Play reeds that fit

Photo, °Florian

During a rare visit to a music store this week, I overheard a very young clarinetist asking a salesperson to help him locate some unusually stiff reeds. The salesperson was as surprised as was I that the young man was interested in such an extreme equipment choice—but apparently for different reasons.

“You must be very talented to have moved up to such stiff reeds already,” the salesperson told the beaming prodigy. “How impressive!”

To me, this is a little like congratulating someone on moving up to a larger hat size. “Oh, it’s nothing, really. I started out in a 7¼, but I worked really hard and now I’m ready for the 7½. But the real greats all wear at least an 8, so that’s where I want to end up.” Bigger isn’t better—you should wear whatever fits your head.

A clarinet or saxophone reed should be an appropriate fit to the mouthpiece. There are a number of factors that determine what strength of reed is right for a mouthpiece, but, in general terms, most mouthpieces with wider tip openings require softer reeds to get good response, and most mouthpieces with narrower openings need a stiffer reed for stability and dynamic range.

While each player is of course different, I think sometimes the factor of the individual embouchure is actually over-emphasized. The embouchure doesn’t and shouldn’t need unusual muscular strength to do its job—it requires delicacy and control. If you’re biting and straining against a too-stiff reed, you’re sacrificing both, and both you and your audience are suffering for it. For most mouthpieces, there is a narrow range of reed strengths that is about right, no matter how “strong” you are (or think you are).

There’s no such thing as “moving up” to a stiffer reed, just “moving” to a different strength to suit a new mouthpiece or to correct an error in your previous reed choice.

Woodwind doubling and “similar” fingerings

Photo, thorinside

Some of the questions I am most frequently asked about woodwind doubling involve the similarities in fingerings between the instruments:

  • “You play all those instruments? Well, I guess the fingerings must be pretty much the same, right?”
  • “I play the oboe, and I would like to learn the saxophone. How close are the fingerings?”

There are, in my opinion, two misconceptions at work here:

  1. Fingerings are the biggest hurdle to switching instruments.
  2. Similar fingerings are a good thing.

In my experience, neither of these is true. Continue reading “Woodwind doubling and “similar” fingerings”

Report: John Mack Oboe Camp, 2012

You know you are at oboe camp when the rules include “no crowing reeds before 7:30 a.m.”

I’m back from the John Mack Oboe Camp, held every June at the Wildacres Retreat in the mountains of North Carolina. The camp has been an institution for over 30 years, and has been carried on by Mr. Mack’s students since his passing in 2006.

The JMOC is a a week of intensive oboe study. Most of the 60 or so attendees were motivated undergraduate and graduate oboe students, plus a handful of us in the “30+” category and a smattering of talented teenagers. There is an application but no audition; ability levels ranged from enthusiastic amateur to professional.

It’s possible to enroll as an auditor, but most attendees participated in masterclasses, performing a Barret or Ferling etude and an orchestral excerpt over the course of the week and getting coaching from the camp’s distinguished faculty (I got to do Barret melody no. 40 and the second movement of the Brahms violin concerto, with coaching from Martin Hebert and Linda Strommen).

A typical day included morning masterclasses, afternoon workshops or free time, evening masterclasses, and late night snacking and socializing. Other events included a faculty recital, ad-hoc chamber music rehearsals, free oboe adjustments and repairs by John Symer, shopping in the RDG Woodwinds mini-store, a mass oboe choir, and reed evaluation/advice sessions with the faculty.

The spirit of John Mack was very much present during the week, with the faculty (all Mack protégés) making a point to share wisdom and stories from their studies with him: “As ‘our teacher’ would say…” Having the camp taught by all Mack students gave a nice continuity and unity of message to the masterclasses.

The week wasn’t all business, though—Wildacres is a paradise with gorgeous mountain vistas, fresh air, deliciously mild summer weather, comfortable lodges, and outdoor activities. It’s also a haven for the arts, that hosts many arts-related camps every year (including several woodwind-related ones). Every space at Wildacres is filled with sculpture, paintings, photography, poetry, and other evidence of the inspiration generations of visitors have found there. There are instructional spaces and a nice little auditorium. The dining hall serves three hearty family-style meals a day, with vegetarian options and other special accommodations available. Internet access and cellular service are spotty at best, but Wildacres spins this as a feature: unplug, relax, and enjoy the here and now.

I found my fellow campers to be happy, relaxed, supportive, and friendly. The makeshift “reed room” in the main lodge was usually packed, with more experienced reedmakers happy to offer advice.

The JMOC is a surprisingly good value, as tuition costs less than a week’s hotel stay, but includes lodging, meals, and extensive educational opportunities.

Highly recommended!

Internet forum field guide: conflict resolution

Welcome to the second installment of the Internet forum field guide, a look at the inhabitants of the various woodwind-related message boards, forums, and email lists. (Read the first chapter here.) Today we will examine how the indigenous wildlife deal with conflicts.

One of the most common sources of conflict is the introduction of a dangerous threat into the community. It generally starts with an honest question:

Hey guys, just wondering which alloy gives an instrument a darker sound: 93% silver with 7% copper, or 97% silver with 3% copper? Thanks in advance.

Enter the troublemaker

Suddenly the herd’s status quo is endangered, unthinkably, by one of its own:

Well, actually, it turns out there’s over 100 years of well-documented, peer-reviewed scientific research that says the material makes no significant difference to the sound of a wind instrument. I know this because I went to the library and read actual books and journal articles about it.

The herd stampedes

This kind of affront is clearly unacceptable to the community, and they respond swiftly to correct the errant behavior. The alpha male is often the first to weigh in:

I have been playing for 40 years with some groups whose names you think you vaguely recognize, and I say the material does make a difference, so that should pretty much settle it.

He is followed shortly by a rival who will try to discredit the original poster:

Continue reading “Internet forum field guide: conflict resolution”