I’m a firm believer that most problems on the clarinet are caused by improper use of air. That being said, I believe that the 2nd leading cause of problems on clarinet are due to bad finger placement and positioning.
Finger placement is important for all instruments, but especially clarinet because of its open tone holes. The slightest finger movement can cause air leaks, creating the dreaded squeak. Besides squeaking, improper finger position can cause notes to not speak properly and impede technical development.
Let’s start with the basics – the six fingers that cover the tone holes on front of the clarinet should begin in “home” position. This is similar to proper typing position on American keyboards, in which the left hand hovers over “asdf” and the right hand over “jkl;”. Although your fingers temporarily move to reach other keys, they always remain in home position to improve speed and efficiency, much like the clarinet. For example, when playing clarinet, the left hand pointer finger must remain over the first tone hole, but sometimes it must roll up to reach the A or G# keys before returning to its home position. Many technical errors are a result of not maintaining a good home position.
Once you’ve mastered home position, be sure to avoid any of the following bad habits, which reduce technical proficiency and agility:
- “Flyaway” fingers – Lifting your fingers too far away from the instrument when not in use dramatically decreases speed and accuracy. Make sure your fingers are close enough to easily cover the tone hole but not so close that you alter the pitch.
- Resting pinkies behind keys – This is especially common among beginner students who haven’t learned notes involving their pinkies. Not knowing what to do with their pinkies, they hide them behind the pinky keys, making it a bad habit to break when they eventually need their pinkies to play the proper notes.
- Covering tone holes with knuckles. The tone hole should always be covered with the pads of your fingers (not your knuckles) because it has enough skin to spread and evenly cover the tone hole. Using your knuckle creates air leaks (especially among younger players with smaller hands) which can cause the clarinet to squeak. This is particularly problematic on the ring finger of the right hand, which has to cover the largest tone hole on the clarinet.
- Flattened fingers. There should be a slight curve to your fingers, as if you’re holding a bottle of water. Curving your fingers properly allows you to cover the tone hole with the pads of your fingers. Usually, people with flattened fingers also cover tone holes with their knuckles, which also causes their fingers to be too far over on the clarinet keyboard. Everyone has different hand shapes and sizes, so keep in mind that your finger curvature won’t necessarily look identical to other clarinetists.
- Too much tension. One way I can always tell if a student is using too much finger pressure? The skin color under the nail lightens as blood flow is temporarily stopped due to tension. (Press your thumb and pointer fingers tightly together and watch the color change under your nail to see what I mean).
- Lobster fingers. Fingers should move quietly and fluidly as you change notes – they shouldn’t snap and make noises like a lobster clicking its claws. A little key noise is natural on clarinet, but make sure you’re not slapping or adding to the noise.
Practice in front of a mirror regularly to check that you are maintaining proper finger position. It can be frustrating to correct and maintain proper finger placement and position, but the resulting improved technique you will experience will be worth your patience!
Further reading: The Bonade Clarinet Compendium is an excellent resource on proper clarinet finger position (among many other clarinet topics), and it can be read online here.
Happy Friday, and happy practicing!