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Fingerings and Hand Position

Cynthia Ellis | July 2013

    I remember teaching a new student and the topic of alternate fingerings came up. She seemed most perplexed and said, “My former teacher did not allow me to use alternate fingerings.” When I asked why not, she said, “Well, they are just not as good as the real fingerings.” Well, of course not as in many cases they are better.
    Most flutists do not consider taking the right hand pinky off for E6 to be an alternate fingering. It is just the best fingering for most uses of this note (High forte sustained chords, for example, might require this note to be slightly lower; so taking the pinky off can lower the note). The same goes for G#6, as adding the right hand second/third finger combination lowers the pitch. This is incredibly useful in passages where the player wants to blend and bring that note down in pitch as well. The question should not be whether to use alternative fingerings, but rather which fingering choice produces the best result for each musical context.

Alternate Fingerings
    Choosing an appropriate fingering boils down to a few key issues, including whether the player wishes to change the pitch of a note, alter the timbre of a note (to create a better instrumental blend or balance), or find a better option for technical passages. For example, there are three viable fingerings for Bb in the first two octaves on the flute and piccolo. (Thumb Bb, 1000/0004, Thumb, 1000/1004, Thumb, 1000/Bb lever 004) If there is more than one way to finger a note, choose whichever way feels the best for the combination of notes in a passage.
    As an orchestral piccolo player, being sensitive to intonation goes hand in hand with the job. I often choose alternate fingerings because they solve problems with the built-in pitch tendencies of certain notes. For example, to improve the intonation of the long sustained C5 played ppp at the end of the last movement of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite #2 (Romeo at the tomb of Juliet), I always choose the alternate of no thumb,1230/1030 to raise the pitch.  This gives me the room to blow down just a little to put this note exactly where it should be, octaves above the gentle string bass pizzicato foundation of the chord on the same note. This fingering also creates a lovely veiled timbre that surrounds this pitch in a velvety glow – just the effect needed as the work comes to an emotionally moving close.
    Jan Gippo was the first piccolo instructor who introduced me to the concept of alternate fingerings. These tried and true fingerings became incorporated into his playing over the years and are tremendously valuable resources. Try to incorporate a new fingering each week in your practice and performance schedule. (For a list of alternate fingerings, click here to see Jan Gippo’s piccolo article from Sept. 1990).

Trill Fingerings
    This is another area where knowing a few options can really improve technique. My piccolo has a split-E mechanism which makes the traditional trill fingering for E-F# in the third octave a little resistant. (A repairman can make a slight adjustment in key heights to fix that.) One option is to try fingering E6 and trilling both LH 2 and RH 1 together for a super clean high E-F# trill. This is useful in the long trill in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.
    Trills activate the fingers in such a direct way. When you are trilling, usually you are focused on the motion of one finger at a time. I use Taffanel et Gaubert #17 with a metronome nearly every day as part of my warm up on the flute. Pay attention to the upstroke of the finger. Then pay attention to the down stroke and make sure it is not too heavy (it is easier to put a finger down than it is to raise it).  Listen to make sure both notes are equal in tone color and volume. I often take the particular trill sequences I have in my piccolo repertory for the week and practice those combinations with a metronome.

    Because the piccolo is smaller and the fingers are closer together than they are on the flute, it is important to keep the fingers very close to the keys and to move the fingers from the knuckle down. Do not move the entire hand as this will slow you down and create unnecessary tension in the hand. Remember to keep the arms relaxed and try not to reflect tension in the shoulders. Due to the small size of the instrument, it is easy to raise the shoulders (especially on the right side) or worse, to hunch over the instrument. Be aware of body alignment by aligning the shoulders over hips, having the head balanced on a long, flexible spine, and maintaining that slight curve in the lower back. I think of keeping width in my shoulders to avoid that piccolo player crouch that can happen if you collapse the chest and bring the shoulders too far forward.
    The palm of the left hand should face the wall to the right. It should not face you. Keep the left hand perpendicular to the piccolo. The right hand thumb supports the weight of the instrument so all the fingers are free to be as mobile as possible. The right hand pinky is not responsible for balance or holding the instrument. If you have a sore pinky or find it difficult to pick it up for a D-Eb trill, you are probably pushing down too hard on this little key. Lighten up. Experiment with the angle of the piccolo. It should not be held with perfectly straight alignment as in marching-band style. Adjusting the angle from front to back can clarify the tone quality.
    Great musicians always say, “It’s the little things that make a difference.” And with the piccolo, they are all little things. Keep your musical curiosity active and experiment with a few fingerings. It will make a difference.