Clarinet pinky fingerings

Recently I discussed the topic of clarinet “pinky” (little finger) fingerings with my woodwind methods class. With all that school band directors have on their plates, it’s not surprising that this topic doesn’t always get taught thoroughly to beginners. It can be a bit of a puzzle to a non-clarinetist, but the important concepts can be mastered with a minimum of effort if they are taught clearly.

This is an important thing for woodwind doublers to understand, too, since they may be bringing with them some fingering habits that worked well on their other instrument(s), but which may not apply to clarinet in the same way.

The following notes on the clarinet require use of a pinky key:

These notes require left hand pinky These notes require right hand pinky
left hand pinky notes right hand pinky notes
These notes use EITHER left or right hand pinky
fingerings using either pinky

Pinky keys are also used in the altissimo register, in resonance fingerings, and so forth, but for today we’ll focus on the notes in the chart. If you’re unfamiliar with the fingerings, check them out at the Woodwind Fingering Guide.

The crucial decision-making deals with the notes in the last row of the chart, which each have two fingering possibilities—one using the left pinky, and one using the right pinky. If your clarinet is in proper adjustment, there shouldn’t be a difference in tone or intonation between the two fingerings, as they open or close the same toneholes. (With a poorly-adjusted clarinet, it’s possible for, say, one fingering to open a certain pad wider than another pad, perhaps affecting pitch and tone.) So our only criterion will be ease and precision of fingering.

Consider this passage, and we will walk through a systematic thought process for selecting fingerings:
example 1

The potential problem spots are the areas where we have two or more pinky notes in a row:
example 2

Now let’s narrow it down further to the notes that only have one possible fingering. We’ll mark the ones that require the left pinky with an L and those that require the right pinky with an R.
example 3

Wherever possible, we want to alternate pinkies, so that we are not trying to slide a pinky from one key to another. Take a look at the two groups of pinky notes in the first measure. Since all of those pinky notes have two possible fingerings, we have lots of possibilities. Let’s look at those possibilities, with the first pinky note of each group marked. If the first note is marked with an L, assume that the next note will be played with the right hand (and vice versa) to keep the pinkies alternating.

example 4

Any of those combinations works fine; for most players, it will probably make sense to use the same fingering combination for both pairs of notes.

For the pinky-note group in the second measure, the right pinky is our only option for the E-flat. That means the D-flat before it will have to be played with the left hand, and the C before that with the right hand. Since the C is the first of the pinky notes in that group, we’ll mark it with an R and then just remember to alternate from there.
example 5

The pinky-note group in the third measure is a problem, since the two E-flats and the A-flat make it impossible to do a strict alternation.

One possibility for the first two notes is to slide the right pinky off the E-flat key and onto the D-flat key. Because of the arrangement of the keys, this slide is pretty doable; some others aren’t.

For the next three notes, another trick will work, since a good slide isn’t possible: we’ll press the D-flat key initially with the right hand, then quickly add the left hand D-flat key, then lift the right hand key. The D-flat is still sounding, uninterrupted, and the right hand pinky is now free to press the E-flat key for the next note. Phew!

example 6

For advanced clarinetists, this decision process should become virtually automatic, habituated by diligent and meticulous practice of scales and arpeggios.


3 responses to “Clarinet pinky fingerings”

  1. Cool article Bret! It’s a good thing to keep in mind early on, otherwise you start to build bad habits when you’re going between those notes.

  2. Scott Benhart Avatar
    Scott Benhart

    Excellent explanation, Bret. My 8th grade band has started working on Lloyd Conley’s “Bobsled Run”, and the clarinets have been hitting themselves over the head with all the possibilities of pinky fingers. This will definitely help them figure out which should be played where, and negotiate the problematic passages.


  3. […] Pinky hopping. Do not pinky hop. Pinky hopping is when you move your pinky in order to play two consecutive notes. You know how there are two fingerings for B, C, and C#, because you can either use the right pinky or left pinky? So, in order to play faster passages, it’s really important to get into the good habit of using both sides whenever you can. Sometimes, yes, it is unavoidable to pinky hop. But most of the time it is avoidable, and you absolutely should avoid it. I did a quick search and saw this website, which can provide a bit more practical examples if you want them : […]

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