September 2022

A Focus on Thumb Technique

by Marea Chernoff

This is the first of two articles that will address good thumb technique, including exercises for practicing. The second, future article will feature in greater depth, the role of the thumb in high note production and more advanced information on considerations of thumb technique.

When approaching any technique on an instrument, it is important to consider two points. The first is paying attention to our body and finding relaxation while executing the necessary physical movements. The second is efficiency of movement, giving us the most reward for the least effort, allowing us to play faster and cleaner. If we can achieve these goals, the music will shine through with more ease and enjoyment.

Good Thumb Technique 

In my teaching I see many students who have developed habits for using their left thumb on the recorder that get in the way of proficient technique, which is characterized by clean intervals, speed and especially, clear reliable high notes. The word ‘pinching’ is seen in many books and articles to describe the action of the left thumb on the recorder. I prefer to avoid this term as it suggests an aggressive, tense motion which can lead to the development of bad habits from the beginning. The simple term ‘thumb technique’ or ‘half-holing’ describes how we move and utilize the thumb without the suggestion of force. The term ‘half-hole’, while not entirely accurate, is a word that defines the opening needed to achieve the upper octaves. The action of the thumb needs to be light and agile, freely allowing movement in all joints of the thumb. Take care when moving the thumb to avoid creating motion in the hand or wrist. Keeping the thumb nail relatively short is an asset to the correct positions and ability to move quickly.

The thumb has three main positions: Covering the hole, partially covering the hole and completely uncovering the hole.

1. Covering the hole

Unlike the other fingers which use the fleshy pad to cover the holes, the thumb needs more of an angle. To facilitate flexible, relaxed and quick thumb movements, the fleshy part to the left side of the thumb nail is ideal to cover the hole. This puts the thumb at about a 45-degree angle to the recorder. To find the correct location, create a natural oval shape with your thumb and index finger. Where the index finger connects with the thumb is the part of the thumb that will cover the hole. (See pictures.)

2. Partially covering the hole

This position is a slight modification of the covered angle, involving a tipping of the thumb joints. The movement from closed to open position (half-hole) involves only motion in the thumb, focusing on the top joint, and not the hand or wrist. The thumb nail rests gently against the recorder, allowing the air to flow across the nail through the opening in the thumb hole. Resist the urge to squeeze the recorder (no tension in the thumb) or push the very tip of the thumb into the hole.

3. Completely uncovering the hole

When playing notes with the left thumb raised off the back of the recorder, keep the movement minimal and remain close to the instrument. If the thumb is farther away from the hole than necessary, it is more difficult to return the thumb with sufficient speed and accuracy for the next covered or ‘half-holed’ note. The ultimate position for the thumb in this case is to keep the same angle as when covering or half-holing, raising the thumb off the recorder no more than half an inch. It is important to keep a relaxed but slight bend in the thumb, using the lower joint of the thumb to lift it.

How to Practice Basic Thumb Technique

With any specific technique requiring practice, it is important to focus on just a single detail at a time during a session. You will receive more benefit from targeting one technical aspect in an exercise rather than trying to improve three! Start with the most basic note change and straightforward fingering. Play the exercises slowly while concentrating on the feeling of the movement and tone you are creating. When comfortable and confident with one exercise, move to the next. Achieving success with each exercise may take practicing each day over a period for a dedicated amount of time. If frustration creeps in while honing the process, take a break and come back to it later or the next day.

Covered to uncovered

Find the correct covered thumb position with your thumb, playing C on soprano or F on alto (this will be the fingering that requires the left thumb and middle finger). Lift the thumb off the recorder a small distance, keeping the thumb in the same gently bent position as when the hole was covered. Place the thumb back on the hole, carefully maintaining the angle. Repeat several times until the motion is compact, relaxed and the return to the recorder results in full coverage of the hole.


  • Play low E on soprano or low A on alto with the thumb in the correct covered position. Concentrate on moving only the thumb as described above for half-holing to achieve the higher octave note clearly speaking. Move the thumb back into the covered position and repeat, focusing only on those movements back and forth. Aim for accuracy and consistency.

  • Play low G on soprano or low C on alto and practice the same exercise.

  • Play low A on soprano or low D on alto and practice the same exercise.

Half-hole to uncovered

Find the correct half-hole position with your thumb, playing G on soprano or C on alto (this will be the fingering that requires the left thumb and three left hand fingers). Lift the thumb off the recorder a small distance, keeping the thumb at the same half-hole angle (for the sole purpose of practicing the thumb motion, the second note will be an alternate fingering - C on sop/F on alto - with just the three fingers on the left hand). Place the thumb back over the hole, carefully maintaining the half-hole angle without digging in. Repeat several times until the motion is compact, relaxed, and the return to the recorder results in the precise half-hole position.

Practical Applications

Learning proficient, agile thumb technique can take practice and patience. It is worth investing the time and effort to build or correct solid habits of thumb placement and movement. As ability and confidence grow, move to practicing intervals that involve more finger changes using the thumb movements. 

The term ‘half-hole’ describes the hole on a wind instrument that creates a higher octave when partially uncovered. While termed half, we often find that most notes require less than half of the hole exposed and can even necessitate only a sliver of space. Half-holing often requires more subtle increments of movement than presented here. Each individual instrument (e.g., from one alto to another) will potentially need more or less opening of the half-hole for the same note. Each member of the recorder family also requires special attention on thumb technique to find the perfect place for each note.

The second article will look closely at how our half-hole technique can affect the tone, pitch and even success in achieving the higher octaves. Troubleshooting and other considerations will be examined.

Marea Chernoff is an oboist, Baroque oboist and recorder player in Vancouver B.C., Canada. She is the founder and director of the Recorder Program at the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra School of Music which includes several recorder classes, in person and available online. Recorder Programs - VSO School of Music

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