Woodwind instruments including the flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone all have more than one fingering for some notes. Why is that, and do you need to learn them all? Instead, could you just learn the one main fingering for every note and get really good at using it?
Here are some things to think about:
- There’s not always one “main” fingering. For example, the clarinet has its “pinky finger” notes that have left-hand or right-hand options, and you need to know both equally well to play above the beginner level. The flute has “1 and 1” and “thumb” fingerings for B-flat that are both common and standard. The oboe has two or three standard fingerings for F. The bassoon’s thumb and pinky options for F-sharp and A-flat and the saxophone’s “side” and “bis” B-flats are also arguably equally important.
- Using an alternate fingering can sometimes help avoid awkward movements. One example is flip-flopping (one finger lifting up while another presses down) with F to F-sharp on saxophone or in the clarinet’s middle register. Another is sliding (moving a finger from one key to another) like going from D on the oboe to F with the right-hand F key. Sometimes these awkward movements are unavoidable, but good woodwind players avoid them whenever possible.
- Alternate fingerings don’t always sound or respond the same. Some do, such as the clarinet’s pinky finger notes, because the pinky keys open and close the same holes. But some alternate fingerings might be a little louder or softer, sharper or flatter, more or less resistant, or brighter or darker in tone. Excellent woodwind players use these differences in artistic ways.
So alternate fingerings are important and useful. But do you need all of them?
There can be a lot of alternate fingerings. Advanced bassoonists sometimes refer to a book of fingerings that is over 300 pages long! (There are books for other instruments, too.) Sometimes there can be dozens of fingerings for a single note.
If you’re currently learning an instrument and using a method book (individual or band method) that has a fingering chart, you could check to see which notes have more than one fingering. It might be a worthwhile challenge to learn all those fingerings, and see if the book gives any hints about when to use which ones.
If you’re a more advanced student, the music you’re working on might present challenges when fingering patterns get awkward. Take on the challenge of researching lesser-known alternate fingerings that might help. (Sometimes a fingering has both advantages and disadvantages that you have to weigh carefully.) Start collecting useful fingering charts, or compile your own.
If you have my sights set on playing professionally, then you will need to know lots of alternate fingerings, have good resources to consult when you need more options, and know exactly how each fingering sounds, responds, and tunes on your instrument.