In my last post, I pointed out that staccato notes are not always exactly “detached,” even though they may give that impression. Now let’s consider how this sense of detachment, real or false, can disrupt a phrase.
To make a legato phrase sound like a unified idea, all I have to do as a minimum is make sure my air doesn’t stop: my fingers and tongue delineate individual notes, but the sound is continuous. But with a staccato phrase, the sound stops (at least sort of). We could perhaps visualize it this way, with each box representing a note:
There’s not a clear sense of continuity—each note is an island.
But I can make the notes sound like they belong together, without eliminating the space between them. For example, suppose I give the passage a subtle crescendo:
The space between the notes is the same, but now there is a clear relationship. It’s obvious that the individual notes, though detached, make up a single structure and not six separate ones.
A bit of crescendo is a reliable and tasteful way to do this in many cases, but really any variable aspect of musical expression could ostensibly be used: decrescendo, change in tone color, change in vibrato, accelerando or ritardando, or just about anything else that can be varied continuously across a group of notes. Make sure each note you play serves a larger phrase!
It seems that many of us are taught first to treat notes with staccato markings as “short,” and then later refine that definition to mean something like “separated” or “detached.” The difference in these definitions is that a “detached” note might really be quite long, but has at least a sliver of silence separating it from the note afterwards.
But for wind players, even this definition may be too simplistic, and in some cases produces a sound that is too aggressively clipped or pecky.
To achieve an appropriate staccato effect, the notes might not actually be detached at all. Check out this demonstration of staccato technique on the violin:
It’s clear that the violinist is detaching the notes from each other. But listen carefully—does the instrument go completely silent in between notes? At a faster tempo, it doesn’t. Even though the violinist temporarily stops driving the strings’ vibrations with the bow, the instrument continues to resonate on its own, and this (softer) sound may bleed into the next note.
A wind instrument doesn’t resonate in the same way: when the wind player stops blowing, the sound stops immediately. But since our modern wind technique borrows so heavily from the bowed string tradition, in many cases it is necessary to imitate this resonance to achieve the desired effect. To oversimplify a bit, the wind player must end “staccato” notes with very brief decrescendos.
When this technique is applied to staccato passages, it may mean that rather than literally detaching the notes from each other, the wind player must give the impression of detachment while also giving the impression of a brief violin-style resonance following each note. In other words, the “space” between the notes is actually filled, at least partially but maybe completely, with a very quick decrescendo.
A reverberant performance space also helps to mask wind instruments’ lack of damped oscillation, but ultimately it is up to the wind player to create the faux resonance when the situation demands. Pay close attention to the ends of your staccato notes!
My academic credentials in multiple woodwind instruments have served me well so far: I was fortunate to be one among my graduating class who did get a college teaching job right out of school, and it’s a job that happens to be an excellent fit. Part of the reason it’s a great fit is because teaching multiple instruments is what I want to do, at least at this point; sometimes others assume that I’ve taken a multiple-woodwinds job as a stepping stone to something else, but that isn’t the case.
While I thoroughly enjoy the variety in my day (I’m teaching oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone), there are some additional things worth considering if you take on multiple instruments in a collegiate teaching career. For example:
Resources allocated per faculty member sometimes get spread extra thin. When I arrived at my new job, I was given a little bit of funding for library acquisitions in my area. If I were teaching a single instrument, my current and future students would have benefited from all that money being spent on items directly relevant to them. Instead, I was able to get only a few items related to each instrument. My students, through no fault of their own, got fewer applicable new library resources.
Time also gets spread thin. We recently hosted a high school honor band on our campus as a recruiting event. At one point the visiting students were sent to masterclasses with the professors on their instrument, so I got all the reed players. It’s certainly not impossible to run a worthwhile masterclass in that situation, but the circumstances do complicate things a bit. The same problem exists with studio classes for my college students.
Some of the work multiplies. When we hold our ensemble auditions, I select audition excerpts and sightreading material for four instruments instead of one. When it’s time to submit textbook orders to the bookstore, I submit separate requests for each instrument’s separate batch of course numbers.
It is common for applied music professors to attend their professional organizations’ conferences annually, and to seek out officer positions in those organizations as a way to enhance their tenure portfolios. I would love to attend the annual conferences of the International Double Reed Society, the International Clarinet Association, and the North American Saxophone Alliance each year, but my limited travel funding and the potential time away from my teaching make this unrealistic. And since I don’t attend any one conference every year, it’s difficult to get taken seriously as an officer candidate.
Not that I am complaining—I am grateful every day that I get to do what I love for a living, and most of these problems can be mitigated with a little effort and creativity. But I think they are worth knowing about if you see yourself headed for a career in college music teaching.
Oboist Patty Mitchell reminds us that playing with a pianist means needing to know your own part and his or hers.
Helen Bledsoe weighs in on the debate about how register changes are made on the flute. I don’t entirely agree with her, but she makes some interesting points, as do the flutists in the videos she shares. (For more on this, see my previous post and accompanying PDF cataloging some of the, er, hot air surrounding this topic.)
Bassoonist Christin Schillinger shares some ideas about ongoing development as a musician, plus some metronome games.
Woodwind doubler Josh Johnson does a review of the Ridenour Lyrique bass clarinet. I’m sharing this one because I think it’s a well-written and thoughtful review, and because I think high-quality instruments made from alternative materials are a welcome next wave in woodwind manufacture. As a side note, I recently purchased one of these basses for my university clarinet studio and have spent some time playing it, and my experience with the instrument basically matches Josh’s.
One of my goals for the semester is to improve my skills as a chamber music coach. This week I set out to explore some resources on the techniques of playing chamber music, and found surprisingly little in my initial search besides historical surveys and repertoire listings. (A fuller search remains to be done, but in the meantime I welcome your tips and suggested resources in the comments below.)
So, in hopes of making someone else’s search just a little easier, I’m putting in writing a few of my favorite basic tips I use frequently with my college chamber music students:
Arrange your chairs and music stands so you can see everybody (at least in a group that is small enough to do so). If you are the one cuing the start of the movement, make eye contact with everyone first.
Start each movement by breathing together, even if not everyone plays the first note. Also breathe together at appropriate places within each movement. I think this is better than someone giving a visual downbeat for a variety of reasons: it’s aural, it’s unifying, it’s non-distracting to the audience, it’s easy and natural. (It particularly makes sense for wind or vocal chamber groups, but I think it’s a good idea for others as well.)
Move a little. If everyone participates in some subtle “conducting,” it can really help to reinforce and unify the tempo and phrasing, and even indicate a rehearsal mark for someone who is lost. (Too much movement is awkward and distracting, but mostly my students err on the side of being statues.)
Get detailed about matching your sounds. Not just note attacks, but also note shapes and endings. Coordinate breaths if appropriate. If there is a crescendo, don’t just get louder at the same time, but get louder at the same rate. Match and blend tone colors—for example, maybe the flutist tries to sound like a clarinet, and the clarinetist tries to sound like a flute, and they meet somewhere in the middle.
Especially for less-experienced groups, it may be wise to talk through (and maybe even rehearse) some things like stage entrances, exits, and bows, so you aren’t awkwardly trying to figure it out with an audience watching. Make sure you’re one the same page dress-code-wise as well. I personally find matching or overly-coordinated outfits a little silly, but do at least be sure you’re agreed as to an appropriate level of formality so no one feels uncomfortable.
Please do jump in and share your best tips, or your resources on how to be a better chamber musician.
I frequently see this kind of question asked on online message boards:
I have a Nabisco clarinet with a Palmolive C43 mouthpiece and Marlboro 3¾ reeds. I am 30 cents flat all the time. What piece of equipment should I buy to solve this problem?
The answers are always varied (harder reeds, softer reeds, someone else’s favorite brand of reeds, an expensive mouthpiece, an abnormally short barrel, a specific model of clarinet) and generally completely off base.
On further prodding, the clarinetist with the flatness problem invariably turns out to be self-”taught,” sometimes with some degree of prior achievement on another wind instrument. This is a huge red flag that we are dealing with operator error.
The correct solution to this problem is to take at least a few lessons with an excellent clarinet teacher. A good teacher faced with this problem will review the fundamentals of tone production with you: breath support, voicing, and embouchure formation. With some dedicated practice, you will almost certainly see your pitch improve (as well as your tone, response, and more).
On the rare occasion that I do see this course of action advised, the poor flat clarinetist often has a number of excuses at the ready:
“I don’t have money for lessons.” (You should be able to get at least one and probably several lessons for what you would have spent on that new mouthpiece or barrel.)
“There aren’t any teachers near me.” (Have you really checked? The world, sadly, is full of very talented musicians who are underemployed and very much available for lessons. Check in with your nearest university music department, consult a school band director, or even try “Skype” or other online live-video lessons if you must, which are being offered more and more frequently by qualified teachers.)
“I already play a different instrument really well, so I’m pretty sure I can figure the clarinet out by myself.” (Learning a new instrument requires much more than a fingering chart and brash confidence. In particular, the clarinet’s voicing technique is unique among the major, modern wind instruments, and doing it wrong will result in—you guessed it—significantly flat pitch.)
Message boards and other text-based communication methods (even books) have their uses, but they aren’t a viable substitute for having a real, experienced clarinet teacher diagnose the problem and make some suggestions. Even if it does turn out that an equipment purchase is in order, do it under a teacher’s guidance—the money you spend on lessons is an investment in avoiding mistakes that are much more expensive.
I occasionally teach a university course in jazz improvisation, geared toward beginning improvisers. Sometimes I think prospective students are afraid to sign up because they don’t consider themselves already to be musically creative. On the other hand, I have some students enroll in the class with unrealistic expectations about the results, thinking that they will learn all the tricks and secrets and be ready for some fantasy gig.
It doesn’t make sense to avoid taking French 101 because “I don’t speak any French”—you’re missing the point of an introductory course. But it also isn’t likely that by the end of the semester you’ll be ready to wow everyone at the smartest dinner parties in Paris.
The good-news/bad-news is that most of what happens in a beginning improvisation class doesn’t feel creative or spontaneous at all. In my course, we do a lot of drilling of scales, arpeggios, patterns, and “licks,” and then trying to execute them successfully in a pre-planned way over a set of chord changes. The same happens in your first-semester French class: you memorize some basic phrases by rote, and try to use them in the right order in very structured “conversations.” At some point you get some very restricted freedom: you have to say what color le chat is, but you get to pick if he is noir or blanc. Similarly, in my class you might get to decide which of your two memorized “two-five-one” licks to use over the first four bars of the bridge, or whether to start that digital pattern on the root of the chord or the fifth, but that’s about it. Limited options don’t mean you aren’t really improvising (or speaking French), it just means you don’t have a lot of vocabulary to work with yet.
I know that this rubs some improvisers the wrong way: I shouldn’t be regurgitating pre-packaged licks! I should be developing my own “thing!” For those people, I suggest you read a biography of any great improvising musician and find out what they did in the early stages of developing their thing. Or just try speaking some French: no need for grammar study or vocabulary lists! Do your thing!
For those who consider themselves creativity-deficient: you can learn to improvise in a systematic way—it’s not something you’re born with (or without). I’ll teach you some existing vocabulary and some techniques for making your own, and then you can start putting them together in ways that make sense to you. You’re being creative!
For those hoping to learn some “tricks:” the only useful trick I can teach you is to take the techniques from the class and hit the practice rooms. There aren’t any shortcuts to improvising well. It will require hard work over the course of many years. But the process can be a lot of fun!
Here are the recordings I’m requiring my university students to add to their collections this semester (depending on which instrument they play). All are available on CD or for download from Amazon or iTunes.
Here is a recap of some of my favorite stuff from the blog from 2013. Because hey, I’m on vacation too.
The Fingering Diagram Builder got a new major release, plus a minor release. Development has slowed down a bit on this, not because I’ve stopped planning and working on improvements to it, but because it’s really working surprisingly well at this point and its popularity is growing in a satisfying way. I expect future releases to be on the deliberate side at least for the foreseeable future. (Don’t let that stop you from sending in your suggestions, feature requests, and bug reports.)
I discontinued my “woodwind blogs you should be reading” series in favor of a monthly roundup of my favorite posts. I think it’s more interesting and useful, plus I can give regular shout-outs to woodwind bloggers who are consistently putting out good stuff, or highlight a diamond in the rough.