Some Thoughts on the Bb Thumb Keys


When I was a student back in College my flute teachers were adamant about NOT using any B flat fingering other than the “one and one” fingering. I used the “thumb B flat” fingering often when I was stuck, but my teachers used to admonish me not to do that, always telling me that I was “cheating”.

Additionally, I didn’t even know or even learn—as many flute students also today don’t know or learn—that there was another additional B flat fingering (the side lever) in addition to the thumb B flat and the “one and one” fingerings —-or what that side lever was even for …. And so of course I simply never even used that it and since I tried to be a good flute student and to listen to my teachers, I struggled to never use the Thumb B flat fingering and the side lever B flat fingering all through out my college years.

Interestingly, nowadays many new flute students enter my studio only knowing the thumb B flat fingering! My how times have changed! However, they may not have changed for the best. A little light on this situation might be therefore useful to all.

First of all…There are indeed three basic (as opposed to alternate) B flat fingerings on the flute…and each of them is on the flute for a reason…When you think about it…. There has to be a reason for those extra keys to be there…doesn’t there?

The standard fingering is—as I was rightly taught—what we usually call the “one and one” fingering. All flute students should learn that fingering as the Basic B Flat fingering early on in their flute study because when teachers initially teach the thumb B flat fingering instead of this one, many young flutists get so used to it that they simply can’t play any other B flat fingering.

Well, why is that a problem you may ask??

Well, because many young flutists who play only in Band or only take Band lessons play mostly in flat keys this fingering is so easy that they just get too used to it and don’t develop the technique necessary to be able to integrate the other two fingerings into their playing later on …Moreover, many times such young players come into my studio for the first time and don’t even know that there is a note named B Natural! When I ask them to play “B”… they play B flat instead!

Unfortunately, as I often then explain, there are pieces written for our instrument that are not in flat keys!!! When they are then faced with having to play in sharp keys where there are B naturals… not B flats….it can be really hard for young players in this situation. It can also be a really hard, long and trying process for many young students to change their thumb position in order to play B naturals when they could have been developing other aspects of their technique. It can set them back for months— if not years!

Trying to change at that point to the B natural position with their left hand thumbs can also seriously upset their hand position and balance. You also can’t —-for example—- play a high F# with your B Flat thumb key down. It simply won’t speak due to the acoustics of the instrument. So, in some ways, my teachers were right… playing B Flat with the “one and one” fingering–although it is harder initially— is really better for a young flute player and it can be really “cheating” especially for young players to use the Thumb fingering for B Flat in the early stages of a flute playing.

Now as to the other B flat fingering…the B flat side lever fingering …which is the one students usually don’t even know exists–but the one students often will ask about when well into their flute careers…

Well…Interestingly enough I once had a student who was taught initially by a former Russian (Soviet Union) flute teacher who called that key the “A sharp key” not the “B Flat lever” as I was told it was named. Slightly taken aback with his terminology I started to think about it… and realized that— hey maybe—- that was —in fact—a better name for that key because that is the note you often use that fingering for. It is actually on the flute to avoid contrary motion when fingering A Sharp in Sharp keys. So although I was taught that it was the called the B flat lever, calling it the A Sharp key has some real merits. . (Although to give some credit to us Americans… in the enharmonic flat keys above four flats we would be calling that note a B Flat)

Now for its use….scales and etudes or pieces where there are more than 4 sharps and or 4 flats in the key signature should be a hint that this key may be needed to be used instead of either the B flat Thumb key or the “one and one” fingering. In addition, if you want your chromatic scales to be really even for All-State or District auditions…. This is the way to go! Use it and your scales will be much cleaner! (No contrary motion at all= cleaner and faster technique)

I now teach my students to learn how and where to use ALL THREE B FLAT Fingerings…BUT the key here is to …. NOT to become dependent on only one of them. And to learn them in the correct order—- Those extra keys (the thumb key and the lever) have been added for a reason…. so why not use them? They can only make your flute playing better…But for your basic everyday use— the main fingering for B Flat should be the “one and one” fingering! Then as you get more advanced you should learn the proper use of the B Flat Thumb Key, and once you flute balance is secure you should learn to how to slide from the B Flat Thumb key to the B Natural key (which is where your left hand thumb should normally be 99% of the time!) and then later on, you should learn the use of the A Sharp or as we call it here in the US… the B Flat side lever.

Good luck with all this!! (Aren’t we flutists lucky that we don’t have to deal with all the extra keys that the clarinetists and oboe players do?) We have the easiest fingering system of all the woodwind instruments—- thanks to Theobald Boehm who invented it—- and in the end — it is up to us to use it to our best advantage.

Posted on November 6, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Hello Judy,
    After purchasing 2 flutes for my nieces 2 Christmases ago, I caught the flute bug while researching flutes, so I picked up a Pearl PF-505 student model flute for myself. The action is very nice but the HJ has proven to be very frustrating!

    Having to do my own research on the subject of the three-B-flats I have found this subject to be the most confusing for me as an adult beginner, perhaps because there was no ambiguity regarding the primary fingerings for the Bb Clarinet that I played in school from 1967-1972.

    Lately I have been working on the Sonata for Flute & Harpsichord, BWV 1031 in E-flat Major. Plenty of B-flat confusion here!

    I have to admit to you that I have not yet even tried the Bb Thumb lever, only the one-and-one, and what James Phelan calls the Bb-Shake-Key (Bb side lever).

    I do agree with you that the Bb-Shake key is very smooth when playing scales. Of course the One-and-One makes it easy to land on a note such as F natural or any other note where the first finger of the right hand is about to be used, so arpeggios seem to go well with the one-and-one.

    Lately I have been reading (Jennifer Cluff and others) that the One-and-One Bb does not have a very good tone, whereas the shake or thumb lever Bb’s are much better sounding. This has me thinking that the one-and-one should be reserved for rapid passages only (?) and any sustained Bb’s should make use of one of the other two fingerings. (?)

    However to my ears the one-and-one is only slightly inferior in tone to the other two.

    Perhaps I should abandon the one-and-one altogether? I’m sure that with sufficient practice I can play rapid passages with the Shake-Bb-Lever or Thumb-Bb-Lever and this would put an end to making B-flat decisions! what do you think?

  2. PS. I realize that the Thumb-Bb-Lever
    and the Shake-Bb-Lever produce the same quality of tone because exactly the same tone holes are closed with either fingering.

  3. my new band teacher has pretty much taught the flutes that they need to use the thumb key, but I’ve never heard of using the shake key or the lever for B flat…. i’m so used to one and one that i can’t do other fingerings. it’ll take some getting used to…

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