Saturday, 1 March 2014

Experimenting with Fingerings



To the beginner woodwind player, the subject of fingerings is essentially a simple one. You have a fingering chart that tells you precisely which holes you need to cover and which keys you need to press in order to produce a particular note. In some cases there may be one or two alternatives which have been built into the instrument in order to make certain passages easier. But by and large the fingering chart is the be all and end all, and mastering it will arm you with the fingerings that will accompany you throughout your playing career.
If you take this approach, though, you soon run into problems. It’s not long before you find passages which, under your standard system of fingerings, pose absurdly complex technical problems. The natural thing to do when confronted with such difficulties is to persevere and work hard to overcome the issues, until eventually you are able to battle through the music with the fingerings you have been taught. After all, nobody said that learning an instrument was going to be easy.
But in many cases there is a better way. And this way presents itself once you realise that fingerings are not fixed, concrete things. In some cases, there is only one way to play a particular note, but in many – if not most – cases there are a variety of different options to choose from. This is especially true for high notes, and with experimentation it is often possible to find a combination of fingerings are considerably more practical in a specific situation than the standard ones.
To take this idea further, the fact is that many fingerings are not an inherent part of an instrument’s workings. Again, this applies mainly to the high notes, which are not ‘designed’ as part of the instrument. For the vast majority of wind instruments, the original makers did not sit down and plan what fingerings would be used to produce the high notes. Rather, they made an instrument with a certain range and then discovered that by using different fingerings it was possible to overblow into a high register. Some fingerings were found to work better than others, and it was those ones that over many years became the standard fingerings for the high register. They tend to work well, so we stick with them most of the time. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t other fingerings for the same notes which can be used under certain circumstances.
The matter is further blurred by the fact that no two instruments are quite the same. There will always be small differences in dimensions and bore characteristics, and as a result a particular fingering may work better on some instruments than others. At the end of the day it is up to the player to try out different options and find the one that works best for his instrument in most situations.
What I am saying, then, is that there is no such thing as a ‘cheat’ or a ‘false’ fingering. Yes, there may be multiple fingerings for the same note. One might play in tune the best but have an awkward fingering and so is most useful in fairly slow passages. Another might be poorly tuned but have a very simple fingering, and therefore will be useful in fast music where the note goes by too quickly for tuning to be really noticeable. Yet another fingering might sound slightly muffled, and therefore come in handy when playing quietly. But they are all just as valid as each other.
To give an example from my own experience, the low A on my bassoon has always tended towards flatness when played with the standard fingering. For a long time I struggled with it, desperately trying to ‘lip it up’ and bring it in tune. Then one day I discovered that the tuning was vastly improved if, in addition to the standard fingering, I also depressed the low D key. Now I use that fingering whenever I can, and it has helped improve my playing as a result.
Or what about the throat B flat on the clarinet? The standard fingering is convenient for most situations, but it produces a note that is muffled and poorly tuned. Contrast this with the side-key fingering which is much more cumbersome under the fingers but gives a note with a good tone and tuning. Which one you use under which circumstances is entirely a matter of personal preference.
Worth noting at this point is the story of Ian Anderson, well-known as the flautist for the prog rock band Jethro Tull. When he learnt to play the flute, he had no fingering chart to refer to and consequently used trial and error to work out a set of fingerings that worked for him. It wasn’t until he had played the instrument on twenty-eight of the band’s albums that he was given a fingering chart and realised that, as he put it, “eighty percent of [his] fingering was incorrect”. He then essentially re-learnt the instrument with the standard fingerings, and found great benefits in his new technique. Now, I would disagree with his use of the word ‘incorrect’ in this context, and his story clearly highlights the advantages of learning the standard fingerings to start off with, but my point is that even then fingerings are not set in stone, and there is always room for experimentation to achieve different effects.
To go back to the bassoon for a moment, if you really want to get an idea of just how many different fingerings there can be for one note on an instrument, try looking at the bassoon fingering guide on the website of the International Double Reed Society. LINK It’s mind-boggling just how much variation is possible. Or have a look at this post on the consistently excellent blog of Bret Pimentel, which gives sixty different fingerings for high F sharp on the bassoon. LINK
So don’t be afraid to try different fingerings. Play around with overblowing or using alternative keys. Not only will you make a lot of music easier to play, but you will also gain a much deeper understanding of your instrument. And that, in my opinion, can only be a good thing.

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