Using electronic harmonization with woodwinds

In a recent recital I performed my own arrangement of Ravel’s Boléro for multiple woodwinds soloist using electronics, with piano and snare drum. I used electronics to try to approximate some of Ravel’s harmonies (and timbres), and used what in my mind are three different techniques, which I’ll try to outline here.

In performance, I used the BOSS GT-1000CORE guitar multi-effects unit to do most of the heavy lifting. I did find that it had difficulty tracking my flute playing (though, surprisingly, it did better with piccolo), so I used an Electro-Harmonix Pitch Fork + to assist with that instrument in particular. I also used a BOSS SY-200 to try to create some non-woodwind tone colors. There are plenty of other equipment options that can achieve similar effects, but you’re on your own to read the manuals.

All of this was done with a microphone rather than pickups, which was less complicated for quick instrument switches, but did make it difficult to get relatively isolated woodwind sounds into the electronics, which ultimately caused problems with the audibility of some of the electronic sounds.

The warts-and-all live performance is available on my YouTube channel, but I’ll provide some clearer, isolated examples here. For rehearsal numbers in the orchestral score, I’m referring to the Durand Edition on IMSLP.

Technique 1: parallel intervals

At rehearsal mark 8 in the score, horn and celeste play the A theme in octaves, with two piccolos playing in parallel a perfect fifth and a major tenth above the celeste’s highest octave, perhaps in imitation of a pipe organ’s mixture stop.

To achieve this harmony with electronics, I played the upper piccolo part “live,” and routed the piccolo’s sound into the GT-1000CORE where I split it into two separate signal paths. One got transposed down using a digital pitch shifter to create the second piccolo part. The other got transposed down to the melody pitch and split into octaves, then routed through the SY-200 to turn the sound into something vaguely celeste-like.

Since the intervals are strictly parallel, this is a pretty straightforward use of pitch shifting: whatever note I play on the piccolo gets transposed to the specified intervals.

Technique 2: smart harmonization

At rehearsal mark 16, a thickly-orchestrated ensemble of woodwinds, brass, and strings plays the A theme in harmony. I opted to play this portion on soprano saxophone, thickened and harmonized with a synthesized string section.

Since the harmony in this section is largely diatonic, I used the GT-1000CORE’s smart harmonizer. I added voices a diatonic fourth and diatonic sixth below in the key of G (like a first-inversion triad), which tracks with the notes in the first part of the theme. But there’s a moment in the first part that uses F-natural instead of F-sharp, and the second part of the melody uses F-naturals exclusively, so I used the unit’s footswitches to change to the key of C major as needed. I routed all of this through the SY-200 to change the three soprano saxophones into a string section sound, with the “live” soprano remaining audible in the room.

For the key switching, I set one footswitch as a “momentary” switch, so it changes the key just while I’m pressing it, and another as a “toggle” switch, so I can press and release it and the key remains changed. This gives me some helpful options for live performance.

Technique 3: smart harmonization with custom scales

The smart harmonizer works well out of the box as long as you want to use notes of a major scale (or mode thereof), but at rehearsal mark 15 Ravel’s harmonization is more complicated than that. Luckily, the GT-1000CORE supports smart harmonization with custom “scales.” What this really means is that I can tell the unit that any time I play a certain pitch, it should add one or more pitches that I can specify arbitrarily. I can add whatever pitches I like to each note of the chromatic scale.

I chose to play this section on clarinet, using the electronics to turn it into a 3-part clarinet section. During the first phrase, the melody pitches are harmonized in a consistent way: every time there’s a melody concert B-flat it’s harmonized with a G and an E, every time there’s a melody C it’s harmonized with an A and an F, every time there’s a melody E it’s harmonized with a C and a G, and so forth. I can just tell the effects unit which harmony notes to add to each melody note.

But things change in the first half of the second phrase: melody B-flat is now harmonized with G and D, and C is now harmonized with A and E. To accommodate this I have to create a second custom “scale,” and use a footswitch to activate it at the right time. To finish the second phrase requires a third scale, engaged with another footswitch.

Because of the flexibility of the custom scale system, I can recreate harmonies that use a variety of intervals. With a little analysis I can figure out where the scale changes need to be (basically anywhere a given melody pitch is harmonized in a new way).

Additional thoughts

There are some limitations to using pitch shifters and harmonizers, depending on your equipment. Each virtual pitch shifter and harmonizer in the GT-1000CORE can only add two voices, though by (virtually) splitting the audio signal into multiple paths and passing each through its own shifter/harmonizer I can build thicker chords.

When trying to reproduce specific harmonies written by a composer, there may be some decisions to make to balance accuracy with practicality. Serendipitously, most of Ravel’s harmony translated fairly easily to the effects unit’s capabilities. But there were a few spots where I decided that certain chord voicings were close enough, and that I didn’t need to complicate things with one more custom scale plus the corresponding onstage footwork.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m more interested in electronic effects that give my woodwinds new capabilities, like polyphony, than in just adding some distortion or echo (though those are also fun). Enjoy!

Recital videos, August 2023

I’m pleased to share videos from my recent Delta State University faculty recital.

Favorite blog posts, August 2023

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

The future of woodwind instruments

shallow focus photography of microscope

Here are a few predictions (or wishes) about the woodwind instruments we might be able to buy in the future.

Personalized ergonomics

With the amount of worry musicians expend over repetitive motion injuries and other playing-related ailments, it’s truly baffling that instruments are still almost entirely a one-size-fits-all affair.

For just one example: for generations, saxophonists have applied cork or other stuff to their palm keys to help avoid collapsing the hand to press them. Most of the finest saxophones in the world still offer palm keys in a single height, meant to accommodate child and adult hands, male and female hands, large and small hands. (A couple of exceptions are Keilwerth’s wrench-adjustable left hand palm keys, and Cannonball’s “Stone Series” instruments, which can be purchased or retrofitted with stone touchpieces of varying heights for both left and right palm keys.) And this is only one of the ergonomic issues of saxophones and other woodwinds.

Imagine buying a production woodwind instrument that had fully adjustable keywork that could be matched to your individual hands. This could be done with interchangeable parts, or with keywork adjustable via screws or other means.

Related to this is a need to re-examine the possibilities of plateau (“closed”) keys. Most of the modern woodwinds have at least some fingerholes or keys with holes in them, and these cannot be moved to accommodate ergonomics without affecting pitch and tone. But the touchpieces on a saxophone or bass clarinet can largely be located according to convenience, to open or close toneholes somewhere else on the instrument’s body. Our largely unfounded derision of plateau keys on woodwind instruments prevents us from embracing much better ergonomic possibilities.

New materials

Far too much credit is given to materials, especially if those materials are costly and pretty, for their contribution to an instrument’s sound. Inventors have created incredible new materials for aerospace, automotive, and electronics applications. Why couldn’t we make woodwind instruments out of amazing new materials that are inexpensive, crack- and dent-resistant, sustainable, lightweight, and beautiful? (Buffet-Crampon’s “Greenline” instruments are an example of high-quality instruments made from synthetic materials.)

A move to new materials could reduce investment in instrument purchase and maintenance, prevent the heartbreak of a new clarinet or oboe cracking, stop over-harvesting of certain woods, and reduce repetitive-motion injuries.

And it wouldn’t be the first time woodwind players gave up traditional materials for better ones; there aren’t a lot of players still using boxwood flutes and clarinets.

Imagine, too, the possibilities of reeds and pads that are long-lasting, stable, and consistent.


It’s axiomatic among woodwind players that good instrument technicians are getting harder to find. In my rural area, it’s a 2½-hour drive to a city where I can get my high-quality instruments worked on competently, by people doing instrument repair in their homes rather than in music stores or commercial repair shops.

Many woodwind instruments have at least some adjustment screws or other relatively intuitive ways to keep them adjusted and playing well. Installing pads is still somewhat of a specialist art, but imagine how that could change with improved materials for pads and for toneholes, and with approaches like MusicMedic’s “self-leveling” Neo Pads.

Imagine instruments that are user-adjustable using common household tools or tools included with the instrument, supplemented with detailed instructional videos. Some routine tasks like pad or bumper replacement could become the player’s responsibility, or something that could be done by a minimally-trained music store employee, school band director, or private teacher.

Your turn

Let me know what features and qualities you would like to see in the woodwind instruments of the future!

Favorite blog posts, July 2023

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

Interview: Stefanie Harger Gardner, clarinetist and #clarequality activist

Dr. Stefanie Harger Gardner teaches clarinet, chamber music, and music theory at Glendale Community College and Ottawa University. Previously she served on the faculty at Northern Arizona University. Gardner has performed with Arizona Opera, the Phoenix Symphony, Red Rocks Chamber Music Festival, Seventh Roadrunner, the Paradise Winds, and the Égide Duo, whose mission is to commission, record, and perform music inspiring social change. During her time as chair of the International Clarinet Association New Music Committee, Stefanie founded and organized the biennial ICA Low Clarinet Festival and the annual ICA New Music Weekend. She has performed in concert with PitBull, Ceelo, Tony Orlando, Reba McEntire, Michael Bolton, David and Katherine McPhee Foster, Jordin Sparks, Weird Al Yankovic, Hanson, and The Who. Her chamber music albums are recorded on the Soundset label and can be heard on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube. In 2012, Gardner won first prize at the International Clarinet Association Research Competition with her study, “An Investigation of Finger Motion and Hand Posture during Clarinet Performance.” Gardner received Bachelor, Master, and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees in Clarinet Performance from Arizona State University, studying with Robert Spring.

Here’s my interview with Stefanie:

BP: What is #womenplayclarinettoo?

SHG: I’m lucky to have a strong network of women all over the world speaking up about female representation in the clarinet community: Sarah Watts, Julia Heinen, Carrie RavenStem, Dawn Lindblade-Evans, Lara Diaz, Marta Kania, Fie Schouten, Kristine Dizon, Larkin Sanders, and many others. We use this hashtag to promote clarinet events embracing equality and to call out events lacking in representation of women and other marginalized populations. We are actively working together to ensure the future of clarinet is welcoming of all underrepresented populations (races and ethnicities, gender diversity, sexual orientations, and those with disabilities). In short, we are a coalition of worldwide clarinetists using our voices to demand change. 

Why did you start #womenplayclarinettoo? 

The hashtags #womenplayclarinettoo and #clarequality grew out of frustrations that women and other marginalized groups have been excluded in recent clarinet events. In just April and May of 2023, there were at least 24 international festivals with male-only faculty, jurors, or guest artists. 

We publicly asked the organizers and panels of these events on social media “Where are the women?” Many organizers did not reply, deleted our comments, emailed us or privately messaged us threats, or, even worse, said that they only hired the best faculty and artists (implying that women can’t play or teach as well as men). We have asked sponsors to think carefully about supporting these events, and how that reflects on their company and their consumers. 

What are the goals of #womenplayclarinettoo and #clarequality?

We believe that our clarinet community is made stronger by the diversity within it. Events within our community should represent our diverse makeup and be accessible to all. We are inviting all clarinetists to join us by taking this pledge:

“I am an ally and advocate for equality and diversity in the worldwide clarinet community. I will inquire about, support and insist on increased visibility and opportunity for underrepresented populations; races and ethnicities, gender diversity, sexual orientations, and those with disabilities in events and programs that I take part in.”

Clarinetists and sponsors can sign the pledge at and have their name listed on the website as allies for equality. There are “next steps” to becoming an ally listed on the website as well. 

What are some of the ways gender inequities are manifested in the world of clarinet playing?

Many women in the international clarinet community have come forward with personal stories of inequity, harassment, and even sexual abuse by male colleagues and teachers.

The #womenplayclarinettoo movement has met resistance from some men in the clarinet community. Some have told us to “be more ladylike,” “stop shouting,” or “plan your own events” (excuse me, but we do!), or warned us we are “burning bridges.” Others have threatened lawsuits and changed our slogan to “B****es play clarinet, too!”

Asking nicely or ignoring the issue has not brought change. With our campaign, we are finally getting festival organizers and sponsors to think carefully about their rosters and programming, and getting allies to spread the word and speak up for us too.

What experiences have you had with gender inequity as a female-identifying clarinetist? 

In addition to never having a female teacher or role model, I am often the only woman in the clarinet section. It is rare for me to play with another professional female-identifying clarinetist in orchestras and other gigs. I’ve been attending ICA festivals for decades now, and it has only been in the past 5 years or so that we have had women headliners at the night concerts. I can recall past years like 2016 when there were zero women soloists at the coveted night concerts.

I want my diverse clarinet studio (primarily female, Hispanic, and LGBTQIA+) to see themselves in the performers they admire and want to study with. I don’t want my students to feel like they don’t belong in the clarinet community because they don’t look the same as the teachers or artists in the poster, or that they can’t be professional clarinet players too.

When with my spouse, Joshua Gardner (another professional clarinetist) at music festivals, I am often introduced as “Josh’s wife” and rarely introduced as another clarinet player or even by my name. (To be clear, Josh never introduces me this way, but other males in the clarinet community often do.) 

The low clarinet community used to be very male dominated, but in recent years has been a very accepting community of all marginalized players with the work of Sarah Watts, Jon Russell, and the very first ICA Low Clarinet Festival. 50.6% women low clarinet artists performed at the festival last January.

Has there also been positive response to #womenplayclarinettoo and #clarequality?

The ICA has taken notice of the #womenplayclarinettoo and #clarequality movement. Many of the board members use profile picture frames, created by Carrie RavenStern, for their social media accounts. They also worked with us to create a powerful diversity statement to remind the international clarinet community that we are an inclusive community.

Where can people find you on the internet?

Where can people find #clarequality and #womenplayclarinettoo on the internet?

Favorite blog posts, June 2023

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

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!