Favorite blog posts, February 2021

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

Review: Characteristic Etudes for the Woodwind Doubler by Gene Kaplan

I’ve previously reviewed a couple of Gene Kaplan‘s publications, sets of duets for woodwind doublers. Recently Gene was kind enough to send me a copy of his latest, Characteristic Etudes for the Woodwind Doubler.

Unlike his previous doubling-duet books, this is intended for a lone woodwind doubler to use in developing his or her doubling skills on flutes (including piccolo and alto flute), oboe and English horn, clarinets (E-flat, B-flat, and bass), saxophones (soprano through baritone), and bassoon and contrabassoon. (Gene suggests that substitutions can be made, so, for example, oboe can be used if you don’t have an English horn.)

The book includes short etudes in a variety of formats, including ones to strengthen instrument switches within familes (e.g. piccolo to flute to alto flute) and switches between families (e.g. flute to clarinet to…). It also has a section of “Difficult Woodwind Pairs” etudes, plus some slightly longer and more advanced etudes for each of the single instruments addressed in the book.

The etudes are in varied styles and not overly technically demanding, sticking mostly to moderate tempos and comfortable ranges. The focus here is on the switching, which happens frequently and in short but mostly manageable windows. (Unlike Gene’s duet books or Paul Saunders‘s books with backing tracks, there’s no built-in mechanism to enforce the quick switches, so you’ll need a metronome to keep yourself honest.)

Here’s a video demo with a couple of sample etudes:

This is the only doubling book I’m aware of that covers such a broad woodwind family. It’s unusual to see books that include the double reeds or even complete-ish flute and single reed families, much less both. If you are interested in improving your skills on a large number of instruments for Broadway-style doubling gigs, this makes excellent sightreading, or more in-depth work for instruments or switches that you find difficult.

Get your copy from Gene’s website.

Thanks, Gene!

Don’t work for exposure for brands, either

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It’s a common rallying cry among freelance musicians that you shouldn’t play gigs that pay in “exposure.” Exposure doesn’t pay the bills, and playing for free devalues your skills and others’.

But there are more ways that musicians become convinced to work for someone else’s bottom line and get nothing back but maybe a little “exposure.”

Unsolicited product endorsements are a common one. An endorsement deal with a company should involve some kind of tangible benefit to the musician: money, free or significantly discounted products, or maybe something like funding to support travel or musical projects. If you’re hashtagging your favorite brands in every social media post, and the companies aren’t supporting you back in a meaningful way, you’re working in their advertising department for free.

Creating online content for companies is also often the same as working for exposure. If a business wants you to provide them with articles, educational materials, videos, photos, artwork, etc. for their social media posts or company blog, they are asking you to do creative work without compensation. (Sometimes these efforts are creatively described as “contests.”)

I’ve gotten many “offers” to have my blog posts “reblogged” (copied) onto corporate websites, with a vague promise that this will generate “traffic” to my site. I fell for it a few times in past years, and it always resulted in a small handful of clicks that dried up after a day or two, and then my content lived on for free on someone else’s site. Now my content all stays here, where these days I get more traffic than the corporations offering me “opportunities” to hand over my work.

Whether it’s gig work, writing web content, or attaching your good name to a product, value yourself enough to ask for what you’re worth.

Transcription: Stan Getz, tenor saxophone on Huey Lewis and the News “Small World (Part Two)”

Get the transcription (PDF)

Huey Lewis tells the story in Kansas City Magazine (strong language edited):

Well, my dad was a jazzer and Zoot Sims died. And when Zoot Sims died, they had a benefit in San Francisco at Kimball’s or somewhere. …

So I take him and sit down … and then I get a tap on my shoulder. I turn around, and it’s Getz. It’s really amazing … he’s wearing his horn and taps me on the shoulder, and my dad turns around and Phil Elwood turns around. And my old man goes, “Holy s***!”

Getz says, “Why don’t you let me play on some of your s***? I can play that **** too.” And I said, “Oh, why, yes sir, I’m sure you can.” And then he took a card and he wrote on it: “Stan Getz. Have sax, will travel.”

He played beautifully, and on the way home, my old man says, “If you don’t take him up on that offer, I will never, ever forgive you!”

Get the transcription (PDF)

Should I buy something new?

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Changing your instrument, mouthpiece, headjoint, reeds, etc. on a frequent basis isn’t productive, but sticking with the same equipment forever isn’t a virtue either. Here are some questions to ask yourself (or a trusted teacher or colleague) when you start feeling the itch to spend money on shiny new things:

  • Does this new equipment make it easier or more comfortable to do what I do? Or am I hoping it will magically endow me with abilities I didn’t have before?
  • Does this materially improve some concrete aspect of my playing, like intonation, response, dynamic range or finger movement? Is it an improvement that is more subjective, fleeting, or malleable, like tone quality? (Tone quality isn’t nothing when purchasing woodwind gear, but it’s not everything, either.)
  • Does this really change how I sound? Does it change how it feels to play, physically? Does it change how it feels to play, emotionally? (All of these can be valid reasons to change, but it’s worth sorting out what’s really changing.)
  • Is this new equipment appealing in some way that is more about appearance or cachet than playability? Is that worth the investment to me? Would I be sacrificing some playability for bling factor?
  • How did I come to desire this particular item? Was I influenced by advertising, celebrity endorsements, a commissioned salesperson, an internet stranger, or someone/something else that might have motivations separate from my success? Was I happy with my current setup before I learned of this product’s existence?

If you’re currently a student, be sure to check in with your teacher before any new gear purchase!

Fingering Diagram Builder, version 0.83

Here’s a new minor release of the Fingering Diagram Builder with a few small improvements:

  • Bug fixes, administrative improvements, and other minor tweaks.
  • The Kingma flute diagram now has an option for a left-hand C-sharp-up key (thanks to Carla Rees). Dig around in the Keywork details menu to find it.
  • The Akai EWI diagram now has an EWI “Solo” key set, with the added side F-sharp key.

Enjoy!

Favorite blog posts, December 2020

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

Factors in woodwind instrument response

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Response is how readily the equipment/player combination produces sound. “Good” response generally means that the player-plus-instrument are able to produce a sound that starts precisely when intended, with clarity and with no unwanted additional noise. Many factors affect the quality and reliability of the response:

  • Instrument condition. An instrument with leaks, cracks, problematic dents, etc. will often respond in a delayed or unpredictable way.
  • Instrument quality. The instrument’s design and manufacture also play a role—an instrument of inferior design/build may respond inconsistently.
  • Setup. Mouthpieces and reeds are similarly subject to design and manufacturing flaws, and must also be well-matched to each other and the instrument. A common issue with single-reed instruments, for example, is using a “strength” of reed that isn’t a good fit for the mouthpiece.
  • Breath support. One of the most immediate and effective ways to improve response, even when other factors are less than ideal, is to use powerful, consistent breath support.
  • Embouchure. Any embouchure problem can affect response, but by far the most common is embouchure tightness or tension. Remember that all woodwind embouchures should be relaxed.
  • Voicing. This is one of the least-taught and least-understood, but one of the most crucial aspects of good woodwind playing. Properly-calibrated, steady voicing improves response (and just about everything else).
  • Finger accuracy and timing. Fingers that arrive on their keys or toneholes out of sync, or that fail to form proper seals, impede response like the leaks that they are.
  • Inherent acoustical problems. Even the best-made instruments have some built-in compromises that might make certain notes less responsive even under the best circumstances. A common example is the lowest notes on the flute, the oboe, and the saxophone, which may tend toward slight sluggishness even for the best players and equipment. Players may need to compensate in various ways.
  • Musical context. Related to the acoustical problems of the various woodwinds, certain musical contexts may exacerbate issues. For example, the bassoon has some specific intervals that are hard to slur smoothly, and skilled bassoonists might use special fingerings to improve these.

For your best response on every note, be sure to address each of the many factors involved.

Using “borrowed” fingerings in EWI mode

The Akai EWI series’ “EWI” fingering mode is powerful and flexible. It bears a resemblance to basic saxophone fingerings (while wisely eschewing saxophoney compromises like rollers and palm keys). But with a little imagination EWI players can “borrow” a number of useful fingerings from other woodwinds, too.

For clarity, I’m considering any fingering that appears in the EWI 4000s’s Reference Manual under “EWI Fingerings” as a basic, non-borrowed fingering. Some of the fingerings I’m listing do appear in the manual for other fingering modes (saxophone, flute, and oboe). Some of the fingerings aren’t great-sounding fingerings on the “real” (non-electric) woodwind instruments, but work beautifully on the EWI, which of course isn’t subject to the acoustical problems of air-filled tubes.

And of course these fingerings work in any octave, which is not always the case with “real” woodwinds. I have arranged them octave-wise here in ways that will mostly look familiar to woodwind players.

Right C-sharp
Borrowed from: oboe, clarinet
Provides a useful alternative in left-hand-pinky-heavy passages.

Left E-flat
Borrowed from: oboe, some clarinets
In the example, prevents having to “jump” the right pinky from one key, over another, to another.

Side F-sharp
Borrowed from: saxophone, clarinet
Similar to using the saxophone’s side F-sharp key or clarinet’s side F-sharp(/B-natural) key (shown here in the wrong octave for clarinet), except using the right pinky rather than the ring finger. Useful for avoiding the right index-middle flip-flop.

Right G-sharp
Borrowed from: oboe
Provides a useful alternative in left-hand-pinky-heavy passages.

1+1 B-flat
Borrowed from: flute, saxophone, clarinet
Similar to a standard flute fingering, or to a problematic saxophone or clarinet alternate fingering (shown here in the wrong octave for clarinet). Of course on the EWI there are no pitch, timbre, or response issues with this (or any) fingering.

1+2 B-flat
Borrowed from: saxophone
A slightly lesser-known alternate fingering for saxophone (which, on saxophones, often sounds better than 1+1). Useful for transitions such as F-sharp to B-flat.

Right B
Borrowed from: clarinet
Similar to the sensation of using the clarinet’s right B(/E) key, but in this case you must use the right pinky to press two keys at once. In the example, this allows you to keep the movement in one hand, rather than having to coordinate both pinkies.

Side C
Borrowed from: saxophone
Useful in chromatic passages and trills for avoiding the left index-middle flip-flop.

These fingerings of course only scratch the surface of what’s possible with the EWI-mode fingering system. But because of their familiarity and time-tested usefulness to players of “real” woodwinds, they can be adapted easily and fruitfully to EWI playing.