Selecting alternate fingerings

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.

fingerings
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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.

Making sense of third-octave flute fingerings

I recall as a beginning flutist (coming from background in saxophone) finding the third-octave fingerings to be a confusing, illogical jumble, but they do actually make some sense. There is an incorrect explanation for these fingerings that I hear every so often, and have seen published on a couple of flute-related blogs recently. It goes something like this: the flute’s third-octave fingerings are some kind of combination of two different first/second-octave fingerings. For example:

ta4 + te5 = te6 ?
1424179983 1424179997 1424180007

Or…

tbf4 + tf5 = tf6 ?
1424180013 1424180018 1424180777

If I squint my eyes just right I can sort of see how this almost makes sense fingerings-wise and overtones-wise, but ultimately this system is unnecessarily confusing and also doesn’t reflect acoustical realities.

Here’s a better way to look at third-octave flute fingerings: they are the same as the first/second octave fingerings, with a vent opened. This is very similar to how upper registers are achieved on the reed instruments: by adding an octave or register key or releasing a whisper key to open a vent. Since the flute doesn’t have dedicated vent holes, toneholes are used.

For some of the third octave notes, additional keys must be added or subtracted to improve pitch, tone, or response; again this is analogous to the systems used for the reed instruments. But here are the simplest examples of opening single vents for the third octave:

te5  open vent te6
1424179997 1424183194 1424180007
tf5 open vent tf6
1424180018 1424183208 1424180777
tfs5 open vent tfs6
1424184167 1424183218 1424184173
tg5 open vent tg6
1424184151 1424183227 1424184158

It is probably worth pointing out that having any “system” for remembering fingerings is just a crutch; for a performing musician, the only practical “system” is to thoroughly habituate them to the point that no conscious thought is required. Practice carefully and be on the alert for dubious pedagogy.

Make your own handsome woodwind fingering diagrams with the Fingering Diagram Builder

Purposeful fingering choices

I have gotten into the habit of grilling my students about their fingering choices: “Can you tell me which fingering you used for the last note in that phrase, and why you chose it?” Often they take this (and often correctly so) as an indication that I disapprove of their choices: “Oh, I guess I should have used the other fingering.” But I would like them to actually answer the question that I asked—why did they use the fingerings that they did?

Usually the answer is either that he or she has a “usual” fingering for that note and didn’t bother to consider any others, or that he or she finds the alternative fingering to be physically awkward or hard to remember. As you might guess, I do not find these reasons satisfactory. Professional-level command of an instrument requires a thorough knowledge of fingering options, a thoughtful, purposeful approach to choosing from among them, and conscientious practice to habituate them.

photo, Gala Medina
photo, Gala Medina

Ideally, there should never be a situation where a woodwind player falls back on a “usual” fingering for a note; each possible option should be considered and weighed each and every time. (Training and experience can automate this to some extent within common patterns of notes, such as scalar or arpeggiated passages.)

In some situations a student knows that a different fingering is the “right” one but shies away from it because they can’t remember it or have difficulty executing it. (One example is the left E-flat fingering for beginning oboists; reaching for the left-hand key can move the ring finger enough that it fails to cover its hole.) These situations are resolved simply through careful repetition until they become a part of (so-called) “muscle memory.” There are a number of method/exercise/etude books that provide material for practice of unfamiliar fingerings (the Klosé clarinet method and the “Universal” saxophone method are some time-honored examples.)

An amateur tries to get the job done with a few low-quality tools. A professional keeps his or her toolbox fully stocked with sharp, high-quality tools and knows just which ones to use to get the job done right the first time.

Misconceptions about saxophone-to-clarinet doubling

I saw a blog post recently by a saxophonist who had been called upon to play some clarinet for a big band jazz gig. The post was full of common frustrations that saxophonists who are casual clarinet doublers face in that situation. I want to respond to some of the ideas in that post, but since it’s not my object to embarrass anyone I’m not going to name the saxophonist or link to the blog post. Also, the “quotes” I’m using here are actually paraphrases, but I believe they capture the saxophonist’s intended meaning.

The clarinet is evil! And it sounds like a dying animal.

I understand this is said in jest, but fear and/or contempt are not good starting points for approaching woodwind doubles. Either focus your energies on instruments you are motivated to play, or have an open mind. As with most things, you probably hate and fear the clarinet because you haven’t taken the time and effort to get to know it.

photo, APMus
photo, APMus

I’m actually pretty good at the bass clarinet, though.

I doubt it! There are plenty of saxophonists who claim they can play the bass clarinet but not the B-flat clarinet. In many, many of those cases, what the saxophonists mean is that they can use a very saxophoney approach to playing the bass clarinet—a too-low voicing, a too-horizontal mouthpiece angle, etc.—and make some kind of sound, whereas the smaller B-flat simply won’t cooperate at all with these bad techniques. Truly good bass clarinetists, however, produce a more characteristic sound because they play the instrument like what it is: a member of the clarinet family.

I dug up a fingering chart so I could do some practicing for my gig. Those pinky fingerings just don’t make any sense, plus you have to read a bunch of ledger lines.

Saxophonists are spoiled by the instrument’s relatively small “standard” range and relatively simplistic fingering scheme. But I think a reasonable argument could be made that the clarinet’s system of alternate “pinky” fingerings is tidier and more flexible than the saxophone’s clunky rollers. Break out the Klosé book and learn to do it right. Continue reading “Misconceptions about saxophone-to-clarinet doubling”

Saxophone altissimo books: Raschèr vs. Rousseau

My university saxophone students are anxious to tackle the altissimo register, and it’s not at all uncommon for them to show up to their first lessons clutching the Sigurd Raschèr Top-Tones for the Saxophone book and wearing a hopeful expression. I also see the Raschèr book frequently and glibly recommended on online forums. With the greatest respect for Raschèr, I think this is a mistake.

Don’t get me wrong: the Raschèr book is a classic and contains a great deal of wisdom. It is a must-have for the well-read saxophonist. But I think most saxophonists would do better to start with Eugene Rousseau’s Saxophone High Tones, and have the Raschèr on hand for supplementary exercises and instruction.

Get this one first
Get this one first
Use this one as a supplement
Use this one as a supplement

I’m going to make the following point first, not because I think it’s necessarily the most important, but because it’s the one that will click with those of you who are hoping to “learn altissimo” in an afternoon by looking at a fingering chart: Rousseau’s fingering charts are much better. They are better suited to “modern” (Mark VI and beyond) instruments and more complete (in the sense of providing many more options for each note, though Raschèr’s chart does go a little higher). Rousseau also provides separate fingering charts for soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone, while Raschèr provides only one chart, which he indicates in the first-edition foreword is intended for “E-flat saxophones”—altos, that is. (I do have a few issues with the visual layout of Rousseau’s charts, and Raschèr’s too, but that’s another rant.) Continue reading “Saxophone altissimo books: Raschèr vs. Rousseau”

Bassoon F-sharp fingerings

I recently set out to try to make sense of the handful of bassoon high F-sharp fingerings that I was aware of. As it turns out, I had no idea what I was getting into. I looked at a number of online and offline sources, and ended up with about 60 fingerings (yes, you read that correctly). I have compiled them into a document for your reading pleasure, with sources listed.

A few points:

  • The sorting is fairly arbitrary; I tried to organize them into groups and orders that made some kind of sense to me. The indications “Legato” and “French” come from the venerable Cooper/Toplansky book; the rest are my own.
  • The numbering is strictly for convenience.
  • I mostly omitted fingerings that seemed to be specifically for individual trills.
  • Many of the sources indicated pitch characteristics; I have not included these since so much depends on the individual instrument, reed, etc. If you are looking for a good fingering for pitch alteration, there are plenty here for you to try out.
  • Some of the authors differentiated between half-hole, one-third-hole, etc. I have normalized all of these with a visual half-hole representation, since I find the exact amount of opening to require experimentation anyway.
  • I did try all these fingerings myself, and was able to produce approximately an F-sharp with virtually all of them, with varying degrees of difficulty.

I welcome corrections, and would be mildly curious if you have other good published or otherwise reputable sources (not anecdotes) that list fingerings I have missed here. I will update the PDF as needed. I’m much less interested in hearing which fingering is your personal favorite, unless you have something more to contribute to the conversation, but some of you will email me or leave it in the comments anyway.

Okay, on to the list. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here:
F-sharp fingerings for bassoon: a perhaps-unnecessarily-comprehensive listing

Version 1.0: initial release

Commonly-fudged woodwind fingerings

Beginning woodwind players, including doublers, sometimes cheat a bit on fingerings, using fingerings that are almost right. If you’re doing this, it’s likely that you have notes with poor tone, intonation, and/or response. If you think you are getting away with it, you’re probably mistaken, and you may be cementing bad habits that are going to become even more apparent as aspects of your tone production improve.

Flute

The most common culprits at a beginning or intermediate level are the right-hand pinky and the left-hand first finger.

  • The pinky should stay down for virtually every standard fingering, with the exceptions being anything below the low D, anything above the high (4th-ledger-line) A, and the D in the staff. This is not only crucial to the pitch and tone of many notes (you’ll hear it as your embouchure improves!), but also helps to stabilize the instrument.
  • The left-hand first finger must lift for second-octave D and E-flat. You can probably make the notes respond without doing so, but you’ll sound better and struggle less if you do it right.

    Make your own diagrams with the Fingering Diagram Builder
    Make your own diagrams with the Fingering Diagram Builder

Oboe

It’s tempting to be a bit lazy with the various octave mechanisms: the half-hole, the first (thumb) octave key, and the second (side) octave key. Practice slowly and carefully: Continue reading “Commonly-fudged woodwind fingerings”

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. Continue reading “Crossing the break on the clarinet is easy”

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. Continue reading “Woodwind doubling and “similar” fingerings”

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: Continue reading “Rediscovering the clarinet’s left-hand sliver key”