Favorite blog posts, September 2020

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

Stop teaching clarinet and saxophone embouchures like this

As a ten-year-old beginning saxophonist, I was taught to form an embouchure like this:

  • Put your top teeth on the mouthpiece
  • Let your lower lip sort of roll or squish over your lower teeth
  • Close your mouth

That’s how I played for years. As I advanced and started to practice more, I would sometimes hurt the inside of my lower lip, drawing blood or forming blisters or scar tissue. I considered this a badge of honor: I practiced until I bled.

But I don’t play that way anymore, nor do I teach students that way. I made an important change to my embouchure that lets me play for extended periods pain- and blood-free, while sounding better and having more control.

The problem with the lower-lip-over-the-teeth approach is that it sets the lower lip up to serve as a sacrificial cushion, to protect the reed from the lower teeth. Sure, you can just tell your students to “stop biting,” but if you’re teaching them an embouchure that’s based on biting, then good luck.

It’s more useful to think of the embouchure this way:

  • Put your top teeth on the mouthpiece
  • Let your jaw hang open a bit, so your lower teeth stay clear of the reed
  • Keep your jaw open, and allow your lips to close around the mouthpiece and reed.

This approach makes sure the lips are used to form the embouchure, not the jaw. It improves tone, response, dynamic range, and more, and virtually eliminates lower lip pain.

Left: jaw-formed clarinet embouchure. Right: lip-formed clarinet embouchure.

If you are used to a jaw-formed embouchure concept, you might find that switching to the lip-formed embouchure leaves you feeling like you’ve lost some control of pitch and tone. If so, double-check your breath support; with the jaw out of the way you will need to depend on those support muscles more for stability.

Don’t play through pain—use a better approach.

“More air”

"Grace under Pressure" by A.Davey is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

When I use the term “breath support,” students and colleagues often echo back something like “oh, right, more air.” But is breath support the same thing as “more air?”

Measuring quantities of air isn’t completely straightforward—when we say “more air,” we might rightfully wonder whether that means a greater volume filled with air, or a greater number of air molecules, or whether we’re really thinking of something like airflow or air velocity.

For my purposes in teaching, I find a few different measures to be relevant:

First, you must set up breath support with a good inhalation, and I think it’s generally helpful to inhale a large volume of air into the lungs.

Then, you must pressurize the air by engaging the torso muscles, constricting the space in which the air is contained. (The diaphragm’s relaxation alone does create pressure, but not enough for good woodwind playing.)

The increased pressure makes the air escape your embouchure at a higher velocity. You can adjust the size of your embouchure, allowing more or less air to pass through, which is the basic mechanism woodwind players use to change (sound) volume (or “dynamics”).

I’m most directly concerned with air pressure when I talk about breath support, and in some ways in which that does translate to “more” air. But since “more” can be measured in multiple ways, I like to use a more exact term like “breath support.” That also has the concreteness of referring to something that the player actively does, rather than focusing the imagery on air, which is invisible.

Be precise in your pedagogical vocabulary, and consistent in your breath support.

Recital videos, August 2020

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

All the repertoire is unaccompanied. The program begins with multiple-woodwinds repertoire by Samuel Adler, Kyle Tieman-Strauss, and Nicole Chamberlain (a world premiere of a commissioned piece), followed by some odds and ends on recorders, clarinet, and tinwhistles.

Keeping your fingers “close”

"A Love Supreme (B&W)" by Roger Smith is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

There’s a common idea with woodwind players and teachers that it’s important to keep your fingers close to the keys. Keeping the fingers within a certain reasonable distance does have benefits:

  • It’s easier to keep track of where the keys are and not “miss,” especially for beginners
  • Allowing the fingers to rise too far can introduce tension into the hands

But I think finger-closeness is a concept that gets over-taught and over-stressed. It seems to be motivated by a desire for finger speed (or some euphemism like “fluidity”).

Assuming the fingers are within a reasonable range, I think working toward extreme closeness probably doesn’t offer much if any speed increase, but does make tension more likely. It’s a micro-optimization only worth thinking about when you’ve solved every other problem with your technique, and even then your results may differ on whether it’s productive (or even counterproductive). Definitely don’t stress out your beginning students over it.

Try this if you like: bring a finger down onto a key from, say, 1-2mm above the key (about the thickness of a couple of credit or ID cards). Then try from ten times that distance, 1-2 cm (the width of a fingernail or two). What do you notice about speed? How about tension?

Keep the fingers close enough to stay in position and not bend backward, but don’t worry too much about dialing in extreme closeness.

Clarinet vibrato

"Key Change" by jmmcdgll is licensed under CC BY

The question of whether the clarinet should use vibrato has been argued to death, and I won’t pursue the question further here. Suffice it to say that it’s a matter of taste and a matter of tradition.

American and European classical clarinetists usually don’t use it. Why that particular quirk of taste and/or tradition has taken hold probably can’t be pinned down for certain. But there are some weak theories that are worth retiring for good:

  • That the clarinet’s sound is somehow special or has unique properties that make vibrato unnecessary or undesirable.
  • That vibrato cannot be artistically executed on the clarinet.
  • That the orchestra just “needs” a vibrato-less sound, and clarinetists happened to step up to volunteer.

I don’t see any reason to believe that the clarinet is uniquely unsuited to vibrato, or that there’s anything inherently “right” about the clarinet being vibrato-free.

Among proponents of clarinet vibrato, there is disagreement about which body part(s) produce the effect—the lips? the diaphragm? the cheeks? This is essentially a settled matter among clarinetists’ closest cousins, saxophonists, who nearly universally produce vibrato with jaw movement. I find this to be the only really viable option on the clarinet, as well, since it can be manipulated mostly independently of tone, response, intonation, and dynamics (by maintaining stable embouchure and breath support).

As to why vibrato hasn’t become standard in the clarinet world, my best theory is that the clarinet’s unique high voicing is relatively easily disrupted by jaw vibrato. While it’s very possible to do clarinet jaw vibrato well, it does take some care to do it without destabilizing the voicing and causing pitch and tone instability. I suspect that over the centuries clarinetists have found this to be a mild deterrent, and instead have leaned into clear, vibrato-less tone as a virtue.

In any case, some classical clarinetists have used it with great success, but the prevailing tradition is a pure and un-embellished tone, without even a trace of vibrato.

Should I buy a “step-up” instrument?

"New Instruments" by Phil Roeder is licensed under CC BY

Should you buy a “step-up” or “intermediate model” woodwind instrument? In most cases, I think the answer is no.

For flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, or saxophone, I think the wisest course, if you can afford it, is usually to start with a high-quality, best-in-class student-model instrument. The advantages of this are:

  • Lower price range (though maybe in the upper part of that range)
  • High-quality student instruments are easier to play than low-quality ones, giving beginners an advantage and a positive experience
  • Quality student instruments can, in some cases, be used all the way through high school band
  • Quality student instruments retain their value better, so you may be able to recoup some of your investment if the instrument falls into disuse or you replace it with a more advanced model

At some point, the option may be suggested, by an educator or a salesperson, to “step up” to an intermediate model. My experience with these is generally:

  • The price range is not much lower than professional-quality instruments
  • The quality not much better than good student instruments
  • Sometimes they have some cosmetic differences that make them seem more “professional” or luxurious but which do not give any real advantage to the player

So, in most cases my advice is to skip the step-up instrument. Instead consider investing in some private lessons with a good teacher. These will bring much greater benefits.

And if you intend to audition for college scholarships, participate in competitions, or otherwise play at a high level, the private teacher is a crucial resource when you are ready to buy a professional model. These are instruments suitable for the demands of college music programs and at least semi-professional playing situations. Because they are expensive, it’s worth choosing one very carefully, and a good teacher can help you figure out what you need, connect with a reputable dealer, and get the best price.

Favorite blog posts, July 2020

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

Starting at the right tempo

"Metronome" by Konstantin Lazorkin is licensed under CC BY-NC

For me it’s an ongoing challenge to start a piece of music at the right tempo. Here are a few tricks I have used:

  • Practice, a lot, with a metronome, to internalize and habituate the tempo.
  • If circumstances allow, check a metronome backstage immediately before beginning the piece.
  • If circumstances allow, have a metronome with you on stage. Most have a “silent” function that you can use to discreetly double-check.
  • Maybe your piece has a fast or tricky part, and you’re worried that you will go too fast and that part won’t go well. Sing that part in your mind before you start to play, so you can pick a tempo that will work for that part.
  • Be aware of your tendencies. For example, if the adrenaline of performance makes you tend to rush, you can adjust accordingly.
  • Find a song that you know really well and have thoroughly internalized, that has a tempo very close to the one you wish to play at. Sing a few bars of the song mentally to find your tempo. For example, here’s a list of songs that have a tempo of about 94 beats per minute—I bet you can find at least a few that you know.

Good luck!