Maintaining direction in staccato passages

In my last post, I pointed out that staccato notes are not always exactly “detached,” even though they may give that impression. Now let’s consider how this sense of detachment, real or false, can disrupt a phrase.

To make a legato phrase sound like a unified idea, all I have to do as a minimum is make sure my air doesn’t stop: my fingers and tongue delineate individual notes, but the sound is continuous. But with a staccato phrase, the sound stops (at least sort of). We could perhaps visualize it this way, with each box representing a note:

staccato notes

There’s not a clear sense of continuity—each note is an island.

But I can make the notes sound like they belong together, without eliminating the space between them. For example, suppose I give the passage a subtle crescendo:

staccato notes, with crescendo

The space between the notes is the same, but now there is a clear relationship. It’s obvious that the individual notes, though detached, make up a single structure and not six separate ones.

A bit of crescendo is a reliable and tasteful way to do this in many cases, but really any variable aspect of musical expression could ostensibly be used: decrescendo, change in tone color, change in vibrato, accelerando or ritardando, or just about anything else that can be varied continuously across a group of notes. Make sure each note you play serves a larger phrase!

Sometimes staccato is neither “short” nor “separated”

It seems that many of us are taught first to treat notes with staccato markings as “short,” and then later refine that definition to mean something like “separated” or “detached.” The difference in these definitions is that a “detached” note might really be quite long, but has at least a sliver of silence separating it from the note afterwards.

But for wind players, even this definition may be too simplistic, and in some cases produces a sound that is too aggressively clipped or pecky.

To achieve an appropriate staccato effect, the notes might not actually be detached at all. Check out this demonstration of staccato technique on the violin:

It’s clear that the violinist is detaching the notes from each other. But listen carefully—does the instrument go completely silent in between notes? At a faster tempo, it doesn’t. Even though the violinist temporarily stops driving the strings’ vibrations with the bow, the instrument continues to resonate on its own, and this (softer) sound may bleed into the next note.

A wind instrument doesn’t resonate in the same way: when the wind player stops blowing, the sound stops immediately. But since our modern wind technique borrows so heavily from the bowed string tradition, in many cases it is necessary to imitate this resonance to achieve the desired effect. To oversimplify a bit, the wind player must end “staccato” notes with very brief decrescendos.

When this technique is applied to staccato passages, it may mean that rather than literally detaching the notes from each other, the wind player must give the impression of detachment while also giving the impression of a brief violin-style resonance following each note. In other words, the “space” between the notes is actually filled, at least partially but maybe completely, with a very quick decrescendo.

A reverberant performance space also helps to mask wind instruments’ lack of damped oscillation, but ultimately it is up to the wind player to create the faux resonance when the situation demands. Pay close attention to the ends of your staccato notes!

Teaching multiple instruments in higher education

My academic credentials in multiple woodwind instruments have served me well so far: I was fortunate to be one among my graduating class who did get a college teaching job right out of school, and it’s a job that happens to be an excellent fit. Part of the reason it’s a great fit is because teaching multiple instruments is what I want to do, at least at this point; sometimes others assume that I’ve taken a multiple-woodwinds job as a stepping stone to something else, but that isn’t the case.

While I thoroughly enjoy the variety in my day (I’m teaching oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone), there are some additional things worth considering if you take on multiple instruments in a collegiate teaching career. For example:

  • Resources allocated per faculty member sometimes get spread extra thin. When I arrived at my new job, I was given a little bit of funding for library acquisitions in my area. If I were teaching a single instrument, my current and future students would have benefited from all that money being spent on items directly relevant to them. Instead, I was able to get only a few items related to each instrument. My students, through no fault of their own, got fewer applicable new library resources.
  • Time also gets spread thin. We recently hosted a high school honor band on our campus as a recruiting event. At one point the visiting students were sent to masterclasses with the professors on their instrument, so I got all the reed players. It’s certainly not impossible to run a worthwhile masterclass in that situation, but the circumstances do complicate things a bit. The same problem exists with studio classes for my college students.
  • Some of the work multiplies. When we hold our ensemble auditions, I select audition excerpts and sightreading material for four instruments instead of one. When it’s time to submit textbook orders to the bookstore, I submit separate requests for each instrument’s separate batch of course numbers.
  • It is common for applied music professors to attend their professional organizations’ conferences annually, and to seek out officer positions in those organizations as a way to enhance their tenure portfolios. I would love to attend the annual conferences of the International Double Reed Society, the International Clarinet Association, and the North American Saxophone Alliance each year, but my limited travel funding and the potential time away from my teaching make this unrealistic. And since I don’t attend any one conference every year, it’s difficult to get taken seriously as an officer candidate.
Photo, Trevor Hempfling Photography
Photo, Trevor Hempfling Photography

Not that I am complaining—I am grateful every day that I get to do what I love for a living, and most of these problems can be mitigated with a little effort and creativity. But I think they are worth knowing about if you see yourself headed for a career in college music teaching.


Favorite blog posts, January 2014

Here’s what’s worth reading from the woodwind blogs in January:

  • Woodwind doubler Steve Moffett suggests taking a break now and then.
  • Oboist Patty Mitchell reminds us that playing with a pianist means needing to know your own part and his or hers.
  • Helen Bledsoe weighs in on the debate about how register changes are made on the flute. I don’t entirely agree with her, but she makes some interesting points, as do the flutists in the videos she shares. (For more on this, see my previous post and accompanying PDF cataloging some of the, er, hot air surrounding this topic.)
  • Clarinetist Adam Berkowitz takes practicing to the next level.
  • Bassoonist Christin Schillinger shares some ideas about ongoing development as a musician, plus some metronome games.
  • Woodwind doubler Josh Johnson does a review of the Ridenour Lyrique bass clarinet. I’m sharing this one because I think it’s a well-written and thoughtful review, and because I think high-quality instruments made from alternative materials are a welcome next wave in woodwind manufacture. As a side note, I recently purchased one of these basses for my university clarinet studio and have spent some time playing it, and my experience with the instrument basically matches Josh’s.
  • Oboist Cooper Wright seeks to raise standards in his teaching studio.
  • Woodwind doubler Michael Grant concludes(?) a 12-part marathon of long posts describing his experience playing in the pit orchestra for a local musical theater production.

Just when I think I’ve got every single woodwind-related blog in my feed reader, I stumble onto a dozen more. If you’re writing good stuff and think you might have escaped my notice, let me know!