Reader email: maintaining doubles

Photo, nigel_appleton

I love getting good questions by email:

I have a question about maintenance on your doubles. Once you feel like you have a good foundation and can play them at a high level, how do you maintain that in your practice routine?

There’s no great answer to your question. Playing one instrument “at a high level” takes lots of time and commitment, and playing several just multiplies the requirement.

I don’t know if I really play any of my instruments at a high level, but here are a few things that seem to help me:
  • Spend some time living in the world of each instrument. Read books and journals, buy and listen to recordings, attend concerts, masterclasses, and conferences. When I start to feel like I’m really getting a handle on an instrument, it’s time to go immerse myself in it and realize what is really possible. Last month I went to the John Mack Oboe Camp, and was blown away by the great playing I heard there. It made me really aware of some things that needed improvement in my own playing. I got to participate in some masterclasses and got some great suggestions.
  • Keep yourself challenged. I do a faculty recital each year for my college teaching job, and I try to crank things up by a small notch each year in terms of difficulty. Not because difficult music is necessarily better, but because I need to push myself. Find something you can’t quite do—a repertoire piece, a fundamental technique issue, an advanced or extended technique—and work on it until you can do it.
  • Focus on fundamentals. There just isn’t time in the day to give each instrument the 3-4 hours of practice they need. What time I do have, I try to really pack with long tones, scales, and other really fundamental stuff, and make everything as perfect, polished, and controlled as possible.
  • As a practical matter, I find that I need an hour or more with an instrument to make any progress when I’m practicing, and I need to practice it a few days in a row to get some momentum going. So if I’ve only got a couple of hours, it’s usually not useful to cram in half a dozen instruments. I try to rotate them in such a way that each instrument gets practiced for a few days in a row, then gets a few days off. Something like:
    • Monday: flute, oboe, clarinet
    • Tues: oboe, clarinet, bassoon
    • Wed: clarinet, bassoon, saxophone
    • Thurs: bassoon, saxophone, flute
    • Fri: saxophone, flute, oboe
I hope that helps. Good luck!

Reader email: Chinese woodwinds

Some dizi and xiao from my collection

I recently got email from a reader about the use of Chinese woodwinds in theater and film music. I did my best to answer his questions, and I’m posting them here in case they are of use to anyone else. Both questions and answers are edited here for length and awesomeness.

My question for you is about bamboo flutes. I see the term bamboo flute thrown around (such as in the reed 1 book for Aida) and I wonder what exactly that means. Do those musicians own 12 bamboo sticks with holes drilled in them, or do they use a specific style of bamboo flute from a particular part of the world?

If the part calls for “bamboo flute” with no other clarification, I think that leaves it pretty well open to interpretation by the flutist and musical director. Aida is set in the Old Kingdom of Egypt, where, according to my Wikipedia research, bamboo per se did not grow. Probably the best-known bamboo-ish Egyptian flutes are neys, made from bamboo-like reeds.

My guess is that most woodwind players would substitute some variety of bamboo transverse flute, such as an Indian bansuri, a Chinese dizi (perhaps with the buzzing membrane replaced by a piece of tape), or a non-culture-specific bamboo flute like those sold by Erik the FlutemakerDoug Tipple’s PVC flutes make an excellent and economical substitute for bamboo, with nice tone (I dare you to hear the difference) and consistent intonation and response. You might be able to contact musicians who have worked on specific shows, and find out what solutions they came up with; the Internet Broadway Database is a good starting point.

Your listing for The Lion King is much more specific, which brings me to my next question: dizi keys. I happen to be in China right now. Tunable dizi flutes are cheap, and one-piece dizi are cheaper. Do I need 12 tunable dizi? What keys are actually played in theater and film in the US? Continue reading “Reader email: Chinese woodwinds”

Improving habits: use a timer

Bill Plake wrote a nice blog post earlier this week, sharing a simple tip about using sticky notes to break bad habits. (Bill’s posts are excellent—make sure you subscribe in your favorite feed reader.)

The tip he shares is similar to something I do during final performance preparations: I jot two or three key reminders on a sticky note (“Take your time and breathe,” “Keep fingers relaxed,” etc.) and stick them at the top of the page, covering the first few notes. That way when I get on stage I can make myself remember and focus on those few key items, rather than stressing myself over all of the details, and I give myself an extra moment to think and relax while I move the sticky note out of the way.

I wanted to share an additional idea that I have used many times myself, and have had students use. I find it good for dealing with the really stubborn, ingrained habits: poor posture, excess tension, ignoring dynamic markings, using insufficient breath support, being inconsistent about vibrato (anything ringing a bell yet?), and so forth. These are the things that you can fix immediately, as long as you remember, but which somehow persist anyway. Have you had this experience, either as the student or as the teacher?:

Teacher: Play it again from measure 12, this time with better posture.

Student: [Corrects posture, begins to play, then slouches again.]

Teacher: Remember posture!

Student: [Corrects posture, continues playing, then slouches.]

Teacher: Posture! [Glances at clock.]

Something that has worked well for me when I find myself in this situation is to use a repeating timer. This can be a gadget, or, increasingly commonly, a smartphone app, that just beeps at you every few minutes. (I’ve been using Elapsed for iPhone, which is free and supports multiple simultaneous timers, but there are many, many options available.) At first I might set a timer as short as 30 seconds, and choose a single habit to focus on. Depending on the habit, I might stop playing to readjust what I’m doing each time the timer beeps, or I might readjust on the fly and continue. When I’m consistently making it through 30-second intervals without having to fix something on each beep, I can adjust the timer for longer intervals.

It’s surprising how easy it is to let my mind wander—even within a minute or less—and go into auto-pilot mode, losing track of what I’m trying to accomplish and further calcifying bad habits. The timer technique is a nice aid for me to keep myself focused on a specific improvement I want to make in my playing.

Staying connected to the clarinet

Photo, KSMF Webmaster

In general, I’m not that concerned about keeping fingers close to instrument keys. A lot of woodwind players and teachers seem to believe that “close” fingers mean more speed, which I haven’t found necessarily to be the case. To me, a much larger factor is tension: if my fingers are tense (because, for example, I’m trying really hard to keep them close to the keys), they move more slowly.

But when I work with beginning clarinetists (whether first-time instrumentalists or doublers), many of them seem to have a great deal of trouble with squeaks and with notes responding sluggishly—problems that I think in most cases can be traced to fingers not completely covering toneholes, or not covering them in a synchronized way. And one of the major reasons that this happens is that the fingers are too detached from from the keys. It’s not a question of distance, per se,  but one of awareness.

One reason this is such an issue for clarinetists in particular is that so many fingers have multiple jobs. The left thumb operates a tonehole/ring and a key, which must sometimes be pressed individually and sometimes together. The left index finger has a tonehole/ring and two keys. The right index finger has a tonehole/ring and four “side” keys. And the pinky fingers have responsibilities exceeded only by the bassoonist’s thumbs. Throw in a couple of sliver keys, and you’ve got a lot of fingers constantly in transit from one key to another. Continue reading “Staying connected to the clarinet”

Interview: Woodwind road warrior Terry Halvorson

Terry Halvorson

I’m always pleased to hear from other woodwind players. Terry Halvorson has been a contributor to my Broadway woodwind doubling list for several years, we’ve communicated periodically online, and we even bumped into each other in person at an IDRS conference a few years back. Terry has been working as a musician with touring musical theater productions for a while now, and I  was curious about life on the road. He was kind enough to take some time out of his schedule to answer a few questions.

BP: What do you do for a living?

TH: I am a woodwind doubler (oboe/English horn, flutes, clarinets, saxophones, recorders, whistles). I am currently 44 years old and have been performing musical theater since I was 14. I have been playing the Reed 2 book (oboe and English horn) with the national tour of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast since February 2010 and will be continuing, switching to the Reed 3 book (clarinet, bass clarinet, 2nd flute) from late September through May 2013.

How did you get the job?

I was called back in late 2005 by a musical director friend to play a reed book on the tour of Will Rogers Follies, but I had commitments at the time that I couldn’t get out of, so I had to turn it down. However the reed player who was hired gave notice four months into the eight-month contract and I was able to join the tour in the middle, replacing him (my first experience seeing a high D on flute!). Toward the end of this tour, we were in the New York City area when NETworks Presentations (my current company) was holding musician auditions, and I was able to attend; I received a call five weeks later asking me if I would like to play with the national tour of The Producers, and here I still am!

What background (education, other experience, etc.) do you have that prepared you for this job?

Wow, loaded question… well, I have been a major woodwind geek since high school (I arranged my favorite band piece for mixed clarinet sextet when I was 14 years old, and we won a command performance at our regional solo and ensemble festival); I also played oboe, clarinet and bassoon in my local youth symphony in various years. I was, of course, a music major (oboe and clarinet) in college as well, beginning as an education major but switching to performance. I freelanced a LOT, playing mostly reed books 2 and 3.

What’s the best part of the job? What’s the worst part?

Best parts are having a steady paycheck as a performing musician (how many people can say that?) and of course seeing and experiencing all the different places we play; I have played all fifty states and most Canadian provinces. The worst part is probably the lack of freedom to come and go and the strict adherence to a schedule.

What’s it like being on the road? Continue reading “Interview: Woodwind road warrior Terry Halvorson”