THE FLUTE NERD blog

#FAFQs “Why are there different Bb fingerings on the flute?”

For this month’s edition of my frequently asked flutey questions, we’ll look at why there are three different Bb fingerings on the flute and help you decide when to use them.

“Why are there so many Bb fingerings on the flute?”

For this month’s edition of frequently asked flutey questions, let’s find out why there are three different B flat fingerings on the flute and help you figure out when to use them. 

We’re lucky as flute players to generally only have one fingering per note (excepting a handful of alternate fingerings for tuning or trills). It keeps things wonderfully simple for the most part. (Lord knows how clarinets or oboes deal with their bazillion fingerings!)

But there is one note on the flute that we can play in three different ways – the first and second octave B flat.

So why are there so many different options? And how do we know when to use them? Let’s dive in and find out!

So many Bb fingerings… 

Let’s start with exactly what the three fingerings are:

1+1 Bb: This is also sometimes called a ‘Long Bb’ and it is played like a B natural with the index finger of your right hand. This is likely the first B flat fingering students learn and should often be your default fingering (more on why later)

Thumb Bb: This fingering is very similar to our B natural, but you use the Bb thumb lever (the smaller key to the left) instead of the regular thumb key.

Side Bb: For this fingering, you start with a B natural fingering and add the small lever key next to the F key (see diagram). 

A little history lesson

The modern flute as we know it has changed very little it adopted the mechanical system invented by Theobald Boehm in 1847. Just a few years later in 1850 Giulio Briccialdi requested an additional key for the thumb to allow for easier B flats – so we’ve had these three B flat key options since 1850!

Fun fact: Briccialdi arranged showstopper flute arrangement of ‘Carnival of Venice‘ – which is in F Major, a very easy key to play with the thumb B flat – essentially as propaganda to sell flutes with the new thumb B flat mechanic! 

A little mechanics lesson

While there are three fingerings that we can use to play B flat, each fingering performs the same function: to close the key just to the right of the B key (the key between your first and second left hand fingers). 

Experiment with each fingering. Do you notice that each has it’s own mechanism to close that key between your two fingers? Cool, right? And the even cooler part is that, regardless of which fingering you use, you never actually touch this crucial key!

So why don’t we just use that B flat key, rather than messing with all these other fingerings? You technically could play a B flat by starting with a B natural and simply using your second finger to press this B flat key between the B and A keys. But then we’d end up not having enough fingers to play the G# key!

Choosing between the long Bb, thumb Bb and side Bb

So now to the important bit – when do we use these fingerings and why?

Long Bb (1+1 Bb)

While this often the first fingering we learn, it’s actually the hardest to play as it often means some finger swapping (fingers going up while others come down). For example, play G A Bb using this fingering. Did you notice that when your second finger of your left hand came up for the A, the Bb finger had to come down? 

When to use it: There are two instances I use this fingering: when I can’t smoothly use the thumb or side B flat and when I’m practicing technique. You’ll read more about when we can’t use the other two fingerings below, but sometimes, we just have to use this fingering. But when I’m practicing technique patterns or scales, I use this fingering in the same way athletes use weights. By working to make sure my fingerings are clean when using a much harder fingering, when I switch to an easier one in my pieces, they feel sooooo much easier. :) 

When not to use it: When you can easily use either of the other two fingerings.

Thumb Bb

This is a super easy fingering to use as it means you don’t have to get the right hand involved at all. When using the thumb B flat fingering, the idea is to leave the thumb on the B flat key even when you’re not playing a B (essentially you’re using the B flat key as your general thumb key).

When to use it: This fingering is great for most flat key signatures as you’ll almost always be playing B flats rather than B naturals. So any pieces, scales or passages when you have mostly B flats, use this fingering to minimise the number of fingers that have to move! 

When not to use it: You won’t want to use this for passages that would mean you’d have to roll your thumb back and forth. Try going quickly between moving your thumb back and forth between the B flat thumb and regular thumb key. Not easy, right? You obviously can’t play a B natural with the B flat thumb down, but you also can’t play a third octave F# and B. So anytime you have B flats next to a B natural, high F# or high B, you won’t want to use the thumb B flat because it would mean rolling the thumb. However, it’s common to use a C, C# or high G/G# as a way to switch the thumb keys as these notes don’t use the thumb. 

Side Bb

This fingering is not quite as easy as the thumb B flat, but as you can press this lever by using the side of your right hand first finger, it doesn’t need the same amount of motion as using the long B flat.

When to use it: This fingering is perfect for fast chromatic passages, or in passages when you need to quickly move between left hand notes as you can also keep the B flat lever pressed while playing any left hand note. (For example, try playing G A Bb while holding the side B flat. You only have to move the second and third fingers of your left hand, which allows you to play these notes very quickly!)

When not to use it: The only thing to watch out for with this fingering is if you have to play a B flat next to a note that uses the first finger of your right hand (for example an E or F) as that first finger won’t be able to move between the side B flat key and F key without first lifting the B flat key. (Like the thumb B flat, you will also need to make sure the side B flat key is not pressed when playing high F# or B.)

Mark your music

I highly recommend planning what fingerings you’ll chose and marking them in your music so that you never get caught by surprise! You can devise your own marking system, but I personally use a “Th Bb” and brackets to denote when my thumb Bb key should come on and off (see example). 

Bb markings for flute

Find what works for you!

I hope this has helped explained what the different fingerings are (see the flute fingering chart above), when we use each and why! But keep in mind that all these fingerings are designed to make things easier, so if one feels clunky or just feels too hard to make it sound clean, don’t use it! :)

If you don’t have a quality flute fingering chart yet, check out this comprehensive one I’ve put together. It’s a FREE 17-page resource that includes fingerings for the flute’s full range, fourth octave notes, alternative fingerings, and trill fingerings! 

What are your flutey questions?

Have any other burning questions about the flute you’d like me to answer? Let me know what they are and I may feature in my next edition of #FAFQs.

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