Fingering chart for an imaginary woodwind

My woodwind methods class just took their last exam of the semester. During the past few weeks we have dealt with some of the issues of alternate fingerings—which clarinet pinky keys to use when, which oboe F fingering, and so on. My guess is that most of these students, who are in training to be future public school band directors, won’t retain many of the specifics that we have discussed, but I would like for them to have the skills to glance at a musical passage and a corresponding fingering chart and make some good decisions about which fingerings to have their students use.

So I wrote some test questions with a fingering chart for a theoretical woodwind instrument and a brief “musical passage.” I’ll reveal my answers and some of the students’ answers below, but take a shot at it yourself first. You can click the fingering chart for a closer look.

Here is part of a fingering chart for an imaginary woodwind instrument, and a musical passage. Answer the following questions (2 points each).

  1. In measure 1, which C-sharp fingering would be the best?
  2. What fingering issue(s) might you encounter if you used the other fingering?
  3. In measure 2, which C-sharp fingering would be the best?
  4. What fingering issue(s) might you encounter if you used the other fingering?
  5. Based on your general knowledge of woodwind instruments and the fingerings provided so far, what notes are likely to be produced by the following fingerings?

Read more

More on the science/fiction of woodwind materials

Photo, ~Bob~West~

There’s an interesting woodwind-related post by blogger “MarkCC” at Good Math, Bad Math, entitled “My Newest Flute, made of… Plastic?!

MarkCC recently acquired a new flute of the type used in Irish traditional music, the kind that are most often made of wood. But MarkCC’s is made of polymer, and it sounds like MarkCC has wrestled a little with the issue of whether a plastic flute can really measure up to a wooden one.

But… Plastic?

I’ve seen several acoustic studies that claim that the material the instrument is made of isn’t that important. In a wooden flute, the physics show that the head joint is the only part of the flute that really has a significant influence on its sound. But the head joint of a wooden flute is actually lined with metal. So the wood isn’t really having too much influence on the sound.

As it turns out, MarkCC is something of a doubler, and also plays the clarinet.

Most people (including me) play on mouthpieces made of hard rubber or plastic – so the primary sound-producing piece of the instrument is plastic. The barrel of a wooden clarinet is (obviously) wood, so according to the physics/acoustics, that’s the only piece of wood that actually has any measurable acoustic effect. And the physics of this isn’t sloppy stuff put together by an instrument company trying to sell their plastic clarinets: to the limits of my ability to understand it, it’s good, solid stuff.

And yet, I’ve played a whole lot of clarinets, and by god, there’s nothing like a grenadilla wood clarinet. Even the best clarinet makers, even when I put my wooden barrel on a polymer body, it doesn’t sound the same. Of course, that’s subjective, and we humans are notorious for hearing what we want to hear in a subjective situation. And, by god, I’m a math geek. I’ve seen the math, and it’s correct.

One of the most-linked articles on my blog makes the same point about our expectations about materials coloring our playing experience. It’s worth pointing out, too, that a different barrel made from the same material will also affect the instrument’s sound.

I do think it’s a grey area to refer to a mouthpiece or barrel (or flute headjoint) as “sound-producing.” The instrument’s parts don’t produce any audible musical sound (unless you hit them with drumsticks)—it’s the column of air contained within them that vibrates in a musically useful way.

But MarkCC goes on, I believe, to hit the nail on the head: Read more

New Grove on flute materials

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians is widely used by college music students and is regarded by most (for better or for worse) as the unimpeachable source of all musical knowledge. In my studies for upcoming doctoral comprehensive exams, I ran across this in the “Flute” article:

Materials used for the tube and mechanism include nickel-silver, sterling silver, gold and platinum, while the springs are usually of tempered steel or phosphor bronze, occasionally of gold or another metal. The choice of material, especially for the head joint, influences the flute’s tone: wooden flutes produce a rich tone with a very full fortissimo in the lower register; metal flutes produce a limpid, flexible tone with great carrying power and also allow the player very sensitive control over the tone-colour; gold produces a mellow sound while silver is more brilliant. To achieve a combination of these qualities a head joint of wood or gold is sometimes fitted to a tube of silver.

The idea of different materials having different sounds is, of course, seen as conventional wisdom by flutists (and indeed by wind players in general), but it flies in the face of 100 years of acoustical science. Read more

Playing in tune

I’ve been working on improving my pitch this summer. Why is it so difficult to play a woodwind instrument in tune? I believe there are three reasons:

  1. The instruments are, of necessity, built in a hopelessly compromised manner. A flute or bassoon or whatever that plays perfectly “in tune” doesn’t exist. (“In tune” is in quotation marks because of #3, below.)
  2. The human element is full of variables that affect pitch: a little change in embouchure, a little variation in breath support, and the intonation suffers.
  3. Woodwind players (like string players, vocalists, and others) have to meet the sometimes-confusing standard of just intonation, meaning that the “right” pitch for a given note depends very much on the context. This, of course, has to be tempered somewhat when playing with equal-tempered instruments such as the piano. We’ll call all of this intonation, referring to the precise pitch relationships of one note to another.

To play in tune, I’m working on addressing each of these problems. Some notes-to-self: Read more

Does material affect tone quality in woodwind instruments?: Why scientists and musicians just can’t seem to agree

Most woodwind players would be surprised if you asked them whether the material from which their instrument is made affects its sound. Certainly!—most would reply. An inexpensive nickel-plated flute has a tone lacking in character and brilliance, but a fine silver flute sounds, well, silvery! It has a tone that sparkles, that sings, that carries to the back of the concert hall. The most discriminating flutists might opt for the more luxuriant timbres of white, yellow, or rose gold, or even the rare and weighty quality of platinum.

And any self-respecting oboist or clarinetist would refuse to even consider an instrument made of lifeless black plastic. Only the finest aged African blackwood can provide the dark, rich, woody tone that a true artist requires. Bassoonists likewise insist upon bassoons made from the best maple, and preferably treated with a secret-formula varnish, which, like that of the famous Stradivarius violins, is rumored to impart a special vividness and resonance to the instrument’s sound.

And fine saxophones, though most often made from brass and lacquered in a gold color, can be special-ordered in silver or even gold plate, which, saxophonists just know, bestow a unique sonic personality. Some saxophonists are willing to pay a premium for certain hard-to-find French instruments made in the decade following World War II, which are reported to be made from melted-down artillery shell casings, and to have a correspondingly powerful quality of tone. Read more