Favorite blog posts, November 2013

Some good stuff from the woodwind blogs in November:

  • I’m totally stoked that oboist Cooper Wright is blogging again, from a new location. Add this one to your RSS reader to follow his transition into a new job as co-principal oboist of the Thailand Philharmonic, and, of course, his endless reedmaking.
  • Saxophonist Steve Neff reviews the new John Coltrane Omnibook.
  • Helen Bledsoe searches for the elusive tin oboe. Spoiler alert: she doesn’t find one, but she tries some interesting things along the way.
  • Saxophonist Bill Plake warms up body and mind.
  • Bassoonist Betsy Sturdevant thoroughly prepares the Beethoven 4 solo.
  • Matt Otto takes a closer look at the 8th-note “swing” feel of three of the great jazz saxophonists. (Please don’t make the “oh, it’s just triplets” mistake.)
  • Jennet Ingle reminds us that effective doubling requires more than just being able to play the solos.
  • Adam at A Classical Journey is studying musical instrument repair and documenting the experience very thoroughly. The class has started its woodwind unit, so if you’re fascinated by this stuff like I am, then now is the time to tune in.

Saxophone altissimo books: Raschèr vs. Rousseau

My university saxophone students are anxious to tackle the altissimo register, and it’s not at all uncommon for them to show up to their first lessons clutching the Sigurd Raschèr Top-Tones for the Saxophone book and wearing a hopeful expression. I also see the Raschèr book frequently and glibly recommended on online forums. With the greatest respect for Raschèr, I think this is a mistake.

Don’t get me wrong: the Raschèr book is a classic and contains a great deal of wisdom. It is a must-have for the well-read saxophonist. But I think most saxophonists would do better to start with Eugene Rousseau’s Saxophone High Tones, and have the Raschèr on hand for supplementary exercises and instruction.

Get this one first
Get this one first
Use this one as a supplement
Use this one as a supplement

I’m going to make the following point first, not because I think it’s necessarily the most important, but because it’s the one that will click with those of you who are hoping to “learn altissimo” in an afternoon by looking at a fingering chart: Rousseau’s fingering charts are much better. They are better suited to “modern” (Mark VI and beyond) instruments and more complete (in the sense of providing many more options for each note, though Raschèr’s chart does go a little higher). Rousseau also provides separate fingering charts for soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone, while Raschèr provides only one chart, which he indicates in the first-edition foreword is intended for “E-flat saxophones”—altos, that is. (I do have a few issues with the visual layout of Rousseau’s charts, and Raschèr’s too, but that’s another rant.) Continue reading “Saxophone altissimo books: Raschèr vs. Rousseau”

Ornaments are notes

I think there are some unintended consequence of the way ornamentation is notated in Western music. Often the ornaments are indicated with some kind of abstract symbol or with tiny “extra” notes (like grace notes), located visually outside of the music’s rhythmic structure. This sometimes leads less-experienced musicians to the conclusion, consciously or otherwise, that the ornaments do not have precise rhythms. Sometimes music teachers feed this problem by explaining the rhythmic aspects of ornamentation in a vague or misleading way.

For example, many of my saxophone and oboe students are initially stymied by this moment in the first of the Ferling 48 Famous Studies:


An unclear but common way to explain this is to indicate the pitch pattern of the turn—up a diatonic step and back down, down a diatonic (or maybe half-) step and back up—and then say something to the effect that these notes “steal” time from the F-natural. The grace notes in the next measure can be poorly explained by emphasizing that they go “on the beat.” These explanations aren’t factually incorrect, and make some sense to someone who already understands what the end result should sound like, but leave a lot of unanswered questions for students who are less experienced with ornamentation.

To be clearer about the turn, I think it helps to think through exactly how many notes have to be played in the space of the F-natural (five) and some possible ways to fit them in. Here are a few: Continue reading “Ornaments are notes”

Farewell: Frank Wess

Last week Frank Wess, one of the great woodwind doublers in jazz, passed away at age 91. He was best known for his years with the Count Basie band, and for being an influential figure in bringing the flute into its own as a jazz instrument.

If you’re not familiar with his playing, definitely check out “Midgets” from the Basie April in Paris album. Sometimes classically-trained flutists are quick to dismiss jazz-playing doublers, in some cases justifiably so, for failing to pay proper dues on the instrument. While Wess’s tone doesn’t fit current ideas about a “correct” classical sound, there is evidence here that he is in control of the instrument: certainly good command of finger technique (and remember, classically-trained folks, that Wess is improvising here), plus some double-tonguing, a technique common in classical flute technique but relatively rare among reed players.

Photo, Tom Marcello
Photo, Tom Marcello

There is a nice tribute (with a YouTube video) at the NPR jazz blog.