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.

Memorizing, habituating, and internalizing fingerings for a new instrument isn’t exactly a weekend project, but it is fairly straightforward. Carefully practicing full-range scales and arpeggios with a good fingering chart will go a long way. To me, the subtleties of tone production (response, intonation, and tone quality) are a much greater challenge, and require deeper, longer-term study. They are also less suited to a do-it-yourself approach, really requiring the attuned ear, years of experience, and diagnostic skills of a good teacher.

On the second point, I don’t really find “similar” fingerings to be a significant advantage when switching instruments. Identical fingerings may simplify the process somewhat, but just kind-of-the-same fingerings introduce potential for confusion.

Suppose, for example, that, like many doublers, you started as a saxophonist and later added flute and clarinet. You might have found that the lowest-octave D major scale fingerings are very similar for saxophone and flute—so similar, in fact, that you can probably get away with using saxophone fingerings on the flute, and produce a mediocre but recognizable scale. You might ignore the pinky D-sharp key, use middle-finger F-sharp, and neglect to lift the left index finger for fourth-line D. This will still approximate a D scale, but with sacrifices to pitch, tone, and response. A new doubler might fall into the trap of habituating these compromised fingerings, and blaming deficiencies on equipment or embouchure.

With the clarinet, the fingerings for a lowest-octave D scale are significantly different, which forces the doubler to really learn the fingerings from scratch rather than falling back on close-enough saxophone fingerings.

Be conscientious and detailed about developing finger technique on each one of your instruments. No shortcuts!


2 responses to “Woodwind doubling and “similar” fingerings”

  1. kpwoodwinds Avatar

    I agree wholeheartedly! As a multiple woodwind player I am frequently asked these same questions, even by some of my professors. The bottom line is a clarinet is a clarinet and I am a clarinetist when I am playing the clarinet. Likewise, a bassoon is a bassoon and I am a bassoonist when I am playing the bassoon. The same goes for flute and saxophone or whatever else comes my way.
    The goal is to never ever think of similarities between fingering systems, even though it may be tempting when just learning a new woodwind. Thinking that way creates confusion (in addition to knowing the fingerings, now you have to know the similarities as well…yikes!) and creates a mindset that you are, for example, a saxophonist playing clarinet. The moment you think that is the moment that you are not a clarinetist and bam! you are a “doubler,” which is exactly what professional multiple woodwind players are not.

  2. Geoff Allen Avatar
    Geoff Allen

    Good points!

    I usually respond that it amounts to learning how the new instrument works. All the things you know about music, breath support, etc. still apply. It is about learning the mechanics of the new instrument, which includes fingerings, but also embouchure, hand position, how much/little breath support to use, etc.

    And woodwinds are all more similar to one another than to, say, brass instruments. I don’t play any brass (that’s always a fun one, too, because a lot of people think a saxophone, made of brass, must be a brass instrument), not because I couldn’t if I wanted to, but because there’s a lot more of a learning curve there than for a woodwind instrument. My brass-playing sons can pick up a different brass instrument pretty quickly, but fumble with woodwinds like I do with brass.

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