Right Hand Down (or not) on Clarinet

Clarinet teaching has a number of controversial subjects – and this is one of them.  Hopefully, this post will help you look at both sides and come up with your own decision of how you want to teach this. Most importantly, you’ll know WHY you choose to teach it the way you do. (At the end of this article you can get my full Beginner Fall and Beginner Spring Warm-ups free.)

What is “Right hand down?”

In general it means that on throat tones (G, G#, A, Bb in the middle of the staff) clarinet players can put down some or all of the fingers in the right hand.

Reasons TO put down the right hand?

    • For pitch
    • For resonance (tone)
  • For technique

Reasons NOT to put down the right hand?

    • As a crutch (to help hold the instrument)
  • It often causes you to break the “Law of Minimal Motion” in technical passages

Throat tones – G#, A & Bb – can be bad notes on clarinet. Some instruments are worse than others, but most of the time if a young clarinet player plays those notes with a decent embouchure, they are still gross. They are often sharp (sometimes very sharp!) and the Bb specifically has a thin, pinched tone. What makes it worse is that they are very common notes on clarinet and are often prominent in repertoire for young bands.

One more consideration is that the notes A & Bb are often right next to a B or C right above which are much more stable, resonant notes – making the discrepancy even more noticeable.

Keeping the right hand down in some passages can help greatly with technique, especially in what people call “Crossing the Break” or going from ‘no fingers to all fingers’ type fingerings.  It can eliminate many unnecessary finger movements and help facilitate smoother transitions from throat tones to notes like B, C, or D.

As a Crutch
The biggest reason to not teach right hand down is that it can provide a crutch to beginners. I think some teachers do it the first few weeks of school to help stabilize the instrument when students are learning open G. However, this often results in students feeling that every G they ever play must have the right hand down. (Read an alternative here.) This can create huge technical problems later and if you include the right pinky in the fingering, it can create major pinky problems later as well. The right pinky must be free to move to all 4 pinky keys easily, not locked into the home position.

It can also be a crutch that keeps student from ever truly crossing the break smoothly. Although most advanced clarinetists tend to add fingers early sometimes when going from a throat tone to a higher note, I think most would also tell you they don’t have to add them. If students don’t learn how to just put down all the fingers and have the note come out, it can become a technical and musical problem down the line.

“Law of Minimal Motion”
When students are taught that the fingering for open G is 4, 5, 6, R Pinky, they have a hard time breaking that habit when they advance enough to realize that’s really not true. So a student that has a fast DEFGFED type pattern all in the left hand will put down the right hand on the G, involving 8 finger motions and an entire hand that have no business being involved.  That pattern is a simplified example, but this is one of the habits I have had the hardest time getting high school students to fix. The most difficult cases can cause hundreds of extra finger motions in their all-state music because they want to put down their right hand on every throat tone. Read more on the “Law of Minimal Motion.”

Let’s look at examples dealing with “A”
When you add the right hand – fingers ‘4,5,6, R pinky’ – the pitch goes down. The tone often improves as well. If you add pinkies (the low F and/or Low E) the pitch should go down a hair more because you’re closing holes. However, I don’t use either of those fingerings for A. If it’s a long note I usually finger it with finger 3, 4 & 6 down. Why? Because when I’ve tried many combinations of fingerings and that one works best for me on my instrument. Another very popular option (possibly the most popular) is to add fingers 2,3 & 5,6.

Long A – example of where I would use resonance fingering

Now, if I am playing a fast technical passage that has an “A” that never “crosses the break” to go to B or C or anything involving the right hand, I would not add anything. The small amount of improvement on a fast “A” is not worth the technical tradeoff of violating the Law of Minimal Motion.

Fast technique where I don’t add anything (until needed for C)

However, if I’m playing a fast technical passage that has an A that goes back and forth to B or C and involves the right hand being down a lot, I would leave down as much as finger 3,4,5,6 and both pinkies depending on the passage. 

Fast Technique where I would leave down all right hand

Fast technique where I would leave down 3 fingers or some fingers down.

Hopefully, the examples above show you why there can’t be a 100% correct answer to whether or not you should teach right hand down. Let me tell you what I do.

I do NOT teach right hand down when I first teach the throat tone notes. I teach the true basic fingering only.

Around January, I introduce this exercise on the beginner Spring Warm-up:

I INSIST that students put down their right hand on this exercise. I remind them every day and check it obsessively.

Around March, I introduce this exercise, also on the beginner Spring Warm-up:

Again, I INSIST that students put down their right hand. Before we start I tell them to “super-glue” the right hand (3 fingers and pinky) down and don’t let it move the entire line. I check it daily and include that heavily in grades or chair test scores. (for more about this, listen to this podcast on crossing the break.)

As we find places the book or music where having the right hand down is helpful, I mark it on their music like this:

I continue to have them mark ‘RH down’ spots as long as needed and for most students that seems to be about 2-3 years.

I also explain why I’m doing it. Is it for technique (law of minimal motion) or for resonance? Letting them know why we are using it, allows students, as they mature, to make the call for themselves about when to use right hand and when not to. This is how I help students learn make good technical and musical choices on their own, without relying on me every time.

If you would like a PDF download of both the fall and spring beginning clarinet warm-ups I use, click here. This will deliver a copy to your email and keep you up to date with new resources from CrossingThe Break.

Other articles you may enjoy:
Clarinet Deodorant
The First Written Warmup – Beginning Clarinets
Bass Clarinet – Switching the Right Students

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A 1999 music education graduate of WTAMU, Tamarie Sayger held band director positions in Plano and Odessa, TX for 5 years. As a private clarinet instructor in Texas for 16 years, she has taught hundreds of students from grade 6-12 in classes, sectionals, and individual lessons. Mrs. Sayger has presented at district in-services and co-presented at the Texas Bandmasters Association convention.  Her podcast, Crossing The Break, can be found on iTunes. This website, CrossingTheBreak.com, provides resources for clarinet teachers around the country.