TO B OR NOT TO B?

Updated: Sep 17

Over the years, I have seen many discussions about the “correct” B flat fingering to teach flute beginners. Many teachers feel quite strongly about which one should be taught first, and which one should be used most. Alternate fingerings can facilitate fast passages, and one may be more helpful when moving between certain notes. So what are the B flat options, and which to teach first?



What are these fingerings?

  1. Long B flat (1 and 1, play B natural and add RH index finger F key)

  2. Thumb B flat (play B but with the left thumb key)

  3. Lever B flat (play B natural and add the small lever above F key)

The case for each

  1. Long B flat – this is used in many beginner band books and consequently is often taught first. Long B flat is very useful in chromatic scales and passages, or in music with both B natural and B flats, or if the music has third register F sharp. As the co-ordination between long B flat and other notes is more difficult than with the thumb B flat, some teachers feel it should be taught first, but it could also be argued that co-ordination of fingers should be easier to begin with, as co-ordination is a skill which develops gradually.

  2. Thumb B flat – this thumb key is called the B flat key for a reason! It makes it very easy to play B flat, particularly in keys with B flat in the key signature. Some teachers feel it is confusing for beginners to move the thumb between two keys, so they teach it after the long B flat fingering. However, it is a good option for pieces in flat keys, unless there are a lot of B naturals, or if the music has third octave F sharps (and as we’re discussing teaching beginners here, this isn’t a consideration at this stage)

  3. Lever B flat – this option is not often taught to beginners, and I didn’t even know about it until I had been playing for some years! It can offer smoother finger changes for chromatic passages, some players find it offers better intonation that long B flat, and it can be helpful in passages with a mixture of B flats and B naturals.


Which do I teach first and why?


In my flute series The Young Flute Player, I teach the notes B and A first as I think these are the easiest notes for young flutists to get a good sound on. I then move to the neighbouring notes of G and C, after which I add B flat and F, so the students can then play a 5-note F scale. So which B flat fingering do I teach first? Well, I feel that the thumb B flat is both easier and makes more sense in flat keys, such as the F Major 5-note scale my beginners first learn.


The thumb B flat key is called that for a reason; it’s designed to make it easier to play B flat, so don’t look a gift horse in the mouth! If we can make it easier for beginner students, why not? There are so many other things for them to think about in the early stages, such as tone, breathing, tonguing, hand positions; they don’t need an extra finger co-ordination challenge, that can follow later! Developing co-ordination is an ongoing process, so it seems sensible to start with the easier and move to the more difficult later.


Some teachers argue that we should teach long B flat first because it is the hardest, but why increase the difficulty of those early lessons? Let’s just take it one step at a time and walk before we run. Long B flat is most useful in chromatic passages, but few beginners are playing this sort of music, so thumb B flat is perfectly adequate to start with. Some teachers who leave thumb B flat until later find students have difficulty with this because they are used to having their left thumb in one position, so starting with thumb B flat avoids this problem. Of course, if you have a student who finds the fingering for long B flat easy, by all means give them both B flat fingerings from the start!



Balance


Some teachers and band directors feel that long B flat gives an additional point of balance in the early days when students are learning how to hold the flute. I would argue that students need to realise early on that their left thumb is not a balance point and has to move – sometimes it will press the B natural key, sometimes the B flat key and sometimes it will just rest on these, not depressing either key. As the left thumb is not one of the three main balance points (chin, lower part of left index finger, and right thumb), it’s good to have this thumb moving from the beginning.


When my students know enough notes to play a short chromatic passage, OR when B flat is an accidental, I then teach them the long B flat and recommend they use it for these situations.


Additionally, as soon as my students know both thumb and long B flat, I may ask them to play a piece right through with one B flat fingering then play the same piece again with the other. We discuss the pros and cons, so they learn which situations each fingering option is best suited to. I only show the lever B flat option to more advanced students, beginner students do not need this fingering.



The answer?


There’s no “correct” answer; the best fingering to start with is what works best for you and your student. Although I prefer thumb B flat first, it really doesn’t matter which fingering you teach first, but I do suggest introducing students to both thumb B flat and long B flat within their first year of playing.


Although students need to be taught the different B flat options and be proficient in at least the first two, more importantly they need to be taught WHEN to use each one. Which one you teach first depends partly on the age and co-ordination of the individual student; some will cope easily with two B flat fingerings from the start, others will find it much easier to have only the thumb B flat first. In the end it’s personal choice!


Karen North has been teaching flute and class music for nearly 40 years. She is the author of the popular method series "The Young Flute Player" and has commissioned many new works for intermediate flute repertoire in "Lyrical Flute Legends" and "Inspiring Flute Solos." Karen has written a book "Fun & Games for Music Lessons", and has recently currently worked with specialist consultants on repertoire books for Violin, Clarinet and Saxophone.

Karen has also organized an international FLUTE CHAMPIONSHIP to give students of all ages and abilities an opportunity to submit a video performance to an outstanding panel of judges.

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