Clarinet Fingering Chart

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For a beginner just picking up a clarinet for the first time, an intermediate player seeking improvement, or an advanced player looking for alternate fingering possibilities, a fingering chart is an essential resource to have available. The following guide starts on the lowest note that can be produced on a Boehm-system (French system) clarinet and continues chromatically, or by half-step, upward through the standard range of the instrument. In other words, it starts on written low E and ascends to altissimo G. The primary fingering is shown first, and any alternate fingerings are shown after that. Guidance on when to use alternate fingerings is best learned with the help of a clarinet teacher.*

Most players who are brand-new to the instrument start with the bottom-line E in the staff, which is played with the left-hand thumb and first finger. This note is marked with an asterisk. From there, I have students progress downward to the bottom of the instrument first, and up into the throat tones (to written Bb in the middle of the staff), before trying to utilize the register key. When they have achieved some comfort with this range, we then practice 12ths: adding the register key to low-register fingerings. Before worrying about note names, or what they look like on the staff, we experiment with all the notes in the next register (with the register key on) to discover that all of the fingerings in the low register are repeated in the next one. Then we assign note names and positions on the staff.  Only after students are comfortable with the range of low E to high C do we address notes in the next register, called the altissimo. The clarinet is the only instrument that overblows the interval of a 12th instead of an octave. This means that while fingerings are repeated, they do not produce the same note an octave higher, but instead a pitch that is an octave and a half higher.

Learning proper fingerings is the key to building technical skill and fluidity on any instrument. While playing clarinet, however, a fingering is only part of what is needed to produce a pitch. To produce a note on a clarinet, the player combines a particular fingering with what we call “voicing,” or the shape of the oral cavity (specifically the tongue), to produce an individual pitch. I have my students approximate an “ee” vowel shape with their tongues by saying the word “key.” “Key” does two things: the “K” sound is made with the middle of the tongue against the roof of the mouth, so it pulls the tongue up from the bottom of the mouth, while the “ee” vowel shape is present in the rest of the word. Saying it a few times highlights how the tongue should be brushing against the sides of the upper molars instead of resting along the bottom of the mouth. This “ee” vowel shape approximates what we want our tongues to do as we play the clarinet.

Learning all the notes in the entire range of the clarinet is an exercise for both the fingers and the oral cavity. Focusing on both aspects has a major benefit: it reinforces the techniques needed to produce a mature, rich clarinet sound that is in tune throughout all the registers of the instrument as soon as the player learns how to produce all the notes. We discern whether the voicing was correct by listening to the sounds produced, which helps reinforce what is a good sound and what isn’t. This is important in two ways: it emphasizes what constitutes a good clarinet sound, and whether or not that sound is in tune.

Discussing voicing can be challenging because it can’t be seen easily. There is a method of imaging the tongue using ultrasound, and a Google search will produce some videos—they are a great visual demonstration of what the tongue does, other than articulating, when playing the clarinet. But I have found that starting students with the “ee” vowel shape, and working to keep it there, provides an excellent foundation as they continue to learn new notes on their instrument. Ideally, this tongue shape, and the idea of voicing in general, should be introduced before students begin to articulate. With beginner students we work on simply keeping that tongue shape in place all the time. As students advance and expand their range on the instrument, we experiment with how the voicing must change to help produce notes in higher ranges. From one note to the next, up or down in a scale, the difference in voicing can’t even be detected. However, if a player produces a low E and then jumps to a high C, for example, there is a marked difference in tongue position—voicing—to properly produce the high C in tune and without extraneous sounds. This is why we experiment without the ability to see the differences. They must be felt, and trial and error is one of the best ways to learn what works and what doesn’t.

A clarinet fingering chart is an excellent tool to have available as players expand their knowledge, but fingerings are only part of the equation! Learning how to utilize the oral cavity, and especially the tongue, to travel smoothly from one note to the next (and eventually throughout the entire range of the clarinet) is just as important for smooth, fluid technique and a well-developed sound.

*A discussion of the usage of alternate fingerings is beyond the scope of this blog post. Look for more information in future posts!

 

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