Thumb position for oboe, clarinet, and saxophone

Proper position of the right thumb for oboe, clarinet, and saxophone can affect player comfort, ease of technique, and risk of injury. (Thumb position is important for flute and bassoon as well, but I find the issues different enough that I won’t lump them in here.)

For oboe and clarinet, the right thumb supports the weight of the instrument. There’s a temptation to place the thumbrest near the base of the thumb, since it feels like a stronger, more stable position.

But this puts the fingers in a cramped and awkward position (upper joints removed for visibility):

Instead, the thumbrest should be positioned at or near the base of the thumbnail, which allows the right hand to be in a much more open and natural position.

If this feels too heavy, and especially if it causes pain or tension, the instrument can be supported with a neckstrap. This takes some of the weight off the thumb. Some oboe and clarinet thumbrests have rings for this purpose. There are also neckstraps available that can connect directly to the thumbrest itself, using a small leather tab.

For the saxophone, the main weight of the instrument is not supported by the thumb, but by a neckstrap. However, the right thumb should exert some forward pressure to help establish the correct angle between the mouthpiece and the embouchure. As with the oboe and the clarinet, the thumbrest should contact the thumb approximately at the base of the thumbnail to encourage a natural, relaxed position for the fingers.

As always, adaptations should be made as necessary to accommodate hands of varying shapes and sizes, but natural, unstrained position should be a priority.

What would go wrong if you played louder?

black smoke coming from fire

My university students are often, at least at first, quite timid about playing loudly. (This is probably a side effect of learning the instrument in a school band program. They learn to play quietly because their section is too loud. Or, they get the hand from a band director who doesn’t have the time or … Read more

How to do long tones (and why)

Long tones are at the core of most woodwind warmup routines. The most simple and obvious version is this: Simple sustained notes are good for developing consistent breath support, which is required to keep the long tone steady in pitch, volume, and tone color. (Some teachers also suggest them for developing “embouchure strength,” one of … Read more

Pedagogy appropriate to students’ level

little boy playing his flute on red background

I remember as a young college student attending a masterclass by a world-class musician. He was scornful of students spending a lot of time in practice rooms playing scales. He urged us instead to get outside and watch a sunset, and then “play the sunset.” Advice like that has its place. But I was doing … Read more

Woodwind technique and conservation of energy

windmill farm against cloudy blue sky

That people prefer to move in energetically optimal ways has been established for decades and now represents a central principle of movement science. … Energy optimization may also occur over the course of a lifetime, as years of experience could allow people to learn the optimal way to move in familiar situations and allow training … Read more

Using electronic harmonization with woodwinds

In a recent recital I performed my own arrangement of Ravel’s Boléro for multiple woodwinds soloist using electronics, with piano and snare drum. I used electronics to try to approximate some of Ravel’s harmonies (and timbres), and used what in my mind are three different techniques, which I’ll try to outline here. In performance, I … Read more

The future of woodwind instruments

shallow focus photography of microscope

Here are a few predictions (or wishes) about the woodwind instruments we might be able to buy in the future. Personalized ergonomics With the amount of worry musicians expend over repetitive motion injuries and other playing-related ailments, it’s truly baffling that instruments are still almost entirely a one-size-fits-all affair. For just one example: for generations, … Read more

Q&A: Woodwind doubling advice

photograph of flutes near a cup of coffee

A couple of weeks ago I put out a call for questions, in honor of today being the fifteenth anniversary of this blog. A bunch of the questions boiled down to: what advice do you have on woodwind doubling? Here are a few answers: Some other readers asked about the “secrets” to practicing multiple instruments. … Read more

Do I really need…

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For woodwind doublers and lots of other musicians, the shopping list can go on and on. Do I need a clarinet in A? In E-flat? Do I need an alto flute? A contrabassoon? A bass saxophone? Clearly there’s no one-size-fits all answer, but here are some things to consider. It’s hard to predict which instrument … Read more

Principles for teaching woodwind methods

a flutist checking her musical instrument

If you are teaching a woodwind methods course, you might be interested in my book. I teach a woodwind methods course at my university. This class (sometimes known as “woodwind techniques” or “class woodwinds”) is for music education majors. It’s a kind of crash course in the woodwind instruments (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone) … Read more