Fingering chart for an imaginary woodwind

My woodwind methods class just took their last exam of the semester. During the past few weeks we have dealt with some of the issues of alternate fingerings—which clarinet pinky keys to use when, which oboe F fingering, and so on. My guess is that most of these students, who are in training to be future public school band directors, won’t retain many of the specifics that we have discussed, but I would like for them to have the skills to glance at a musical passage and a corresponding fingering chart and make some good decisions about which fingerings to have their students use.

So I wrote some test questions with a fingering chart for a theoretical woodwind instrument and a brief “musical passage.” I’ll reveal my answers and some of the students’ answers below, but take a shot at it yourself first. You can click the fingering chart for a closer look.

Here is part of a fingering chart for an imaginary woodwind instrument, and a musical passage. Answer the following questions (2 points each).

  1. In measure 1, which C-sharp fingering would be the best?
  2. What fingering issue(s) might you encounter if you used the other fingering?
  3. In measure 2, which C-sharp fingering would be the best?
  4. What fingering issue(s) might you encounter if you used the other fingering?
  5. Based on your general knowledge of woodwind instruments and the fingerings provided so far, what notes are likely to be produced by the following fingerings?

Here are my answers:

  1. Fingering 1 would be best.
  2. Using fingering 2 would mean raising the right index finger while lowering the middle and ring fingers. While this should be doable for a skilled woodwind player, there is a risk of mis-timed fingers. This could result, for example, in briefly sounding an A (if the middle and ring fingers move before the index finger) or whatever pitch is produced with just the three left-hand fingers (in the opposite case). Fingering 1, however, would involve moving only one finger, and, therefore, would avoid all finger timing issues.
  3. Fingering 2 would be best.
  4. Using fingering 1 would mean that the right ring finger would have to move instantaneously from one key (or hole?) to another to avoid any extraneous sounds between the notes. Again, using the other fingering means only one finger in motion.
  5. The given fingerings would likely produce these pitches:

My students did pretty well on the first four questions, using what they have learned from lectures and hands-on experience over the course of the semester. But the last question didn’t go as well.

I expected the question to make my students squirm a little bit. And, granted, there isn’t nearly enough information provided to give a 100% sure answer. Because of this, I ended up grading the question generously, and I may consider striking it altogether from future exams. But I had hoped that they would put the following things together:

  • With all the major woodwinds, you get at least something close to stepwise upward motion if you start with the three middle fingers of each hand down, then raise them one at a time, starting from the distal one. Since, with this instrument, the first three notes in that scenario are A, B, and C, D is the most likely continuation of the sequence.
  • Half-holing (or otherwise venting) with the proximal finger generally causes woodwind instruments to sound in a higher partial, most often an octave higher. This is the case with oboe and bassoon, and the concept can be applied to some clarinet fingerings as well (try playing D above the staff by half-holing instead of raising the LH index finger—a favorite fingering of mine). Thus, fingering an A on this instrument (six fingers down), then opening the half-hole, is likely to produce an A one octave higher.

It’s a small class, with only seven students this semester. Out of seven, only one answered the question the same as me. Two other students insisted that the first fingering would produce a G, and the second a D. This of course would make these fingerings a rough match to flute, oboe, saxophone, and clarion-register clarinet, but fails to take into account the pattern established in the fragmentary fingering chart provided.

Of the remaining students, most did pick D for the first theoretical fingering. But for the second fingering, most gave this answer:

This puzzled me at first, and I’ll confess I even flirted with the notion that one student had put this answer down as a wild guess and the others had cheated. But on further reflection I decided that my students are honest but were probably thinking of something more like this:

This, in my estimation, would produce a B-flat. I think my students saw the half-hole as likely to raise the pitch of the note by a half-step; to me, the likely error there is that that particular half-hole was positioned to serve better as a vent than as a tonehole. And even that kind of simple woodwind acoustics is really beyond the scope of a one-semester crash woodwinds course.

For a vessel flute like an ocarina, there aren’t any vent holes; every hole is a tonehole. You can half-hole with any hole to raise the pitch. If this had been an ocarina fingering chart, I think my students would have been right on the money. Unfortunately I don’t think I’ll be able to work a “folk/ethnic woodwind methods” class into my teaching load in the near future.

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