Keeping your fingers “close”

There’s a common idea with woodwind players and teachers that it’s important to keep your fingers close to the keys. Keeping the fingers within a certain reasonable distance does have benefits:

  • It’s easier to keep track of where the keys are and not “miss,” especially for beginners
  • Allowing the fingers to rise too far can introduce tension into the hands

But I think finger-closeness is a concept that gets over-taught and over-stressed. It seems to be motivated by a desire for finger speed (or some euphemism like “fluidity”).

Assuming the fingers are within a reasonable range, I think working toward extreme closeness probably doesn’t offer much if any speed increase, but does make tension more likely. It’s a micro-optimization only worth thinking about when you’ve solved every other problem with your technique, and even then your results may differ on whether it’s productive (or even counterproductive). Definitely don’t stress out your beginning students over it.

Try this if you like: bring a finger down onto a key from, say, 1-2mm above the key (about the thickness of a couple of credit or ID cards). Then try from ten times that distance, 1-2 cm (the width of a fingernail or two). What do you notice about speed? How about tension?

Keep the fingers close enough to stay in position and not bend backward, but don’t worry too much about dialing in extreme closeness.

Woodwind doubling and clarinet problems

Here are a few of the common problems woodwind doublers have with the clarinet:

Flabby/saggy/tubby/airy tone and flat pitch. This is a dead giveaway for a self-“taught” clarinet doubler. The clarinet’s voicing is quite high, higher than any of the other woodwinds, and beginning clarinetists sometimes struggle for years to make that proper voicing a consistent habit. Once it settles in, pitch problems mostly evaporate, tone becomes clear and ringing, and notes respond beautifully and easily in every register. If you’re thinking about buying a shorter barrel because your “clarinet” is so flat all the time, don’t. Work on your voicing instead. Voicing is the #1 crucial technique for successful clarinet doubling, and will solve most of your problems.

It may also be worth checking your mouthpiece angle—it should be quite steep compared to saxophone or double reed instruments. Keep your head up straight and eyes forward, and aim in the ballpark of keeping the clarinet around 30° from vertical. You can also use the paper trick to make sure you’re taking in the right amount of mouthpiece.

Reeds can be a contributing factor, too. Often (but not always) saxophonists lean toward a slightly more open mouthpiece and softer reed, while clarinetists lean toward a little more closed mouthpiece and stiffer reed. The strength you prefer on a typical saxophone mouthpiece may not be right strength for a typical clarinet mouthpiece.

Constricted tone. Bafflingly, there’s a common pedagogical idea that clarinetists should tighten their embouchures to fix various problems. This is nonsense. Keep your jaw open to make space for the reed to vibrate, and let your lips (not your jaw/teeth) close around the mouthpiece, not tight but just airtight. Notes will respond more readily, with a fuller, prettier tone, and you can throw away the tape or paper or dental appliance you have been using to cushion your lower lip from your teeth.

Squeaks. 95% of the time this is an issue of fingers failing to properly cover toneholes. (And 95% of the time, struggling clarinet doublers blame it on something having vaguely to do with embouchure, reeds, or the clarinet somehow just being a squeaky instrument.) Use the large, fleshy pads of your fingers (not the tippy-tips) to cover the holes. Sometimes a quick check in the mirror can reveal that your fingers aren’t where you think they are.

Fingering awkwardness. The clarinet’s fingering system and unique overtone series provide tremendous advantages: an expansive range, clean and precise technique, and lots of useful alternate fingerings. (It’s superior to the saxophone’s “easier” system with awkward palm keys and relatively few alternates. Fight me.)

But if you’re coming from another instrument, you might find the 12th between the lower and clarion registers confounding. That’s because you’re still thinking about the fingerings. Practice your scales, arpeggios, and études until your fingers move on autopilot, like they already do on your primary instrument. It can be done.

The clarinet’s dreaded “break” as a technique concern is mostly a myth. Keep your support, voicing, and embouchure well-formed and stable, and just move your fingers. Your left index finger should rock or tilt between its tonehole and the A key, not hop (losing contact with the instrument) or slide (dragging along the key). Work toward a tiny, efficient, relaxed movement.

The clarinet’s clever system of redundant pinky keys enables lightning-fast technique in virtually any key, but it takes real effort to learn to use them well. Remember that for those pinky-finger notes there aren’t really “standard” vs. “alternate” fingerings—you need to know them all well enough to use interchangeably. And if you have beginner habits like using both pinkies for third-line B, you will need to learn to use a single pinky in many cases for the most efficient and flexible approach.

Ledger line catastrophes. Because of the clarinet’s broad tessitura, clarinetists have to be fluent in ledger lines above the staff (maybe more than you’re used to if you’re an oboist) and below the staff (more than you’re used to on any treble-clef woodwind). Hit the Baermann or Kroepsh books for thorough workouts spanning the clarinet’s range.

Remember the best money you can spend on your clarinet playing isn’t another mouthpiece or barrel or book—it’s some lessons with an excellent teacher. Learn the instrument on its own terms, and, whatever you do, try not to sound like a doubler.

Woodwind doubling and oboe problems

There’s an increasing expectation that woodwind doublers be competent and confident oboists. It can be a challenging double, but a worthwhile one. Many of my doubling gigs have come to me because of my ability and/or willingness to play the oboe. And even though it’s not my strongest instrument, there are considerable spans of my career during which I’ve made more money playing the oboe than any other instrument.

Here are some of the common problems woodwind doublers, often coming from background in the single reed instruments, have with the oboe:

Fingering awkwardness. Dedicated, conscientious practice of scales/arpeggios and technical material goes a long way here, but there are some additional considerations specific to the oboe.

First, the oboe’s toneholes are rather widely spaced, maybe surprisingly so for clarinet and saxophone players. (This has to do with the oboe’s very narrow bore—the toneholes have to be quite small so as not to catastrophically weaken the instrument’s body, which means they have to be spaced widely to produce a scale.) This can be a cause of tension. Work diligently at keeping your hands relaxed. If it helps, use a neckstrap to further reduce hand strain.

Second, the oboe, more than the other woodwinds, tends to have more keys the more you pay for it. It’s very worthwhile to save up for an oboe with a left F key, and to learn to use it fluently. The left F key should be seen as part of the instrument’s core fingering technique. Many of the other keys available on professional or semi-professional instruments are less-used, but valuable in specific situations.

Uneven tone and intonation. The oboe requires a very low voicing, lower than a saxophonist is used to and much lower than a clarinetist is used to. It also offers little forgiveness for weak or inconsistent breath support. Learn to balance low voicing against steady support to even out the instrument’s sound and stabilize its pitch. (Like fellow conical-bore instruments the saxophone and the bassoon, the oboe’s response suffers particularly in the lowest register when your voicing is too high.)

Similarly, embouchure should remain open, not pinched, regardless of register. Remember that the embouchure’s function is to be a mostly-passive gasket between your air system and the instrument. Resist the urge to bite when moving into the highest register—rely on good breath support instead.

Overall response sluggishness/unreliability. My experience is that many, many intermediate (and especially self-taught) oboists are playing on reeds that are far too stiff. If your notes won’t respond reliably and delicately at a soft dynamic, and you’re sure your breath support, voicing, and embouchure are working well, you should consider a more responsive reed.

Because oboe reeds are so susceptible to change, the best way to sound like a pro reed-wise is to spend a few years’ worth of lessons learning to make (or at least adjust) them yourself. Failing that, it’s worth it to buy reeds face-to-face from a good reedmaker, rather than from a music store or a distant internet reedmaker, so that they can adjust them for you on the spot. Reeds from a local reedmaker are also adapted to your altitude and climate.

Another important and ongoing concern is adjustment of the instrument itself. The oboe has many adjustment screws that need occasional tweaking. It’s best of course to learn this art under the supervision of a good teacher. But if you’re mechanically-inclined and have a good oboe technician standing by to bail you out, there are a number of books and resources that explain the method in a clear and methodical way. A small tweak here and there can transform a stuffy, stubborn oboe into a responsive, cooperative instrument that is a joy to play.

Approach the oboe on its own terms, equipped with good reeds and a good grasp of tone-production fundamentals, and enjoy!

Things beginning band directors say to clarinet sections

  • “Firm up those embouchures!” An efficient embouchure is relaxed, not tight (nor “firm” nor any other euphemism) and allows the reed to vibrate easily for a beautiful, seemingly effortless sound.
  • “You’re flat!” This is very, very often a voicing issue. It’s not helpful in the long run try to fix it with biting (or “lipping up”), overly resistant reeds, or needless equipment purchases.
  • “Next year, I’m making you all move up a reed strength.” Stiffer reeds won’t make you play better any more than larger shoes make you better at basketball. Use what fits
  • “You all need to switch to a ________ mouthpiece.” Sweeping gear recommendations aren’t useful. Often they are based on outdated or incomplete information, plus mouthpiece purchases in the beginner stage are often pricey lateral moves. Mouthpieces aren’t always made consistently, either, and having a student switch blindly to a bad specimen (even of a highly-regarded model) may actually make things worse. Generally, stock mouthpieces are fine for beginners, and advancing players would be wise to consult with a private teacher who can work with them individually on upgrades. And the finest professional clarinet sections in the world play on non-homogenous equipment and blend beautifully—having everybody play the same thing isn’t the key to matching tone or pitch.
  • “Get ready, because next month you’re going to learn how to cross the break, and it’s going to be hard.” Crossing the break is only as hard as you make it. If you are teaching good tone production and finger technique, crossing the break is a non-event, not even worth mentioning.
  • “Keep those chins flat and pointed.” “Wow, your chin sounds amazing,” said nobody. Focus on the real issue: forming a relaxed embouchure within the space of an open jaw, backed up with good voicing and breath support. You will know it’s working because of good response, characteristic tone, and stable intonation, not because everybody’s chins look a certain way.

Focus on the important and too-often-overlooked fundamentals for success in your clarinet section.

Isolating problem spots

Earlier this month I posted about a fundamental practicing concept that sometimes escapes my less-experienced students. Here is another:

Me: Play your D melodic minor scale.

Student: [Begins D minor scale, plays a wrong note in the second octave.]

Me: Whoops, remember to play B-natural.

Student: Okay. [Starts over, makes same mistake.]

Me: Please start at the second-octave A, and play just from there to—

Student: [Starts from second-octave A, makes the same mistake, proceeds to finish the scale.]

Me: No, I want you to start at the A, play just to the B-natural, and stop.

Student: [Plays.]

Me: Okay, that’s correct. Now—

Student: [Starts over, makes same mistake.]

Practicing in overly large segments is an issue for less-experienced students for at least three reasons. The first is that is it makes it difficult to notice exactly where the problem is happening. Students may tend to “power through” a section and evaluate it as a whole (“That wasn’t very good”), then simply start over again and hope for the best. Sometimes my younger students are surprised when I point out that they are actually making the same mistake over and over. In their minds, it’s a roll of the dice every time, hoping that everything turns out right, and if it doesn’t, then start again and hope for better luck this time. Practicing in smaller segments makes it much easier to identify and isolate problems.

photo, Basheer Tome
photo, Basheer Tome

The second issue is that even if the precise problem is known, practicing it within too large a segment increases the cognitive load—it’s hard to devote enough attention to the actual problem when there are so many other notes to think about. Plus, practicing too long of a segment raises the stakes in a way that often doesn’t work well for inexperienced practicers: by the time you actually arrive at the problem spot, the pressure is really on to get it right, since you’ve already invested a lot in this run-through. If you isolate the problem to a much smaller segment, it’s not such a big deal if you have to start again.

The third issue is efficiency. If your goal is to correct one wrong note, which lasts less than a second, and you play 30 seconds’ worth of music leading up to it and another 30 seconds’ worth after it, then you can only get about one repetition done per minute. Even if you get it right, it will take you hours to really solidify that passage. But if you can narrow the problem down to two seconds’ worth of music, you can do many repetitions per minute.

In most cases, the problem that needs fixing has to do with getting from one note to another successfully. It may be that the second note isn’t the right one, or that it doesn’t respond right, or that the articulation isn’t correct, or a variety of other things, but the crucial concept is that there is a pair of notes, and the first note is right, and the second one isn’t.

Step one is to practice just those two notes, not just once through, but many times. If this is only accomplished with difficulty, it may be due to the second note having a less-familiar fingering, or perhaps some kind of particular response difficulty. Practice those two notes—and only those two notes—over and over until they improve. If they don’t, consult a teacher who can help to you diagnose and improve your technique.

If playing the two notes is trivially easy, then the problem is something about the context in which they appear. Add one more note before the first one, and repeat it several times. If it’s still easy, add one more. Continue until the problem returns, and practice that sequence of notes slowly and carefully until it feels natural and solid. If it becomes clear that adding more notes before the problem isn’t what’s triggering it, then start again from the two notes and gradually add notes after them. Sometimes anticipating what follows can cause something to go wrong.

Don’t be overly anxious to put the (former) problem spot back into the “context” of a whole scale or etude or movement. Make most of your practicing small-segment work, and very gradually reassemble the small segments into slightly larger ones. Repeat the slightly larger ones many times, then combine them again into still larger ones.

Take the time to break your practicing down into smaller chunks, isolate the problem spots, and work them methodically and repetitively.

Slowing down

I can’t tell you how often I have had this happen in lessons, especially with my younger students:

Me: Play your E-flat major scale.

Student: [Begins scale at breakneck speed, plays 3-4 notes, makes a mistake, stops. Begins again at the same speed, makes a different mistake, stops.]

Me: Wait—

Student: [Begins again at breakneck speed, makes a different mistake, stops.]

Me: Wait. Please slow down and play accurately.

Student: [Begins again at same speed as before, makes a different mistake, stops.]

Me: Okay, let me show you what I mean. [Demonstrates.]

Student: [Rolls eyes. Plays the scale slowly, with much-improved accuracy.]

Me: Good. See what I—

Student: [Plays at breakneck speed. Makes a mistake.]

Younger or less-experienced students in particular seem to get fixated on a perceived need to play everything as fast as possible, and often seem to prefer fast-with-mistakes over slower and more accurate. But as more experienced practice-ers know, time spent practicing this way is virtually 100% wasted.

Mastery of a technical sequence, such as playing a scale or musical passage, requires repetition. If my scale turns out differently every time because I’m playing too fast and sacrificing consistency, then I really haven’t done any repetitions. Or if I’m making the same mistake repeatedly because I’m not giving myself time to think while I play, then I’m doing repetitions of something that I didn’t want to master: an incorrect version of the passage. I spent many of my younger years throwing away practice time doing each of those things.

It’s also a mistake to move on too quickly from playing slowly. Sometimes I will see a student make several hasty, sloppy attempts at a passage, then relent and play it slowly, and then, having “succeeded,” immediately return to playing too fast. Once isn’t nearly enough. It may take several, or dozens, or hundreds, or more accurate, controlled repetitions before it’s possible to play the passage at the desired speed. But if I have laid this foundation well, I find that speed is the least of my worries—I have all the speed I need, and with solid accuracy.

And the speeding-up part of the process often takes place very late in my preparations. I think sometimes my students expect their speed to increase like this:

speed-straightBut I get much better results if I allow this to happen:


I spend more and more of my time polishing every detail of a passage at a slow tempo, and let the speeding up happen later and later. When I do this, I learn technical sequences much more thoroughly and much more efficiently (in other words, the “Time spent practicing” for a particular passage gets shorter and produces better results).

Don’t waste time and effort practicing mistakes. Be patient, slow down, play it with accuracy and control.

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!

The magical properties of air

Often, when I discuss with my students issues in their playing technique, I follow up by asking them, “How can you solve this problem?” They learn quickly that “breath support” (or a rough synonym like “more air”) is generally a safe answer.

And with good reason. Breath support is absolutely key to tone production—it is crucial to reliable response, consistent tone quality, and stable intonation. If I can get a student to improve their breath support, I can generally count on each of those things improving immediately and noticeably.

But I think there are other things that are improved, perhaps indirectly, with air:

  • Finger and tongue movement. I am lumping these together because I have a theory that air helps them in the same couple of ways. The first is that focusing on breathing—a movement so natural that we literally do it for our whole lives and barely think about it—diverts attention away from the finger and tongue movements that woodwind players get so stressed and tense about. This lets the autopilot (or Gallwey’s “Self 2”) take over and execute in a relaxed, natural way. The second way air helps here is that good breath support requires good breathing, and good breathing gets more oxygen to the finger and tongue muscles.
  • Expression. Expressive playing often involves things like dynamic contrasts, vibrato, and nuances of tone color (to name only a few). Each of those things functions better when well-supported: dynamic range expands, and vibrato is smoother and more controlled (again a result of better-oxygenated muscles?). Tone color, I think, actually gets less flexible, in the sense that it becomes more consistent note-to-note despite quirks of the instrument; this means that tone color changes may be applied in a more deliberate way.
  • Confidence and relaxation. Deep breaths are a common and effective insecticide for pre-recital butterflies. The breathing should remain centered and Zen even after the music starts.

Pictured: air. Photo, Matt Peoples
Pictured: air. Photo, Matt Peoples

Crossing the break on the clarinet is easy

The following is a comprehensive list of what clarinetists need to do to successfully Cross the Dreaded Break:

  1. Put the correct fingers in the correct places at the correct time.
  2. That is all.

I frequently meet young clarinetists who have been taught that a successful Crossing of the Dreaded Break requires many other things, including but not limited to:

Photo, MikeBlogs
Photo, MikeBlogs

If breath support, embouchure, and voicing are correctly established, then Crossing the Dreaded Break ceases to be a Thing. It’s just another note: a moment ago you were playing B-flat, and now you are playing B-natural. As long as your fingers get where they are supposed to go, then that’s all there is to it. Personally, I don’t even use the word “break” with a beginning student—there’s no need to get them all uptight about what really is a non-event.

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Staying connected to the clarinet

Photo, KSMF Webmaster

In general, I’m not that concerned about keeping fingers close to instrument keys. A lot of woodwind players and teachers seem to believe that “close” fingers mean more speed, which I haven’t found necessarily to be the case. To me, a much larger factor is tension: if my fingers are tense (because, for example, I’m trying really hard to keep them close to the keys), they move more slowly.

But when I work with beginning clarinetists (whether first-time instrumentalists or doublers), many of them seem to have a great deal of trouble with squeaks and with notes responding sluggishly—problems that I think in most cases can be traced to fingers not completely covering toneholes, or not covering them in a synchronized way. And one of the major reasons that this happens is that the fingers are too detached from from the keys. It’s not a question of distance, per se,  but one of awareness.

One reason this is such an issue for clarinetists in particular is that so many fingers have multiple jobs. The left thumb operates a tonehole/ring and a key, which must sometimes be pressed individually and sometimes together. The left index finger has a tonehole/ring and two keys. The right index finger has a tonehole/ring and four “side” keys. And the pinky fingers have responsibilities exceeded only by the bassoonist’s thumbs. Throw in a couple of sliver keys, and you’ve got a lot of fingers constantly in transit from one key to another.

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