Fingering Diagram Builder, version 0.81

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

  • Bug fixes and minor behavior improvements
  • New bassoon keys: High F (plus offset high E and E-flat), alternate low C, alternate low C-sharp. This should cover everything Fox currently lists as bassoon keywork options. (Thanks to Trent for the feedback.)

Enjoy!

Favorite blog posts, March 2020

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

When things get canceled

"Sumner M. Redstone Theater" by Zach K is licensed under CC BY-NC

I had a very busy final semester of my bachelor’s degree. I was performing with six different university ensembles (one of which was planning a month-long international summer tour), doing woodwind doubling for a musical, teaching at a nearby music school, and preparing for graduate school auditions.

Then I broke my arm. I slipped on something in a parking lot and landed on my elbow. The doctor put me in a cast from fingertips to shoulder.

At the time it seemed like the world was coming to an end. But things worked out. I canceled some things and modified or delayed some others. Some kind professors gave me advice and perspective and helped out with some logistics.

Looking back, it’s barely a bump in the road to where I am now. But I think of it now and then, when the next gig or recital starts to feel like the most important thing I will ever do.

For my college students, lots of things have been canceled this semester. Some of them won’t get to do their recital class performances or their Honors Recital auditions or their ensemble concerts.

It’s a shame to miss out on things. But right now there are bigger things going on in the world that demand some changes of plan. And in another year or two, those missed opportunities will be crowded out by all the new ones. A few missed performances will be a war story, not a lasting tragedy.

(That said, we shouldn’t forget that some musicians’ livelihoods are threatened by things like shutdowns of venues. Now is an excellent time to buy your favorites’ albums and merch to enjoy at home.)

Stay well, and look forward to the opportunities to come.

Technical limits

"Signage 55 speed limit" by dlofink is licensed under CC BY

If I try to play too softly, sometimes my notes don’t respond as I would like. If I try to play too loudly, sometimes my tone or intonation suffer. I have similar limitations when it comes to things like finger or tongue speed, tone color or pitch flexibility, and more.

The way I deal with these limits is very different depending on whether I’m performing or practicing.

If I’m performing, I want to stay just within my limits. I want every note to be predictable and reliable. I want to take advantage of every bit of my dynamic range, but no more. I want to make wise, deliberate, professional-quality choices.

If I’m practicing, I want to explore those limits. Push those limits. Live just beyond those limits. It’s important to do this for couple of reasons. First, if I don’t go past those limits, I won’t know where the limits are for my upcoming performance. Second, if I’m too afraid to go past the limits in the practice room, I’ll never expand them. And if something goes wrong—a note cracks or fails to speak or is out of tune—that’s okay, it’s just practice.

Find your limits, know them well, and, in your practice space, break them.

Review: NewMusicShelf Anthology of New Music: Alto Saxophone, Vol. 1

I don’t typically do reviews of new sheet music publications unless they have a specific woodwind-doubling focus, but I’m making an exception here because I think this is a project that is especially useful and has potential to change the landscape of “classical” saxophone repertoire (and other instruments, too).

I have a repertoire problem. My file cabinet is full of wonderful, important music that is written almost exclusively by dead white men. I would like to change that—to perform and teach music representing a greater diversity of composers, and particularly living composers.

But it’s hard to escape the inertia of the “standard repertoire.” And sorting through mountains of new pieces by composers I haven’t heard of (yet), to find the best ones, the ones at the right difficultly level for my students, and so forth, could cost me thousands of dollars and thousands of hours. It’s daunting, and so I fall back on the same pieces I’ve taught over and over.

NewMusicShelf Anthology of New Music: Alto Saxophone, Vol. 1 is an elegant solution. For the price of a standard-repertoire concerto, it contains 16 works composed (or at least revised) within the last 20 years. The composers (listed on NewMusicShelf’s website) are diverse and distinguished. Many are young.

The collection is curated by Alan Theisen, a composer and saxophonist well-positioned to accomplish this task due to his interests and connections in the world of new music. (One of his own compositions is included in the anthology.)

For me as a performer and educator, this anthology helps solve several problems: the pieces are thoughtfully selected for quality and variety, the publication is very affordable, and its presence in my studio is a strong step toward currency and representation in concert saxophone music. All are for solo alto saxophone or saxophone and piano, so the performance logistics are simple (no large/unusual ensembles, electronics, or other potential barriers). The pieces are playable by undergraduate-level students (but, as Theisen points out in his introduction, “absolutely suitable” for more advanced players as well). It’s an easy, cheap, and practical way to grow my performing and teaching repertoire. (This is an unsolicited review of a copy I purchased myself.)

A couple of small complaints: the saxophone and piano parts are “perfect bound” (like a paperback book) and thus don’t lay flat on a music stand. NewMusicShelf indicates on their website that this is to facilitate library shelving (and points out that, hey, you can disassemble and re-bind it yourself if you want), but I’d rather see a more performer-oriented solution. And the books contain a web link promising composer headshots and program notes, but the link is currently broken and I couldn’t locate the content on the website. Still, a very worthwhile purchase.

The “Volume 1” label is hopefully indicative of more to come. A flute volume appears to be in the works, and calls-for-scores for clarinet, bassoon, and some other instruments are currently open. Collections for voice and for viola are already available. Kudos to NewMusicShelf and Alan Theisen for this extremely valuable aid for teachers and performers.

NewMusicShelf Anthology of New Music: Alto Saxophone, Vol. 1

Favorite blog posts, February 2020

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

Updated: Music for woodwind doublers

As of February 2020, I’ve made some substantial updates to my catalog of music written for players of multiple woodwind instruments: Music for woodwind doublers

There are a few pieces I have listed as currently being researched, mostly cases where I am awaiting responses from composers. And I now have a special section for pieces that, unfortunately, I believe to be unavailable. If you have any leads on these pieces, or can offer any other additions or corrections, I’d be very interested in hearing from you.

When I take a step back and look at the list, it’s surprisingly robust. There are works by composers and musicians of the stature of Samuel Adler, Georges Barrère, Irwin Bazelon, Thomas Filas, Clare Fischer, Ralph Hermann, Bernard Hoffer, and Claude T. Smith. There are an encouraging number of pieces written in the 21st century. (I also have a new commission in the works, which I’ll hopefully be able to share details about sometime in the next few months.)

A fair number of the pieces have significant obstacles to performing, such as a need for an orchestra or concert band, or electronics, or less-common instruments. But there are a good number that are performable with just woodwind soloist or with woodwind soloist and piano, and some are flexible about instrumentation.

I must imagine for a lot of composers the prospect of writing a multiple-woodwinds piece is something of a hard sell. There’s a very limited number of musicians capable of performing multiple-woodwinds works, and not every doubler plays all the same instruments. If you are interested in playing these kinds of pieces, I hope you will find composers to work with, and let me know so I can add new pieces to my list.

Music for woodwind doublers

Playing professional whole notes

I have spent many hours of my life absorbed in difficult études and repertoire. Challenging music pushes the limits of my abilities.

But when I actually get hired to play music, it’s almost never anything that complicated. Many of my workaday gigs are very easy—on paper.

One part of my career is playing with a nearby symphony. The repertoire occasionally has a few moments in it that demand my fleetest technique. But, as a wind player, I spend much more of the concert counting rests and waiting to play another handful of whole notes.

I recently played in a recording session for a local band’s new album. I played a total of one note. I played it a bunch of times, but it was just the one long note, over and over.

A beginner could play one note. So why hire a professional?

The notes—fast or slow, easy or hard—need to be beautiful, balanced, in tune, started precisely, ended precisely, shaped appropriately, and stylistically appropriate.

I’ve never been hired to play études, and almost never to play classical solo repertoire, but studying those has helped me develop the control and skill to play the whole notes just right, and that’s what gets me hired.

Working less hard

"" by anderson2011101 is licensed under CC BY-SA

As a 10-year-old brand-new saxophonist, I learned a bunch of tasks I needed to do to play the instrument: blow in a certain way, form my lips just so, put my fingers into such-and-such positions, and so on. Every time I thought I had learned all of the skills I needed, my teacher would add some more.

In the 30 years since, playing saxophone and other woodwinds, I have mostly worked on doing less—letting my embouchure relax, keeping my jaw still, keeping my breath support consistent, moving my fingers more efficiently. The more I can strip away the excess effort, the more my playing is easy, pleasant, pain-free, fatigue-free, and expressive.

On some level it feels more like teaching if I can tell a student a new thing to do. Assign them an additional task. But the most productive and valuable lessons (or personal practice sessions) are often the ones when I can convince a student (or myself) to do one fewer thing.

Favorite blog posts, January 2020

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