Favorite blog posts, May 2023

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

Q&A: Personal reflections

balance blur boulder close up

A couple of weeks ago I put out a call for questions, in honor of today being the fifteenth anniversary of this blog. A few of the questions asked about my own career and approaches to various things. I’ll try to answer the best I can.

One reader asked about music education and work/life balance. This person completed a degree in music education but found there was pressure to make teaching a “lifestyle” rather than just a 9-to-5 kind of job.

To be clear, my degrees are in performance, not music education, though I make my living as an educator at the university level. But most of my students are music education majors, and on the track to become public school band directors. Some of my former students have really embraced that career, have excelled in it, and have wrestled with the work/life balance aspects to various results. Others have burned out quickly and moved on to other career options. I do think sometimes there’s a sort of cult around music as a career—the rueful but revealing jokes about college music majors “living” in the practice rooms, or about high school band directors kissing their families goodbye until after marching band season. It’s a complex and very individual calculus whether passion, time investment, family and other “life” demands, finances, and identity balance in the right ways to make those careers worthwhile. It’s also a moving target: after 14 years and a couple of promotions in my university position, the demands on my time and energy have shifted, and my approach to the job has adapted to make it more sustainable for me and my specific needs.

A related question came from another reader: am I happy with the balance of teaching and performing in my life, and do I have plans to adjust that?

As a full-time university music professor, a certain quantity of teaching (and to some extent performance) is non-negotiable. And I live in a rural and relatively remote area, so pre-made freelance performance opportunities are somewhat limited. But there are some choices I have made to adjust my balance. I don’t teach summer classes, so I’ve got a few months each year to do some relaxing/recovery and some concentrated work on projects that are important to me, like preparing recitals, working on online content and tools, and writing. A few years ago I cut loose my private students outside of my university responsibilities, in order to focus on finishing a book and further developing some online projects. I’m fortunate that the book and online things have more than replaced the income from those additional students, and let me have a little more variety in my days. Plus, I get to refer lesson inquiries to my college students, who are usually anxious for the experience and the reed money.

A longtime woodwind player asked what I do to “keep things fresh.”

I can respond with some of the things I’ve done, but of course these are specific to my interests and circumstances. I continue to pursue interests in world/folk instruments, and the Zoom era has opened up some possibilities for connecting and studying with expert players around the world. I’m also having fun with combining woodwind instruments with electronics. My university job gives me a venue and audience to do new and/or familiar things on stage, in annual faculty recitals. This blog and my other web-based projects combine my interest in music and woodwinds with my interest in software and coding. I’ve released the one book, and am in the process of writing another. And of course I’m always on the lookout for new etudes, exercises, and repertoire for me and for my students.

Thanks for the thoughtful questions!

Q&A: Woodwind doubling advice

photograph of flutes near a cup of coffee

A couple of weeks ago I put out a call for questions, in honor of today being the fifteenth anniversary of this blog. A bunch of the questions boiled down to: what advice do you have on woodwind doubling? Here are a few answers:

  • Be a beginner on each instrument. Take the time to work through beginner materials (starting probably with pages of whole notes!), scales, and so forth. Resist the temptation to dive in on advanced or even intermediate repertoire.
  • Get comfortable with a long timeline. You can’t reach the highest levels of playing on a bunch of instruments in the same time that your peers are reaching the highest levels on single instruments, unless you’re a lot more talented than me. And you can’t afford to buy a section’s worth of top-quality instruments in that same time frame, either, unless you’re a lot richer than me.
  • Prioritize what motivates you. Lots of aspiring doublers seem very concerned about what instrument they “should” learn next. There’s no roadmap, and it’s hard to predict what gigs might come your way in the future. So you might as well devote your time, effort, and money to whichever instrument you feel most excited about adding to your collection.
  • Be skeptical of instruments, accessories, method books, etc. that are marketed as “for doublers.” If you want to play clarinet like a clarinetist, use what the clarinetists use.

Some other readers asked about the “secrets” to practicing multiple instruments.

As far as I know there aren’t any; if you want to play three or five instruments well, plan to put in three or five times as many hours. I’ve posted previously about an approach to an instrument rotation for practicing, but it really depends on you particular set of instruments, abilities, and goals.

Another reader asked how hard it was for me to learn secondary instruments.

Beyond general musicianship skills (like reading music or blending into an ensemble), I don’t think there’s a lot of useful cross-training effect. In other words, no instrument is a good shortcut to learning another, at least not learning it well. But I do think there are underlying concepts that can be useful for thinking of the woodwind family and its techniques as part of a unified whole. (I address those concepts in my book Woodwind Basics, or sprinkled throughout the last 15 years of blog posts.)

Someone else asked about when to get serious about woodwind doubling (high school? undergraduate studies? graduate school?), which is something I’ve opined about previously.

Everyone’s circumstances are different, but for my undergraduate music majors (and for me when I was in that stage) there are a couple of things that need to happen in their development: gain a certain level of mastery at operating the instrument itself, and develop a certain maturity of musicianship. While these things should be in development concurrently, achieving the first is ultimately a prerequisite to achieving the second. (You can’t fully execute a mature musical idea if you’re held back by technical deficiencies.) I think it can be a fun side pursuit to pick up an additional instrument or two in high school or college, but I think many people won’t be ready to pursue professional-level playing on multiple instruments until graduate school, and then won’t achieve it within the time frame of a graduate degree.

Another reader asked questions about pursuing a career in playing in musical theater orchestras: is it worthwhile to go on to graduate school? How do you get more gigs (cold-call theaters? take lessons with Broadway players)?

Graduate degrees (or any degrees) aren’t necessary for just about any kind of gig work, although they can provide useful training to improve your skills, gain some experience, and network with fellow musicians.

I would say don’t call theaters. Venues are unlikely to hire musicians directly. Instead, you want to connect with the musical directors or contractors who are likely hiring the orchestra members. Direct outreach to those folks might be effective in some cases. But a lot of musical directors, if they call their usual players and find them unavailable, will ask them for recommendations, so the musicians already playing the gigs you want are both your competition and your best chances at getting hired. Taking lessons is a possible way to get a foot in the door. Sometimes just catching them after a show, introducing yourself, complimenting their playing, and handing over a business card can be enough to get you on their radar.

Additionally, a career exclusively playing musicals would be an oddity. Most woodwind players who do musicals do lots of kinds of gigs. Develop your skills, build your network, and see what possibilities come your way.

Someone else asked a question about the history of multiple woodwinds degree programs.

This isn’t something I have dug into enough to answer with any confidence, but it would make a nice thesis or dissertation for someone working on a multiple woodwinds graduate degree. I do know that I’ve heard lots of folks confidently make conflicting claims about which degree programs were first or biggest or best, or about how the number or configuration or quality of degree programs has changed.

Thanks for the thoughtful questions!

Fifteenth anniversary

assorted colors paper cutouts closeup photo

Today is fifteen years since I started the blog. Thanks for all the comments, social media shares, emails, donations, and other connections. I hope you will continue to read and engage.

A few weeks ago I put out a request for questions from my readers. Here are a couple of posts with some answers:

At the 15-year mark: ask me anything

To my own amazement, this blog is rapidly approaching its 15-year anniversary later this month, May 24th. (Some of the content is dated at even older than 15 years, because I wrote it before starting the blog and retroactively turned it into blog posts.)

If you like, send me question(s) about whatever you want, about woodwind playing, doubling, blogging, teaching, or whatever. You can remain anonymous if you like. If it makes sense to do so based on the responses, I’ll answer them in one or more blog posts starting on about the 24th. If the response is low or the questions are not particularly of interest to my audience at large, I’ll answer as many as I can privately.

I did this at the 10-year mark as well, and got some good questions.

Thanks for reading!

Favorite blog posts, April 2023

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

Do I really need…

crop man getting dollars from wallet

For woodwind doublers and lots of other musicians, the shopping list can go on and on. Do I need a clarinet in A? In E-flat? Do I need an alto flute? A contrabassoon? A bass saxophone?

Clearly there’s no one-size-fits all answer, but here are some things to consider.

  • Are you doing, or aspiring to, the kind of gigs where not having access to the right instrument is a dealbreaker? Or the kind where nobody minds too much if you cover that bassoon part on something else? (The answers to these may depend on a lot of factors like the musical genre, the hiring contractor, the location, and the availability of other musicians in the area.)
  • Are you happier being the person who is equipped for every situation? Or are you happier being the person who gets by with the necessities? (It’s okay to be either, or some of each.)
  • Do you expect, in purely financial terms, a return on investment for your new instrument? Do you see a clear path to pay for the instrument, its upkeep and accessories, and then some, by getting gigs you wouldn’t otherwise get? (It’s also okay if you have non-financial motivations.)
  • Are you pondering another purchase because of opportunities you’ve had to turn down? Or are you betting on future opportunities? Or just fascinated by another shiny object? (Any of those can be acceptable reasons if they fit with your financial resources and goals.)
  • If the purchase is part of a strategy to get more opportunities, what is the market like? For a particularly expensive instrument like a contrabassoon, it might be worthwhile if there is an unmet or under-met need for it in your area. (But if other contrabassoonists nearby have already locked down all the gigs, your expensive toy might end up collecting dust.)

It’s hard to predict which instrument purchases will help you meet employment or income goals. Ultimately, it’s up to you to weigh the tangible and intangible factors and decide whether investing in something new is the right choice. Good luck!

Principles for teaching woodwind methods

a flutist checking her musical instrument

If you are teaching a woodwind methods course, you might be interested in my book.

I teach a woodwind methods course at my university. This class (sometimes known as “woodwind techniques” or “class woodwinds”) is for music education majors. It’s a kind of crash course in the woodwind instruments (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone) in preparation for careers in school band directing. Here are some things I try to keep in mind when teaching it.

  • It’s a pedagogy course, not a performance course. Since my background is in performance, not music education, it’s tempting to veer off into the finer points of playing. But while hands-on experience with the instruments is crucial, the real goal here is that they are able to effectively teach beginning and intermediate students, which is a (somewhat) separate skill. Give your students lots of chances to practice their teaching.
  • Keep it concept-based. While some time needs to be spent on the quirks of each instrument, it’s more efficient to teach underlying principles like breath support, voicing, embouchure, and finger movement, which vary from woodwind to woodwind less than many educators think. Help your students make connections between how the instruments are played, rather than walling the concepts off into a flute unit, an oboe unit, etc.
  • Keep it mission-critical. Mine is a one-semester course; some schools offer the luxury of spreading the woodwinds over several semesters. But even a semester for each instrument wouldn’t be nearly enough. Be disciplined about sticking to the most central, useful concepts. Knowing the early history and development of the oboe isn’t a bad thing, but it’s not critical to this course. Ditto for show-and-tell with the alto flute or sopranino saxophone, discussion of circular breathing and double-lip clarinet embouchure, and reedmaking. Be ruthless about cutting what are probably your favorite lectures—the more advanced, obscure ones.
  • Expect your students to forget everything. They can probably learn just enough clarinet fingerings to get through the test, but they will almost certainly forget them as soon as you hand them a bassoon. Gear your woodwind methods course activities toward broader skills like the ability to read a fingering chart, rather than short-term memorization of specifics.

Give your students their best chance at becoming successful woodwind teachers!

Favorite blog posts, March 2023

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

Experiments with electric woodwinds

I’ve been having fun with woodwinds enhanced with pickups or microphones. (If you’re interested in natively-electronic instruments like wind controllers, I’ve written about those elsewhere.)

I still have a lot to learn about working with electronics. But here are a few observations in case anyone finds them helpful.

Which instrument(s) to use? I find lower-pitched instruments to be more fun, since they can provide convincing bass lines. Electronics can pitch a high instrument down, of course, but I haven’t had the success I would like making this sound good. So far I’ve installed pickups into a bassoon bocal, a bass clarinet neck, and an English horn bocal. I’ve used microphones for other instruments.

Which gadgets to use? I’m personally using the Little-Jake pickups, a looper, and a multi-effects unit. When I started getting into effects pedals, I found it alarmingly easy to accumulate quite a few. This was a good and inexpensive way to get started. But I quickly discovered that it was becoming unwieldy to try use use more than a few in performance (I literally had to walk back and forth across the stage to get to them all). A multi-effects unit turned out to be much more practical, with a few foot switches I can configure to operate a large number of effects. (I’m currently using one by Boss.) It takes a little more advance setup than individual pedals, but greatly simplifies the onstage footwork. And I was pretty easily able to sell off the individual pedals to fund the purchase.

Which effects to use? I think the best-known guitar-type effects are distortion, delay/echo, and reverb. Those are fun to play with, but I’ve become more interested in ones I can use to give my instruments new capabilities, rather than just give their sounds a little grittiness or echo. For example, smart harmonizers (which add harmony lines based on a selected key) and pitch shifters (which add harmony lines based on selected intervals) make my instruments polyphonic, a significant upgrade for a woodwind player. And a looper, or even a cleverly-used delay, can create counterpoint.

Here are a few examples of my experiments:

There are eight audio tracks here, but each one is performed “live.” I’m trying to somewhat replicate sounds from the original song: two vocal parts, two guitars, piano, electric piano, and electric bass, plus various synthesizer lines that I’ve consolidated into one. I’m using harmonizers and pitch shifters on the “guitars” and “keyboards” to perform chords in real time. I’m also pitch shifting the “bass” to let the English horn play much lower than its natural range.
I’m using a harmonizer here similarly to how I used it in the English horn video, but you can get a better view of what that involves footwork-wise. I’m using several carefully-programmed footswitches to change the harmonizer’s parameters as I go, in order to get the chromatic harmony that I want. On the A sections of the tune, I’m also using a pitch shifter to double the melody up an octave. The separate bass part that starts at about 0:28 uses pitch shift to drop the sound down an octave.
This is an example of using a looper (the red unit) to layer multiple lines, while using the multi-effects unit (black) to do real-time harmony and some other things. The “bass” part, shifted down two octaves, isn’t as convincing as I would like (you may have to use earphones to hear it).
Here’s a live-performance example using looper plus multi-effects unit.
Here I’m using the multi-effects unit to perform the melody “call” and harmonized “response” (unfortunately distorted and too soft), and using the looper to provide backing for an improvised solo.
Here’s an attempt to replicate one of Paul Hanson’s incredible electric bassoon “hocket” performances (I fell a bit short). The technique uses a delay to create a single well-timed echo, with the result being that I’m only playing every other note you hear; the in-between notes are echoes of previously-played ones. To get the full effect, check out Paul’s video.
This one you can actually buy sheet music for; the arranger, Melissa Keeling, provides parameters for using a harmonizer and a delay (which could be separate pedals or functions of a multi-effects unit).