Rediscovering the clarinet’s left-hand sliver key

I think for many doublers the clarinet’s left-hand “sliver” key seems useless or problematic. For example, the sliver key is easy to press by mistake when intending to cover the middle and/or ring finger holes. And even when reaching for the sliver on purpose, it’s easy to accidentally cover part of the ring finger hole, producing an E-flat or B-flat that is flat and stuffy.

The left-hand sliver also lacks any real analogue on any of the other common woodwinds, so its use is a technique that doesn’t transfer easily from another instrument. Flutes, saxophones, and standard bassoons don’t have any key in that spot. The oboe has a trill key there, but its usage isn’t similar. Among the standard band/orchestral woodwinds, only the contrabassoon has a key positioned here that is used in a similar way to the clarinet family. Especially for saxophonists, the right-side fingering is much more familiar.

The Woodwind Fingering Guide (still the best fingering source on the web) lists three E-flat/B-flat fingerings in its standard clarinet fingering chart, with only the right-side-key fingering marked as “basic.” The left-hand-sliver fingering is described as a “Chromatic and trill fingering,” to “use in combination with D4 [D below the staff] and A5 [A above the staff].” (The “one and one” fingering using both index fingers is also listed, though it might perhaps be better relegated to the “alternate” fingering chart.)

Occasionally I’ve run across the attitude that the sliver key could perhaps be removed or wedged shut to prevent accidental venting. I think this would be a waste, and all clarinetists of an intermediate level or higher should get used to using this key as an equal partner with the right hand key—not merely as an alternative for rare occasions.

Here are a couple of examples from well-known solo repertoire where the left-hand sliver makes sense:

From Debussy, Première Rhapsodie. Click to enlarge.

In this example from Debussy, the E-flat occurs four times, each time preceded by E-natural, and followed in three cases by D—this is the aforementioned “chromatic” usage. Among the three most-common E-flat fingerings, the sliver is clearly the best technical choice here. While one-plus-one works equally well (from a technical standpoint) moving from E to E-flat, E-flat to D is compromised by having  to move two fingers, each on a different hand, each moving in a different direction; the intonation issues of one-plus-one further complicate its use. The right-hand-side fingering is less hairy, but does involve moving fingers on both hands simultaneously (a maneuver which should, of course, be possible, but which carries unnecessary risk of mistiming).

From Finzi, Five Bagatelles. Click to enlarge.

This excerpt from the first of Finzi’s Five Bagatelles highlights some other use cases. In the second measure of rehearsal number 4, a well-trained clarinetist will use the two lowest right trill keys for G-flat, which would make a transition to one-plus-one or right-side E-flat unnecessarily awkward, particularly since the E-flat then moves right back to G-flat. The sliver key allows for crisp, tidy finger movements. In the last two measures of this excerpt, the sliver key again constrains the fingers to similar motions in adjacent fingers of a single hand.

If you are new to the use of the left-hand sliver (or just a little rusty), I suggest conditioning its use for both E-flat and B-flat with slow, deliberate scale practice. Start with the chromatic scale and B-flat major, then look for appropriate places to use it in other major and minor scale material.


6 responses to “Rediscovering the clarinet’s left-hand sliver key”

  1. Jonathan Avatar

    An interesting little piece, Bret. Personally, I never use the ‘one plus one’ fingering for e-flat, as it’s dreadfully out of tune and it requires movements of both hands on both the upper and lower joints of the instrument at the same time. I do use that fingering as a higher register b-flat, though, but only with certain arpeggios that are very fast.

  2. Jerry Pritchard Avatar
    Jerry Pritchard

    Interesting, Bret, to hear that this useful key has fallen into disuse or out of favor by clarinetists. I was taught this “sliver” fingering early on by my teacher Frederick Westphal, who introduced it in private lessons and in beginning woodwinds classes; and I have told students about its values and uses all my career. (Westphal also advocated the use of the Ring Key over the LH third finger hole, which is not found on most beginner clarinets, but it very useful. )

  3. Michael Avatar

    I’ve generally considered the sliver fingering to be the default fingering for Eb/Eb on clarinet for a couple reasons.

    1. It keeps the motion in one hand for certain scalar patterns that you’re likely to see in many of the common key signatures.

    1. The intonation is generally a little more consistent than the side fingering. The thickness of the cork on the spatula of SK1 determines the opening of the key, and is regulated by the position of a small post on the lower joint. Since cork tends to settle over time, the opening of side Eb/Bb will continue to get wider as this happens. It also varies depending on how well you line up the bridge keys between the two joints. I would be willing to bet that most of you will find your side fingering to be a 5 – 10 cents higher than the sliver fingering. It will probably be more out of tune in the upper register due to the way that how the tone hole lattice reacts to the harmonic series.

  4. The sliver fingering was the first one I learned for Eb/Bb. I suspect this is unusual, but that is what happened. I still rather prefer it to the side fingering.

  5. Ann Satterfield Avatar
    Ann Satterfield

    I use the L sliver key more on bass clarinet than soprano.

    It is more comfortable in the hand and more often helpful in physical terms because of the size of the instrument.

    I did not use on soprano clarinet until undergrad for 3rds in G-flat(F#).

  6. Anthony minstein Avatar
    Anthony minstein

    I have always used the chromatic eb key, but…..I am currently doubling on Eb clarinet (West Side Story, followed by a run of Assassins in October) a lot and Hadcock tells of removing the left sliver from his Eflat clarinet….and frankly, as tight as the keys are, I don’t know I use it on that instrument.

    Comments on removing from the eefer?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments that take a negative or confrontational tone are subject to email and name verification before being approved. In other words: no anonymous trolls allowed—take responsibility for your words.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.