Shaping a phrase

When a woodwind player plays a phrase like this:

…it could have a variety of shapes, depending. But often a rising line gets a subtle crescendo, and a long note at the end gets a little decrescendo:

To play create this shape, you blow air that makes the shape. You can imagine playing a single note, like this:

…and then let your fingers and tongue play the notes over the shape.

But sometimes less-experienced players blow like this:

That makes the phrase sound weird, like the notes each have their own shapes. For the notes to unite into a phrase, they need to combine into one shape.

To practice this, first decide what shape your phrase should have, and mark it into your music. Then, without your instrument, blow air that makes the shape of the phrase. Then pick up your instrument and do the fingerings, blowing the air shape outside the instrument. If some notes should be tongued, add that next. Once you are comfortable with all those steps, combine them to play a smooth, connected, well-shaped phrase.

A woodwind player’s introduction to: recorders

For a “modern” woodwind player, recorders might show up in “period” classical music performance or in commercial situations like musical theater or studio gigs. They might be used in commercial settings to evoke Renaissance or Baroque periods, to function generically as “world” or folk flutes with robust chromatic capabilities, or (maybe due to their association with elementary school classroom music) to suggest themes of childhood or naivete.

The use of recorders in classroom settings is an odd one, as something like a pennywhistle has a similar just-blow “fipple” (duct) mouthpiece and a much simpler fingering scheme. The effort required to play recorders fluently and convincingly shouldn’t be underestimated.

Here are some important things to know:

  • While the finest recorders are usually made of wood, there are high-quality and relatively inexpensive ones made of plastic that are quite playable. The top-of-the-line plastic ones made by Yamaha and Aulos are well worth considering, at least as a starting point.
  • The alto (“treble”) recorder is the primary instrument of Baroque repertoire, with a solo range similar to the Baroque flute. The soprano (“descant”) is the one used in elementary classrooms.
  • Recorders are available in “modern” pitch (A=440 or similar) and in various historical pitches, which may be required for playing with period ensembles.
  • Recorders are often misunderstood as being in the “keys” of C or F. This isn’t quite the same thing as, say, clarinets in B-flat and E-flat, since properly-written recorder parts are always written in concert pitch (sometimes with octave displacements). Rather than learning one set of fingerings and reading from transposed parts, recorder players learn two different sets of fingerings, and may read in multiple clefs. (I’ve written more about this in a previous post.) However, some composers and orchestrators get this wrong, and transpose parts for “F” recorders as they would for F horns.
  • Recorders require much less breath than “modern” woodwinds. Like most fipple flutes, they don’t have much dynamic range, since blowing harder tends to cause sharpness or unwanted leaps into the upper registers.
  • The recorder’s left-hand thumbhole functions as an octave vent (this feature distinguishes the recorders from pennywhistles and other fipple flutes). The thumb octave vent helps balance the volume of the upper and lower registers, and gives the player some agility for moving between them.
  • Recorders respond best to a low, open voicing.
  • Vibrato may be produced on recorders using the breath-pulse technique used on modern flutes and double reeds. It can also be done with flattement, a microtonal trill technique common in the Baroque period.
  • There are many historical and modern method books available for recorders; I like Walter Van Hauwe’s The Modern Recorder Player (in three volumes) as a good introduction that assumes a strong musical background.

What is my old instrument worth?

close up shot of a flute

If you have an old musical instrument and are wondering about its value, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Prepare yourself for the very strong possibility that it has little or no monetary value. The vast majority of musical instruments don’t increase in value over time.
  • For most instruments there’s not a reliable “blue book” kind of value. The monetary value is what you can get someone to pay for it.
  • You can check an auction site like eBay to see what people are paying for instruments like yours. (Search for auction listings that actually sold.)
  • Note that sometimes brand and model names get reused over time, and your instrument that has a similar name to an expensive one might not really be the same thing.
  • Condition is very, very important. In the extremely rare case that you have a model that has some significant value, that value usually drops a lot if the instrument isn’t in playing condition. High-level players will usually want to try the instrument before buying, and if it’s not playable then they can’t make sure it’s worth the price.
  • Note that an instrument’s condition may require more than a visual inspection—just because it’s shiny and not visibly damaged doesn’t mean it’s ready to play.
  • Donating an instrument to a school, etc. might be possible if the instrument is of decent quality and in playable condition. If it’s going to require a few hundred dollars’ worth of repair before a student can play it, it may not be worth it to your school’s band program. In other words, if you can’t sell it, it probably doesn’t have value as a donation, either.

An instrument that can’t be sold or donated for playing might be destined for the garbage. (They often can’t be easily recycled.) If you’re determined to find a new life for it, a local theater might want it as a prop, a thrift shop might accept it as a decorative item, or an instrument repair shop might throw it on their scrap pile to scavenge for parts.

Favorite blog posts, October 2021

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

Preparing a focused mind

binocular country lane filter focus

I find that in performance my mind isn’t always focused on what I would like. I’m easily distracted by conditions in the performance space, audience reactions, or, especially, the ways that my playing isn’t everything I would like it to be.

When I get distracted, and especially when it turns into negative self-talk, it’s easy to spiral. I feel bad about my playing, so my playing gets worse, and then I feel worse still.

When I talk about this phenomenon with my students, often their strategy is “just don’t think negative thoughts.” Maybe that works for them, but it sure doesn’t for me. Rebuking myself for having negative thoughts doesn’t really improve my frame of mind mid-performance.

Instead I find it helpful to focus on something positive and constructive. And in the heat of battle it can be hard to think of something, so it helps me to pick one out in advance. In other words, I have an advance plan for what to focus my mind on if and when it starts wandering in unhelpful directions.

The best positive thing to think about might depend on what works for you. But as a woodwind player, my go-to thought is air. I focus on the sensations of air moving through my body and into the instrument.

This works well for me for a few reasons. Because air is at the core of my tone production technique, paying attention to it usually helps me play a little better. If I’m taking good breaths, my brain and body are better oxygenated and able to function better. And air is closely tied to expression, so focusing on it can help my thoughts redirect toward that. Plus, air is a relaxing thing—lots of meditation and mindfulness practices use breathing as a method to achieve calm and clarity.

Having a plan like this gives me an easy way to get past a distraction and return my thoughts to the moment. Good luck!

How to have a good lesson

musical notes

I’ve taught lots of woodwind lessons, from beginner to college level. Here are some things that I look for in a good, successful lesson:

  • Has the student made progress since the previous lesson? If things sound the same as last time, that’s not a good sign. I can tell when students are focusing their practice time on improving things about their playing, instead of just mindlessly playing the piece over and over. If we discussed specific things that needed improvement, have those specifics improved?
  • Is the student in lesson mode? In other words, are they warmed up, with their instrument and all their materials ready and organized, with a pencil, and in the right mental space? Are they rested, fed, and otherwise in condition to play their best? A distracted or frazzled student isn’t in their best state for a good lesson.
  • Does the student have questions, observations, or requests for help? Everybody learns differently, but it should be rare for a student to engage deeply with assigned materials all week long and then have no curiosity, no goals still out of reach, no identified problems that need solutions.

A good lesson is the result of good preparation!

How to convince me not to play your newly-composed piece

person writing on the sheet music

My inbox runneth over with invitations to buy and perform composers’ new pieces. I’d like to play new works, but some composers make it harder for me to accept their invitations. Here’s how:

  • Failure of fit. If I’m clearly just on your email-blast list of 3,000 clarinetists, there’s a fair chance your new piece doesn’t have any special appeal for me. But if it scratches one of my particular performance itches (like pieces for multiple-woodwinds soloist, woodwind instrument with live electronics, or “world” woodwinds) then a more limited mailing or a brief personal note will definitely catch my eye.
  • No reference material. If I have to guess what the piece is like from a title or a description, I probably won’t invest the money or time to give it a closer look. Give me a perusal score or recording, and preferably both. Recordings that are mediocre or computer-generated are acceptable—I just need a strong hint about what the music is like, not your fully-realized vision. And watermarked or even partial scores work, too. If I can’t find the reference materials on your website, I’ll assume they are not available, and probably won’t email you to ask.
  • Too restrictive. These days my recital performances are for a relatively small in-person audience and a larger online audience. If you’re uncomfortable with me putting a video on YouTube, I’m less interested in putting time and effort into it.
  • Logistics too costly. Pieces with extreme difficulty, large or unusual ensembles, complicated staging, rare instruments, etc. present real, practical obstacles to performance. The piece has to be compelling enough for me to decide to spend limited resources (time, money, called-in favors) on it. Some flexibility, such as piano reductions, optional cuts, or adaptable instrumentation, can convince me to try the piece in a lower-cost situation first, and then maybe like it enough to keep it in mind for the rare concerto opportunity later.

Let’s work together and get some new works performed!

Recital videos, August 2021

I’m pleased to share videos from my recent Delta State University faculty recital. I performed for a reduced in-person audience due to COVID-19 precautions.

All the repertoire involves electronics of some kind: prerecorded tracks, a looper, an actual electronic instrument (the Akai EWI), and/or live signal processing. This was my first time doing something so electronics-intensive, and I was learning to use some new equipment, so I’m including here some videos from the live recital and some from a dress rehearsal depending on audio quality, etc. (You will still notice some distortion and other issues, which I’m learning from and hoping to improve in future performances.)

Some woodwind problems with competition repertoire rules

mockup of white clipboard with blank paper

Here are some repertoire-related problems I’ve encountered trying to get my woodwind students signed up for competitions. These range from significant national/international competitions down to small competitions within my own university music department. Some are competitions designed by woodwind-savvy folks and some aren’t. I mention these problems here in the hope that it will be helpful in designing competitions that are fair and sensitive to the particular repertoire quirks of the woodwind family.

Style periods. The clarinet’s repertoire really takes off in the Romantic period (with some notable Classical exceptions), and the saxophone’s doesn’t really get going until the 20th century. Competitions that have requirements related to style periods make things difficult for these instruments, especially if there are restrictions on playing transcriptions. It can also be a challenge if rules for determining style period aren’t clear: can I count something like a Saint-Saëns woodwind sonata as Romantic, even though it was likely written in the 1920s?

Accompaniment. While a pianist, classical guitarist, etc. can play significant repertoire alone, most wind-instrument repertoire is accompanied. This involves extra cost, rehearsal time, and logistics for the woodwind entrant. Concerto repertoire in particular often has unrealistic piano reductions that require a pianist who is both skilled and creative (and therefore expensive and busy). There exists unaccompanied repertoire, to be sure, but pieces of this nature often provide significant challenges to the less-experienced woodwind player. To write convincing unaccompanied works, composers often write for virtuoso players capable of filling up the space with notes. Stamina issues, too, are different for wind players than for pianists and others, and unaccompanied pieces can be especially taxing.

Timing. Competitions that favor singers tend to have shorter time limits, which circumscribe repertoire options for instrumentalists, particularly if there are restrictions on playing partial pieces or making cuts.

Cost. Pianists, singers, violinists, and others can buy large collections of public-domain repertoire by great historical composers for relatively little money. More recent works, such as those for the clarinet and saxophone, are much more likely to be under copyright and sold individually at higher prices. For me as a teacher, this means that I have in my file cabinet, for example, only so many unaccompanied-pieces-for-sophomore-level-clarinet-players-that-fit-within-eight-minutes-and-are-flashy-enough-for-competition. Are there more pieces out there? Definitely, but even to look at the scores may require expensive purchases. There probably won’t be IMSLP downloads or many YouTube performances to peruse.

Multiple instruments. There is significant clarinet repertoire for clarinets in B-flat and for clarinets in A. Saxophone repertoire favors mostly the alto and the soprano saxophones, but also exists for tenor and baritone instruments. Competitions with too-tight restrictions on playing “more than one instrument” limit options for these entrants. It’s a nice courtesy if there is time and patience for entrants needing to bring a second instrument up to temperature before starting, or to wet a second reed.

Many of these concerns dissipate at least somewhat at high levels of competition. But smaller competitions are often geared more toward participation opportunities than toward crowning victors, and a little care in designing the rules can help achieve this goal.