Favorite blog posts, June 2014

The problem with “ethnic” woodwinds

I mentioned in a recent post that I am trying to get away from using the term “ethnic” woodwinds, one that I have used frequently in the past as a catch-all for the instruments I play that aren’t modern Western flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, or saxophones. The term was problematic from the beginning, since, for example, I was using it to include instruments like recorders, which fall squarely under the umbrella of Western music traditions, but are arguably period or historical instruments.

Additionally, I find that the term “ethnic” increasingly grates on my ear as too ethnocentric and limited a view, and incompatible with my real attitudes concerning music from cultures and traditions other than my native ones. For example, it’s clearly not politically correct to lump non-white people or non-Americans together under the label “ethnic,” so it doesn’t seem to make sense for me to use similarly divisive and condescending language to refer to musical traditions, either.

photo, Vernon Hyde
photo, Vernon Hyde

I currently favor the term “major modern woodwinds” as an acceptable (though flawed) shorthand for all the Western orchestral woodwinds plus saxophones. But there isn’t a really accurate and culturally-sensitive way to lump together the woodwinds that don’t fall into that category. I frequently need to express verbally or in writing what instruments I play. If I am speaking to someone musically savvy, I can say that I play “woodwinds” and they will assume that I play most or all of the major modern woodwinds. They are unlikely to just assume, though, that I can also play recorders and dizi and Lakota flutes and a bunch of others, and that might be information that I want them to have.

Recently I expressed this concern on social media, and got a few interesting suggestions. “World” woodwinds came up, and is what I have adopted for now on this website, though I think ultimately it has some of the same issues as “ethnic:” aren’t my clarinets “world” instruments (and, for that matter, don’t they have ethnicity, too)? Someone else suggested “woodwinds of various cultural origins,” which I think is pretty good but too wordy to be practical. Someone else suggested that I simply list the instruments individually rather than trying to affix a single label; I think this idea has clear merit in terms of cultural sensitivity, but it does fail the practicality test.

It’s tempting to consider something clever like Pedro Eustache’s term “multidirectional flute soloist,” but, though charming, it doesn’t communicate the concept with any clarity. I have also experimented with materials-based terminology as in “wooden and bamboo flutes,” but this isn’t inclusive enough and ultimately has the same problem as the word “woodwinds” itself—wood construction isn’t what makes a woodwind a woodwind.

So for now it’s “world” woodwinds, or perhaps “woodwinds of various cultural origins” when that kind of wordiness is practicable. I welcome additional suggestions in the comments section.

Dissertation: Woodwind doubling on folk, ethnic, and period instruments in film and theater music

My doctoral dissertation is now available online through the University of Georgia library:

Woodwind doubling on folk, ethnic, and period instruments in film and theater music: Case studies and a practical manual

It was completed in 2009 so some things are already out of date. Also, lately I’m trying to steer away from the term “ethnic” instruments (“world” instruments seems slightly less problematic until I can find a better solution).



Woodwind doubling is the practice of playing instruments from more than one woodwind family. In musical theater and film music, woodwind doublers are valuable for their ability to produce the sounds of a varied woodwind section for a fraction of the cost of hiring a specialist musician to play each instrument.

Since the 1990’s, composers and orchestrators in musical theater and film scoring have shown increased interest in instrumental sounds from outside the traditional symphony orchestra. Many have featured folk, ethnic, or period instruments as solo instruments, bringing authentic sounds to scenes set in faraway locations or historical periods, giving an exotic flair to fictional locales, or simply adding new colors to the usual palette of instrumental sounds.

Composers of film and theater scores have used ethnic woodwinds, in particular, in their scoring. To meet the demand for ethnic woodwind sounds, many prominent woodwind doublers on Broadway and in Hollywood have adopted these instruments, in addition to their usual arrays of modern Western instruments.

Eight folk, ethnic, and period woodwinds recently employed in film and theater scoring have been selected for study in this document: bamboo flutes (especially the Indian bansuri and flutes used by some flutists in Irish traditional music), the Chinese dizi, the Armenian duduk, the Native American flute, the panflutes of Romania and South America, the pennywhistle, the recorder, and the Japanese shakuhachi.

For each instrument, a representative example of use in theater or film music has been selected and transcribed from a commercial audio recording. Each transcription is discussed with emphasis on demands placed upon the ethnic woodwind musician. Additional discussion of each instrument includes suggestions for purchasing instruments, fingering charts, description of playing technique, description of instrument-specific performance practices, discussion of various sizes and/or keys of each instrument, discussion of instrument-specific notation practices, annotated bibliographies of available pedagogical materials, lists of representative recordings (including authentic ethnic music and other music), and information on relevant organizations and associations of professional or amateur musicians.

Read the full text at the UGA library website

Review: Ben Britton’s A Complete Approach to Overtones

About a year and a half ago I reviewed Ben Britton’s book A Complete Approach to Sound for the Modern Saxophonist, which is full of excellent information and exercises for development of fundamental tone production technique. Ben has just released a new book, and I was pleased to get a sneak preview.

A Complete Approach to Overtones: Vivid Tone and Extended Range builds on A Complete Approach to Sound’s foundation with 50-some pages of overtone exercises and explanatory text. Overtone exercises are often associated with development of the altissimo register (Eugene Rousseau, for example, uses overtones extensively in his altissimo book), but this book is not specifically altissimo-oriented; it is a more broad-based approach to improving every aspect of tone production (particularly tone, intonation, and response).

Ben Britton: A Complete Approach to Overtones

The exercises are very thorough and systematic. A number of the exercises are similar to the simple ones I use with my own students, but Ben’s are better thought-out and cover the technique in a much more complete way. Between the book’s thoughtful organization and incisive text, it covers all of the usual frustrations that overtone beginners deal with; any saxophonist with a general command of the instrument’s basics should be able to jump right in and start hearing results. At the same time, the material is enough to keep an advanced saxophonist challenged for quite a while. This is a book that could very well be studied as a high school student, reviewed again at the college level, and re-reviewed throughout a professional playing career.

Grab your copy (paper or digital) now and thank me later. While you’re at it, pick up A Complete Approach to Sound and Ben’s album Children at Play.