Woodwind doubling and “similar” fingerings

Photo, thorinside

Some of the questions I am most frequently asked about woodwind doubling involve the similarities in fingerings between the instruments:

  • “You play all those instruments? Well, I guess the fingerings must be pretty much the same, right?”
  • “I play the oboe, and I would like to learn the saxophone. How close are the fingerings?”

There are, in my opinion, two misconceptions at work here:

  1. Fingerings are the biggest hurdle to switching instruments.
  2. Similar fingerings are a good thing.

In my experience, neither of these is true.

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Getting an “outsider” opinion

Photo, Pirate Scott

Saxophones, more than many other instruments, have a tendency toward mechanical noise: clicks and clanks are a hazard of the relatively large keys and articulated mechanisms and of the relative popularity of “vintage” instruments. Much of the noisiness can be solved by a good technician, but it’s sometimes surprising how much key noise saxophonists tolerate on their otherwise pristine recording projects.

The oboe has a particularly sensitive mechanism involving the right index finger and a linkage between the upper and lower joints. It requires a great deal of finger precision to avoid unwanted “blips” (brief, unintended notes) when moving between, say, A and C. If you are listening for that sound, you will find that it is not uncommon, even on recordings that are technically impressive in other ways.

I think a lot of saxophonists would be scandalized by “blips” in each other’s playing, and oboists would be equally appalled by rattling, clanking keywork. But it is easy to become accustomed to hearing those sounds in our own playing, and to stop really noticing them.

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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:

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Full-range scales and arpeggios

My students at the university are subject to a department-wide requirement to pass a scale exam, in which they must demonstrate mastery of major and minor scales. The format of the scales, however, is left up to the individual studio professors.

Most of the studios require scales to be played in octaves, but I prefer a different approach. To the chagrin of my students (oboists/clarinetists/bassoonists/saxophonists), I require that they are played in this format:

  1. Start on the first scale degree, in the instrument’s lowest octave.
  2. Proceed upward in an even rhythm (such as even eighth notes) to the highest note in the instrument’s “range” that falls within the scale (according to an upper range limit that I set).
  3. Proceed downward to the instrument’s lowest note that falls within the scale.
  4. Proceed back upward to the starting note.

So, for example, an oboe student’s E-flat major scale goes like this:

I also require arpeggios, following the same rules:

Here is why I insist on full-range scales:

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Information overload: oboe F fingerings

First and second octave F on the oboe
First and second octave F on the oboe

The oboe typically plays Fs in three octaves. The lower two have a variety of available fingerings, which can be a challenge for new oboists to navigate, particularly because the available fingerings change depending upon the make of the instrument.

A typical “budget” student model instrument, for example, uses the following fingerings. (For all fingerings given in this article, the one shown corresponds to the lower octave; the higher octave is achieved by adding the first [thumb] octave key.)

Basic "right" F
Basic "right" F
"Forked" F, with E-flat key
"Forked" F, with E-flat key

The “right” F is the basic choice, to be used in almost all cases where it is possible to do so, as the tone produced by this fingering tends to be the best match to the tone of the surrounding notes.

The “forked” F tends toward a sound that might be described as “muted” or sometimes even “fuzzy,” and should therefore generally be avoided where possible (unless the muted or fuzzy sound is desirable for the musical situation—I do like to use the forked F, for example, in the beginning and ending sections of the second movement of the Saint-Saëns sonata).

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Clarinet pinky fingerings

Recently I discussed the topic of clarinet “pinky” (little finger) fingerings with my woodwind methods class. With all that school band directors have on their plates, it’s not surprising that this topic doesn’t always get taught thoroughly to beginners. It can be a bit of a puzzle to a non-clarinetist, but the important concepts can be mastered with a minimum of effort if they are taught clearly.

This is an important thing for woodwind doublers to understand, too, since they may be bringing with them some fingering habits that worked well on their other instrument(s), but which may not apply to clarinet in the same way.

The following notes on the clarinet require use of a pinky key:

These notes require left hand pinky These notes require right hand pinky
left hand pinky notes right hand pinky notes
These notes use EITHER left or right hand pinky
fingerings using either pinky

Pinky keys are also used in the altissimo register, in resonance fingerings, and so forth, but for today we’ll focus on the notes in the chart. If you’re unfamiliar with the fingerings, check them out at the Woodwind Fingering Guide.

The crucial decision-making deals with the notes in the last row of the chart, which each have two fingering possibilities—one using the left pinky, and one using the right pinky. If your clarinet is in proper adjustment, there shouldn’t be a difference in tone or intonation between the two fingerings, as they open or close the same toneholes. (With a poorly-adjusted clarinet, it’s possible for, say, one fingering to open a certain pad wider than another pad, perhaps affecting pitch and tone.) So our only criterion will be ease and precision of fingering.

Consider this passage, and we will walk through a systematic thought process for selecting fingerings:
example 1

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