Favorite blog posts, May 2014

Kind of a short list this month, so either all the bloggers are on summer vacation or I am getting pickier.

The amazing shrinking woodwind section: increasing demands on woodwind doublers

There is a long tradition of using small orchestras in musical theater as a money- and space-saving consideration. Presumably, if budgets and orchestra pit square footages were unlimited, full symphonic orchestras would be used for theater like they are for movies, with an 8-12(+)-piece orchestral woodwind section, plus perhaps a 5-piece saxophone section. But let’s go back a few decades and examine the compromises. Here are a couple of examples:

Flower Drum Song

(from original 1958 orchestration)

  1. Piccolo, flute, alto flute
  2. Piccolo, flute
  3. Oboe, English horn
  4. Clarinet, alto saxophone
  5. Clarinet, alto saxophone
  6. Bass clarinet, tenor saxophone

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

(from original 1966 orchestration)

  1. Piccolo, flute
  2. Flute
  3. Clarinet
  4. Clarinet
  5. Bass clarinet, tenor saxophone

The Flower Drum Song orchestration uses a 6-piece woodwind section. The bassoons, sadly, are the first thing to go. The principal flutist has to double on both piccolo and alto flute, an uncommon compromise in the orchestral repertoire, where the doubling is often relegated to an auxiliary flute part to allow the principal to be at his or her soloistic best on a single instrument. (The second flutist also doubles piccolo, which is a bit more common.) Similarly, the oboist pulls double-duty as soloist on both oboe and English horn. The full clarinet section is expected to double not on auxiliary clarinets, but on saxophones.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is not quite as demanding on individual woodwind players; the first flute part does include piccolo (again, this is not typical symphonic-orchestral thinking), and the bass clarinetist doubles on saxophone. The double reed section is eliminated completely.

photo, NK Eide

Now let’s look at how these shows’ orchestrations have been revised in more recent revivals:

Flower Drum Song

(from 2002 revival orchestration)

  1. Piccolo, flute, alto flute, dizi in C, D, E-flat, F, and B, bamboo flutes in E, F, and G
  2. Flute, clarinet, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone
  3. Flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone
  4. Clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, tenor saxophone

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

(from 1999 revival orchestration)

  1. Piccolo, flute, clarinet, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, soprano recorder, kazoo

44 years later, Flower Drum Song’s woodwind section has shrunken from six musicians to four, but the number of instruments has boomed from 13 to 25. The first flutist is expected to play some “world” woodwinds in addition to an array of orchestral flutes, and the other three woodwind players each cover instruments from three or four woodwind families, with multiple members from at least one of those families.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown’s revival after 33 years drops the woodwind section from five musicians down to one. The lone woodwind player covers seven instruments from (arguably) five families: two flutes, a clarinet, two saxophones, a recorder, and a kazoo (which, despite being vaguely woodwind-like in form, is not one). As the only player of each of these instruments, this musician should expect to be prepared to sound like a convincing soloist on each.

Based on these examples and others, two trends seem to be emerging in theater orchestrations:

  1. Fewer woodwind players.
  2. More colorful orchestrations. In the case of both of these shows, the new orchestrations are not simply a slimming-down of a too-expensive woodwind section—new sounds are being introduced. In some cases these might be meant to rebalance the orchestra due to cuts in other sections, but it also seems that recent orchestrations involve creative choices tending toward a broader aural palette.

Both of these mean greater demands upon woodwind players. 21st-century woodwind players need to be able to play a greater number of instruments, from a pool no longer limited to the orchestral woodwinds and saxophones, at a soloist level on each instrument. The common 20th-century clarinet/saxophone or flute/clarinet/saxophone doubler may find him- or herself less employable than in previous years, and less able to hide in the section on a weaker double. Double reeds are a must, and so are auxiliary instruments (piccolo, larger flutes, English horn, clarinets and saxophones of any size) and world or historical woodwinds.

As the number of woodwind chairs shrinks and the standards of musicianship and versatility rise, the specialist and the jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none will both be out of a job, and the rare jack-of-all-trades-master-of-each will become an increasingly hot property.

Did I play that “right?”

Sometimes my beginner students will play something for me, then ask, “Was that right?” What they generally seem to mean is something like, “Did I use the correct fingerings in the correct order?” A student who is slightly more advanced might ask the same question, but also wonder whether the rhythms were “correct.” A student farther along than that might take into consideration things like accurate observance of marked articulations and dynamics.

Setting aside creative concerns and looking only at technical matters, when is a student’s playing “right?”

I try to impress upon my advancing students that execution of musical passages isn’t really about “right” or “wrong,” but rather about degrees of rightness. To borrow an idea from manufacturing or engineering, we might think in terms of tolerances.

In other words, for a beginner, a half-note rhythm might be “right” if the half notes are roughly twice the length of quarter notes, and a pitch of “D” might be “right” if it is closer to D than it is to D-flat or D-sharp. For a somewhat more advanced student, it might not be “right” until the rhythms can be played without wandering too far afield of a metronome and the pitches trigger the “in tune” light on a cheap electric tuner. For an even more advanced student, those tolerances wouldn’t be fine enough—we might expect the rhythmic ratios to be accurate to within a few percent, and the pitches to be accurate within so many cents.

photo, Lewis Meyer
photo, Lewis Meyer

At the highest levels of musical technique, we question what tolerances are accurate enough for our audiences, or for someone with even more finely-tuned ears—a conductor, perhaps, or an audition panel, or collaborating musicians, or a record producer. Are my rhythms “right” when they are within a tolerance of a hundredth of a second? A thousandth? A ten-thousandth? Who will hear the difference if my pitches are within a tolerance of ten cents? Five cents? The more I think about it, the more I’m certain I can never really be satisfied, because as my execution gets more accurate, my ears get less tolerant.

If your ears are currently “tolerating” your level of accuracy when you play, it may be time to listen more closely and critically. Don’t be satisfied with “right”—go for more right.

Irish flute/whistle ornamentation symbols à la Grey Larsen, in Lilypond

If you are nerdy/awesome enough to be into (1) the pedagogy of Irish traditional woodwind playing and (2) open-source text-based music notation software, then you may want to check out my set of symbols for Lilypond, based on the excellent ornamentation system by Grey Larsen. You can get the .ily file on GitHub (and submit your pull requests to make improvements to my code).

Cuts, strikes, rolls, cranns, etc.
Cuts, strikes, slides, rolls, cranns, etc.

If you are unfamiliar with Mr. Larsen’s system and you play pennywhistles or wooden flutes, then really I must insist that you buy a copy of his The Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle immediately—his ornamentation system is clear and logical and should be regarded as the standard for teaching and learning Irish-traditional ornamentation for wind instruments.

If you are unfamiliar with Lilypond, chances are good that you won’t like it even though it’s free and produces much better notation than the software you already spent several hundred dollars on.

Also, it’s worth noting that Chris Throup already had a similar idea a few years ago. Mine is a bit more complete, but his is really simple.

Sláinte!