Favorite blog posts, July 2013

Required reading:

Which instrument to “start” on

Every so often I am told by a band director or parent that a child wishes to play a certain woodwind instrument, and then I am asked which instrument the student should “start” on, instead of the one they have apparently already chosen.

I don’t see a good reason, at least within the woodwind group, for a beginner to start on a different instrument family than the one they ultimately wish to play. There may be wisdom in some cases in requiring a beginner to start with a “main” family member: a student who really wants to play the piccolo, for example, will find their opportunities limited if they do not have a strong foundation in the flute—they will be of less usefulness to a school band program, and, should they continue to more advanced studies, may find the piccolo’s repertoire and pedagogical resources comparatively limited. I also think the piccolo is inherently a bit more difficult to play, although that in itself is not sufficient reason to deter a strongly-motivated student; however, for some students a more difficult instrument might be frustrating enough to bring their musical pursuits to a premature end. I likewise generally recommend that oboists start with the oboe rather than the English horn, clarinetists start on the B-flat instrument rather than a “harmony” clarinet, bassoonists leave the contrabassoon until later, and saxophonists start on the alto, or maybe the tenor.

Photo, Herald Post
Photo, Herald Post

But I also sometimes run into an attitude that, for example, an aspiring saxophonist really should start on the clarinet. This, I believe, comes from an outdated school of thought that considers the saxophone a “color” instrument in the clarinet family, and concludes that you should start with the “main” instrument, the clarinet, in the same way that you would start with the flute and later add the piccolo. (It may even stem from a more outdated idea that the saxophone is vulgar or a novelty, while the clarinet is respectable.) But surely the saxophone has by now earned full membership in the wind band and has a sufficiently rich solo and chamber repertoire that it need not be seen merely as the clarinet’s half-sibling. Continue reading “Which instrument to “start” on”

Update: Woodwind Doubling in Musicals

I’m pleased to announce the release of a very much new-and-improved version of what used to be my “Woodwind doubling in Broadway musicals” page. Now it’s just “Woodwind Doubling in Musicals,” since I long ago abandoned any idea of limiting it to shows produced on Broadway.

Woodwind Doubling in Musicals

Here is what’s new, besides the title:

  • Each show now has its own page. I know some of you will object to this change. Sorry. This has been a long time coming; almost 1,100 shows is clearly way too many for one page. Splitting things up shouldn’t really slow you down if you are using the list as a reference and looking up shows using the navigation at the top of the page; it is, admittedly, less convenient for idle browsing. It is also kinder bandwidth-wise to those visiting from mobile devices, which is more and more of you.
  • This is huge: there is now a commenting system. Many of you who have contributed over the years (since about 2005!) have included insightful commentary along with the specifics of instrumentation for each show, and I haven’t had a good way to incorporate that information. Please go to town sharing useful information on each show’s individual page.
  • There are some new ways to browse, including by production location, year, etc. This information is far from complete, so please please help me fill in the blanks. In the earliest days of the list, I didn’t keep track of sources or of any background info on each show, so there are still a lot of listings that are pretty bare other than instrumentation.
  • If you want to keep track of the very latest updates and are RSS-savvy, you can hook up to feeds. The most useful ones are probably the main site feed, which delivers the most recently modified listings, the whole-site comments feed, and the comments feeds for individual shows that you care about.
  • You can now “register.” There aren’t a lot of really clear reasons to do so at this point, but it creates the possibility in the future that I could extend editing privileges to trusted contributors. And I’ll tell you what: if you register for an account and send a donation of any amount at all (except I think the PayPal minimum is a buck), then I’ll turn off advertisements for you when you’re signed in.
  • Which reminds me, there are ads on the individual show pages. I know. But I have put many, many hours into this thing. Also, I would happily consider running your ads instead if you have something relevant to promote and want to purchase some space.
  • I have brought back the Frequently Asked Questions, and created a new page with hints and guidelines for submitting information.

Please do check it out.

How I use my undergraduate core music curriculum every day

My university students are sometimes unconvinced of the value of their core music curriculum. Like most music programs, the core at my school includes music theory, applied theory (aural skills like sight-singing and dictation, and piano/keyboard skills), and music history. Most of my students will be educators, like I am (most of them will teach music at a middle or high school level). Here is just a small handful of the ways that, as a teacher, I use my undergraduate music skills on a daily basis.

Manuscript paper
Photo, Andrew Malone
  • Evaluating student performances (aural skills, theory, history). Sometimes when I pick out a wrong note in a student’s performance, they express amazement that I have so much music “memorized.” I don’t. But I can follow the score and tell when what I’m hearing doesn’t match.
  • Preparing lectures, presentations, program notes, and so forth (theory, history). What makes this repertoire piece, this composer, this technique, this performance practice important? Context is crucial.
  • Selecting appropriate repertoire (history, theory). A good student recital or ensemble concert needs to balance the students’ educational needs and the audience’s attention span. And even once the repertoire is chosen, a broad-based musical education is key to differentiating between published editions.
  • Arranging, adapting, transposing, and transcribing music for soloists or ensembles (theory, aural skills, keyboard skills). This can be elaborately creative or simply functional. But every working musician and music educator at least needs to be able to take a given piece of music and make it work for a different instrumentation, taking into account instrument ranges, chord voicing, and balance.
  • Making and communicating interpretive decisions (theory, history). Good interpretive decision-making can mean following the “rules” with strictness, or making informed decision to bend or break those rules. Understanding the canon—insofar as one exists—of performance practices, and having the vocabulary to discuss them with precision, helps tremendously in either case.
  • Demonstrating musical effects for students/ensembles (theory, aural skills, keyboard skills). Good music teachers don’t let the instrument(s) collect dust, even if their primary outlet is as a conductor. Music is an aural tradition, and a “picture” is worth a thousand words. (“Instruments” in this situation includes the voice, for singers and non-singers alike.)

That list is teaching-focused; as a performer I use all of those skills just as much, if not more. Study hard!

Problems of wind controller sounds for classical performance

I’ve been working on a little Baroque repertoire on the EWI in preparation for an upcoming recital. It’s not especially common to play recital-type music on wind controllers—they are far more often used in jazz and popular styles—but I think the instrument has great potential for “classical” performance. (I mean “classical” here, and throughout this post, in the record store sense, not in the more specific musicological sense.)

My EWI is customized with the really excellent Patchman soundbank which seems to be more or less de rigeur for EWI players. It has 100 different sounds designed especially for wind controllers. But it has been difficult to find sounds that work well for me for the music that I’m trying to play.

Before I continue, I should pause to point out that I’m not at all criticizing the Patchman bank, which I’ve unabashedly recommended to everyone I know. These sounds are fantastic. And really, some of the ones that seem worst-suited to this particular application are some of my favorite ones that I’ve used in other situations.

There are also plenty of additional sources for sounds. I personally like the convenience of on-board sounds, rather than plugging into external modules or a laptop, though those are certainly viable options. I also am personally uninterested in playing sampled or acoustically-modeled sounds that attempt to mimic the sounds of “real” acoustic instruments; I want to play a synthesizer as a synthesizer, not as a substitute for something else.

So I’m looking for good synthy sounds that align with the aesthetics of classical performance. But many of the sounds that work really well for other styles of music have features that don’t fit classical music ideals of wind playing. For example, some of the sounds:

Continue reading “Problems of wind controller sounds for classical performance”