Selecting alternate fingerings

November 20, 2015

When several fingerings are available for a note, how do you choose the “right” one for a situation? Below are some criteria you might use in that decision, but be aware that it is virtually always impossible to meet all the criteria, so you have to choose the one that best balances the pros and cons.

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  • Which one would involve moving the fewest fingers? (Look at the previous note and the following note.) In general, moving fewer fingers is safer because it reduces the risk that the fingers will fail to move at exactly the same time.
  • Which one lets you make tidy, positive motions like lowering a finger onto a key or lifting it up from a key? Sliding fingers from key to key is harder to do accurately.
  • Which one lets you keep most or all of your fingers moving in the same direction? It is easier to keep your fingers synchronized if they are all either pressing down together or rising up together.
  • Which one keeps the movement in one hand? It is easier to keep your fingers synchronized if all the moving fingers are on the right hand, or all on the left hand.
  • Do the fingerings have different pitch tendencies? Does one sound more in tune in this situation? (It may be necessary to consider “just” intonation.)
  • Do the fingerings sound different tone-wise? Which one best matches the tone of the surrounding notes?
  • Do the fingerings have different response characteristics?

That might seem like a lot of mental effort just for one note, but if you practice conscientiously over the long term, it will become more and more automatic. In the meantime, use a pencil to mark in reminders for which fingerings to use on things you are practicing.


  1. Sue Laib

    One must be aware that all fingering charts always give the primary fingering first. Subsequent fingerings are ALTERNATE or TRILL fingerings. One must never simply choose what is “easiest.” The primary fingering (when one is playing with the best possible tone/embouchure) will always have the best sound and relative intonation (with the possible exception of alternate F# on bassoon.)


    • Bret Pimentel (Your host)

      I think this depends on the fingering chart and the instrument. On clarinet, for example, many of the “pinky” fingerings are alternates of each other, with no hierarchical relationship and no change in tone or pitch (assuming a properly-adjusted instrument).


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