We Need to Talk About Clarinet Scale Fingerings (specifically pinkies)
By Julie Linder-Gaulin
Director, Clarinet Pro Workshops
There are some basic rules we should follow when choosing fingerings in our music. Scales are the first opportunity we have to introduce students to the concepts that they’ll use for this later on. It’s a mistake to “simplify” the pinkies in scales and then expect students to somehow understand correct fingering choice later. Basically if they can learn that there’s a regular and a side key F-sharp, they can certainly learn that there are two B keys!
I group scales according to what pinkies they use, because when I was a kid that was always the part I messed up in my 2 octave scales. In the panic of getting all my fingers down to cross the break, I’d forget which pinky key I needed.
Group 1: C and G Major (left B + right C key → right C )
I teach these first because I teach my students to rest their pinkies on the B and C keys (“pinky checkpoints”). Both pinkies go down on the B, and the left pinky lifts to go to C. If students try to put one pinky down on B remind them by writing 2P (meaning two pinkies). As a rule we always try to prevent a pinky flip flop if we can help it – one pinky going up while the other goes down simultaneously. Using 2 pinkies on the B eliminates the flip flop and prevents “blips” (in this case, a D sounding in-between B and C). This reinforces the rule that we avoid opposing motion in our fingers if we can help it (that’s the same reason we use side key and fork F sharp in the chromatic scale by the way!)
Group 2: D and A Major (left B → right C#)
The rule of economy of motion applies here. You go to left B, right C# and continue moving up in your right hand. Does the other way work (right B, switch to left C#, the switch back to right hand to continue up the scale) at the middle school level? Sure. But when they start to play fast for real in high school, economy of motion becomes important and the kids that learn these scales incorrectly will be at a disadvantage. Let’s not create a problem for a future teacher to solve later on.
Side note: if the B key doesn’t work on it’s own, the B and C pads have gone out of regulation, probably because of some intense squeezing or bumping of the right F/C key when playing or assembling – I use the Haynes Clarinet Manual by Stephen Howard, pages 119-123 for advice on how to correct that problem.
Group 3: F, B-flat and E-flat Major (right C)
We don’t have to worry about any 2P fingerings or opposing motion in this group – and I doubt any teacher in the history of clarinet ever suggested using left C in these scales. We all know to use right C and continue going up, reserving left C for the B-flat scale in 3rds and the E-flat major arpeggio, for example. Going through the first three groups means students know their scales through 3 sharps and flats, which are the keys I expect them to be able to play music in at the middle school level. But take them to group 4 and 5 and they start to learn their alternate fingerings.
Group 4: E, B, F# Major (right B → left C# → right D#)
The flip flop becomes necessary in these three scales, and the students will develop better pinky control by learning them. Also reinforce that Group 2 uses a DIFFERENT B fingering, and that’s a good thing.
Group 5: D-flat and A-flat Major (right C → left D-flat → right E-flat)
Teaching these scales after group 4 is a great way to reinforce enharmonic spellings! We use the same pinky pattern, just hitting the C key instead of B in the right hand.
Once you get through all the groups, your students know how to use all of their pinky keys except left C (which they will first experience in a B-flat major scale in thirds or Clark Study, as mentioned above). In addition to all that motor development, they’ll be able to make thoughtful and logical pinky finger choices in their music on their own.
Happy scale teaching!