Fingering Systems

Research response to 1997 survey published in “Selected Pedagogical Practices of College Instructors of Flute, Clarinet and Saxophone”:

The study sample concurred that the fingering system for saxophone is less difficult to master than the fingering systems for flute and clarinet. The instrument which most doublers reported to be most difficult to master regarding fingering is clarinet. Interestingly, finger exercises are one of the main areas of clarinet practice the surveyed doublers emphasized. With regard to the development of overall woodwind doubling fingering technique, generally equal time spent practicing exercises on each instrument was affirmed by the sample. However, statistical comparisons revealed that doublers whose primary instrument is flute may benefit overall by spending more time on clarinet
exercises. In addition, doublers whose primary instrument is saxophone may benefit overall by spending more time on flute exercises.

Several fingerings are often confused and misfingered by woodwind doublers. Confusion concerning fingerings was mainly reported in relation to flute and saxophone doubling, since many fingerings for both instruments are the same and a few fingerings are slightly varied. In particular, many doublers find fourth line "D" and "D#/Eb" to be troublesome since the flute requires the first finger of the left hand to be up, and on the saxophone, the same finger is left down. In addition, fifth line F# is often misfingered on flute, clarinet, and saxophone since the given note is fingered one way on the clarinet and saxophone (RH middle finger), and is fingered slightly differently on the flute (RH ring finger). To help ensure the correct usage of fingerings on each instrument, woodwind doublers may benefit from specific finger exercises, such as those for flute by Taffanel and Gaubert, which concentrate on specific notes commonly misfingered.


Additional research, experiential observations and suggestions:

-several suggested published exercises are included in Technique and Overall Control section of this website

-Flute, Clarinet and Saxophone fingering systems are similar; however, the same combinations of fingers may or may not be used for the same notes on the musical staff

-without question, the Clarinet fingering system is the most complicated due to the throat tones and use of rings and open tone holes which require proper finger coverage in order to achieve correct tone production, intonation and overall control – focused practice crossing the break as well as the throat tone fingerings is very important to fingering technique development on Clarinet and will likely require more attention than Flute and Saxophone for most players

-Clarinetists are required to master more alternate fingerings and to utilize a more relaxed fingering technique with less finger pressure to close tone holes

-on Clarinet, especially if learning the instrument after Saxophone, a neck strap is often helpful in reducing stress on the right hand wrist

-resting the edges of the Clarinet’s bell between the knees, when in a seated position, will assist finger dexterity and playing technical passages

-although most Bass Clarinets are equipped with hooks for neck straps, the use of a balancing peg is preferred by most woodwind doublers for best playing/hand positioning

-depending on the player’s teeth structure and overall bite, the proper angle for Clarinet may vary from 30 – 45 degrees

-on Clarinet, the right hand index finger and thumb should form a “C” shape; the left hand thumb/index finger position should be more “V” shaped in order to properly activate throat tone fingerings; additionally, the left hand fingers in general, and especially the LH index finger must be angled downward from the second joint in order to cover the F# tone hole correctly

-the overall balance points for Clarinet involve the mouth and RH thumb; the RH thumb should slightly push the instrument into the upper teeth; the LH thumb should not rest on the instrument under the thumb hole when fingering throat tone notes

-excessive finger movement should be avoided on all instruments – practice in front of a mirror and video record your finger movements in order to self-diagnose fingering technique issues

-on Flute, the RH finger position is similar to the Clarinet (C shaped) and a “V” shaped position is also required for the LH; furthermore, the LH wrist should be bent and not flat on the Flute

-proper and consistent alignment of the Flute’s head and foot joints is important to overall technical development – generally, the embouchure hole of the head joint and rod of the foot joint should be aligned with the center of the body’s keys

-the Flute should be held/balanced with the lower lip, base of the left hand index finger and right hand pinky and RH thumb when fingering notes that do not involve the Eb key

-the Saxophone requires both hands to be “C” shaped and the LH thumb should activate the octave key with a rolling motion (i.e. the LH thumb should not lift off the thumb rest)

-the Clarinet and Saxophone share an overall common horizontal, or slightly above horizontal/upward right hand position

-Clarinetists and open hole Flutists must be careful not to position finger tips too close to tone holes/keys/rings, which will cause notes to be flat and tone production to be adversely affected

-on Clarinet, the RH index finger may slightly touch the side Bb key; however, this is not recommended for Saxophone

-when fingering the chromatic low B and middle register F# fingerings on Clarinet, woodwind doublers must be careful to touch the base of the chromatic key and not the tip to avoid pitch and tone production problems related to the open/ringed key-work

-I believe it is acceptable to remove the LH alternate Eb/Bb key on Clarinet and to use the other Eb/Bb fingerings, especially if you started on Saxophone or have large hands.

-unlike the Saxophone, Clarinetists should rarely slide across one pinky spatula key to the next in both the left and right hands; however, it is acceptable at times to glide down to other spatula keys (e.g. RH low G# to F#)

-although the first Bb fingering learned on Flute is usually I + I in each hand, the LH Thumb Bb fingering should be used just as frequently and when in the keys of one or more flats that involve passages without B natural or third register F# fingerings; additionally, Fork/Lever Bb should be learned and used in chromatic runs/passages

-on Saxophone, both the side Bb and Bis Bb fingerings should be utilized with about the same frequency (Bis Bb when in the keys of one or more flats that involve passages without B natural)

-middle register D and Eb are commonly mis-fingered on Flute (LH first finger should be up) since Flute, Clarinet and Saxophone fingerings for D and Eb are similar

-the primary F# fingering on Flute involves the RH ring finger, whereas on Clarinet and Saxophone, the primary F# fingering involves the RH middle finger

-Clarinetists must learn to leave the right hand fingers down when passages involve dropping down from the clarion (middle) register to the throat tones and then ascending back up to clarion register key notes

-similar to Clarinet above, Saxophonists should learn what I call the Long C# fingering for passages that descend from either second register E or D to C# with a transition back up to the octave key notes of the second register: Long C# = octave key + LH ring finger + RH index/middle and ring fingers