Finger Techniques

The dizi being a simple flute means that the fingers play a more complicated role than just opening and covering the holes. In this article, we will break the finger techniques into three main categories: basics, ornamentations, and special effects.

Basics

This might sound rather silly---why are we talking about the basics of finger techniques, especially since we already prescribed the right techniques for the type of dizi in a previous article? Doesn't one play the dizi by opening and closing holes with the fingers only; how hard can it get?

It turns out that it can get pretty tricky. There are two big things to take into account for basic finger techniques, namely:

  1. Grip style; and
  2. Partial covering of tone holes (指孔 or zhikong).

Each of these reasons affect the other, but I will talk about the grip style first.

Grip Style

Tone holes or zhikong of the dizi can be covered using one of two major grip styles: the standard style and the piper's grip.

grip styles
Standard style and piper's grip style. Notice how the `C' shape is formed.

The standard grip style uses the fleshy parts of the distal phalanges to cover the tone holes of the dizi. This is the usual method that is used to cover the holes for the xiaodi, bangdi, and qudi. In this grip, the hand involved tends to form a `C'-like shape with the fingers on top and the thumb below, with the curvature most pronounced when playing on the xiaodi and least pronounced when playing on the qudi. Due to the curvature made by the fingers, the actual part of the fleshy part of the distal phalanges varies from the finger tips on the xiaodi to the distal phalanx nearest to the intermediate phalanx on the qudi.

dadi grip styles
Standard style and piper's grip style on a dadi. Notice how the right hand's pinky finger uses the distal phalanx, and how the standard style makes it impossible for the thumb to support the dizi body.

The piper's grip style focuses on using the fleshy parts of the intermediate phalanx to cover the tone holes of the dizi. This grip style leads to a much flatter `C' curve and is a little trickier to ensure a good seal when covering a tone hole until one is used to it. Such a grip style is usually applicable for qudi, dadi and beidadi because of the wider spacings between the tone holes---using the distal phalanx usually means that the thumb of the hand is too far away from the body of the dizi to support it. Note that in cases where the pinky finger is used, it may be the only one that uses the distal phalanx while the rest use the intermediate one.

Partial Tone Hole Covering

The idea of partial tone hole covering is to adjust the way the one covers the tone holes or zhikong in such a manner that it allows an ``in between'' tone to sound; we call this 半孔指法 (bankong zhifa). In traditional dizi pedagogy, a related technique is called 叉孔指法 (chakong zhifa) or ``forked hole'' fingering. They both attempt to solve the problem of interpolating between the tuned tone holes on the dizi and are important for chromatic playing or microtonal playing.

Between the two, bankong zhifa is the more important because it is the precursor to the more advanced finger techniques, and is what gives the dizi some of its smooth flavour, while chakong zhifa becomes most relevant in situations where a section of dizi players need to play the same ``accidental'' note in a piece due to ease of conformity.

Note that when the extended range of the dizi comes into play (i.e. higher than on a dizi using tongyin as ), both types of pitch adjustment strategies are used.

When attempting to partially the tone hole, it is important to use one's ear (or equivalently, a tuner) to ensure that the right pitch is being hit.

There are three ways to enact the bankong zhifa for partial tone hole covering:

  1. Shifting the finger to the side;
  2. Rocking the finger such that the finger tip points up; and
  3. ``Pinch gripping'' the tone hole to partially open it.

Each has its specific uses, and we will go through them in turn below.

Shifting Finger to Side

The way to apply this technique is simple. From the position of the covered tone hole, push the finger slightly closer towards the embouchure hole or chuikong, which leads to the lower part of the hole being exposed.

shifting finger
Before and after pictures on how to perform a shifting finger to side type partial tone hole covering.

While most fingers can make use of this, it is often used with the ring fingers due to how that finger is less dextrous than others. The key drawback for this is the need for more longitudinal space, which means that on some bangdi and xiaodi where the holes are very small and close to each other, this method of partial tone covering is not possible.

Rocking Finger Tip Up

This way of partially covering a tone hole is to ``straighten'' out the joint between the proximal and intermediate phalanx to rock up the distal phalanx. It is much easier to understand this with a picture instead of description.

rocking finger up
Before and after pictures on how to perform a rocking finger tip up type partial tone hole covering.

Compared to the shifting finger to side method, rocking finger tip up does not require any additional longitudinal space along the dizi. The key disadvantage here is the need to diligently practising amount of rocking up for each finger for each dizi since the sensitivity of the flesh at the intermediate phalanx/joint between the distal and intermediate phalanx is low.

One thing to take note when using this method of partially covering tone holes is to remember that the rocking action uncovers more of the hole that one thinks. Thus, to obtain a better accuracy in semi-tones and other microtones, it is better to ``under open''.

Pinch Gripping

Pinch gripping is the opposite of the rocking finger tip up method. Instead of attempting to ``straighten'' out the joint between the proximal and intermediate phalanx, the distal phalanx is draw inwards with the joint between the intermediate and proximal phalanges being raised upwards. This ends up looking like a pinching action, which is how I chose to call this technique of partially covering a hole. See the picture below on how to use this:

pinch gripping
Before and after pictures on how to perform a pinch grip type partial tone hole covering.

Compared to the previous two techniques, pinch gripping provides a more precise control on the amount of the tone hole to uncover since it uses the most sensitive part of the finger (i.e. the tip) to ``feel'' the hole. But one major disadvantage of this technique is the counter-intuitive movement of bringing in one's finger tip. If this disadvantage is overcome through conscientious practice, then this can provide the most accurate intonation for the ``in between'' notes on the dizi.

Ornamentation

Ornamentation as used here are musical flourishes that are often a short form of a sequence of notes that could be notated normally but at great levels of annoyance. We further subdivide the ornamentation into two categories: those with Western classical music counterparts and those that are distinctively Chinese in nature.

Western Music

This category of ornamentation has strong semblence with their western music counterparts, and we will go through them briefly here.

Trills

In dizi, trills (颤音 or chanyin) are simple alternations between the written note, and the note ``above'' it. Trills are annotated in jianpu as a tr on top of the jianpu in question. Without any modifications, we expect at least two alternations. Some examples can be seen here:

tr   ╭────╮      tr   ╭────╮
1  = 1212 1      7  = 71̇71̇ 7
     ====--           ====--

Note that we nominally annotate the alternating parts with sixteenth notes---it can be shorter or even longer depending on the specific interpretation of the part in the piece.

There are two ways of determining what note is ``above'' another:

  1. The successive note in the diatonic scale of the piece; or
  2. The next playable note on a dizi when using the tongyin as fingering pattern.

Thus, this means that the following are two possible interpretations (in tongyin as ):

tr   ╭────╮      tr   ╭─────────╮
3  = 3434 3      3  = 3 ♯4 3 ♯4 3
     ====--           =========--

As are the following (in tongyin as ):

tr   ╭────╮      tr   ╭─────────╮
7  = 71̇71̇ 7      7  = 7 ♯1̇ 7 ♯1̇ 7
     ====--           =========--

Note that in the last example, the second interpretation only occurs due to how 7 is XXO OOO in tongyin as while and ♯1̇ are X^O OOO and XOO OOO respectively.

If there are two different ways of determining which note is ``above'' another, how can one determine which is the right one? My basic rule of thumb is to go back to style of the piece to decide which is the better interpretation. If the piece is more folk oriented, then the second way is often the right way, especially if it involves the XOO OOO fingering pattern for the start note.

When in doubt, using the rule of ``the successive note in the diatonic scale of the piece'' is the safest.

The trill interval can be modified by attaching either a or a on top of the tr symbol---this is particularly useful if the ``above'' note is not a part of the associated diatonic scale. Here are a couple of examples:

♯                      ♭               
tr   ╭─────────╮       tr   ╭─────────╮
1  = 1 ♯2 1 ♯2 1       6  = 6 ♭7 6 ♭7 6
     =========--            =========--

But this can end up with a trill interval that is larger than a minor second, which technically makes it a tremolo.

Longer duration tremolos are indicated with tr〰. This usually means that the trill now has no determinate number of times and should be sustain to the end of the note, ending as much as possible as the same starting note. An example can be seen here:

tr〰   ╭──────────╮
1 -  = 12121...12 1
       ==========--

Those dots in the examples are ellipses, not dotted notes. When the duration of the trill is long, there may be different ways to start and end it (usually involving varying the speed of alternation), and is dependent on the interpretation of function of the trill in the piece.

We talk about trills and tremolo fingering charts in a later article.

Tremolos

Tremolos are often understood in dizi as trills with intervals larger than a major second and are called 多度颤音 or duodu chanyin (with duodu meaning ``multi-degree'').

Tremolos will have the specific pitch to alternate with written on top of the tr, giving rise to the following interpretations:

3                ♯4              
tr   ╭────╮      tr   ╭─────────╮
1  = 1313 1      2  = 2 ♯4 2 ♯4 2
     ====--           =========--

For tremolos beyond the major third interval, it is often achievable using the standard fingering patterns and practising on their alternations deliberately and carefully, paying close attention to the finger patterns and the support of the breath.

Like trills, long duration tremolos are indicated with tr〰 and have a similar interpretation, with the only difference being a different pitch to alternate with. An example can be seen here:

3                  
tr〰   ╭──────────╮
1 -  = 13131...13 1
       ==========--

Like for trills, those dots in the examples are ellipses, not dotted notes. When the duration of the tremolo is long, there may be different ways to start and end it (usually involving varying the speed of alternation), and is dependent on the interpretation of function of the tremolo in the piece.

We talk about trills and tremolo fingering charts in a later article.

Mordents

Mordents are treated similarly in dizi as they are in normal Western music style. The upper mordent is annotated as 𝆜𝆝 and the lower mordent is annotated as 𝆜𝆠𝆝 both written on up of a note.

The interpretation of the mordents are the same as that of Western music notation---𝆜𝆝 is a single alternation of the annotated note with the ``next'' note that comes after it in a diatonic scale before returning back to the annotated note. 𝆜𝆠𝆝 is a single alternation of the annotated note with the ``previous'' note that comes before it in a diatonic scale before returning back to the annotated note. Here are a couple of examples on the interpretation:

𝆜𝆝  ╭──╮        𝆜𝆠𝆝   ╭──╮
1 = 12 1        2  = 21 2
    ≡≡               ≡≡  

Note that the two grace notes that make up the mordents should not take any duration at all.

Appoggiatura & Acciaccatura

For dizi, both appoggiatura and acciaccatura are executed by making use of the standard fingering for the notes that are involved. Much of such annotated grace notes are to be interpreted as acciaccatura unless otherwise noted---it is common for appoggiatura to be written out ``in full'' on the score for the player to execute.

We often call the grace notes written in acciaccatura as 倚音 (yiyin).

There is also a version of acciaccatura common in dizi that acts as an ``after grace note'', i.e. a note that plays at the end of the principal note. This is called 赠音 (zengyin or ``sent note'' literally). The fingers will transition from the principal note before fingering the final after grace note itself.

Below are examples of acciaccatura in both yiyin and zengyin form:

1̇76                 1
===                 =
 ╰  5           2 - ╯

The main thing to note about handling acciaccatura is to pick fingering patterns for notes that have good response. For instance, if one were playing using tongyin as , and one were playing the notes 3 5 3 as an acciaccatura, it is preferable to pick OXX XXX over XXX XXX for the 5 since it is more responsive at the right frequency compared to XXX XXX.

Glissandi

Here, we are referring to the stepped version of a glissando (portamento techniques are to be seen below). For dizi, this finger technique is called 历音 (liyin) and is annotated by diagonal wavy line from the start note to the end note of the glissando, going ``upwards'' from left to right when the end note is higher (i.e. 𝆱), and ``downwards'' when the end note is lower (i.e. 𝆲). An example can be seen below assuming that we are using tongyin as :

         ╭──⁸───╮              ╭──⁸───╮
1 𝆱 1̇ = 12345671̇     1̇ 𝆲 1 = 1̇7654321
         ≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡              ≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡

Like the trills above, there are often two ways of choosing how to interpret a particular glissando depending on the fingering pattern. For instance, suppose that we are using tongyin as , we have two possible interpretations for the sample up glissando:

         ╭──⁸───╮              ╭─────────⁹─────────╮
1 𝆱 1̇ = 12345671̇     1 𝆱 1̇ = 1 ♯1 ♯2 3 ♯4 ♯5 6 7 1̇
         ≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡              ≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡

The first interpretation is strictly following that of enumerating all the notes in the diatonic scale from the start note to the end note. The second interpretation follows the notes that come about when the tones are run from tone hole to tone hole---the specific order is shown below:

  1. X^O OOO:  1
  2. XOO OOO: ♯1
  3. OOO OOO: ♯2
  4. XXX XXX:  3
  5. XXX XXO: ♯4
  6. XXX XOO: ♯5
  7. XXX OOO:  6
  8. XXO OOO:  7
  9. X^O OOO:  1̇

So, which is the correct interpretation? Unless specifically annotated, the second interpretation of using the more convenient dizi fingering is probably preferable---this is especially true if the duration for the glissando is short. If the glissando is very extended, then the first interpretation will work better with respect to overall balance of harmony and melody, and may even be extended to include chromaticity if need be (but be careful to not end up doing a slide glissando).

If a glissando effect with specific notes is required, the composer will often write it out in full as a tuplet of suitable length---in that case it becomes imperative to follow strictly according to what was written there.

Note that the slide style of glissando (or portamento) will be covered later under the Chinese Classical Music section.

Chinese Classical Music

The previous section talked about finger techniques that had an almost perfect equivalence with its Western music counterpart. In this section, we look at ornamentation that is more characteristic for the dizi.

打音

打音 (dayin) is a dizi ornamentation that involves a really short/transient ``lower'' note before returning to the original note, with the intent of acting as a type of articulation on the principal note. This is an important articulation technique in Southern Chinese in style (nanpai). A close Western counterpart is the idea of ``gracing'' from Irish or Highland music.

To annotate a dayin, a 丁 character is written on top of the principal note. A couple of examples for tongyin as :

丁  ╭─╮     丁  ╭─╮
3 = 2 3     5 = 4 5
    ≡           ≡  

Similar to the trills, we face the problem of deciding what ``lower'' note means here: should it be the lower note according to the diatonic scale, or the lower note by dizi fingering pattern? This question is more relevant in dizi fingering patterns where the diatonic scale requires partial covering of tone holes.

As before, following the diatonic scale progression is the safest bet, but be careful to not make the dayin sound like a slide (i.e. a huayin), resorting to the lower note by dizi fingering pattern under tongyin as . So, assuming a tongyin as , the following interpretations are equally valid:

丁  ╭─╮     丁  ╭──╮
6 = 5 6     6 = ♯5 6
˙   ≡ ˙     ˙   ≡≡ ˙
    ˙            ˙  

The first interpretation is the clear switch between XXX XvO to XXX OOO, while the second is from XXX XOO to XXX OOO.

One final note: the lowest note of the dizi (i.e. the tongyin of the dizi) can never have dayin annotated as it is impossible to play a lower note at the correct duration for the lowest note on the dizi.

叠音

叠音 (dieyin) is very similar to dayin in terms of purpose and execution, but uses the ``higher'' note instead. dieyin is annotated with a 又 on top of the principal note. This is the other important articulation technique in Southern Chinese in style (nanpai). This is also known as ``gracing'' in the Western traditions from Irish/Highland music.

Here are a couple of examples for the interpretation of dieyin for tongyin as :

又  ╭─╮     又  ╭─╮
1 = 2 1     5 = 6 5
    ≡           ≡  

Similar to the trills, we face the problem of deciding what the ``higher'' note means here: should it be the upper note according to the diatonic scale, or the upper note by dizi fingering pattern? This question is more relevant in dizi fingering patterns where the diatonic scale requires partial covering of tone holes.

As before, following the diatonic scale progression is the safest bet, but be careful to not make the dayin sound like a slide (i.e. a huayin), resorting to the lower note by dizi fingering pattern under tongyin as . So, assuming a tongyin as , the following interpretations are equally valid:

又  ╭─╮     又  ╭──╮
3 = 4 3     3 = ♯4 3
    ≡           ≡≡  

The first interpretation is the clear switch between OXX OOO to XOO OOO, while the second is from OOO OOO to XOO OOO.

滑音 (Slide)

滑音 (huayin) is the portamento version of the glissando, i.e. a slide. It is mostly a finger technique when the duration of the huayin is short, and becomes a compound technique when the duration of the huayin is long since there has to be sufficient breath support to keep the slide smooth and continuous.

There are three types of huayin available: upwards (上滑音 or shang huayin), downwards (下滑音 or xia huayin), and rounded (圆滑音 or yuan huayin). We will look into them in detail in just a bit.

The general principle behind huayin is to slowly uncover/cover the tone holes smoothly in order to gently blend all the in between notes of the start to the end. Much of the type of huayin seen in dizi repertoire is an interval up to a perfect fourth---this is considered the ``short'' type of huayin.

The easiest way to execute a huayin is to make use of the rocking finger tip up and carefully uncovering/covering the tone holes. The shifting finger to side and pinch gripping techniques are harder to execute, but can be viable solutions if well practised.

Also when executing the huayin, the in between notes need not be very conformant to [say] the 12-tone equal temperament---it is, however, important that the first and last notes of the huayin are correct.

For the dizi, any huayin that crosses one register to another (e.g. 3 to 5 in tongyin as ) requires extra dedication to figure out the right combination of breath and finger movement to make it flawless.

The huayin should not sound like a normal glissando---the movement from the starting note to the ending one should be smooth and continuous as it is practicable.

上滑音 (Slide Upwards)

上滑音 or shang huayin is a slide from a lower note to a higher one. It is usually annotated as a between the start and end notes, with the start note being lower in pitch than the end note. The start/end notes may be regular notes, or they can be some acciaccatura. Some examples can be seen below:

6⤻                
=                  
╰ 1̇         3 ⤻ 5 
            -      

Note that the example on the left shows how a shang huayin is written via an acciaccatura, while the example on the right shows how a shang huayin can be used to slide from an existing note in the melody to the next one.

下滑音 (Slide Downwards)

下滑音 or xia huayin is a slide from a higher note to a lower one. It is usually annotated as a between the start and end notes, with the start note being higher in pitch than the end note. Like the shang huayin, the start/end notes may be regular notes or they can be some acciaccatura. Some examples can be seen below:

1↷                
=                 
╰ 6          5 ↷ 3
  ˙          -    

Sometimes the annotation can be fuzzy and is used instead, but the meaning is quite clear when the starting note is observed to be of a higher pitch than the ending note.

圆滑音 (Rounded Slide)

圆滑音 or yuan huayin is really a combination of a shang huayin followed immediately by a xia huayin, or vice versa, with the start note preceding the first huayin being the same as the end note of the last huayin, resulting in a ``full circle'' of sliding.

Here are some examples of how a yuan huayin looks like:

⤻                 
61↷                
==           ⤻    
˙╰ 6         35 ↷ 3
   ˙         ==    

While the examples show both symbols of shang huayin and xia huayin being explicitly annotated, sometimes it is ``understood'' in terms of the required ornamentation due to the style of the piece, and the symbols are replaced with either a single or omitted completely.

Despite being capable of being annotated within the melody, yuan huayin often finds itself used in acciaccatura or appoggiatura. This type of huayin is very distinctively Northern Chinese in style.

Special Effects

Special effects are called thus because the finger techniques involved here have little to do with creating known pitches or blends from one tone to another but are focused on achieving certain un-pitched effects.

The trio of special effects finger techniques we are looking at are the 剁音 (duoyin), the 飞指 (feizhi) and the 指振音 (zhizhenyin).

剁音 (Crushing Acciaccatura)

The 剁音 or duoyin is a Northern Chinese dizi style (i.e. beipai) special effect. Its behaviour is a combination of an accented breath followed by a large-interval acciaccatura. duoyin has two ways of annotating, as shown in the examples below (assuming tongyin as ):

1̇⮧             1̇  
=              ==  
╰ 3            ′↘ 3

In the above example, we start with and immediately slam the fingers down to reach 3, while ensuring that the breath is supporting both extremes of notes. If executed well, the duoyin should only hear the first and last notes with nothing in between---it is drastically different from a glissando or slide and should not sound like either.

The key thing to remember about duoyin is that it is a crushing acciaccatura. It is harsher than the acciaccatura, and the entire interval that separates the grace note with the main note should be crossed with only one swift movement with no lagging fingers. This requires very good coordination among the fingers of both hands, and is a necessary skill to practise, especially when tackling pieces of the beipai.

飞指 (Freely Side Sliding Fingers)

The 飞指 or feizhi is yet another Northern Chinese dizi style (i.e. beipai) special effect. It is usually executed with the right hand fingers, with the fingers rubbing along the longitudinal axis of the dizi and thus affecting holes 1--3. The resulting effect is not consistent pitched event. feizhi is annotated with a on top of the note. An example of this can be seen below:

飞 
1 -

Because this involves using the entire right hand going through the oscillatory motion along the longitudinal axis, the notes that can be used with this technique tend to be those that can be made with holes 4--6. In tongyin as terms, the following notes can be used with feizhi:

  1. XXX OOO:  1,  1̇
  2. XX^ OOO: ♯1, ♯1̇
  3. XXO OOO:  2,  2̇
  4. X^O OOO: ♯2, ♯2̇
  5. XOO OOO:  3,  3̇
  6. ^OO OOO:  4,  4̇
  7. OXO OOO:  4,  4̇
  8. OOO OOO: ♯4, ♯4̇
  9. OXX OOO:  4,  5̇

指振音 (Finger Vibrato)

The 指振音 or zhizhenyin is a way of simulating a vibrato by wavering about a partially covered hole. The best way to interpret this is a type of microtonal (less than a minor second interval) tremolo of sorts. The annotation is a little tricky, so it is better to see the example below:

𝆜𝆝
◒ 
1 

In some ways, zhizhenyin is similar to that of the dayin in that it makes use of a tone hole lower than the tone hole of the annotated note for the effect. Unlike dayin, the lower hole is alternated between being quarter/half covered (depending on situation) and being fully open, thus providing a vibrato effect of sorts.

Naturally, the lowest note on the dizi cannot use the zhizhenyin technique.