Performance: Clarinet Alternations

Mike Lawson • Performance • May 19, 2014

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Teaching and Improving Beginning and Intermediate Clarinet Technique


One of the essential components of good musicianship is the development of great finger technique. This indispensable skill is dependent upon many factors, including correct hand position, precise finger movement, knowledge of alternate fingerings, and the ability to make the correct left and right alternative “pinky” key decisions. Utilizing this alternation method is often a mystery for both the student and the director. Band directors who are non-clarinet majors might not have ascertained this information during their undergraduate studies and, therefore, might be apprehensive in teaching this essential skill to their students.

Every method book should contain a fingering chart complete with alternate fingerings; however, directors must possess the necessary skills to instruct students how, when, and why to use these alternates. Consequently, these instructions would be incomplete without including the explanation and implementation of the left and right pinky alternation technique. When students lack the knowledge to use this alternation method correctly, technique and musicianship are catastrophically affected.

This musical “catastrophe” could occur when a passage requiring pinky finger alternation is encountered. Frequently, students will resort to what is called “sliding.” For example, when playing third space C to C#, students will attempt to use only right pinky fingerings or only left pinky fingerings, resulting in poor technique. There are two acceptable solutions: utilize the right C key followed by the left C# key; or just the opposite, the left C key followed by the right C# key. Students should not use the same pinky finger consecutively. The rule to remember is always alternate!

It should be noted that there are some occasions found in more advanced clarinet literature where alternating is not always possible. However, for the purpose of instructing the beginning or intermediate clarinet student, teaching the method of alternating left-right-left or right-left-right is essential to the development of smooth and accurate technique.


Directors and students must be able to identify the name and location of each pinky key. There are several reasons identification and differentiation can be confusing tasks: all the keys on the clarinet are silver, and students may find them difficult to identify or remember. There are two possible ways to finger most of the notes utilizing the left and right pinky keys, and only one way for others; and all of the pinky keys produce notes written below the staff in the lower register and also notes above the break in the clarion register. Technique Tabs can be used to identify the notes produced by each pinky key.

Pinky keys

The note names written above the line on each tab identify the pinky key fingerings for notes across the break in the clarion register. The note names written below the line on each tab identify the lower register notes. For practical purposes in teaching beginning and intermediate students, appropriate enharmonic spellings have been included. Each tab is color-coded to identify the keys located on both sides of the clarinet that produce the same note or notes. There are two keys (pink and green) that are only located on one side of the clarinet resulting in one, instead of two, possible fingering solutions. More advanced clarinets such as the Buffet Prestige have two D#-EH/G#-AH keys (green tab); however, most beginning and intermediate students are likely to own a beginner or intermediate model.


Lower register notes that have both left and right fingerings:


Lower register notes with only one possible fingering solution:

Clarion register notes that have both left and right fingerings:

Clarion register notes with only one possible fingering solution:

Following are examples of simple alternation exercises that can be used with beginning clarinet students. These exercises will help raise the awareness of notes which have both left and right fingerings and can be introduced as soon as students are able to effectively cover the holes using the fingers in both left and right hands. Use the “sound before symbol” method. Introduce these exercises to students by identifying note names while demonstrating the correct fingerings. After students have learned to read ledger line notes, give them the written exercises and show them what they have been playing.

More advanced exercises incorporating chromatic passages, enharmonic spellings, or notes over the break should be introduced at the appropriate instructional times.


 Beginning Alternation Exercises

(Play with alternating fingerings)



“Over the Break” Exercises:

Clarinet fingering charts included in a number of beginning and intermediate method books list three different ways to finger low E and F#, as well as B and C# in the clarion register. These notes can be correctly played by using both left and right pinky keys, left side only, or right side only.

The right pinky may be placed on the right C/F Key without affecting the production of low E or third space B. The right pinky may also be placed on the right C/F key without affecting the production of low F# or third space C#.

Students will discover that they are able to place or rest their fingers on certain left or right pinky keys that are nonessential to the production of the desired note. In certain passages it is possible, although not mandatory, to depress the left and right pinky keys simultaneously without altering the pitch or breaking the alternation rule. It is the task of the teacher or director to monitor this situation by demonstrating and explaining the function of each key as well as the application of the alternation method.


Passages that allow left and right pinkies to be depressed simultaneously:

Passages requiring pinky key alternation with only one possible fingering choice:

Major scales requiring alternation:

Passages found in more advanced clarinet literature may prove alternating an impossible task. If one must choose to “slide,” it is advantageous to slide from a higher key to a lower one. Certainly, sliding from one note to another will require additional practice and repetition; however, using the higher-to-lower approach will produce smoother results.


Advanced passages requiring students to slide and alternate, when possible:

Professional model clarinets which include the additional D#-EH/G#-AH key will eliminate the necessity to “slide” while playing these passages.

Great finger technique is achieved through diligent teaching procedures and individual practice. It is an essential skill that directly affects the enhancement or diminishment of musical artistry. Because it is crucial to the establishment and maturation of concrete fundamentals, correct finger technique must be initiated in the beginning stages of instruction. Directors play a vital role in this endeavor – teaching these skills must be considered an ongoing procedure. It must be accurately introduced, monitored, and developed. In the teaching process, solving the mystery of the “pinky” alternation method begins when students are able to correctly identify each left and right “pinky” key. After this objective has been met, students can then focus on the identification of passages requiring an alternation plan, as well as the implementation of this alternation method. In the world of teaching and improving beginning and intermediate clarinet technique, using correct procedures for left and right “pinky” alternations will help prevent technical and musical complications.

Susan Schuman is in her 30th year of teaching and is currently an assistant director with the Oak Grove Band Program, where her primary teaching responsibilities include instruction of 6th, 7th, and 8th grade bands.  Ensembles under her direction have consistently received superior performance ratings. She is a past member of the Executive Board of the Mississippi Bandmasters Association as well as a past President of the Gulf Coast Band Directors Association.  In 2003 Mrs. Schuman was named Phi Beta Mu Mississippi Band Director of the Year and in 2012 she was honored as Middle School Band Director of the Year for the South East Mississippi Band Directors Association.  She holds the Bachelor of Music Education Degree from Delta State University and the Master of Music Education Degree from The University of Southern Mississippi. 


For more information about where to order clarinet Technique Tabs, visit:




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