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”

Flexible EWI fingerings

With traditional woodwind instruments, the fingers work together to change the effective length of the instrument’s body tube by opening and closing toneholes. Woodwind fingerings at their most basic use the fingers in sequence. For example, a certain note might be produced with an “open” fingering (all toneholes open). When the “first” finger (the one closest to the mouthpiece) closes a hole, the pitch drops, perhaps by a whole step. Adding the next farther finger drops the pitch again, and so on toward the bell end of the instrument.

“Forked” fingerings, in which a lower tonehole is closed while one above it is open, often produce somewhat inferior results—notes that are mismatched in timbre and/or intonation. (Some modern woodwinds use special mechanisms to correct for this, such as the F resonance mechanism on a high-quality oboe.)

An electronic woodwind-style instrument, such as the Akai EWI series, uses a fingering system that is designed to be similar to a traditional woodwind, so that a traditional woodwind player can easily adapt to it. But this is an arbitrary choice. Since the instrument’s tone production system uses electronic circuitry and software, rather than a vibrating air column, the fingering system don’t necessarily have to use the fingers in sequence, and forked fingerings don’t have any inherent problems. The fingerings can be invented completely from scratch, with no acoustical limitations.

EWI fingerings are designed to draw upon the best of both worlds—the familiarity of traditional woodwind fingerings, and the flexibility of a non-acoustical fingering system.

Note that the current-model EWI4000s, using version 2.4 of the operating system, includes several fingering modes. The mode I am considering here is the “EWI” mode, as the “flute,” “oboe,” and “saxophone” modes sacrifice some flexibility for the sake of increased familiarity to traditional woodwind players. You might consider this article to be subtitled, “Why you should be using the ‘EWI’ fingering mode.”

The current manual (“revision D”) shows a mere 17 fingerings in its EWI mode fingering chart (11 chromatic pitches, with B-flat through D having fingerings in two octaves, and B-flat having one additional alternate fingering). But many, many more are possible.

We can consider the individual EWI keys as having individual functions, rather than being inherently interdependent. For example, pressing none of the keys produces a C-sharp:

C-sharp

Adding any key will alter the C-sharp pitch by a given amount:

key pitch change
(in semitones)
exceptions
LH 1 -2
LH bis -1 If both LH 1 and LH 2 are pressed, LH bis has no effect
LH 2 -2 If LH 1 is not pressed, LH2 produces -1 (this makes LH middle finger C possible)
LH 3 -2
LH pinky 1 +1
LH pinky 2 -1
RH side +1 No effect when used in combination with LH pinky 1
RH 1 -2 If LH 3 is not pressed, RH1 produces -1 (this makes 1 + 1 B-flat possible)
RH 2 -1
RH 3 -2
RH pinky 1 +1
RH pinky 2 -1
RH pinky 3 -2

If I press LH 1, LH 2, and LH 3, the pitch is lowered from C-sharp by a total of 6 semitones, producing the G fingering familiar to saxophonists, oboists, flutists, and clarinetists.

But that is only one possible combination. I could also produce a G with, for example, LH 1, LH 2, and RH 3. Or LH 3, LH pinky 2, RH 1, and RH pinky 2. These fingerings would be extremely unlikely to work on a traditional woodwind, but with the EWI the possibilities are wide open. As long as the total pitch change adds up to -6 (and accounting for any of the listed exceptions), you get a G.

Standard G fingering.(LH 1 + LH 2 + LH 3) = (-2 + -2 + -2) = -6 = G One alternative G fingering.(LH 1 + LH 2 + RH 3) = (-2 + -2 + -2) = -6 = G Another alternative G.(LH 3 + LH pinky 2 + RH 1 + RH pinky 2) = (-2 + -1 + -2 + -1) = -6 = G

These examples are illustrative but likely have few real-world applications. For a more practical example, consider trills, which among traditional woodwind players are a subject of endless discussion and books upon books of awkward, complicated fingerings. An ideal trill fingering involves moving only one finger, preferably one that can be moved in a rapid, controlled, non-awkward way. Continue reading for a musical example and sound clip →

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). Continue reading “Information overload: oboe F fingerings”

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

Continue reading “Clarinet pinky fingerings”

Recommended: Jeanjean “Vade-Mecum” du Clarinettiste

Lately I’ve been doing some clarinet work out of the Jeanjean Vade-Mecum. The title page translates charmingly to:

“Vade-Mecum” of the Clarinet-player

6 SPECIAL STUDIES

to

render the fingers and tongue rapidly supple

But this is what really sold me:

NOTICE

The aim of these 6 standard-studies (combining the essential parts generally contained in several exercise books) is to prepare instrumentalists in a very short space of time (about 1/2 hour) when, due to their occupations, they are not able to devote the time necessary for developed exercises and must nevertheless be ready to execute difficult passages, from the standpoint of lips, tongue and fingers.

The movements to which these Studies oblige the clarinet-player to submit will rapidly overcome those imperfections, the diminution or the passing weakness that might result from either fatigue or irregularity of technical work.

“…not able to devote the time necessary … and must nevertheless be ready to execute difficult passages…” This, in a nutshell, is the quandary of the woodwind doubler. Continue reading “Recommended: Jeanjean “Vade-Mecum” du Clarinettiste”