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


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:

  • Open the half-hole (and no octave keys) for second-octave C-sharp, D, and E-flat.
  • Press the first octave key (and close the half-hole) for E through G-sharp.
  • Press the second octave key (and release the first!) for A through C.


  • Be fastidious about using the pinky A-flat/E-flat key in the altissimo register (third-octave D and above). Remember not to use this key for the C-sharp, as it makes this note much too high. Practice slow high-register scales to solidify a good altissimo pinky habit.
  • Also, break the habit of using more pinkies than necessary. It’s common in beginning band method books to teach that B above the break requires the left-pinky B key and the right-pinky C key. It doesn’t. It’s a convenient shortcut when playing a C-major scale, but for intermediate and advanced clarinet playing, you will need to be more thoughtful and efficient about how you use your fingers.


The bassoon’s tremendous flexibility is a blessing and a curse. In many cases, if you get a little lost in the maze of fingerings, an almost-right fingering will sort of work, but if you create a habit of sloppy technique you’ll get stuck on slurs that won’t quite connect, articulations that won’t respond clearly, or notes that are out of tune or lacking in resonance.

  • Be very aware of the left-hand first-finger “half”-hole technique. It’s not as simple as opening 50% of the hole—the actual amount varies with the note you are playing. Experiment to find optimal placement for response and pitch.
  • Watch the left-hand E-flat key and the whisper key—these can be mistaken for optional on some notes, but they really do contribute to reliable response and tuning.
  • Brush up your flicking technique, and use it religiously.


The saxophone’s relatively modern keywork provides some advantages in terms of simplicity and clarity of fingerings, and in most cases an inaccurate fingering will be noticeable enough that beginners are unlikely to develop more than a few habitual fingering mistakes.

  • Do be certain to add keys in the range just above C-sharp: add the D key for D, plus the E-flat key for E-flat, and so forth. Pressing the high E-flat, E, F, or F-sharp keys without the supporting palm keys in place results in flatness.

It’s much easier to set good habits now than to break them later. Take your time developing solid, clean, accurate finger technique.

6 thoughts on “Commonly-fudged woodwind fingerings”

  1. Just a few oboe comments:
    The first octave key can be left down when using the second octave key. The mechanism for them automatically closes the first octave vent. This also means less finger movement when changing between necessary octave keys.

    Also: Know your F’s. There are 3 fingerings and all 3 should be used. And if your instrument has a forked F resonance mechanism (most intermediate and higher models do) then DO NOT press the Eb key with forked F. Many beginning band books show it this way, but it makes the note far too sharp to be usable.

    • You are correct that, for the semi-automatic octave key system popular in the US, you can keep the first octave key pressed while adding the second. And in certain cases this does mean less finger movement, but in other cases it doesn’t—I suggest considering simultaneous use of the octave keys as an alternate fingering to be used only in cases where the technical advantage is clear and reliable.

      And you are of course correct about the many F’s; see my previous blog post on that topic.

  2. Might I also suggest that flutists watch out for F-sharp? Students frequently play this note with the right hand middle finger instead of the right hand ring finger. They think it doesn’t make a difference, but it does.

  3. Bret,
    Can you please explain the first part of your statement about Saxophone:

    “Do be certain to add keys in the range just above C♯: add the D key for D, plus the E♭ key for E♭, and so forth…”

    Maybe it is because I do these things that I don’t understand what you are referring to… I mean, is there another way to play the notes above C# other than the spatula keys? Thanks for the explanation!


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