Why doesn’t my new mouthpiece work?

a person s hand holding saxophone mouthpiece

So you bought a new mouthpiece! How exciting. But wait—it’s not playing as well as you hoped. Maybe it squeaks, or some (or all) notes don’t come out very well, or the tuning is weird. Let’s consider some possible reasons why:

  • First, it’s always a good idea to review the fundamentals of tone production: breath support, voicing, and embouchure. Those things probably didn’t really change when you got a new mouthpiece, but maybe the old one was more forgiving of some weaknesses in your technique, and the new one is revealing those issues.
  • A new mouthpiece is likely to require a different reed than the old mouthpiece. Try some harder or softer reeds and see if your results change. In general, a mouthpiece with a larger tip opening tends to like a softer reed, and a smaller opening works better with a harder reed. But it’s more complicated than that, and the only way to really know which strength, cut, brand, etc. will work best is to try them out. (Some mouthpiece makers do suggest reeds that go well with their mouthpieces, but your results may vary.)
  • Also: even if your new mouthpiece is compatible with the reeds you have been buying, ones that you previously used on the old mouthpiece may have kind of molded to the old mouthpiece. Try some fresh ones.
  • Not all mouthpieces are created equal, even mouthpieces of the same brand and model. This can be due to hand-finishing or other manufacturing variables. It’s possible that the one you got isn’t as good as the one that your friend or teacher or favorite professional player uses. If possible, it’s worth trying several before you pick one. And especially with older or used mouthpieces, they can warp or otherwise change shape in small ways, and that can change their playing characteristics and ability to mate well with a reed.
  • Let’s consider one more hard truth: if you bought a mouthpiece never having played on it (or at least one like it) before, you may have picked something that just isn’t going a good match for you. It’s easy to get caught up in the promises in advertising copy or on product websites, or to assume that your favorite player’s mouthpiece will be suited to your equipment and playing style. Some mouthpieces are made for extreme or unusual reed choices, embouchures, or playing situations, but most players benefit from a relatively middle-of-the-road mouthpiece. And, of course, some mouthpieces just aren’t as good as advertised at all. Your best bet might be to return or sell the new mouthpiece, and invest instead in lessons with a good teacher who can either guide you in a better-informed purchase, or help you get the results you want out of a mouthpiece you already have.

A good rule of thumb is that a mouthpiece can’t give you skills, talent, or creativity. It can only remove, or add, obstacles to tone production. Pick a mouthpiece that makes it easier for you to do what you do, and get some help from a qualified teacher if needed. Good luck!

Playing at professional volume

stressed black girl covering ears

One thing I notice about a lot of my younger university students is that they play softly. Sometimes they seem reluctant to play above what I might consider about a mezzo piano.

If I ask, many of them reveal that they spent their formative years in school band programs getting The Hand from their directors. Beginning oboists and saxophonists in particular can make rather pungent and conspicuous noises. And band directors, understandably anxious to produce a well-blended ensemble, give the traffic-cop “stop” sign of the raised palm to hush the worst offenders. Those young musicians learn quickly to play in a restrained, timid way, and that anything louder than a murmur is a faux pas.

I can’t really blame the band directors, who have a set of concerns different from mine. (When I have taught beginners in a private lesson setting, I have encouraged them to play loudly from day one, and treated softer dynamics as an intermediate-level technique.)

But much of college-level music study is about students’ development as soloists. In that context, they need to play with authority, and, well, volume. And they may find that college ensembles have different demands than their high school groups, too.

Fixing the problem usually doesn’t involve teaching much new technique, perhaps a review of proper breath support. The rest is encouragement and example from me.

Over the course of a few weeks or months, I play for them in lessons, showing how I can fill up the room with sound. I ask them to imitate that sound, and urge them on to louder volumes. If I ask them to play their very loudest, and then ask them to top that, they usually can—they are just afraid to, and warn me that if they get any louder it will sound bad. But surprise! It doesn’t.

If you aspire to play at a professional level, or teach students who do, explore the louder part of that dynamic range, and make yourself heard!

Favorite blog posts, October 2022

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Common woodwind-playing myths

Watch out for these woodwind myths:

Written jazz articulation problems

Stylistically-appropriate articulation has long been under-taught in jazz education. (Or waved away with a “ya gotta listen”) . But that is changing , with some recent guides and method books starting to find some consensus about best practices. Concepts like which notes to accent, or how long to sustain certain notes, apply to all jazz instrumentalists. But wind-instrument players have the extra complication of which notes to tongue or slur. This distinction is critical to good jazz style.

In classical music, wind players usually perform articulation markings with accuracy. But printed jazz music can take varied approaches to articulation markings.

Some charts for experienced players have sparing articulation markings or none at all. The composer, arranger, and/or editor trust the performers to apply appropriate style:

Jazz tune with no articulation

Others, particularly more recent ones, use markings that reflect the crystallizing best practices:

Jazz tune with best-practice articulation

But may otherwise well-written charts, bafflingly, use markings that are not stylistically appropriate:

Jazz tune with poor articulation

Some red flags include long slurs and staccato markings. Experienced jazz players instinctively ignore these bad markings and use better articulation practices. (Long slurs can in some cases be explained away as “phrase” markings. But since they are visually indistinguishable from slurs, it’s better to omit them.)

Occasionally a good jazz composer or arranger will use an articulation marking in a surprising or unusual context. It’s up to the performers to determine whether this is an intentional break from typical jazz style, or an editing error.

In some cases, a composer/arranger might even choose a particularly anti-swing articulation as a kind of joke. This is usually followed by a figure that should be played with exaggerated, correct swing and articulation. This heightens the contrast between “good” and “joke” style:

Jazz tune with "joke" articulation

Jazz players and educators are responsible to know and apply correct articulation, using their best musical judgment to override the written parts when appropriate.

Favorite blog posts, September 2022

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Why do I need to use alternate fingerings?

person s hands with paint

Woodwind instruments including the flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone all have more than one fingering for some notes. Why is that, and do you need to learn them all? Instead, could you just learn the one main fingering for every note and get really good at using it?

Here are some things to think about:

  • There’s not always one “main” fingering. For example, the clarinet has its “pinky finger” notes that have left-hand or right-hand options, and you need to know both equally well to play above the beginner level. The flute has “1 and 1” and “thumb” fingerings for B-flat that are both common and standard. The oboe has two or three standard fingerings for F. The bassoon’s thumb and pinky options for F-sharp and A-flat and the saxophone’s “side” and “bis” B-flats are also arguably equally important.
  • Using an alternate fingering can sometimes help avoid awkward movements. One example is flip-flopping (one finger lifting up while another presses down) with F to F-sharp on saxophone or in the clarinet’s middle register. Another is sliding (moving a finger from one key to another) like going from D on the oboe to F with the right-hand F key. Sometimes these awkward movements are unavoidable, but good woodwind players avoid them whenever possible.
  • Alternate fingerings don’t always sound or respond the same. Some do, such as the clarinet’s pinky finger notes, because the pinky keys open and close the same holes. But some alternate fingerings might be a little louder or softer, sharper or flatter, more or less resistant, or brighter or darker in tone. Excellent woodwind players use these differences in artistic ways.

So alternate fingerings are important and useful. But do you need all of them?

There can be a lot of alternate fingerings. Advanced bassoonists sometimes refer to a book of fingerings that is over 300 pages long! (There are books for other instruments, too.) Sometimes there can be dozens of fingerings for a single note.

If you’re currently learning an instrument and using a method book (individual or band method) that has a fingering chart, you could check to see which notes have more than one fingering. It might be a worthwhile challenge to learn all those fingerings, and see if the book gives any hints about when to use which ones.

If you’re a more advanced student, the music you’re working on might present challenges when fingering patterns get awkward. Take on the challenge of researching lesser-known alternate fingerings that might help. (Sometimes a fingering has both advantages and disadvantages that you have to weigh carefully.) Start collecting useful fingering charts, or compile your own.

If you have my sights set on playing professionally, then you will need to know lots of alternate fingerings, have good resources to consult when you need more options, and know exactly how each fingering sounds, responds, and tunes on your instrument.

Good luck!

Is jazz swing triplety, or not?

person playing the piano

The most important rhythmic concept in jazz is swing, an intentional unevenness of note lengths. In jazz swing, downbeat notes (and rests) are long, and upbeats are shorter and later. This phenomenon isn’t represented well by classical musical notation, but sometimes it is approximated like this:

Or like this:

The examples assign the downbeat notes a length exactly 2 times that of the upbeat notes—the triplet quarter note is twice as long as the triplet eighth, or, in other words, the swing ratio is 2:1.

The debate over swing ratios

The triplet method of explaining swing rhythm is unpopular with many jazz musicians and educators, who insist that a triplet-like 2:1 ratio is incorrect. Most of them, if pressed, are unable to provide a better ratio or formula. Instead they insist on the importance of listening to jazz to aurally absorb the “correct” ratio (or system of ratios, perhaps varying with tempo), or propose that swing can only properly be “felt” rather than explained.

There are a number of things that these musicians and educators are correct about: a triplety ratio isn’t necessarily correct, and listening is important.

What these otherwise fine folks sometimes get wrong is the idea that swing can’t be measured or analyzed. In fact, it has been extensively measured and analyzed by a number of scholars, and some useful generalizations can be made. (If you want to dig into the research, an excellent place to start is the article “Preferred swing ratio in jazz as a function of tempo” by Anders Friberg and Andreas Sundström, published in TMH-QPSR, volume 38, no. 4, 1997.)

Some helpful swing generalizations

  • In general, yes, a swing ratio of 2:1, triplet-style, works fine for many situations, particularly at moderate tempos.
  • It’s fairly common for swing ratios to increase (something like 2.5:1 or even higher) at slower tempos. A higher ratio could be described as “swinging harder.”
  • It’s also common for swing ratios to get lower at faster tempos (like 1.5:1). This could be described as “not swinging as hard” or maybe playing “straighter.”
  • However, jazz performers’ ratios vary, depending on factors that are perhaps best summarized as “personal taste.” And, yes, the best way to develop this informed taste is by listening to and internalizing a lot of great jazz.

It might be helpful for classically-trained musicians to consider how they interpret something like a grace note—its individual placement, length, emphasis, etc. depend on many factors, and a “swung” eighth note’s interpretation is similarly complex.

Happy swinging!

Recital videos, August 2022

I’m pleased to share videos from my recent Delta State University faculty recital, featuring the compositions of Yusef Lateef. A few are my own adaptations for altered instrumentation.

Favorite blog posts, August 2022

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!