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.

Review: Multiple-woodwinds works by Darren Lord

I heard recently from Paul Saunders, whose compositions and publications for multiple woodwinds I have previously reviewed. He called my attention to an astonishing number of recent multiple-woodwinds compositions by Darren Lord, a musical director, keyboardist, and more who has worked on London’s West End theater scene.

At the time of this writing, Lord’s music for multiple woodwinds includes:

  • Five volumes of mostly musical-theater-style pieces for multiple woodwinds soloist, with piano or downloadable fully-orchestrated backing tracks (with synthesized orchestra). Most or all of these pieces can also be purchased individually. (I got to look in detail at volume 2 for this review.)
  • Five recital-type pieces for multiple woodwinds soloist with piano.
  • Six pieces for quartets of multiple woodwinds players.

All can be purchased on Lord’s website. There are also extensive audio demos, some played by Saunders and some synthesized.

These are high-quality, worthy additions to the multiple woodwinds repertoire. And the sheer quantity and variety of available material should make Mr. Lord’s website a certain stop for anyone looking for pieces for study or performance.

I’ve made a substantial update to my Music for woodwind doublers page to include these pieces. Please continue to keep me updated on new or rediscovered multiple woodwinds repertoire!

Favorite blog posts, August 2021

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

How to behave at your first classical music concert, and why it’s so weird

woman playing violin in front of people

I hope you enjoy your first classical music performance! Sometimes the etiquette can seem a little foreign. I’ll try to help you understand what to do, and why classical music fans do things that way.

The most important thing is not to distract the audience and the performers. Some common concert etiquette “rules” include:

  • Be in your seat before the music starts. Then, stay there until intermission (if there is one) or the end of the concert.
  • Don’t talk, even at a whisper.
  • Keep cell phones silenced, screens off, and put away.
  • No snacks.
  • If you have kids who might have trouble staying still/quiet, consider leaving them at home. (Except for designated family-friendly concerts.)
  • Applaud only at the “right” times. (More on this later.)
  • Avoid unnecessary fidgeting, coughing, and anything else that makes noise.

Why are the “rules” so strict? One reason is that classical music is usually performed in a special concert hall. Usually the music isn’t electronically amplified. The concert hall’s special design makes even the smallest sounds clear from a distance. That’s good when it’s a hushed moment in a violin solo. But it’s bad when it’s an audience member’s crinkling candy wrappers or ringtone. At an amplified rock, country, or hip-hop concert you can make noises like that, and no one will hear. But at a classical music concert people might hear those sounds even if they are far away. The performers can maybe even hear them from the stage.

Classical music wasn’t always such a stuffy affair. Some of the music was originally performed in more boisterous settings. And there are people in classical music interested in changing the current etiquette. But for now, the (mostly-unspoken) “rules” lean toward pretty strict and formal behavior.

And, for classical music fans, it’s one of the things they might love about it. The quiet atmosphere is a blank, unblemished canvas for the musicians to paint on. It’s chance to hear every fine detail of a performance by highly-trained musicians. It can be immersive and meditative. You might find you enjoy it too.

To seasoned classical music fans, a disruptive audience member (even unintentionally!) might feel like someone standing in front of the TV during a crucial moment in the big football game. And, unfortunately, they might react like a sports fan, with dirty looks, unkind words, or other rudeness. That’s bad too, because it can scare away potential new fans of classical music. But it probably comes from a place of wanting to experience the music in a pure, uninterrupted way.

A polite audience member also shows appreciation to the performers, usually with applause (not so much yelling, whistling, “woo,” etc.). But pieces of classical music sometimes have multiple parts, with silence between. It can be tricky to know when is the right time to clap. If there’s a printed program, that might help you figure it out. But if you’re not sure it’s best to follow the lead of some of the other concertgoers. (There’s no prize for being the first one to clap.) Sometimes there’s a long silence between the end of the music and the start of the applause. Audience members may be waiting for the last note to finish echoing in the hall. And they might even wait a little longer to savor the magical moment of silence at the end. Don’t worry. The musicians will appreciate that too, and won’t take your hesitation as a lack of enthusiasm.

If you find all this off-putting, there are ways to appreciate classical music performances from home instead. If you enjoy it you can work up to an in-person concert. Or you may be able to find free or inexpensive concerts in your area, especially if there’s a university with a music department. You can try one of those and leave at intermission if you’re bored or uncomfortable.

Thanks for your interest in live classical music, and I hope you enjoy!

Becoming a professional musician

person holding white paper

Sometimes when my students get paying engagements for the first time, I joke with them that they are now “professional” musicians. That’s true in a sense, but I think there’s more that goes into being a true professional.

If you are a college student aspiring to be a professional musician, here are some things you might ask yourself:

  • Am I reliably on time to things?
  • Do I always have a pencil? Extra reeds? Whatever else is needed?
  • Do I show up to rehearsals with my parts learned and ready?
  • Am I self-motivating when it comes to practicing?
  • Am I pleasant and cooperative on a gig or in a rehearsal?
  • Am I easy to contact, and prompt about replying?
  • Is my closet stocked with clean, sharp gig apparel?
  • Do I keep my instruments well-maintained?
  • Do I have a sense of what my time and talents are worth, and a firm but polite way of expressing that?
  • Do I meet and exceed my teachers’ expectations?
  • Am I willing to play any part, including the less-prestigious ones? Am I willing to put my best into supporting someone else’s solo moment, even if I think that opportunity should have been mine?
  • Have I recorded myself lately? Did I come away from it with some ideas of what needs improvement?
  • What are the most common issues my teachers or ensemble directors mention about my playing? Am I addressing those in a focused way?
  • Am I responsive to useful criticism, thick-skinned against non-useful criticism, and able to tell the difference?
  • Is there anything about my playing or demeanor that would cause stress to someone who hired me for a gig? Am I currently stressing out my teachers, directors, or fellow students?

Graduation from college doesn’t guarantee you any gigs. Become the person that other musicians want to work with.

Preparing for a fatiguing performance

alone bed bedroom blur

If you are practicing and concerned about fatigue during an upcoming performance, here are some (woodwind-centric) things to consider.

  • Embouchure. The embouchure is a frequent site for fatigue, but it shouldn’t be. Embouchure pain or tiredness in a conventional performance situation is usually a sign of incorrect tone production technique. (Not a matter of needing to “strengthen the muscles” or “build endurance,” neither of which makes sense for a well-formed, properly relaxed embouchure.) Rather than relying on the small, weak muscles of the embouchure, use good…
  • Breath support. The breath support muscles in your torso can (and do) work all day. If you are feeling fatigue in your embouchure or other small muscles, lean on your breath support more.
  • Breathing plan. Another frequent cause of fatigue is oxygen deprivation. Reconsider your breathing plan (you have one, right?) and make sure you are getting enough oxygen to your body and brain (and venting carbon dioxide, too).
  • Practice. Ask yourself how you can practice in a way that will leave you less tired and prepare you for a performance situation. Consider starting your practice with breaks frequent and long enough to let your body and mind rest, and gradually making them shorter and less frequent. When I’m preparing for a recital, I usually do a few rounds of recording the whole program: the first recording might take me half a day with longer breaks, but later recordings happen within a shortening time frame, approaching my intended recital length.
  • Equipment. I had some pain and fatigue in my back a number of years ago when I was practicing a lot of tenor saxophone. I bought a new neckstrap and the problem went away immediately. There are lots of products and alterations available for various instruments that can reduce strain on your body.
  • General health. Playing a musical instrument is serious physical activity. Make sure you are getting good rest, nutrition, exercise, life balance, physical and/or mental health care, and whatever else will keep you energized.

Favorite blog posts, July 2021

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

Voicing for multiphonics

One of my favorite tips for producing woodwind multiphonics comes from J. Michael Leonard’s Extended Technique for the Saxophone. (Mine is an older edition, I think.) The book’s section on multiphonics gives two pages of instruction and and a one-page fingering chart with diagrams like this:

The “aha” moment I got from this was the small arrows, which the author says “indicate a relative primary focusing of the airstream.” To me this sounds like what I call voicing. The idea is that each of these multiphonics has a sort of key note within its chord, and if you focus/voice to favor that note, the multiphonic will speak.

Readers of this blog know I don’t like voicing gymnastics, at least for conventional playing technique. It’s better to find the optimal voicing for the instrument and keep it steady. Change it only when the acoustical quirks of the instrument demand, such as for a pitch “tendency” note or a slur that doesn’t respond well. I’m not sure if Mr. Leonard means for this fingering chart to imply that there are different focuses/voicings for different notes on the instrument, but voicing higher or lower to increase the success of certain multiphonic sounds works well for me. And, as a matter of convenience, I do use a similar arrow system to pencil in hints for multiphonics in repertoire that I play.

When there’s no place to breathe

When you’re working on a new piece and there’s no place to breathe:

  • Re-examine. Are you sure there’s no place? Tonal wind-instrument music usually has phrases. To find them might take some careful analysis, or maybe listening to a recording to check out someone else’s solutions. Once you know where the phrases end, you may be able to take a little extra time to breathe in those spots without it sounding disruptive.
  • Practice. With some effort and repetition, you may be able to play longer phrases than you thought. Make sure you’re really taking a full breath—the inhalation should feel pretty physical, much more so than “normal” (tidal) breathing.
  • Edit thoughtfully. If the music was written originally for, say, piano or a string instrument (or if it’s just written by a less-experienced wind composer), it may not have good built-in breaths. Where absolutely necessary, consider breaking a slur, reducing the dynamic level, boosting the tempo, or making some other minor adaptation. Mark it in, so you’re in the habit of breaking with the composer’s intent only after serious deliberation.
  • Be quick. Sometimes a very small, very short breath is all you need to finish out a phrase strong. Find a reasonable musical place to insert one, and mark it in such a way that you will remember not to take too much time for it.
  • Consider circular breathing. It’s a challenge but not impossible for someone playing at a reasonably advanced level. But be careful: don’t use it an excuse to avoid the issue of phrasing. Plus, it’s not very comfortable to circular-breathe for extended periods, for you or your audience. (Audiences often breathe with you!) Use this as a last resort or when specifically requested by the composer.