Information overload: oboe F fingerings

First and second octave F on the oboe
First and second octave F on the oboe

The oboe typically plays Fs in three octaves. The lower two have a variety of available fingerings, which can be a challenge for new oboists to navigate, particularly because the available fingerings change depending upon the make of the instrument.

A typical “budget” student model instrument, for example, uses the following fingerings. (For all fingerings given in this article, the one shown corresponds to the lower octave; the higher octave is achieved by adding the first [thumb] octave key.)

Basic "right" F
Basic "right" F
"Forked" F, with E-flat key
"Forked" F, with E-flat key

The “right” F is the basic choice, to be used in almost all cases where it is possible to do so, as the tone produced by this fingering tends to be the best match to the tone of the surrounding notes.

The “forked” F tends toward a sound that might be described as “muted” or sometimes even “fuzzy,” and should therefore generally be avoided where possible (unless the muted or fuzzy sound is desirable for the musical situation—I do like to use the forked F, for example, in the beginning and ending sections of the second movement of the Saint-Saëns sonata).

Young oboists in beginning band programs learn very quickly to use the forked fingering, and some, unfortunately, learn to use it exclusively, due to the predominance of “flat” key signatures like B-flat and E-flat  major that provide a good compromise for most of the beginning band’s limited technical skill. The issue here is that the “right” fingering can only be used if the preceding and following notes do not use the right ring finger on its tonehole; otherwise an extra note would be audible while the finger was still in motion from F key to tonehole or vice versa. The “right” fingering is the superior choice in scalar passages in the keys of C or F major, but use of the forked fingering is a necessity when the key signature includes an E-flat.

One additional fingering option exists here, which is rarely discussed but which can be useful in rare cases.

Forked fingering using left E-flat
Forked fingering using left E-flat

This could be used, for example, when moving from low C to F, avoiding a C-to-E-flat-key slide in the right hand.

For a more expensive “full-conservatory” instrument, the available F fingerings are somewhat different.

Basic "right" F
Basic "right" F
"Left" F
"Left" F
Forked F, with automatic resonance mechanism
Forked F, with automatic resonance mechanism

The basic fingering remains the same, and an alternate “left” F key is provided. The left F key opens the same pad as the right F key, so, if the instrument is adjusted correctly, the note should be identical whichever key is used. (On a poorly-adjusted oboe, this pad might, for example, be opened to a different height by each of the keys.)

The forked fingering is simplified slightly on the full-conservatory oboe, due to the automatic “F resonance” mechanism. This mechanism opens a tonehole that is similar in size and placement to that of the E-flat key, but adjusted slightly to optimize the forked F. This should provide a forked F superior to that of the student model instrument, but will still be distinguishable from the basic fingering. In the case that this mechanism exists, the E-flat key should not be used, since in combination with the F resonance mechanism the F will be too sharp.

Now let’s examine a sample passage and determine the best fingering for each F.

Sample passage

The Fs in the first measure are probably best played with the “right” fingering. The first one could as easily be played with the left F, if present, but the second is best played with the right. This keeps the movement to the G in the next measure to three fingers on one hand, more reliably synchronized than a two-handed movement. Playing the first in the same way provides the advantage of consistency.

For the same reason of synchronization, the first F in the second measure should also be played with the right hand, but the second F in that measure cannot because it moves to a D-flat. Forked F is the only option for a student-model instrument, but a full-conservatory oboe presents two options: forked or left hand. A good argument can be made for the forked F here, because, again, the motion is kept to one hand, but the left F is likely to provide the advantages of better tone and/or pitch. These advantages should probably get special consideration in this passage because the preponderance of Fs will make a variation in timbre or tuning more noticeable. I suggest that the small technical disadvantage of the left F in this case will usually be outweighed by the tone and pitch issue, though an oboe with a particularly good forked F may give the oboist the luxury of preference.

The sequence D-flat, E-flat, F in the final measure virtually requires the use of the left E-flat and the forked F to avoid sliding; on a student-model instrument, the forked F with left E-flat may be appropriate. One alternative may be worth mentioning for the sake of completeness: if the passage is played slowly, the player could conceivably begin the E-flat with the left hand, then, while sustaining the note, add the right E-flat, then release the left E-flat, and finally play the F using the left hand. For most situations this complication is not likely to be worth the effort; it does also require that the oboe be adjusted well so that the E-flat pad is opened to precisely the same width by either the left or the right hand E-flat key.

Here is the passage with fingerings marked for a full-conservatory oboe. In practice it likely wouldn’t be necessary to mark all of the Rs. The forked fingering marking, which resembles a string downbow, is the one I’ve seen most commonly used. Marking the forked fingering with an “F” can lead to confusion—an F marked with an F?

Markings for full-conservatory oboe
Markings for full-conservatory oboe

And here are the markings for a student-model oboe.

Markings for student-model oboe
Markings for student-model oboe


11 responses to “Information overload: oboe F fingerings”

  1. That’s an interesting approach, Patty. The long-term technique benefit to skipping the E-flat key is clear, although I would be concerned about students learning to hear the F out of tune. Maybe this is less of an issue if you can require that they have a better instrument within three months? Your services must be very much in demand if you can successfully impose such an expensive requirement on your students.

  2. I don’t allow my students to include the E flat key in their forked F fingering. Even if they don’t yet have the F resonance key, they are learning a habit that isn’t easy to break. So no way do I start them that way! They know my “rule of order”: 1) regular F 2) left F 3) forked … only when the observe this rule all the time do I then allow them to sometimes break it!

    I’m with you about marking the Fs … never do I do an “F” for anything. It just looks as if I’m writing the name of the note over it! I do have colleagues who learned forked that way, though, and they continue to use it. Works for them, I guess!

    When I start a student I tell them to get an oboe with a left F. If they begin without one I give them a maximum of 3 months to get a different oboe (but rarely do I even let them go that long).

    1. Winters Heather Avatar
      Winters Heather

      Totally agree! The forked F without the pinky key sounds fine in student instruments (just a little flat) so I just teach to lip it up a little from the beginning.

      Labeling forked as “F” comes from band method books, as many of them do that. I prefer the “down bow” marking though!

    2. Heather Winters Avatar
      Heather Winters

      Although I will say I don’t require students to buy a specific instrument. I feel like that’s a decision the parents have to make based on their personal finances and that’s really none of my business. I will absolutely recommend or help them with renting or purchasing an instrument but would never require it.

  3. Most of my beginners rent an oboe first, as they aren’t ready to buy yet. So renting a Fox Renard 330 (or the close to comparable Yamaha) isn’t that different (if it’s different at all) than renting a lesser quality instrument. Most of the students rent from Forrests for a short time, and then the majority somewhat quickly move on to purchase an oboe, as they nearly always plan on playing at least through high school. At that point they either purchase the Fox Renard 330 or get something even better.

    I don’t know that I’d say I’m very much in demand, although I have a full studio of 19. (But not nearly the numbers that many folks have; I can’t teach in the evening, I don’t teach on Fridays or Sundays, and Saturdays I only teach in the morning.) I just have some policies and I state them plainly to parents. If they’re willing to put up with me, great. If not, I understand.

  4. Michael Avatar

    I’ve begun writing “Fk” over my fork fingerings. To each their own, I suppose.

  5. Elaine Smith (Reid) Avatar
    Elaine Smith (Reid)

    Hi – I contacted Yamaha about 12 years ago about putting a left F key on their beginner’s oboe and they sent me an email a short time later saying they would do that and they thought it was a good idea. I think it is the only beginner’s oboe with this left F key. I discourage all students from using the forked F for obvious reasons. Using the left F really soon after starting the oboe is the best thing for students. I wrote a beginner’s and an intermediate oboe method because I was constantly copying music for my students to play. I played 2nd oboe in the Vancouver Symphony for 44 years until I retired in 2005. In my beginner’s book, I introduce the left F on page 5 just so it becomes a familiar fingering. That page has all 3 fingerings for F, the forked F is there just so they know it can be used, if necessary. You can find my books at Gordon played 1st trombone in the VSO and also has a publishing company, mainly brass music. He put my books on his site as well, so you can find them looking up oboe in search.

    Thanks so much, Elaine Smith (Reid)

  6. Don Rummelhoff Avatar
    Don Rummelhoff

    I am trying to locate a picture of an oboe showing the location of the keys(beyond basic). I’m trying to figure out an intermediate oboe. Can you help, Don

    1. You can try here:!/oboe/ As you point the mouse at each key, its name appears just below the diagram.

  7. I sometimes use the forked F fingering with the Eb key to figure out where I am intonation wise when tuning to another instrument. Using the Eb fingering makes it sharper and from there I can figure out if I’m worse with tuning or better.

  8. Lee Klein Avatar
    Lee Klein

    Thank you Bret, this is a great article. You seemed to cover it all. I am just learning oboe after putting the clarinet down 38yrs ago. I joined an adult concert band. It has been fun, if challenging. Renting a student Yamaha 241, it is necessary to use the Eb key with forked F, even though my teacher doesn’t want me to. Some teachers don’t even realize the student models don’t have the forked F resonance hole. I will pursue your book as you seem to be really thorough with details and examples. I like that. And I need all the tips I can find. Learning something later in life is always a bit more of a struggle!

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