I found myself relating to Jennet Ingle’s recent blog post about an independently-thinking oboe student and the subjective qualities of tone. I related both to the student and to the teacher.
… I had to lecture a student on Sound a few weeks ago, and I couldn’t believe how uncomfortable it made me. It is truly such a personal thing. I felt like I was criticizing his smell, or his personality – it was that delicate for me.
I don’t actually think I am leading him wrong in insisting that he sound more “American” to fit in at his Midwestern college – but I hated telling him so. I would love for him to use his own unique voice and have it be accepted for what it is. But instead I have to encourage him to get more generic, and to sound more like everyone else. This rubs me wrong, philosophically.
I have been in the position as a student of trying to do something that I think is a personal artistic expression, and being told that I need to toe the line. I have also been in the position as a teacher of watching a student pursue an individual course that conflicts with what I am trying to teach.
Should music students (or students in any kind of artistic field, for that matter) be expected to conform, or allowed to explore freely? By letting a student do his or her “thing,” am I incubating innovative, boundary-smashing Art? Or am I failing a student by not grooming them in the established tradition? Read more
I am pleased to announce the release of the Fingering Diagram Builder, version 0.5. The updates are mostly tech-nerdy stuff and won’t affect how you use it. Read on to find out what’s new, or just check it out yourself.
(Note that this is a review of version 1.0 of the app, so if you’re reading this after my publication date, then the app may have changed by now. I’ll update this post if I use any future versions that have changes worth mentioning; you’re also welcome to add your own updates in the comments.)
In the world of iPhone apps, I’ve grown accustomed to getting a lot of good stuff for free, and hesitate even to buy a 99-cent app unless I’m sure it’s going to be great. For $1.99, it had better be outstanding! However, in the past I’ve paid the better part of $100 for individual books on reed making, so, realistically, $1.99 isn’t much if you’re looking for a few tidbits of information. And that’s what this app offers. If you’re interested in this thing, think of it as a very cheap book (a pamphlet, really), rather than an expensive app. Here is the main screen, as shown in the iTunes store:
If you’re reading this on my website you’ll see a border that I have added to the image, which reveals some white space at the bottom (the border might not show up in RSS feeds, etc.). Note that this space, in the actual app, contains an advertisement (at the moment, a 1-800 number for a criminal defense attorney). In my opinion, including ads is bad form for a paid application. There are additional monetization efforts built into the app. The “Oboe Gear” button leads to affiliate links to Amazon products, which are providing someone, presumably Mr. Gaudi, with additional income. The “More” button provides income-generating affiliate links to additional paid apps, some ostensibly music-related, some not. Mr. Gaudi responds:
I can understand the criticism of the ads in a paid app though I hope you can understand the need to monetize it. The app wasn’t created for free. There was a considerable cost to produce it and there are costs to revise and update it over time. I hope you can appreciate the need for monetary compensation for those who create a product for sale. My time and knowledge is worth something, just as my private students pay for weekly lessons as do countless other oboe students across the country pay for private lessons.
This is a fair response, I think, if the user knows they are paying for a product that will include advertisements; I was unaware of the ads before my purchase but you can consider yourself now warned. For every other app on my phone, paid versions are reliably ad-free. In my opinion, it would make more sense in the current app marketplace to raise the price on the app itself, if necessary, and scrap the ads, or maybe keep at least some of the ads/monetization and give the app away for free.
The actual useful content of the app is accessed with the green “Reed Maker” and “Reed Doctor” buttons. The “Reed Maker” button leads to a summary of the reed scraping process, starting with a reed blank (tying is not addressed). The summary is ten pages, most with one or two sentences of text, and each showing the same image of a reed with different areas highlighted. Knife technique is not addressed, just which areas to scrape in which order. There are some interesting bits of information here, but be forewarned that this app does not attempt to teach the full process of reedmaking. (It doesn’t specifically claim to, but you don’t know what ground the instruction covers until you buy.) Mr. Gaudi points out: Read more
Often, when I discuss with my students issues in their playing technique, I follow up by asking them, “How can you solve this problem?” They learn quickly that “breath support” (or a rough synonym like “more air”) is generally a safe answer.
And with good reason. Breath support is absolutely key to tone production—it is crucial to reliable response, consistent tone quality, and stable intonation. If I can get a student to improve their breath support, I can generally count on each of those things improving immediately and noticeably.
But I think there are other things that are improved, perhaps indirectly, with air:
Finger and tongue movement. I am lumping these together because I have a theory that air helps them in the same couple of ways. The first is that focusing on breathing—a movement so natural that we literally do it for our whole lives and barely think about it—diverts attention away from the finger and tongue movements that woodwind players get so stressed and tense about. This lets the autopilot (or Gallwey’s “Self 2″) take over and execute in a relaxed, natural way. The second way air helps here is that good breath support requires good breathing, and good breathing gets more oxygen to the finger and tongue muscles.
Expression. Expressive playing often involves things like dynamic contrasts, vibrato, and nuances of tone color (to name only a few). Each of those things functions better when well-supported: dynamic range expands, and vibrato is smoother and more controlled (again a result of better-oxygenated muscles?). Tone color, I think, actually gets less flexible, in the sense that it becomes more consistent note-to-note despite quirks of the instrument; this means that tone color changes may be applied in a more deliberate way.
Confidence and relaxation. Deep breaths are a common and effective insecticide for pre-recital butterflies. The breathing should remain centered and Zen even after the music starts.
I currently have over 400 woodwind-related blogs in my feed reader, and try my best at least to skim the new posts. In the past I’ve occasionally passed along recommendations about some of the blogs that I think are especially good. I’m considering moving toward something like a monthly list of some of my favorite individual posts instead.
Here are some from April (a few from late March sneaked in, too).
Stephanie Mortimore (of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra) offers a difference-tone-based approach to improving intonation over at one of the Powell Flutes blogs: Taming the Beast—Revolutionize Your Piccolo Intonation! (Part II). No reason this method couldn’t be used for flute or any other instrument. Part I is the usual boilerplate explanation of equal vs. just temperament.
I had some concerns about the stability of my flute on the flute/clarinet pegs, but got some advice in the comments section that the DS602B peg (sold separately) might be better. In the meantime, I’ve gotten to like other aspects of the stand well enough that I decided I needed a smaller version for one-saxophone gigs, so I recently picked up the DS530BB stand, which holds one alto or tenor saxophone and includes no pegs (though it has sockets to accept up to two). Most of my comments in the previous review apply to the DS530BB, so I’ll just provide a couple of photos:
Despite my poor photography, you can gather that it folds up to just over a foot long.
It also includes a bright yellow drawstring bag, and the string makes it a little easier to carry if you’ve already got your arms full of instruments.
The DS602B “Deluxe” peg, which Hercules indicates is for “French/German Clarinets and Flutes,” is quite good. It works for my clarinets and oboe as well as the standard combination pegs that come with the DS538B, and works much, much better for my flute.
I tried to demonstrate the stability difference between the standard peg and the deluxe peg. You can see it a bit in the photos below, but I think I failed to really capture the improvement in the deluxe peg. Read more
I got an email from a college student taking an Occupational Health and Wellness course. He asked me some questions about health and wellness issues in woodwind doubling, and I tried to answer the best I could.
How do you prepare for the many instrument switches in a musical which require changes of embouchure and hand position/key action adjustments? How do you deal with the physical demands of switches between many instruments?
The best preparation is to develop good, relaxed technique on each instrument independently. I try to practice each instrument carefully and produce the best possible sound on each one.
If I have the luxury of reviewing the part ahead of time, I will often practice the “choreography” for quick instrument switches, and make plenty of pencil marks so that I know ahead of time what switches are coming up. I try to keep a consistent layout of my instrument stands for each show, so that I get used to where each instrument is.
As I am making each switch (even very quick ones) I will try to take a moment to totally relax my facial muscles, hands, etc., and, maybe most importantly, flip a mental switch to oboe mode or clarinet mode or whatever.
Good reliable stands and neckstraps are vital.
Would you say that having to adjust to the action and key pressure of multiple instruments makes you more susceptible to hand/forearm injury than a musician who plays a single instrument?
I’m not an expert, but I would think that playing a single instrument is more dangerous in terms of repetitive motion injuries, etc. If I spend five hours a day practicing (I wish!) then I think I’m better off with more varied physical activities.
I am always pleased to hear from companies that want feedback on their products. And as you regular readers know, I try to be as thorough and honest as I can in my reviews. A couple of weeks ago I bumped into a Vandoren representative at a conference, and he offered to let me bring home some samples of a new product line for review. These haven’t shown up on Vandoren’s website or social media yet (though they do seem to have appeared on the Woodwind and Brasswind, a little prematurely!), so as far as I know this is an exclusive scoop. Update: WWBW has pulled the product listing.Update #2: read to the end for details on getting a free sample!
Vandoren has been doing some innovative things lately, and their new line of Maestro score-marking pencils is no exception. These are pencils specifically designed for the needs of the performing musician, and this focus is apparent in every detail. The pencils have a nice heft and balance to them, which the Vandoren rep tells me has to do with the hand-selected juniper wood harvested in the French Var Valley.
Click for larger
The premium erasers are some of the best I’ve used for score erasures—easy on valuable sheet music while removing the most stubborn pencil marks, with almost no smearing. They are currently available only in medium-soft, but my Vandoren source tells me they are “working on a medium-hard eraser, and a hard eraser geared toward professionals.”
But, of course, the real question is: how do they write? I’m happy to report that, when it comes to writing, these pencils have exceeded my expectations in every respect. The “lead” (graphite, actually) is, I understand, a proprietary formula designed for smooth, even writing on a variety of papers. But this is only part of the story.
My Vandoren source tells me that the real “secret” is the collars—the little metal ferrules that hold the erasers in place. While some “researchers” have suggested that the collar has little actual effect on the pencil’s writing characteristics, years of experience accumulated by some of the most respected woodwind players in the world say otherwise. And so I was not at all surprised to find that each collar has its own unique, shall we say, signature. Read more
Beginning woodwind players, including doublers, sometimes cheat a bit on fingerings, using fingerings that are almost right. If you’re doing this, it’s likely that you have notes with poor tone, intonation, and/or response. If you think you are getting away with it, you’re probably mistaken, and you may be cementing bad habits that are going to become even more apparent as aspects of your tone production improve.
The most common culprits at a beginning or intermediate level are the right-hand pinky and the left-hand first finger.
The pinky should stay down for virtually every standard fingering, with the exceptions being anything below the low D, anything above the high (4th-ledger-line) A, and the D in the staff. This is not only crucial to the pitch and tone of many notes (you’ll hear it as your embouchure improves!), but also helps to stabilize the instrument.
The left-hand first finger must lift for second-octave D and E-flat. You can probably make the notes respond without doing so, but you’ll sound better and struggle less if you do it right.