Favorite blog posts, March 2014

Recommended reading from the woodwind blogs in March:

Answering equipment questions

I attended a small jazz festival a number of years ago, which included student workshops with some of the festival’s headline artists. Unsurprisingly, some of the first questions asked in these workshops were about the artists’ equipment choices.

The responses varied widely. A few of the artists were excited to talk about their instruments, mouthpieces, and so forth, and to offer glowing testimonials.

Others responded less enthusiastically. One of the festival’s biggest-name artists mocked a student for even asking the question. The student slumped down into his seat as one of his idols berated him in front of everyone.

But I was especially impressed by one artist in particular, whose equipment choices are well-known and widely-imitated. “Well, I use _____, _____, and _____,” he explained, “but there are a lot of really good options out there, and what works for me doesn’t work for everybody. Plus, you should know that lots of music stores sell equipment with this brand name, but it’s not really the same product anymore as the one I bought decades ago.” Then he moved onto another question.

Photo, Laurie Samet
Photo, Laurie Samet

I thought this was a very effective, responsible, and respectful way to answer the question: he didn’t make the student feel bad for asking, and he didn’t encourage the student to buy something specific that might not really be a fit. I also admired the brevity and matter-of-factness of his answer—it cast the question as what it ought to be: a curiosity, rather than something of great importance.

Death from exposure

Working musicians, especially those trying to launch their careers or take them to the next level, are all too familiar with the idea of playing for “exposure”—in other words, playing gigs for free with the idea that maybe it will somehow lead to paying gigs.

Playing for free is one thing; there’s no reason you can’t do a favor for a friend, or show up at a jam session for fun and/or practice. But it’s more insidious when your unpaid labor is fueling somebody else’s profits. This seems to be a phenomenon that particularly affects creative types: the same people who want your band to play at their event for “exposure” or “experience” are no doubt paying the waitstaff, stage crew, or what-have-you, because people in those jobs simply don’t work for free.

Photo, Mark Robinson
Photo, Mark Robinson

The fallacy here is that the prospective employer is offering you exposure and experience and networking instead of money, as if the alternative were gigs that paid money but didn’t offer those things. That simply isn’t the case: you get all those benefits from paid gigs, too, plus you get to pay your rent that month. Continue reading “Death from exposure”

Improvisation and doubling

An important factor in improvising fluently (such as in a jazz context) is a collection of vocabulary. Broadly defined, this could include rote-memorized “licks” plus all kinds of other material: scale- or arpeggio-oriented patterns, for example. With improvisation, you don’t have the luxury of practicing your solo note-for-note; instead you have to develop a large pool of available material, and learn it so well that you can mix and match it on the fly.

Photo, fantail media
Photo, fantail media

If you double on multiple instruments, the vocabulary pool isn’t really portable. You can bring your improvisational ideas with you from instrument to instrument, but you won’t be able to execute them smoothly unless you have put in the practice hours on each instrument separately. If you are doubling, say, saxophone and flute, you might find that the fingerings are similar enough that you can make a few things work, but it’s too easy to paint yourself into a corner, or to catch yourself using “close enough” fingerings that really aren’t, or to play with unsatisfactory tone or intonation. To do it right, and have the colors of multiple instrumental voices available to you as an improviser, treat each instrument like it’s your only one.

Misconceptions about saxophone-to-clarinet doubling

I saw a blog post recently by a saxophonist who had been called upon to play some clarinet for a big band jazz gig. The post was full of common frustrations that saxophonists who are casual clarinet doublers face in that situation. I want to respond to some of the ideas in that post, but since it’s not my object to embarrass anyone I’m not going to name the saxophonist or link to the blog post. Also, the “quotes” I’m using here are actually paraphrases, but I believe they capture the saxophonist’s intended meaning.

The clarinet is evil! And it sounds like a dying animal.

I understand this is said in jest, but fear and/or contempt are not good starting points for approaching woodwind doubles. Either focus your energies on instruments you are motivated to play, or have an open mind. As with most things, you probably hate and fear the clarinet because you haven’t taken the time and effort to get to know it.

photo, APMus
photo, APMus

I’m actually pretty good at the bass clarinet, though.

I doubt it! There are plenty of saxophonists who claim they can play the bass clarinet but not the B-flat clarinet. In many, many of those cases, what the saxophonists mean is that they can use a very saxophoney approach to playing the bass clarinet—a too-low voicing, a too-horizontal mouthpiece angle, etc.—and make some kind of sound, whereas the smaller B-flat simply won’t cooperate at all with these bad techniques. Truly good bass clarinetists, however, produce a more characteristic sound because they play the instrument like what it is: a member of the clarinet family.

I dug up a fingering chart so I could do some practicing for my gig. Those pinky fingerings just don’t make any sense, plus you have to read a bunch of ledger lines.

Saxophonists are spoiled by the instrument’s relatively small “standard” range and relatively simplistic fingering scheme. But I think a reasonable argument could be made that the clarinet’s system of alternate “pinky” fingerings is tidier and more flexible than the saxophone’s clunky rollers. Break out the Klosé book and learn to do it right. Continue reading “Misconceptions about saxophone-to-clarinet doubling”

Favorite blog posts, February 2014

Here are some of my picks for some excellent woodwind-related blog posts from last month.