Favorite blog posts, October 2013

Here are my picks from October. I strongly suggest that you read all of these, share them on your favorite social media outlets, leave thoughtful comments to the authors, and subscribe with your favorite blog-reading apparatus.

Great stuff, everybody, and I look forward to reading more in November.

Fingering Diagram Builder, version 0.51: flute half-holes

Okay, nerds. I got email from a composer acquaintance who pointed out, correctly but also politely, that the Fingering Diagram Builder was lacking a bit in the area of flute half-holing. Here is a minor release to fix that problem. Now you can do some different half-holes on an open-holed flute’s rings. Here is the most obvious kind:

Lengthwise upper half-hole
Lengthwise upper half-hole

But this may also be useful:

Widthwise proximal half-hole

Or, hey, get creative with it:

A variety of half-holes. On the right hand third finger, I’ve overlapped a lengthwise upper half-hole and a widthwise distal half-hole. Works great if you have oddly-shaped fingers.

You can even do this if you want to. It’s no skin off my nose.


If you’re going for something relatively simple, a few clicks will do it. For the first example (lengthwise upper), click the “Keywork” tab on the menu, then “Keywork details.” Scroll down quite a bit and set “Open holes” to “always” and “Lengthwise upper half-holes” to “always.” Now you are in business. For the key that you want, click the main key (biggest circle) on the diagram, then the open half of the hole, then the closed half of the hole. Bam.

I’m interested in making the FDB useful for new and interesting kinds of fingering diagrams, so let me hear your requests for future versions. Stay tuned for more new features and improvements that are already in the planning stages.

Music for its own sake

At least once every few weeks, my social media feeds get flooded with links to the latest article about how kids should learn music because it turns them into excellent businesspeople and scientists and politicians. The latest is an opinion piece from the New York Times.

Condoleezza Rice trained to be a concert pianist. Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, was a professional clarinet and saxophone player. The hedge fund billionaire Bruce Kovner is a pianist who took classes at Juilliard.

Multiple studies link music study to academic achievement. But what is it about serious music training that seems to correlate with outsize success in other fields?

It may or may not be true that musical training sharpens math skills and teamwork skills and so forth. But I am irritated by the subtext that music isn’t something worth pursuing on its own merits—it is only valuable as cross-training for making a “real” contribution to society. Nobody ever seems to wonder whether education in mathematics or reading or science makes people into better musicians.

Photo, Bill Selak
Photo, Bill Selak

Continue reading “Music for its own sake”

My studio “fresh air” policy

Last year I posted a small sign on my studio door:

Fresh air policy

If you smell of tobacco, alcohol, or illegal drugs, you will not be permitted to enter my office, whether or not you were the one using those substances. If your grade depends on you being here for a lesson, coaching, or other meeting, you will receive a zero.

Thank you.

Happily, I haven’t had occasion to enforce the policy since then, though I have previously had the occasional student who would have been in violation. It should go without saying that you shouldn’t ever show up to any college course or professional situation under the influence of any mind-altering substance, including alcohol, and my university also happens to be a “tobacco-free” campus, which is rare and awesome.

I wrestled a little bit with the “whether or not you were the one” clause, but it’s my workspace and I don’t like the smell of cigarettes, especially since my work involves a lot of deep breathing. Also, it means I don’t ever have to try to guess whether students are lying (not that any of mine would).

My students’ choices are their own, and I try to be extremely conscientious about not foisting my personal beliefs on them. However, I am also responsible to teach them to protect their health, at least as it relates to their woodwind playing, and to behave professionally. So fresh air—free of tobacco, alcohol, and drugs—is my policy.

Not good

I like to use a Socratic-ish method in my private lessons, and ask my students questions. It means that I have this conversation several times per day:

[Student plays.]

Me: How did that sound to you?

Student: Not good.

Me: What didn’t you like about it?

Student: It didn’t sound good.

Me: What aspect of it didn’t sound good to you? The tone? the pitch? the phrasing? the articulation?

Student: Um, I guess the articulation?

Me: What didn’t you like about the articulation?

Student: It wasn’t good?

It’s an ongoing battle to get my students to listen more deeply than that. Was the articulation “not good” because it started with air noise instead of tone? Because it was accompanied by an unwanted percussive sound? Was the articulation technique perfect but you failed to follow the composer’s markings? Or was it something else?

Photo, David Bailey
Photo, David Bailey

Often the “not good” is a combination of factors, but if my students can identify even one of them, then they can immediately start working in a focused way to improve it. If it’s just “not good,” then they tend to just play it again from the beginning without any clear approach to making it sound better, and repeat until frustrated.

Part of my job is to help them identify and verbalize the desirable and undesirable phenomena in their playing, and to teach them the techniques for manipulating the variables involved (breath support, voicing, embouchure, finger technique, and tongue technique, to name the most obvious ones). But it’s up to them to take that information and run with it. For my students to become independently-functional musicians, they need to learn to listen critically to themselves and troubleshoot.

For yourself and for your students, don’t be satisfied with bland value judgments (it sounded “good” or “bad”). Be factual and descriptive about what you hear, and tackle problems in a methodical way. Practice smart!

Review: Butch Hall Native-American-style flutes

For years now I’ve told anyone who will listen how much I love my Butch Hall Native-American-style flute in F-sharp minor. I recently bought it a little friend in G minor, and realized it is high time I did a proper review of these lovely instruments.

Hello, beautiful.
Hello, beautiful.

The modern instrument commonly referred to as the “Native American Flute” is related to a certain flute tradition associated with the Lakota people; of course labeling anything as “Native American” mistakenly implies that it is common to all the groups lumped together as “Native American.” As an additional complication name-wise, there are certain legal requirements regarding who can sell products under the designation “Native American,” so some flutemakers, for example, must sell their wares as “Native-American-style.” In general, flutes of this type, regardless of seller, are a contemporary take on a traditional instrument, often made with modern tools and processes and tweaked to suit contemporary Western-world pitch standards. This suits me just fine—I’m interested in the instrument’s history, but as a working musician I like an instrument that I can buy affordably and play in a variety of situations.

If you are in the market for an instrument of this kind, be very careful about souvenir-type flutes, including some popular makes sold on the internet and in souvenir shops as “professional” instruments. If you want an instrument that plays beautifully, easily, and in tune, and is genuinely suited to professional playing situations, I strongly recommend that you send money to Butch Hall immediately. These are real-deal musician-quality flutes, and the amount of money involved is shockingly small. Continue reading “Review: Butch Hall Native-American-style flutes”