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 … Read more

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 … Read more

Things beginning band directors say to clarinet sections

Tough love for teachers of beginning clarinetists.

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 … Read more

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 … Read more

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 … Read more

The magical properties of air

Good breath support, besides helping tone production in obvious ways, can have a surprising (and positive) impact on other aspects of woodwind playing.

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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