From the Director's Desk

Recorder Fingering Systems
The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly


Just as with most other aspects of recorder playing, there exists a good deal of misinformation in circulation as regards recorder fingering systems. Most recorder players beyond the rank beginner stage are fond of reciting that there are two recorder fingering systems, baroque and German, and that the former is desirable, politically correct, and therefore a Good Thing, whereas the latter is undesirable, politically incorrect, and most certainly a Bad Thing. Like most folk wisdom, there is more than a grain of truth in this statement, but it cannot be taken simplistically at face value, because it is both incomplete and partially incorrect as it stands. There are in fact three, not two, systems (or, more correctly, families of systems) of recorder fingering. Furthermore, what is frequently called baroque fingering is in fact not baroque fingering at all but modern fingering. And the much-maligned German fingering does have its uses, however politically incorrect they may seem to some. Nothing, it seems, is ever as simple or clear-cut as one would like it to be. Take courage and read on.

First, it is necessary to establish that there are in point of fact three separate and distinct recorder fingering systems, which can best be described as historical, modern, and German. The best way to differentiate among these three systems is to describe the fingerings they require to play the fourth and the raised fourth scale degrees in both octaves, although these systems often require different fingerings for other scale degrees as well. This information may be observed from the following chart:

Fingering
System
First Octave f'' (soprano)
First Octave bb' (alto)
Second Octave f''' (soprano)
Second Octave bb'' (alto)
First Octave f#'' (soprano)
First Octave b' (alto)
Second Octave f#''' (soprano)
Second Octave b'' (alto)
Historical O / 123 / 46 / / 123 / 4 / O / 123 / 56 / / 123 / 5 /
Modern O / 123 / 46 / 7 / 123 / 46 / O / 123 / 56 / / 123 / 5 /
German O / 123 / 4 / / 123 / 4 / O / 123 / 56 / 7 / 123 / 5 / 7

Let us then discuss each of these fingering systems in turn, noting its characteristics, advantages, and disadvantages.

Historical Fingering: as one might suspect, this is the family of fingering systems used by original renaissance (late 16th/early 17th century) and baroque (late 17th/early 18th century) recorders, as well as by some (but by no means not all) modern reproductions of renaissance and baroque recorders. In comparison to modern fingering, which is in fact a latter-day derivative of historical fingering, it requires a simple forked fingering for the fourth scale degree in the first octave. The downside of historical fingering is that the fingering for the fourth scale degree in the second octave is more cumbersome, requiring a half hole by the right ring finger on the sixth tone hole. On some instruments, this fingering can be circumvented by using / 123 / 4 / 7 instead of / 123 / 4 /, which is nevertheless still somewhat cumbersome for some players. A further downside to historical fingering is that the raised fifth scale degree in the second octave tends to be rather flat; this is not wholly undesirable if one wishes to play in one of the meantone temperaments, where G# and C# are lower, but it is decidedly a drawback to the great majority of players who attempt to play in some semblance of equal temperament.

There are, of course, substantial differences between historical renaissance and baroque fingerings, since the bores of those instrument types differ radically from one another. One might do well to distinguish between historical renaissance fingerings and historical baroque fingerings, but that could well complicate matters still further. However, it might be worthwhile noting that most surviving original renaissance recorders require a fingering of / / / for the second scale degree in the second octave ("look, Ma, no hands!"). Since this makes holding on to the instrument a bit problematic, to say the least, most modern makers of renaissance recorders produce instruments which use the standard baroque/modern fingering 2 / / for this note. Furthermore, most renaissance recorders use completely different fingerings for the raised fifth, sixth, and raised sixth scale degrees in the second octave than either historical baroque or modern recorders. There are often other differences in fingering as well, especially for chromatic notes, but I note that some of our readers' eyes are starting to glaze over, so I had best stop here.

Modern Fingering: this term, regrettably used by relatively few people, is in fact the best word for describing the fingering system that is most widely used today. In the early and mid 20th century, the term English fingering was used (primarily by the English, as one might expect) to differentiate it from the German fingering system then in use in northern European countries. Today, most players refer to this system as "baroque fingering," but this term is very much a misnomer, seeing as it is most decidedly not the fingering system used in the baroque period or on baroque recorders. As previously discussed this latter system is correctly termed historical or baroque fingering; applying the term "baroque" to modern recorders just confuses the issue. Perhaps neo-baroque might be more appropriate.

Modern (or English or neo-Baroque) fingering is in fact a derivation of historical baroque fingering. As developed by 20th century makers in England, such as the Arnold Dolmetsch workshop, modern fingering resulted from making the fifth hole on the recorder somewhat larger and/or higher. This made it necessary to close in addition the lowest fingerhole with the right little finger when playing the fourth scale degree in the first octave, resulting in slightly more complication, but it also had the salutary effect of making the fourth scale degree in the second octave simpler to finger, replacing as it did the cumbersome half-hole on the sixth tonehole with a fully-closed sixth tonehole. It also raised the pitch of the raised fifth scale degree in the second octave, correcting the flatness that is often unavoidable with historical baroque fingering.

Modern fingering is the most universal recorder fingering system in use today. It is used for virtually all instruments of modern design, save for a very few vestigial remnant student instruments made in German fingering. Interestingly enough, most custom makers of my acquaintance report that the great majority of orders they receive for reproduction baroque recorders are for instruments with modern rather than historical fingering. Apparently many if not most advanced players wanting to play reproduction historical recorders may well pay lip service to the authenticity of historical fingering and single holes, but when it comes right down to putting their money on the line, they opt for instruments with modern fingering and double tone holes -- which is perhaps not such a bad thing after all!

German Fingering: as the term implies, this was a drastically modified fingering system developed by several German recorder makers working between World War I and World War II. One frequently hears and reads comments to the effect that those makers developed German fingering in a misguided effort to "correct" the out-of-tune fourth scale degree on historical recorders when fingered with a simple 0 / 123 / 4 / . This, however, is utter nonsense. Anyone who has read the writings of and examined the instruments of such pioneer makers as Peter Harland can only come to the conclusion that he and his colleagues knew exactly what they were doing when they sought to redesign the recorder. What they were attempting to do, quite simply, was to redesign the recorder so that its fingering for the fourth scale degree in both octaves was identical to that of modern woodwind instruments such as the flute, clarinet, and saxophone. The impetus was quite obviously a pedagogical one: it made the transition from recorder to a modern woodwind much simpler for a schoolchild. Apparently, then as now, many educators regarded the recorder as little more than a pre-band instrument.

As may be gleaned from the above comparison chart, the fingerings for the fourth scale degree in both octaves are identical and greatly simplified from historical recorder fingerings. Unfortunately, these simplifications came at too great a price: the fingerings for the raised fourth scale degree became much more complex and frequently less stable and more out of tune as well, and the raised fifth scale degree in the second became extremely flat, even more so than in historically-fingered instruments. Furthermore, voicing became far more problematic on instruments with German fingering. The end result was that German-fingered recorders were more cumbersome to play in anything other than the keys of C and F, were more out of tune and less stable in intonation, and had a windy, breathy tone quality. Needless to say, these are not qualities that are much in demand today.

Fortunately, German fingering never caught on very widely outside of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Even in those countries, its use has declined drastically during the past half century as awareness of its acoustical inadequacies has increased. Relatively few teachers advocate its use any more. Some European makers who once made both German and "baroque" [sic] models have in recent decades either eliminated the production of German-fingered instruments or else reduced them to just one or two inexpensive student level models.

Bottom line: we do not import or sell German-fingered recorders, as we cannot recommend them to our customers. Any player, even a very young schoolchild, can learn to play a recorder with modern fingering without difficulty. Furthermore, a customer using modern fingering has available a wide variety of high quality instruments in all prices ranges; a customer seeking an instrument with German fingering can choose from only a very limited selection of low-end student instruments. Customers seeking to purchase renaissance or baroque reproduction recorders need to decide whether they want instruments with historical fingering or modern fingering. Most players reach the conclusion that the advantages of the latter outweigh the authenticity of the former.


Copyright, Antique Sound Workshop, Ltd., 2002. All rights reserved.


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