B-flat options

I will readily admit that I’m a bit of a nut when it comes to playing B-flat on the flute. I’m always very deliberate when it comes to which fingering I choose for this note. It’s really important to make sure that you’re using the most advantageous fingering for the passage you’re playing to make sure your transitions between notes are smooth.

How many ways do we have to play B-flat, you ask? Excellent question!

There are three unique fingerings for B-flat:

1. Most beginning band books introduce this one:

Obviously, this works. However, I find myself using it only very rarely because it can be very awkward. Try playing from B-flat to G. Notice that you have to press down two keys with your left hand while simultaneously lifting the pointer finger of your right hand. Any time we have to lift fingers while pressing down other fingers, there is the very real possibility of not exactly coordinating them perfectly. This can result in a clunky transition, or even an unintentional wrong note between the two notes you intended to play. This might not be an issue when you’re playing slow music, but when you find yourself facing a fast passage, efficiency is everything.

2. The B-flat thumb option:

If you weren’t sure about that key to the left side of the thumb key, you’ve been missing out! Try playing B-flat, switching between the Band Book B-flat and the one using the B-flat thumb key. You shouldn’t notice any difference in pitch at all. (If you do, you might have a leak somewhere!) This is a legitimate fingering for B-flat, and it isn’t “cheating” at all. In fact, you can use this key for ANY note requiring the thumb key to be pressed, except for high F-sharp and B-naturals. This means that the B-flat thumb key is really handy to use in any piece that features a flat key signature. Try the same exercise as above, playing from B-flat to G. This time, use the B-flat thumb key. See how much easier that is?

3. The B-flat lever:

Ever wonder what that strange-looking key was to the left of your right index finger? That’s the B-flat lever, and it is incredibly handy in certain situations. You can use this in what are called prepared fingerings. It works well in chromatic scales and in the G-flat major scale and helps us avoid that unfortunate predicament of having to pick up fingers while simultaneously pressing others down.  Here’s how to use it in the G-flat scale: Play G-flat as usual. When playing the A-flat, use the standard A-flat fingering. However, go ahead and press down the B-flat lever at this time. It doesn’t affect the pitch at all. Then, when you lift the appropriate fingers to play B-flat, you only have to lift instead of having to also press down a key to play B-flat. Pressing down keys in anticipation of a note is what is called a prepared fingering. This might seem overly-complicated at first but once you work it into your technique, it does make things smoother.

Make sure you choose the correct B-flat fingering for the music! Playing more efficiently is always a laudable goal, so streamline your practicing by familiarizing yourself with all of your options.

* Fingering charts courtesy of the Fingering Diagram Builder by Dr. Bret Pimentel, Assistant Professor of Woodwinds at Delta State University and all-around nice guy. Check out his work (including fingering chart builders for the other woodwinds) at www.bretpimentel.com.

7 thoughts on “B-flat options

  1. I also find that I use #1 only rarely, and I’ve been tempted to teach #2 as the “standard” fingering in my woodwind methods class (especially since we rarely venture into sharp keys). Do you think that’s a viable approach? For purposes of that class, I can really only teach a minimum of fingerings well, and we’ll race through a few alternates (including #1 and #2).

    • I’m sure there are people who would disagree, but yes. I think it’s reasonable to teach the B-flat thumb option as the standard in the context of a woodwinds method class.

      When I start teaching a new student, that’s usually one of the first things I insist be changed because I really think it improves his or her technique so much.

  2. When i teach fute to my young students I teach them the #1 methods of B flat. I find that it’s hard to have the thumb and the pointer finger obove one and other and I have yet to have taught them the B flat lever

  3. Boy great topic…

    I play jazz flute and sax… I treat the thumb Bb like the Bis key on the sax… Ignore it at your own peril… It’s exactly the same controversial among so called sax purist… They insist that the real fingering is the the standard given in most beginner method books… I believe beginners and pros alike should utilize the innovations made to their instruments… They are there to make playing easier… Find the easiest and fastest way that is in tune and we’ll never go wrong… Just my opinion

  4. Thank you for calming me down. Tonight my flute teacher gently (but firmly) told me to stop using 1 + 1 and start using the thumb option. I feel like I’m starting over from scratch! My tone has gone from decent to lousy in no time flat (pardon the pun), but I’m finding that re-learning the flute after all these years is one step forward, two steps back anyway. My brain tells me that the thumb option will make my life easier (and my notes sweeter) in the long run, but for now I’m back to playing 6-note tunes and struggling all the way. But you don’t want to hear about my emotional problems and flute insecurities! I just wanted to thank you for such a cogent and clear blog post that made me think, “Yes, I can do it, and now I better understand why different options are good.”

    • I’m sure you will get the hang of it quickly! As you’ve already realized, it will really pay off in terms of technique, so it’s worth the brief struggle. Good luck!

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