Woodwind doubling and clarinet problems

"clarinet 1" by steffenz is licensed under CC BY

Here are a few of the common problems woodwind doublers have with the clarinet:

Flabby/saggy/tubby/airy tone and flat pitch. This is a dead giveaway for a self-“taught” clarinet doubler. The clarinet’s voicing is quite high, higher than any of the other woodwinds, and beginning clarinetists sometimes struggle for years to make that proper voicing a consistent habit. Once it settles in, pitch problems mostly evaporate, tone becomes clear and ringing, and notes respond beautifully and easily in every register. If you’re thinking about buying a shorter barrel because your “clarinet” is so flat all the time, don’t. Work on your voicing instead. Voicing is the #1 crucial technique for successful clarinet doubling, and will solve most of your problems.

It may also be worth checking your mouthpiece angle—it should be quite steep compared to saxophone or double reed instruments. Keep your head up straight and eyes forward, and aim in the ballpark of keeping the clarinet around 30° from vertical. You can also use the paper trick to make sure you’re taking in the right amount of mouthpiece.

Reeds can be a contributing factor, too. Often (but not always) saxophonists lean toward a slightly more open mouthpiece and softer reed, while clarinetists lean toward a little more closed mouthpiece and stiffer reed. The strength you prefer on a typical saxophone mouthpiece may not be right strength for a typical clarinet mouthpiece.

Constricted tone. Bafflingly, there’s a common pedagogical idea that clarinetists should tighten their embouchures to fix various problems. This is nonsense. Keep your jaw open to make space for the reed to vibrate, and let your lips (not your jaw/teeth) close around the mouthpiece, not tight but just airtight. Notes will respond more readily, with a fuller, prettier tone, and you can throw away the tape or paper or dental appliance you have been using to cushion your lower lip from your teeth.

Squeaks. 95% of the time this is an issue of fingers failing to properly cover toneholes. (And 95% of the time, struggling clarinet doublers blame it on something having vaguely to do with embouchure, reeds, or the clarinet somehow just being a squeaky instrument.) Use the large, fleshy pads of your fingers (not the tippy-tips) to cover the holes. Sometimes a quick check in the mirror can reveal that your fingers aren’t where you think they are.

Fingering awkwardness. The clarinet’s fingering system and unique overtone series provide tremendous advantages: an expansive range, clean and precise technique, and lots of useful alternate fingerings. (It’s superior to the saxophone’s “easier” system with awkward palm keys and relatively few alternates. Fight me.)

But if you’re coming from another instrument, you might find the 12th between the lower and clarion registers confounding. That’s because you’re still thinking about the fingerings. Practice your scales, arpeggios, and études until your fingers move on autopilot, like they already do on your primary instrument. It can be done.

The clarinet’s dreaded “break” as a technique concern is mostly a myth. Keep your support, voicing, and embouchure well-formed and stable, and just move your fingers. Your left index finger should rock or tilt between its tonehole and the A key, not hop (losing contact with the instrument) or slide (dragging along the key). Work toward a tiny, efficient, relaxed movement.

The clarinet’s clever system of redundant pinky keys enables lightning-fast technique in virtually any key, but it takes real effort to learn to use them well. Remember that for those pinky-finger notes there aren’t really “standard” vs. “alternate” fingerings—you need to know them all well enough to use interchangeably. And if you have beginner habits like using both pinkies for third-line B, you will need to learn to use a single pinky in many cases for the most efficient and flexible approach.

Ledger line catastrophes. Because of the clarinet’s broad tessitura, clarinetists have to be fluent in ledger lines above the staff (maybe more than you’re used to if you’re an oboist) and below the staff (more than you’re used to on any treble-clef woodwind). Hit the Baermann or Kroepsh books for thorough workouts spanning the clarinet’s range.

Remember the best money you can spend on your clarinet playing isn’t another mouthpiece or barrel or book—it’s some lessons with an excellent teacher. Learn the instrument on its own terms, and, whatever you do, try not to sound like a doubler.

Which multiple woodwinds degree programs should I apply to?

"Ariel9" by alika89 is licensed under CC BY-NC

“Which multiple woodwinds degree programs should I apply to?” I get this question a lot, since I write about multiple woodwind degree programs here on the blog, have a couple of those degrees myself, and maintain a list of such programs.

(The list is meant to be comprehensive but probably isn’t. If you know of a program that isn’t listed, please let me know! These days I mostly depend on emails from interested parties to help keep the list up-to-date. I don’t have some secret source where I can find all the current available programs.)

The answer, of course, is that I don’t know which program you should choose. I graduated from two excellent programs, both of which I understand have evolved in the 10+ years since I finished school. Programs frequently change, and so do the faculty and administration that run them.

So, you should narrow down your list of possibilities the best you can, and reach out to schools to find out more. You might try to figure out from the school’s music faculty directory who is the head of the woodwind department, or contact the professor of your “main” instrument (if you have one).

If I were looking for a program today, here are some questions I might like to research on the school’s website, or ask a professor:

  • How many students are currently enrolled in the degree program? Are there any enrolled in multiple-woodwinds programs at other degree levels? Is this enrollment typical, or is it currently at a high or low?
  • How do the woodwind faculty feel about the program? Do they see woodwind doubling as a valuable, marketable skill? Are any of them doublers themselves? Do they try to push students into single-instrument degrees instead?
  • Do multiple-woodwinds students get the same kind of access/time/attention/instructional time from the faculty that single-instrument students get? Is there room for multiple woodwinds majors in, say, the oboe reedmaking class? The clarinet choir?
  • How big and how competitive is the music department in general? Is there any hope of auditioning into serious ensembles on secondary instruments?
  • Are there appropriate/relevant graduate assistantships available, like teaching or assisting with a woodwind methods class, or playing auxiliary woodwinds in the bands or orchestras?
  • How is the degree structured? What courses would I take? Would I have a minor, cognate field, etc?
  • How is individual instrumental study structured? Would I have a “main” instrument and “secondary” instruments? How would that affect the instruction and experience I get on each? Would I be studying multiple instruments each semester? How much total instruction would I get on each instrument? Would I perform on all my instruments in solo recitals and juries?
  • How strong do I need to be on each instrument for entry into the program? What is the audition process like? Do you have lists or guidelines for required audition repertoire?
  • Are there instruments available for my use? Do I need to own all the instruments I intend to study before I start the program?
  • What non-school-related opportunities are available in the area? Are students earning money playing gigs? Is there an active musical theater scene or some other kind of music-making that would value the services of an aspiring woodwind doubler?
  • What have former students in the program accomplished? Have they graduated? How long did it take them? Are they employed? Doing what?

I did one of my multiple woodwinds degrees at a well-known, name-brand music school, and later in academic job interviews hiring committees did notice and comment on it; it’s possible the name opened some doors. My other multiple woodwinds degree is from a smaller (but not small), high-quality but lower-name-recognition school, where I got much better access to the faculty, better opportunities to perform, better financial aid, and lower costs. Both were valuable experiences in different ways.

If you are in the US, there’s a decent chance that there’s a quality program or two within a few hours’ drive. Check with the faculty to find out about the details that are important to you. Give strong consideration to assistantship opportunities, especially if they involve teaching, as this experience has high educational value for you and can set your CV apart in an academic job search. If you’re having a hard time deciding between two similar programs, you probably won’t go wrong with either, so maybe choose the one that costs less and/or is closer to home.

Good luck and happy practicing!

Getting the most out of practicing your scales

"Maths" by me_chris is licensed under CC BY

When you practice scales (or arpeggios or, really, any other technical material) it’s not really about the scales. Nobody wants to buy tickets to hear you play scales.

Scale and technical practice develop the fundamental technique you need for doing more interesting things. You don’t learn multiplication tables or French verb conjugations so you can recite multiplication tables or French verb conjugations. You learn them so you can file your taxes or build a Mars rover, or order pastries or read Proust.

The habits you develop when practicing scales—the building blocks of your technique—will be with you in everything you play. So take them very seriously:

  • Go slowly, and be as precise and controlled as you can. You will work on scales for your whole life as a musician, so there’s no rush to get them up to a certain tempo. Don’t waste time playing them sloppily.
  • Listen deeply to the sound of each note. Scales are a great chance to understand and map the tone, pitch, and response nuances of your instrument. Get in the habit of playing with your most beautiful sound even on technical material.
  • Solidify your best practices. Choose the perfect fingering for each and every note (don’t just fall back on what is already comfortable). Program your fingers to move in the most efficient and precise ways. Stabilize your breath support, voicing, and embouchure.
  • Be expressive. No need to go overboard—just give a subtle crescendo as you ascend and diminuendo as you descend. Add a little vibrato to warm things up. Make it automatic to find and express phrases.

Whatever habits you solidify in your scale practice will be infused into everything else you play. A little carelessness with your multiplication tables or verb conjugations can result in a severe fault with your Mars rover’s circuits or a profound misunderstanding of French literature. Get the little things right.

Favorite blog posts, September 2019

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

Review: D’Addario Evolution clarinet mouthpieces

D’Addario was kind enough to send me a couple of their new(ish) Reserve Evolution clarinet mouthpieces to try out.

The Evolution currently comes in a single opening/facing, but the two Evolution mouthpieces I received are different in appearance: one is the standard black, and the other is what’s called “marble” on D’Addario’s website, or “sandstone marble” on the box. I usually don’t care to have equipment that calls too much attention to itself, but this is pretty cool and subtle enough not to be gaudy on stage.

I can’t definitively say that there is a difference in how the marble/non-marble play or sound. For the two I have in hand, the marble is possibly very (very) slightly more dark/muted, and the non-marble has very slightly more brightness/presence. But this doesn’t match my experience trying the mouthpieces back-to-back at the ICA conference (“ClarinetFest®”) over the summer. In any case, if there’s a difference, it’s trivially small, and I think you can pick the one that you think looks nicest.

As I’ve pointed out in my reviews of D’Addario’s other clarinet and saxophone mouthpieces, these are made with very, very high consistency, which finally brings mouthpieces into the online shopping age: you can just order one from wherever you find the lowest price, and count on it to play just as well as any other. No need to order a bunch of them, put a deposit on your credit card, ship back the ones you don’t want, pay a restocking/sanitation fee, etc. And if you lose or break yours, you can get a replacement quickly and probably not notice any difference. They are great-playing, affordable mouthpieces, but the consistency is the unique, killer feature. I’ve personally adopted each new clarinet and saxophone mouthpiece as it has hit the market.

(I don’t have a formal relationship, endorsement deal, etc. with D’Addario. They do sometimes send me products to try, presumably with the hope that I will review them favorably, but there’s no advance agreement. And I think that the consistent quality is a significant development in the mouthpiece market, and worth comment.)

What I’m looking for in a mouthpiece is a good balance between response and stability. To some extent these may be two sides of the same coin. A very responsive mouthpiece “speaks” immediately, even on resistant notes or at softer volume. But sometimes the tone and/or pitch are too flexible, and keeping them in check takes a lot of work. A very stable mouthpiece has consistent tone and pitch, but may take more work to get notes to respond as desired.

The particular quality of tone is my third consideration. I don’t make this my first priority for a few reasons. One is that a mouthpiece that strikes a good responsive/stable balance is already likely to have an appropriate, middle-of-the-road, versatile tone. (Often, within that middle-of-the-road zone, more “responsive” mouthpieces tend toward “brightness,” “presence,” or “liveliness,” while more “stable” mouthpieces lean toward “darkness,” “warmth,” or a “covered” sound.) Another reason is that tone quality is one of the more malleable aspects of a mouthpiece’s playing characteristics. If it functions well on the response/stability axis, then with a little time I will probably adapt my embouchure in minute ways (even without realizing it) to find the tone I want.

For the last seven years I have been using D’Daddario’s Reserve X5 clarinet mouthpiece, so I’m using that as my frame of reference. The Reserve and Evolution mouthpieces are both good, solid choices, and I can’t really say broadly that one is better than the other. But they have some differences in response, stability, and tone, which I’ll outline here in case it helps you pick one that best suits your preference.

Basically I find the Reserve to lean slightly toward responsiveness, with the expected tinge of brightness/presence, and the Evolution to tend more stable, with the darker/more covered sound. It’s subtle.

(Besides the mouthpieces, D’Addario also makes Reserve and Evolution reeds, which I find to have those same characteristics: Reserve = more responsive, Evolution = more stable. A D’Addario representative tells me the similarly named mouthpieces and reeds are “not meant to be exclusively paired together.”)

The following audio clips are all played using the same reed, a D’Addario Reserve 3.5. It’s just a little softer than I prefer for the X5, which accounts for some of the responsiveness and brightness but not all of it. Using a 3.5+ brings the sound and response just slightly closer to the Evolutions.

Evolution (black)
Evolution (marble)
Reserve X5

These photos are of the packaging for the X5 and Evolution mouthpieces. The measurements, oddly, are mostly in inches. (The X5 packaging is several years old, from when these were still sold as “Rico Reserve;” I don’t know if the box otherwise still looks the same.) The side view diagrams seem to indicate that both have a tip opening of ~.042 inches, which seems like a possible typo. Assuming the openings are precisely 1.05mm and 1.08mm (as also indicated on the packaging), these might be better expressed as .041 and .043.

I like both the Reserve X5 (my current favorite of the Reserve options) and the Evolution, and currently they are both living in my clarinet case. If forced to choose, I think at the moment I would fall back on the X5, because responsiveness feels important to me right now. But I can easily see myself switching to the Evolution at some point, perhaps depending on repertoire and performance situation.

In any case, the Evolution is another strong addition to D’Addario’s line of mouthpieces, and worth checking out.

Calculating gig fees

"Calculating savings" by wuestenigel is licensed under CC BY

It took a while in my freelancing career to get a handle on how to respond when people ask what I charge for my services as a performer.

I live in a remote, rural area (where my university day job is located) and there isn’t a musicians’ union presence, so I’m on my own in these negotiations. When a gig call comes in, I have to make the decision whether the offered compensation is enough, or be able to name a fair price on the spot. I’ve developed sort of a mental formula for this calculation, which I have converted into an online spreadsheet with sample numbers so you can see my process:

Gig fee calculator

If you have a Google account the link should prompt you to create a copy of the spreadsheet that you can play around with. Try changing some of the numbers and see how it works.

Basically, I’m thinking in terms of:

  • A base rate, which is the minimum I charge for even the smallest gig.
  • Additional fees if I’m expected to double on multiple instruments. (I’ve written previously about my rationale for that.)
  • Additional fees to cover my travel time and expenses.

This gives me a way to think through what I am charging in a consistent way, and a nice clear breakdown if someone asks why I’m charging what I’m charging, or wants some kind of itemized invoice. If I feel put on the spot, or I just want a little more time to think it through, I have had good success getting the details, then telling the caller I’ll get back to them within a certain time frame. (Maybe five minutes, or an hour, or the next day.)

Depending on the type of gig, what works for you, and what’s common in your area, you might need to adapt my system to include things like preparation/practice time, bringing and setting up PA or other equipment, downtime between sound check and downbeat, and expenses for things like special wardrobe. And of course you should adjust the base rate and other options to suit your financial needs, your clout in the local gig scene, and what’s common/appropriate in your location.

You should also think through what to do when the gig offer doesn’t meet your pay requirements. Turning down low-paying gigs contributes to an attitude that musicians should be treated as professionals and compensated fairly. But often weekend warriors or younger musicians trying to break into the local gig scene are willing to be a little more flexible. (The rights and wrongs of that are a larger topic than I will address here. Do what is best for you and your career.)

Think carefully about what your time and skills are worth, and expect to be paid in a way that is fair to both you and your employers.

Recital videos, August 2019

Here are videos from my recent faculty recital at Delta State University. I performed the Saint-Saëns oboe, bassoon, and clarinet sonatas, plus the flute Romance and “The Swan” from The Carnival of the Animals as a baritone saxophone transcription.

“The Swan” is originally for cello, so I assumed it might work well as a baritone saxophone transcription. It turns out it really fits quite comfortably in the alto saxophone’s range, but I decided to take it on as a baritone piece anyway as a personal challenge.

Favorite blog posts, August 2019

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

Focus on fundamentals, not localized fixes

"Flute" by tobyjm is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

As I’ve discussed here previously, when trying to solve woodwind-playing problems there’s a useful distinction between problem-specific solutions and simply shoring up fundamental technique.

Here are some examples of problem-specific solutions:

  • Second-octave G-sharp tends to crack on saxophone, especially tenor? When you get to that note, blow warmer air (in other words, use a lower voicing).
  • Low notes on oboe respond sluggishly? Try dropping your jaw a bit as you descend into that register.
  • Flute pitch sagging at softer dynamics? Increase your breath support as you decrescendo.

Notice that all of these suggestions give you a sort of localized task to perform—make some change to your tone-production technique whenever you play a certain note. This is an exhausting way to play: trying to remember and execute a handful of directives for each note that goes by; discovering that a constantly-changing tone-production technique makes tone, pitch, and response unstable; adding another layer of fixes to try to counteract the instability. It can quickly become too much to process, and higher-order things like musical expression get sacrificed.

Sometimes these localized fixes are necessary, usually as a workaround to some flaw or compromise in the equipment’s design or manufacture. But much more often the “fix” should be an improvement to fundamental technique:

  • If lowering your voicing helps the cracking G-sharp on tenor, what would happen if you used that lower voicing on every note?
  • If taking some jaw pressure off the oboe reed helps the low notes speak, what would happen if you didn’t add that pressure back in the higher registers?
  • If increasing breath support helps buoy up softer notes, would it hurt the louder ones?

My guess is that by making these fixes part of your fundamental technique, instead of applying them here and there like bandages, you would discover:

  • a richer, more in-tune tenor saxophone tone
  • clearer, more immediate oboe articulation, with less fatigue/pain
  • flute playing improved in virtually every aspect

Examine your problem-specific fixes carefully, and try making them your default approaches rather than special-occasion ones.

When dealing with problem spots in your music, it’s okay to remind yourself of relevant and helpful fundamental techniques, but the ultimate goal should be to remove as much as possible of the mental overhead and physical gymnastics from your playing. Develop good basic technique that lets the instrument more or less play itself, so you can focus on the creative aspects.

Using the Fingering Diagram Builder’s advanced keywork controls

The most recent release of the Fingering Diagram Builder introduces some “shortcut” controls that make it easy to turn certain keys on and off. For example, with a quick check/un-check of a box you can turn on clarinet half-holes or some non-standard keys.

Or, as always, there’s a dropdown list of “key sets” (which I referred to as “presets” in previous FDB versions) to turn on and off the right keys for a complete instrument variant.

“Bass clarinet, pro,” for example, turns on (among other things) the right thumb keys down to low C found on many professional bass clarinets. “Standard Boehm” turns them off.

All of these menu controls work by changing the behavior of the keys present in the instrument diagram. The behavior of each key, or group of keys, can be set to “Always,” “Never,” or “As needed.”

If you have a specific set of keys in mind, you can set the behavior of each key directly. Let’s say I have a fancy new oboe with a left-hand “long” C-sharp key and a left thumb low B key, and I want to make a fingering chart to map out some of the new fingering possibilities. (There’s currently an easy check-box for the left C-sharp, but we’ll ignore that for now to explore the hands-on method.)

I’ll start with the thumb B key. If I open the “Keywork details” section of the menu, and then the “More keywork details” section, I see a long list, partially pictured here.

The last key in the picture is the key I want to use in my fingering chart. Before we go on, notice that its name is aligned all the way to the left, meaning that it is a stand-alone key, not part of a group of keys. A little above it you can see the name “Thumb octave keys,” with four keys below it and indented. “Thumb octave keys” is a group, and the keys listed below it (“First octave key,” etc.) are in that group.

Okay. “Left thumb low B” is currently set to “Never,” which is pretty self-explanatory: the key simply never appears in the diagram.

Setting it to “Always” is also clear enough: the key will be visible all the time, pressed or not. If I set it to “Always” and don’t press any of the oboe keys, here’s what the diagram looks like:

Visible in this image are the six “main” keys, with a little horizontal line visually separating the left hand from the right hand, plus the thumb low B key. All of these are now set to “Always.” The other keys—the octave keys, the little finger keys, etc., are not visible. This particular layout is probably not what I want. Some people like every available key (including the octave keys, etc.) to be visible in every image, but I prefer and recommend showing only the most relevant ones for the particular fingering. The left low B will only be relevant for a specific note or two.

So let’s set that key to “as needed” instead. Since this key isn’t part of a larger group, its “as needed” behavior is easy to understand. When it’s pressed, it appears in the image. When it’s not, it doesn’t. I will still be able to see where the key is while I’m using the FDB, because it will appear in gray outline when I hover over the diagram with my mouse or trackpad, or appear constantly if I’m using a touch device, but it won’t be part of the downloaded image.

If I set it to “As needed” and hover my mouse pointer over the diagram in the FDB, I see this, with the left low B present:

And if I download the image, I see this:

Now let’s turn to the left C-sharp key. Since it is part of a group (“Left little finger keys”) its behavior is a little more complex. Here’s what the group’s behavior settings look like for the “Conservatory” key set:

Several of the keys are set to “Always,” and several are set to “Never.” But the group itself is set to “As needed.” Here’s how that works: if none of those keys is pressed, the FDB determines the group is not “needed,” so none of the keys are visible. But if any of the “Always” keys is pressed, the FDB considers the group needed and makes it visible, including all the “Always” keys within it. (The “Never” keys are still not visible.) So, for example, if I press the “Left E-flat,” I get this:

Only the left E-flat is pressed, but the other keys in the group appear too, to give a little visual context.

So, to make the left C-sharp available, I will set it to “Always.” But when an oboe has a left C-sharp, the left F-key usually gets moved over a little and has a little different shape. So I’m also going to set “Left F” to “Never,” and “Left F (with low C-sharp),” a key designed for this situation, to “Always.” Now I have this (low C-sharp in red, altered left F in yellow):

By setting the behavior of individual keys, you can do just about any combination of keys you can think of. And you can use the “Custom key sets” menu to save your settings for future use.

This system also makes it relatively easy for me to add obscure or unusual keys to the diagrams, and keep them hidden except when people need them for specific purposes. So, if there are keys you would like to have in your images, and you didn’t find them in the “More keywork details” list, let me know and I’ll consider adding them in future versions. It’s extra-helpful if you can send good photos.

Enjoy!