How to make a bad fingering chart

February 10, 2011

The fingering diagrams I’ve provided in the Fingering diagram builder came into existence gradually over the last several years. As part of the process of developing them, I’ve looked at a great many fingering charts.

I’d like to share a few of the most horrifying examples, and tell you why I’ve tried to make mine the opposite of these. I’m not naming names on the sources, but many of them are well-known and recognizable. Many come from players and pedagogues who I deeply respect for reasons other than their fingering-chart-making skill. (Please don’t identify them in the comments. I’ll edit you if you do.)

Case study no. 1

Here’s a partial saxophone fingering chart from my collection:

Commentary:

  • Numbering multiple fingerings (such as the A-sharp/B-flat fingerings numbered 1-4) is confusing when keys are also identified by numerals. It also raises questions of ranking: are they numbered by priority/preference?
  • The side F-sharp key and the Bis B-flat key are represented by both a circle and the name of the key—this breaks the conventions used for all other keys on the chart, and can appear as though the circle and the text each represent a different key. Also, the circle used for the side F-sharp key does not resemble the oblong key shown in the photo.
  • The correct use of the numbered “LSK” and “RSK” keys is not immediately obvious; the labeled photo must be consulted in order to be sure which one is, for example, “LSK 3.”

Suggestions for improvement:

  • Use a strictly visual representation and eliminate the text. Make the keys in the diagram look like they do on a saxophone, and do away with the labeled photo altogether.

More charts with similar problems (click for larger):

Why is the thumb hole square?

Case study no. 2

Here is a chart from a book of nothing but clarinet fingerings:

Commentary:

  • This shows not only every key on the instrument, but also every bit of mechanism and an outline of the instrument’s body. It’s visually messy and difficult to read.
  • The high level of visual detail doesn’t hold up well at this small size; in many of the diagrams it appears (incorrectly) as if perhaps the rings should be pressed, because the lines have bled together.
  • The diagrams have apparently been colored in by hand, which adds to the visual distraction, introduces some ambiguities, and seems unprofessional for a published book.

Suggestions for improvement:

  • Show the six main finger holes (and possibly a very few other keys) all the time for a point of reference, and introduce additional details only if they are relevant to the specific fingering. In most cases, there’s no need to show mechanism, rings, pad cups, or the instrument body.
  • Color neatly for professionalism and especially for clarity.

More charts with similar problems (click for larger):

Unnecessary saxophone body outline
This illegible nightmare, which I tried to use in a woodwinds class, is what finally drove me to create the FDB

Case study no. 3

Two oboe charts, from the same book, on consecutive pages:

Commentary:

  • Why use two different diagram systems in the same book?
  • In the first chart, the right little finger keys within a circle are unusual and unclear, as is the diagonal slash through the left hand, first finger key.
  • In the second chart, the upside-down (oboist’s-eye?) orientation is clever but nonstandard. It does require the outline of the instrument’s body so that the orientation is clear.
  • In the second chart, the oboe appears to be foreshortened, which makes the traditionally round keys look oval-shaped, and harder to identify.
  • In the second chart, the level of visual detail is needlessly high and distracting. The “broken oboe” outline also seems unnecessary (and slightly disturbing).

Suggestions for improvement:

  • Be consistent. Pick one (good) diagram system, and go with it.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel unless you have a good reason to do so. The shapes of an oboe’s right hand little finger keys are distinctive and recognizable—make the ones in the diagram resemble them, instead of inventing new symbols.
  • While I can see the value of a fingering diagram shown from the player’s perspective, almost every chart I’ve ever used shows the instrument from the audience’s perspective, and I’m accustomed to charts in that style. Remember that a drastic change like turning the image upside down, mirroring it, rotating it, or otherwise breaking from the basic layout of traditional fingering charts means that extra time and frustration for the reader.

More charts with similar problems (click for larger):

Oddly rotated
Front F, left hand stack keys, and Bis key are virtually indistinguishable

Conclusions

Based on my dissatisfaction with fingering charts like these ones (and oh, so many more), I decided that I wanted the FDB to produce diagrams with certain characteristics:

  • Strictly visual symbols, no text. In cases where textual explanations are needed, you have to add them yourself in an image editor, word processing document, blog software, etc.
  • Symbols based as much as possible on the actual shapes of keys. There are some exceptions to this; for example, almost all of the diagrams use six large, equally-sized, equally-spaced, and centrally-aligned circles to represent the main keys and/or holes operated by the three middle fingers of each hand, which I think provides a needed point of reference and also gives a nice consistency between the diagrams. And, of course, key shapes are not the same on all instrument models, so I’ve created shapes that I think are as clear and identifiable as possible.
  • A bare minimum of visual clutter. By far the most frequent complaint I’ve gotten about the Fingering diagram builder is that, by default, it hides many unpressed keys. Although I feel strongly enough about this issue that I’m keeping that functionality (it’s good to be the king), I did cave and provide a “Blank diagram” button in the 0.2 version, which turns on all the keys for the selected diagram and preset.
  • Standard audience-view orientation. An early, unreleased version of the FDB allowed for rotating the images in 90° increments, which I abandoned for both technical reasons and personal preference, and a few people have requested the ability to create mirror images. Users who want this badly enough will have to do it themselves with image-editing software.
  • Appropriate line thicknesses for good visual clarity at small sizes. Rather than make this happen automatically, which I did consider, I’ve given users the ability to select their own line thicknesses. I personally prefer using thick lines most of the time.

One more note. My original intention in preparing this article was to contrast poor examples of fingering charts with better examples. After an hour digging through my file cabinets, I gave up on finding any good examples.

Try the (free!) Fingering diagram builder

Comments

  1. David Erato

    The worst offender of a bad fingering chart comes from an intermediate method for clarinet (put out by a company whose name rhymes with flank, but who is actually owned by mega-corp music publishing, AND it hasn’t been edited in 60+ years) Each key on the clarinet is identified with either a letter or number. ABCD for right pinky keys, 123 for left keys. So a middle B in the right is signaled with a B, but in the left it’s a 2 (or 2B for both), which can make reading the exercises cluttered and confusing.

    Another interesting thought on fingering charts, is with the Bis Bb, how can they show you that both keys should be played with 1 finger? I’ve had numerous students look ahead and try to play the bis with the 1st and 2nd fingers.

    Have you seen “Fingering for Woodwinds for iPhone/iPad”? It’s not bad for the basics and the design looks great, but there are some usability issues as well as being a bit too generic (for example, sax fingerings don’t change from horn to horn so there is no low A in the diagram/database).

    Recent blog post: How to play Jazz Sax (humor) (November 13, 2010)

    Reply

    • Bret Pimentel (Your host)

      Letters do seem especially problematic, since they overlap with note names. Key A isn’t going to correspond with the note A.

      I’ve also had issues with students using the wrong fingers for the side and high F-sharp keys on saxophone. I think finger placement information would have to be provided with a labeled diagram of some kind, but would generally only be necessary at a beginner level. Most of the time, woodwind players will check a fingering chart to see which keys to use, not which fingers.

      I’ve looked at the iPhone/iPad fingering app in the App Store, but haven’t felt the need to spend $4.99 for it ($6.99 for iPad). I wonder what the source is for the fingerings? That very high oboe C fingering seems like it could have been lifted from the Woodwind Fingering Guide.

      Reply

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