Doubling up pinky fingers on the clarinet

There are two basic fingerings a clarinetist can use for B4:

option 1 option 2


But there are some other possibilities, such as adding either of the pinky C keys. Doing this doesn’t open or close any additional toneholes, so the note isn’t affected at all:

option 3 option 4

While the extra pinky finger is technically unnecessary, it is sometimes convenient and conducive to smoother technique. For example, option 4 is frequently taught as a “standard” B fingering in beginning band method books. That is probably because it works well in a C major scale:

When moving from A to B, this only adds one extra finger, the right hand pinky, to the B. Since there are already several fingers of the right hand moving in the same direction (down onto keys), this is only a minimal issue. And the movement from B to C is very simple: just release the left pinky.

The same sequence can be played without the extra key:

This is very slightly advantageous for A to B, since there is one fewer finger to move. But it introduces a more significant complication for B to C, since there is a “flip-flop:” the left pinky is lifting up as the right pinky is pressing down. A good clarinetist can execute this successfully, but it’s a little risky, since fingers on different hands are moving in different directions. There’s a possibility of finger mistiming that can result in an audible blip—a moment when both fingers are up together, producing a brief D5.

So there are advantages to using “extra” pinky fingers in some cases, but it doesn’t make sense in others. Some of my students stumble over sequences like this:

The right-hand pinky isn’t needed for the B, but some of my students use it out of habit whenever they see that note. Then they run into trouble when they have to slide the pinky to a different key for the E-flat. Advancing clarinetists should be aware of the fingerings they are using, and make each choice purposeful. Careful, consistent scale and arpeggio practice can help reinforce and habituate good fingering choices.

By the way, for the sake of completeness, you can add the opposite-hand C/F key for any of these written notes on the clarinet:

Adding pinky keys to any other pinky note will affect pitch.

To make your own fingering and note images like the ones in this post, try the Fingering Diagram Builder and the Note Image Generator.

Why you should use a scale sheet

My university students take a scale exam covering all the major and 3-forms-of-minor scales, plus arpeggios, in all 12 keys, memorized. In preparation, I provide them with a scale “sheet,” with all of the scales and arpeggios written out note by note.

There’s a part of my brain that objects to this, since I don’t really want scale playing to be a reading exercise. My students should be able to work out the notes for each scale from several different angles, by using (for example) interval patterns, transposition, and/or playing by ear. And the true goal is muscle memory—the ability to play all these scales on auto-pilot, without relying on any particular thought process.

The scale sheet shouldn’t be a crutch, but can it be helpful? I think it can. Here’s why:

If I’m working on a complicated repertoire piece or étude, I will certainly work from a piece of printed music, even if I intend to memorize it. Besides the printed musical information, the paper (or digital) copy also gives me a place to annotate the music with hints to improve my performance.

A scale sheet can work the same way. It’s not merely for laying out all the notes, but also for marking in:

  • preferred fingerings, articulations, etc.
  • current playable metronome markings
  • unresolved problem spots
  • some tracking/tally of which scales I’ve practiced lately (I find that if I let myself choose scales “randomly” to work on, I end up choosing the same ones repeatedly, and completely neglecting others)
  • indications (stars? check marks? smiley faces?) of progress and successes, that might help me feel motivated to continue

If you’re not using a scale sheet of some kind, I suppose you could figure out an organized way to write this information in some other document, but it’s hard to beat the convenience of the scale sheet.

As a teacher, I provide scale sheets with the ranges, rhythms, articulations, fingerings, and so forth that I want my students to use. You should produce your own, by hand or with the commercial or free music notation software of your choice. (Hint: use the transpose function to turn one key in to twelve, and minimize the chance of errors.)

Happy practicing!

Favorite blog posts, April 2022

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Creating “lightness”

a white feather pen

Composers (or a performer’s interpretation) often call for “lightness” in music. How do you play a wind instrument “lightly?”

When I discuss this with my students, they often suggest that the way to play lightly is to be lighter with their tongue. When I turn that around on them—”is there a situation where you should use a heavier tongue?—they are quick to say no, the tongue should never be heavy. Sometimes instead they suggest using “lighter” air, but upon further interrogation they aren’t able to explain that without stumbling into no-nos like “less air” or “less powerful support.”

Creating musical lightness is easy, if not completely intuitive. The key is to forget about trying to make the tone light, and focusing instead on making the texture light. That means creating some contrast.

For example, consider the second movement of the Bernstein clarinet sonata. After an Andantino introduction, the musicians are instructed by the composer to play “Vivace e leggiero” (lively and lightly). Here are clarinetist Wonkak Kim and pianist Eunhye Grace Choi:

Notice the subtle but important contrasts Dr. Kim creates in the clarinet line. Many of the notes have a small accent at their beginnings, then quickly taper to a softer volume. Some notes get more emphasis from higher volume or from sustaining the note with less taper. The lightness comes from stringing softer notes between the more emphasized ones, or even from individual notes having louder and softer moments within them.

The volume in the Bernstein clip is soft, but this approach is very effective at louder dynamics, too. I stress this when rehearsing my university’s jazz big band, since things can easily get heavy- or angry-sounding at fortissimo. To bring some lightness back into a loud, thickly-orchestrated passage, I ask the band to look for the marked or implied accents and let those set the fortissimo ceiling. The in-between notes can be brought back down perhaps to a comfortable mezzo-forte, giving the musical line some texture and headroom without losing the excitement of the louder dynamic.

Creating lightness in music means giving some notes some gravity, so the others can float weightlessly.

What really went wrong? Leaning into problem spots

photo of man touching his head

I have a recurring teaching challenge with my saxophone students who are tackling the altissimo register for the first time. They play a passage, and when they get to the altissimo note, if it doesn’t respond perfectly, they immediately stop playing. When I ask why, they look puzzled. “The note didn’t come out.”

“Well, what did come out?” I might ask.

More puzzlement. Sometimes I have to prompt them to play it again, and remind them to play it long enough to really hear it.

“A weird honk,” they might finally conclude. Or “a terrible squeak.”

“That’s a note,” I point out. It might be too low (honk) or too high (squeak). But it has a pitch, right? It isn’t the note we wanted, but it was something. And understanding what something it is helps us know what to try next. If it was a honk, the instrument responded at a too-low partial, and if it was a squeak, it responded at a too-high partial. There’s work to do to fix it, but we’re much farther along than we were the diagnosis was only as specific as “failure.”

This approach is helpful with a variety of woodwind-playing problems. Don’t bail and declare failure at the first appearance of a problem. Try leaning into it. What does the problem really sound like? Can you make the problem happen again, on purpose? If you change something about your approach, does the sound change (even if it just changes to a different problem)? All of this information is potentially useful in finding a reliable, repeatable solution.

Additionally, this approach encourages an attitude of curiosity and exploration, rather than self-judgment. That’s a much more fun and productive way to practice. It lets you finish your practice session eager to try again tomorrow, rather than dreading more failure.

Run toward your problem spots, not away from them, and see what they can teach you.

Favorite blog posts, March 2022

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Woodwind trill technique

Ideally, a trill is done with one finger, and preferably a finger that is nimble and independent, like an index or middle finger:

flutebassoonclarinet

In many cases that isn’t possible. When two fingers (or more!) are needed, it’s best if they can be fingers of the same hand, moving in the same direction (moving down onto keys/holes simultaneously).

fluteclarinetsaxophone

If the most obvious trill fingering involves more than one finger, try moving them each individually and see if you can produce something that works. If the pitch of the trilled note isn’t quite right, many woodwind players lean toward a sharper upper note rather than a flatter one.

There are good fingering charts available online and in print that offer possible trill fingerings for when common/standard/obvious fingerings don’t work. If you find you need to invent a fingering, a good starting point is to finger the lower note on your instrument, and see what holes there are that you could open with a finger or two to possibly produce the upper note. Try each of them, and some combinations, until hopefully you find one that produces the right pitch. If you have a good understanding of your instrument’s registers, you may also find that you can borrow fingerings for one or both notes from other registers.

Sometimes the tone, pitch, or response of the trill fingering isn’t good when you sustain it as an individual note, but will work acceptably in the context of a trill.

The two notes of the trill should be about equally balanced, so that if you were to record it and slow it down you would hear that the individual notes of the trill are equal in duration and volume. Trills should also fit volume-wise into the context of the musical phrase; use strong and consistent breath support, as though you were playing a single long note.

Trill speed is an artistic decision. Generally trills should be fast enough to give the impression of an effect applied to a single note, rather than a sequence of separate notes. They usually shouldn’t be so fast as to sound jarring or unnatural. The speed of the trill can change for musical effect, and when it does it usually starts slower and accelerates. The best way to learn appropriate trill speeds is by listening to great performances and recordings.

Making every marking audible

music notes

When my students work on études (musical pieces intended for study but not performance) I stress with them the idea of making everything on the page audible. That means that if I were unfamiliar with the étude but a skilled transcriber, I could listen to my student play, and write down with confidence every:

  • Pitch
  • Rhythm
  • Articulation
  • Dynamic marking
  • Tempo change
  • Breath mark
  • Expressive marking, like “dolce” or “pesante” or “broadly”
  • Title or form indication, like “Aria” or “Folk Dance” or “Rondo”
  • And any/all other words or symbols left by the composer/editor

Sometimes it’s easy to get wrapped up in the pitches and rhythms and ignore or gloss over some of the other markings. But all of them have to be executed in a clearly audible way (otherwise, what are they there for?). If a performer technically tongues some notes but they sound slurred, then they weren’t tongued right. If some notes are marked with horizontal accents (like >), and some are marked with vertical ones (like ^), then they have to sound audibly different from each other. If the composer indicates that a certain passage should be played “dolce,” then it needs to sound audibly different from passages that don’t have that marking.

In performance repertoire, I do think there are (rare) cases when it makes sense to ignore or alter the composer or editor’s markings. But well-edited études (my students most commonly play Ferling or Rose) are an excellent opportunity to practice making each and every marking meet the ear with clarity and precision.

Practice fewer notes

printed musical note page

I can’t remember where I picked up this tip, but it has been a game-changer in how I practice technically-challenging passages. (If you know a source, please let me know!)

The idea is this: practice only as many notes as you can keep in your head. So, if I’m practicing an unfamiliar passage, and can only memorize the first 3-5 notes at a glance, that’s the size of chunk I should practice.

If the music has an obvious or familiar pattern, such as a common scale or arpeggio, I might be able to memorize more of it at a glance, so I can practice a larger chunk. Or, as I get increasingly familiar with the piece, I might be able to hold more of it in my memory at once, and can graduate to longer passages.

It’s tempting to practice in larger chunks, but start smaller at first to really develop your muscle memory. Gradually build to larger segments as you are able to store them in your short-term memory.

Favorite blog posts, February 2022

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!