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Clarinet And Saxophone - Alternate Fingerings

Whether you're on clarinet or saxophone, there are some notes on each that have alternate ways of playing them. In this blog, we'll talk a little bit about a few of those notes, when they're best used, and my difficulty in getting used to using them.

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Alternate fingerings are incredibly useful and, more so on clarinet, essential if you want the smoothest and fastest playing ability. They have been added to the musical instrument to avoid any clunkiness, whether that's in finger movement or sound. If you're curious about how to play these, you can find a clarinet or saxophone fingering chart easily on Google or in your music books at home.

On saxophone, we have notes like F# (Gb), G# (Ab), Bb (A#), C, and the top E and F, which all have alternate ways of being played. While five of the above notes only have two different fingerings, the Bb has four, with a 'long' version where both first fingers are pressed down.

On clarinet, there are quite a bit more. You have your common alternates like those used for E, F, F# (Gb), and G# (Ab) in the chalumeau register, known as B, C, C# (Db) and D# (Eb) in the clarion register, over the break. These all have a way of playing them on either little finger and can depend on which hand you came from for the previous note.

Then, there are notes like B, D# (Eb), F# (Gb), A# (Bb), in the chalumeau register, along with a few others that can be used unofficially to change the pitch slightly but I won't mention those here. In the clarion register, as well as those mentioned above, there are F# (Gb) and A# (Bb).


These fingerings I've mentioned are all ones I've been taught. There are many, many more (especially on clarinet), all with several ways to play them that vary depending on which note you've come from, or if you need to manipulate the tone.

Then, there is the altissimo register, which requires its own blog so I won't be going into detail about it here. Needless to say, in the altissimo register, every note has a different way of playing it, all with varying degrees of pitch difference due to what model and make your clarinet or saxophone is.


As mentioned above, these different ways of playing can alter the pitch of your notes, whether that's to get it more in tune or to purposely de-tune it. The ones I've focussed on are used primarily for smooth transitions between specific notes. For example, if we were to play a chromatic scale on the saxophone, we would, ideally, need to use the F# (Gb), A# (Bb), and C alternate fingerings, to avoid the switching of fingers which, ultimately, can create a clunky sound from the front pads, something we want to avoid.

Another example is if we were playing an F Major arpeggio, two octaves. Using the alternate 'front' F fingering at the top, means we can jump from the regular, middle finger, C and simply add our first finger onto the auxiliary key as well.

The alternate fingerings on the clarinet work in practically the same way. Chromatically, once past the little finger keys, I would use the B, D# (Eb), and F# (Gb) alternates in the chalumeau register, and the F# (Gb) and A# (Bb) alternates in the clarion register to, again, avoid any finger 'flipping', which could create clunkiness of movement.

When working with the little finger keys on the clarinet, your life can be made easier by the installation of a left-hand G# (Ab) key, which isn't pre-built onto cheaper clarinet models but is easy to have installed. By adding this key, you do not have to worry about which little finger keys you should be going to when playing patterns that frequent those notes.


For the first eight years of my playing, other than the little finger keys on the clarinet, I had no idea the alternate fingerings existed on either clarinet or saxophone. When I was properly introduced to them at university, my saxophone teacher, Sarah Markham, was surprised at how quickly my fingers were able to move between all the regular fingerings.

You see, if you're not using the alternates you, technically, shouldn't be able to play as fast as if you were using them. Here I was, however, able to play quite fast without them and, having grown so accustomed to the regular fingerings, I found it very hard to learn the alternates.

While I now feel I can better use these different fingerings, and I know exactly where I should be using them, I still find myself reverting back to the regulars when I'm not concentrating. This is frustrating, since I'm just making things more difficult for myself. For this reason, I make sure all my beginning clarinet and saxophone students learn the alternate fingerings, and where to use them, as soon as possible so that they never have the issues I've had.

If you haven't discovered these useful notes yet, don't forget, as I said above, you can find a fingering chart easily on Google or in one of your music books at home. There, you can see exactly what I'm talking about. Try playing through your chromatic scales and you'll feel the difference.

Let me know how you've got on learning these fingerings. Have you, like me, had trouble learning them, or did they make sense straight away?

P.S. If you are looking for clarinet lessons or a saxophone teacher near you, I offer face-to-face music lessons in Wells, UK and online music lessons to anyone worldwide. Feel free to get in touch!


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