Learning fingerings as shapes

I observe that many woodwind players, when learning a new fingering—whether a beginner learning a standard fingering or an advanced student learning a new alternate fingering—tend to think of them as sequences: “This finger plus this finger and this finger and this key over here.” Sometimes my students even want to recite the fingering aloud as they add one finger at a time, and then finally play the note. The problem with this is that there is obviously no time for such a procedure when playing music.

I now occasionally find that I have the opposite problem: a student will ask about a fingering, and I will discover that I am not prepared to verbalize it. I need to pick up the instrument, do the fingering, and then explain which keys I am pressing. My fingers know how to make the right shape, even if I can’t immediately recall the list of keys involved.

Photo, Bassonist26
Photo, wfiupublicradio

To learn new fingerings in the most efficient and practical way, move as quickly as possible to the “shape” stage. I suggest this method:

  • With instrument in hand, think through the fingering, referring to a fingering chart if necessary. If you need to, think in sequence about each finger that will move and where it will go, but don’t move yet.
  • When ready, move the fingers all at once, in a crisp and snappy way.
  • Freeze, and think through the fingering again. Did you form it correctly? If it is incorrect, don’t fix it “in place,” by moving a finger or two into place; release all fingers and start over. Fixing it in place habituates a sequence of events, rather than a single shape.
  • Put the fingering into context (a scale, a musical passage, etc.) using a metronome set on a very slow tempo. The object at this point is to succeed at forming the fingering shape accurately and on cue. Speed up only as you are certain that you can maintain 100% accuracy. If your fingers don’t move simultaneously, you are wasting time cementing a sequence.

Practice hard smart!


2 responses to “Learning fingerings as shapes”

  1. Another positive outcome of developing this habit to think in “shapes” as you say, is that it keeps the student from “micromanaging” what the fingers do. In my experience as an Alexander Technique teacher, I often encounter students (on a variety of instruments) who are simply paying far too much attention to what each individual finger “should” do. The net result of this thinking is stiff fingers, hands and wrists (not to mention necks and backs) and uneven technical control. By thinking of the fingerings as shapes, you’re giving yourself a chance to step back, gain a broader perspective, and trust intention (the music itself) to bring your fingers to where they need to go. Great advice, Bret!

  2. Geoff Allen Avatar
    Geoff Allen

    I’ve never really thought about it this way. But as I read your explanation, I realized that I do think of fingerings as shapes.

    It occurs to me that this also helps with explain how to choose among alternate fingerings. The choice is “which shape is the best one to go to, given the shapes before and after it?”

    Interesting thinking. Thanks Bret!

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