Things you don’t need to cover in woodwind methods class

orchestral flutist
Photo, KSMF Webmaster

I’ve taught college-level woodwind methods courses for a few years now. This is a course primarily for instrumental music majors, who will go on to become school band or orchestra directors, and who need a crash course in the playing and pedagogy of each instrument that will be in their future ensembles. At the places I’ve taught, it means taking students from zero to playing a little bit of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone, all in one semester. It’s a semester-long sprint.

There are a handful of textbooks available for these types of courses, most of which I own, and none of which I use in class. I’m continually surprised by the material that is and isn’t covered in these books.

I try hard to keep my courses focused on core concepts, like position/posture, breath support, basic embouchure, voicing, and finger technique, and I try to keep those concepts as simple and clear as possible. I have students observe each other’s playing of these instruments, identify things that don’t look and/or sound right, and put their observations into terms of those basic concepts. (“So-and-so’s pitch sounds unstable, and his embouchure appears to be moving a lot. Perhaps keeping the embouchure still and increasing breath support will help to stabilize his intonation.”)

I find discouragingly little discussion (or even understanding) of these concepts in many of the published texts. Instead, I find what appears to be a lot of filler—not bad information, necessarily, but information that’s far from mission-critical. The students in these classes will mostly end up teaching beginning or intermediate students in large-group settings. They need to understand the fundamentals in ways that will help them problem-solve efficiently.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m certainly not opposed to knowledge for knowledge’s sake. I’m just saying that for an already too-short woodwind methods class, that 300-page book could perhaps be trimmed down to 100 or even 50 clear, concise pages, for significant savings of money, trees, class time, shelf space, and brain cells. Here are some examples of things that I’ve seen in actual classroom-intended woodwind methods textbooks, that just plain don’t need to be there: Continue reading “Things you don’t need to cover in woodwind methods class”

Rediscovering the clarinet’s left-hand sliver key

I think for many doublers the clarinet’s left-hand “sliver” key seems useless or problematic. For example, the sliver key is easy to press by mistake when intending to cover the middle and/or ring finger holes. And even when reaching for the sliver on purpose, it’s easy to accidentally cover part of the ring finger hole, producing an E-flat or B-flat that is flat and stuffy.

The left-hand sliver also lacks any real analogue on any of the other common woodwinds, so its use is a technique that doesn’t transfer easily from another instrument. Flutes, saxophones, and standard bassoons don’t have any key in that spot. The oboe has a trill key there, but its usage isn’t similar. Among the standard band/orchestral woodwinds, only the contrabassoon has a key positioned here that is used in a similar way to the clarinet family. Especially for saxophonists, the right-side fingering is much more familiar.

The Woodwind Fingering Guide (still the best fingering source on the web) lists three E-flat/B-flat fingerings in its standard clarinet fingering chart, with only the right-side-key fingering marked as “basic.” The left-hand-sliver fingering is described as a “Chromatic and trill fingering,” to “use in combination with D4 [D below the staff] and A5 [A above the staff].” (The “one and one” fingering using both index fingers is also listed, though it might perhaps be better relegated to the “alternate” fingering chart.)

Occasionally I’ve run across the attitude that the sliver key could perhaps be removed or wedged shut to prevent accidental venting. I think this would be a waste, and all clarinetists of an intermediate level or higher should get used to using this key as an equal partner with the right hand key—not merely as an alternative for rare occasions.

Here are a couple of examples from well-known solo repertoire where the left-hand sliver makes sense: Continue reading “Rediscovering the clarinet’s left-hand sliver key”

Full-range scales and arpeggios

My students at the university are subject to a department-wide requirement to pass a scale exam, in which they must demonstrate mastery of major and minor scales. The format of the scales, however, is left up to the individual studio professors.

Most of the studios require scales to be played in octaves, but I prefer a different approach. To the chagrin of my students (oboists/clarinetists/bassoonists/saxophonists), I require that they are played in this format:

  1. Start on the first scale degree, in the instrument’s lowest octave.
  2. Proceed upward in an even rhythm (such as even eighth notes) to the highest note in the instrument’s “range” that falls within the scale (according to an upper range limit that I set).
  3. Proceed downward to the instrument’s lowest note that falls within the scale.
  4. Proceed back upward to the starting note.

So, for example, an oboe student’s E-flat major scale goes like this:

I also require arpeggios, following the same rules:

Here is why I insist on full-range scales: Continue reading “Full-range scales and arpeggios”

Flute Pro Shop interview with Tereasa Payne and Simon Hutchings

There’s a nice interview by Joan Sparks at the Flute Pro Shop blog, with two woodwind doublers who happen to be married to each other, Tereasa Payne and Simon Hutchings. They discuss doubling, careers, and married life.

I can’t imagine being in a marriage with anyone other than a musician. Everyone makes sacrifices for what they value in life, but the time and commitment involved in becoming, and being, a professional musician…it’s so time consuming, and emotionally challenging – I imagine it’s like being married to an athlete. That being said, given that we are both woodwind doublers, with different “primary” instruments, our marriage is perfect (in so many ways!!!) in the sense that we are able to advise and support each other to a greater degree than almost any situation would allow.

Check it out at Flute Pro Shop on the Road.