in text editing software

This code be used in any text editor or HTML source editor, and of course similar results could be accomplished with a visual/WYSIWYG editor. I’m not showing complete code here, just the most relevant parts.

I started with a framework for a table that I could use to show a note with two alternate fingerings. (This is a flute fingering chart with horizontally-oriented diagrams. For an instrument with vertically-oriented diagrams, you may want to rearrange things a bit.)

    <th rowspan=2><!— note image here —></th>
    <td><!— first fingering image here —></td>
    <td><!— first fingering text here —></td>
    <td><!— second fingering image here —></td>
    <td><!— second fingering text here —></td>

Then I plugged in <img> tags and text:

    <th rowspan=2><img src="images/f-sharp-note.png" /></th>
    <td><img src="images/f-sharp-standard.png"</td>
    <td><img src="images/f-sharp-trill.png"</td>
    <td>Trill from E</td>

I duplicated that code for additional notes. Since this is a sample alternate/trill fingering chart, each note has at least two fingerings. For notes with more fingerings, I added <tr>s and changed the rowspan values accordingly.

I also added a little CSS to spruce things up:

  table {
    display: inline-block; /* make tables wrap gracefully depending on screen width */
    margin: 1em; /* put some space between tables for legibility/clarity */
  th img {
    max-width: 8em; /* manage size of note images */

Here is the result:


I hope that sparks a few ideas for you if you are considering putting together a fingering chart. If you have other methods or tips, please share in the comments section!

Endurance and breath support

Physical endurance can be an issue for woodwind players, most often manifesting as fatigue in the muscles of the embouchure. But I think in most cases tired facial muscles are a symptom of a more fundamental problem.

The muscles used for forming woodwind embouchures are small and finely-tuned for precise movements, such as in speech and in facial expressions. This also makes them well-suited to the fine control needed for woodwind playing. But those muscles are not really adapted to feats of strength or endurance.

photo, Denise Coronel
photo, Denise Coronel

Tired and sore embouchure muscles lead to additional problems, such as compensation by clamping down with the larger, stronger jaw muscles, which sacrifices control and causes woodwind players (especially reed players) to bite into their own lips. (As a less-experienced player, I thought of those raw, swollen, and eventually calloused spots in my lips as signs of dedication to practicing. I don’t have those spots any more. In many cases, the need for some kind of cushion or dental appliance over the teeth when playing is a sign of unnecessary biting.)

Woodwind players should be doing most of their physical “work” with muscles that have strength and stamina. The “core” muscles of the torso have both: they are an integral part of posture, balance, and virtually all gross motor activities (walking, jumping, lifting, sitting, standing, and many more). The core muscles are also the muscles of breath support, which is arguably the most crucial, foundational aspect of woodwind playing.

Powerful breath support takes a huge burden off the facial muscles. For example, it stabilizes pitch, reducing the need to “lip” notes up or down (which is a less-effective technique anyway); it strengthens and solidifies tone, reducing the tendency to “control” the tone (poorly) by biting or squeezing with the lips; and it eases response, reducing tension. Weak breath support leads to biting and pinching with the embouchure, and that tension spreads throughout the body.

When you start to feel your embouchure muscles start to tire, allow your face to relax, and focus instead on powerful abdominal breath support.

Practicing and the two-minute rule

David Allen’s well-known book Getting Things Done is always within arm’s reach at my desk. I find its concepts and techniques valuable for managing my time and productivity.

I don’t consciously use a lot of “GTD” ideas in my practicing, since practicing seems to me like a thing that is never “done.” (If any of you are applying GTD concepts to practicing, I’m interested in hearing about it.) But there’s one part of the GTD system that I do think of often when practicing or working with students: the “two-minute” rule.

photo, Matthew
photo, Matthew

The idea is this: when organizing your tasks, if something comes up that will take less than two minutes to complete, it’s better to go ahead and do it rather than taking the time to process it into your to-do list and revisit it again later.

I try especially to impress this on students who are stuck in “stage one” practicing, running long passages or entire pieces without stopping to isolate and fix problem spots. If you are practicing, here are some examples of things to spend two minutes or less solving now, rather than adding them to a do-later list:

  • Look up an unfamiliar foreign term
  • Mark in a missed key-signature note or ensemble cue
  • Practice an awkward three- or four-note passage (How many times can you practice it in two minutes? One or two hundred times?)
  • Check and adjust the tuning of a problem note
  • Revisit a favorite tone exercise to improve the sound of a certain note or passage
  • Figure out and mark in a trill fingering
  • Make and notate an interpretive decision (You can always change your mind later. For now, pick a plan and try it out rather than leaving it up in the air.)
  • Choose and mark a good place to breathe
  • Settle a question or conflict by consulting the full score or accompaniment part
  • Make a quick recording (your smartphone probably has a voice-recording app) and identify some areas to focus on (and possibly solve in two minutes)

This approach does sometimes mean breaking stride on larger practice-time projects, but in general I find the two-minute fixes to be worthwhile.