Using a pencil like a pro

Photo, rutty

I know that my students (or I) are practicing badly when their sheet music remains in mint condition week after week. A good practice session involves lots of small successes and breakthroughs, many or most of which will be forgotten by the next practice session. Using a pencil is the obvious but somehow frequently-overlooked way to make sure tomorrow’s practicing builds on today’s successes, instead of repeating or rehashing.

It’s a mistake to think that pencil marks are amateurish or a crutch. Musicians in professional situations often have to learn music with little lead time or rehearsal, and a pencil is a professional-grade tool for making music with accuracy and poise. The most effective pencil usage depends on a couple of prerequisites:

  1. Have one. It’s embarrassing, unprofessional, and time-wasting to be caught without a pencil. Buy yourself a bulk package of cheap mechanical pencils, and stash them everywhere: Pockets, purse, instrument case, sheet music folder, gig bag, desk, reedmaking table, teaching studio. Tie one to the music stand in your practice space. Every so often, restock each space, since, if you’re like me, pencils seem to have a way of wandering off to be discovered later in the laundry.
  2. Read. If you’re the kind of player that tends to ignore markings printed in the part, then you probably won’t pay much attention to pencil marks either. Become a meticulous follower of written instructions. (If you don’t like the printed instructions, use your pencil and your well-informed artistic judgment to change them, then obey your pencil marks.)

Good pencil markings are clear, concise, efficient, and preferably easily understood by someone else at a glance. I find circles, stars, and highlighting to be so vague as to be pointless; don’t bother making a mark unless it’s adding information to the page. Most common woodwind fingerings can be readily identified with a letter or two (such as “S” for a side fingering or “L” for a left-hand fingering). Develop a vocabulary of markings and use them consistently, so that ultimately you can read them as quickly and accurately as you can read notes. If your sheet music is looking a little too pristine, ask yourself if your playing might benefit from having any of the following information right there on the page: Continue reading “Using a pencil like a pro”

Getting an “outsider” opinion

Photo, Pirate Scott

Saxophones, more than many other instruments, have a tendency toward mechanical noise: clicks and clanks are a hazard of the relatively large keys and articulated mechanisms and of the relative popularity of “vintage” instruments. Much of the noisiness can be solved by a good technician, but it’s sometimes surprising how much key noise saxophonists tolerate on their otherwise pristine recording projects.

The oboe has a particularly sensitive mechanism involving the right index finger and a linkage between the upper and lower joints. It requires a great deal of finger precision to avoid unwanted “blips” (brief, unintended notes) when moving between, say, A and C. If you are listening for that sound, you will find that it is not uncommon, even on recordings that are technically impressive in other ways.

I think a lot of saxophonists would be scandalized by “blips” in each other’s playing, and oboists would be equally appalled by rattling, clanking keywork. But it is easy to become accustomed to hearing those sounds in our own playing, and to stop really noticing them. Continue reading “Getting an “outsider” opinion”

Three Fingering Diagram Builder tutorials

Back in the olden days (2002), I wrote a paper for a college class on Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s simultaneous playing of clarinet and saxophone on “Creole Love Call” from the 1967 album The Inflated Tear. (When I started up this blog, the paper retroactively became a blog post.) In my paper, I included two fingering charts—one for right-handed clarinet, one for left-handed saxophone—that I thought looked pretty good and only took me a few hours to make. Ah, how young I was.

Right-handed clarinet fingering chart. Click for larger.
Left-handed saxophone fingering chart.

Clearly, the time has come to update these sad old charts, and the Fingering Diagram Builder makes it fast, easy, and, dare I say it?—fun. I’ll show you how it’s done, using three particularly cool features (if I do say so myself) of the FDB. We will take a look at the FDB’s custom styles, custom keywork presets, and Dropbox integration.

Custom styles

For now, my plan is just to create enough diagrams to replace the ones in these old fingering charts—just the fingerings I figure Kirk must have used. But I don’t think Rahsaan would want me limiting myself to just those fingerings in the future. I’d better set up this project in such a way that I can come back later with new one-handed fingerings I’ve discovered, and add them to the charts with a minimum of fuss.

The problem is that, what with the FDB’s highly customizable diagrams, I may not remember tomorrow whether the ones I made today have lines that are “medium” or “thick” or “heavy,” or whether I sized them “small” or “tiny,” or whether I was saving the diagrams as .PNG files for onscreen use or .TIF files for better printed results. The FDB does, of course, remember my current settings between sessions all on its own, but I like to work on several projects at once (Rahsaan would approve, I think) and I’ll use the FDB’s “custom styles”  to keep each project’s configuraton a click away. Here’s how:

  1. First I will set up things just the way I want them. Currently, settings that can be saved as part of a custom style are: diagram size, line thickness, color, file naming procedure (let the FDB name them automatically, or specify each filename myself), file format, save-to location (my computer or my Dropbox), and, if I’m using Dropbox, which folder to save the files in.
  2. Once everything is just right, I’ll click over to the “Custom styles” tab in the FDB’s menu to review my choices, and select which ones I want to save.

    As you can see, I’ve set the diagrams to be small, heavy-lined, colored in gray, .PNG-formatted, and saved to Dropbox in a folder called “kirkismyhero.” I have un-checked the box for “File naming,” since I don’t want the FDB to remember that for my purposes on this project—I’ll just go ahead and use whichever system I’m already using that day.
  3. I’ll type in a name (“kirk project”) for my custom style, and click the “Save current settings” button (or press Enter).

    I’m done—that’s all there is to it. In the future, whenever I want to create more diagrams like the ones I’m making today, I can just go to the “Custom styles” tab and click on “kirk project.”

Continue reading “Three Fingering Diagram Builder tutorials”

Recorder notation vs. band/orchestral woodwind notation

At the request of a reader, I’m going to try to clarify some things about notation for recorders. (I touched on it previously in an article about woodwind key nomenclature systems.)

Those of us who play modern band/orchestral woodwinds are familiar with a system in which, within a family of instruments, a notated pitch always corresponds to a certain fingering. No matter how large or small the instrument, the same fingering always corresponds to that same written pitch, even though the smaller instruments produce higher sounding pitches and the larger instruments produce lower sounding pitches. For example:

E-flat clarinet B-flat clarinet A clarinet Bass clarinet
Notated pitch
Sounding pitch

This is convenient for clarinetists because, essentially, they only need to learn one set of fingerings to be (in that respect) prepared to play any instrument in the clarinet family. Note also that even the bass clarinet is notated in treble clef, as are its even lower cousins. All the major modern woodwind families (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and saxophones) use this approach: consistent clefs, and consistent correspondence of notated pitch to fingering. The transposition is a function of the instrument’s size.

Because of the prevalence of this system in the Western woodwind tradition, it’s an understandable error to assume that the recorder family is notated in the same way. But recorders typically use a different system, in which each instrument is notated in concert pitch, and the fingerings change depending upon the instrument. Or, to be more precise, each instrument is notated in a sort of “concert pitch class,” since some of the recorders are notated as transposing by one or more octaves, but a notated C always produces a sounding C. Bass recorder and lower are notated in bass clef. Here are the most common ones:

Descant (“soprano”) recorder Treble (“alto”) recorder Tenor recorder Bass recorder
Notated pitch
Sounding pitch

Recorder players must learn two sets of fingerings, one with the instrument’s lowest note being C (for descant and tenor recorders), and one with the instrument’s lowest note being F (for treble and bass recorders), and must be prepared to read in two clefs. Continue reading “Recorder notation vs. band/orchestral woodwind notation”