Abracadabra! 3rd Octave Trick Fingerings

Welcome to another Flute Friday (posted on Saturday….).


Solo and orchestral works are often riddled with passages that fall well under the fingers when played on a piano but do not translate well to the flute, particularly in the high register. We drill these passages in the practice room in military boot camp style to train our fingers to play the pattern on the page, sometimes taking days, months, or in extreme cases (Chant de Linos, I’m talking to you), years. Of course, there is an easier way around these seemingly impossible fingerings. The term “trick fingerings” does not refer to strange slights of hand magicians use to trick our eyes into believing they have grown a third hand (although, let’s be honest, that would be incredibly helpful to us as well – anyone who has tried to simultaneously play and conduct a group would agree). Trick fingerings, or alternate fingerings as they are more eloquently called, are different fingerings we can use to sound the same note as the original fingering. Although these seem like the magical secret of life when you discover them, the sound quality is nearly always different from the original. True trick fingerings, therefore, should be reserved for quick passages where sound quality on individual notes can be masked. Luckily, for many of us, exposed virtuosic passages are where we need trick fingerings the most! These musical shortcuts take the unnecessary elbow grease out performing a passage that goes by in the blink of an eye, allowing you, the performer, to shift your focus onto creating a beautiful sound, convincing dynamics, and an extraordinarily brilliant performance.

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The most basic trick fingerings, and the ones I will focus on today, are based on harmonics. If you have been practicing your harmonic warm-ups, you will know that when you finger a low C and move the lips gradually forward and down as you apply more air, you will produce a series of harmonics that extend into the high register (C, C, G, C, E, G, Bb). The same concept can be used on fingerings in the middle register to achieve harmonic tones sounding in the high register. This is sometimes referred to a “overblowing” a note. The passage C, D, E, F, G in the 3rd octave, for example, is significantly more difficult to play than in the lower octaves because the fingerings are very different. If you encounter a fast-moving passage requiring this progression, an easier alternative is to finger the passage F, G, A, Bb, C in the middle register, overblowing the tones by moving your lips slightly forward and down, to sound the C, D, E, F, G passage in the higher register. It is trick fingering magic! Your fingers will thank you.

This concept can be applied to many other scale-wise passages in the higher register, the most infamous being the 3rd octave passage D, E, F#, G#. These are some of the most difficult fingerings on the flute and have plagued artists for decades. Using the rule of the 5th (meaning any note you overblow in the middle register will sound a perfect 5th above the fingered note), when the middle register fingerings G, A, B, C# are overblown they will sound the same D, E, F#, G# passage. Word of warning: this passage often concludes on a high A and the high D fingering unfortunately will not produce the high A. The high A must be played with the original fingering.

One of my favorite passages to apply trick fingerings to is taken from the Carmen Fantasie by Francios Borne. Measures 103-104 feature the rather clunky F, E, D#, E repeated 32nd note progression:


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A rather virtuosic figure, fingering and overblowing a middle Bb, A, G#, A will produce the same pitches while cleverly disguising the difference in sound quality. The passage is, therefore, significantly easier to play, allowing the performer to create an exciting crescendo to the climax of the phrase.

Another passage that can be simplified using trick fingerings is taken from the final phrase in Chant de Linos by Jolivet. 3 measures from the end of the work, a fast-moving passage in sextuplets appears, arranged in a D, F, G, A, G, F pattern:

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This is a very exhausting phrase to perform with standard fingerings. Practice overblowing the progression G, Bb, C, (high A standard fingering), C, Bb using middle register fingerings. Same pitches. Significantly easier to play. As the conclusion of the work, the focus in this phrase should be placed on the 8th note D pitches rather than the spinning line leading to tonic. Using trick fingerings in this passage helps to accomplish this while retaining the bravura achieved in the faster moving notes.

There are many other trick fingerings that can be used to achieve different types of sounds in various musical scenarios, however the Rule of the 5th is a great starting place for those of you needing a few shortcuts in faster moving passages. Using these harmonic fingerings has helped me iron out exposed, fast moving passages in orchestral settings, allowing me to focus my sound on the more significant tones in the phrase. If you are interested in learning more about other types of trick fingerings, two great resources are The Other Flute by Robert Dick and A Modern Guide to Fingerings for the Flute by James Pellerite. Both books provide extensive lists of alternate fingerings that can be used to achieve pitches in a variety of contexts. I sometimes consult these texts if overblowing the tone produces a sound quality that I cannot disguise in the line or if I am using an alternate fingering that drastically changes the pitch, adversely affecting intonation with other instruments performing the same phrase.

How have trick fingerings helped you in your musical career? Do you have a favorite alternate fingering that has improved phrases in the 3rd octave? Do you recommend other trick fingerings for passages written in the highest octave?

Happy Fluting!


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