Favorite blog posts, July 2014

I am closing out July in Baton Rouge, Louisiana at ClarinetFest. Report forthcoming. For now, enjoy my best-of-the-woodwind-blogs for the past month.

Woodwind doubling and the “main” instrument

I identify very much as a woodwind player: as far as I’m concerned, if it’s a woodwind, it’s part of what I do. But when I introduce myself to someone that way, I am frequently asked, “But which one is your main instrument?”

I am hesitant to give a straightforward response to this. To identify a “main” instrument feels like an admission of failure. I work hard to play all of my instruments at a high enough level to be qualified for whatever gig you were thinking of hiring me for—if I pick just one, are you going to write me off as a possibility for the others?

photo, Neil Moralee
photo, Neil Moralee

Do I genuinely play all of my instruments at the very same ability level? Of course not. It would take some strange kind of balancing act to keep them perfectly equal all the time. I do have a woodwind that I played for a decade before getting serious about any of the others, the one I earned a bachelor’s degree in performance with (my graduate degrees are “multiple woodwinds” degrees). To some extent, that one still is my comfort zone, though that gap is very slowly closing.

Not all woodwind doublers feel the same way about it, nor should they, necessarily. There are lots of ways to be successful and fulfilled as a woodwind player. But my own goal is to play them all well enough that I could convincingly claim any of them as a “main” instrument. My favorite compliment is when, after hearing me play several instruments, someone still asks which is my main one. Sometimes I receive that compliment, and sometimes I don’t.

Auxiliary instruments and college study

At the small, regional university where I teach, it is common for incoming instrumentalist music majors’ entire previous musical experience to be limited to junior high and high school band. Few have had private instruction prior to entering college. (Although this has obvious disadvantages, I’m not complaining: our program isn’t trying to position itself as a highly-selective conservatory, and our new students generally arrive eager to learn.)

One thing that seems to surprise some prospective students is that we have different views about what I consider “auxiliary” instruments. For example, it’s common for prospects to identify themselves as bass clarinetists, or as tenor saxophonists. Some of these students have never even attempted to play a B-flat clarinet or an alto saxophone, and sometimes show little interest in doing so. They started on bass clarinet or tenor or baritone saxophone as beginners in the public school band and haven’t played anything else.

At the university, I don’t have bass clarinet “majors” or tenor saxophone “majors,” but neither do I have majors in B-flat clarinet or in alto saxophone. I do have majors in clarinet or in saxophone—that is to say, majors in the whole clarinet family or the whole saxophone family.

photo, Carst van der Molen
photo, Carst van der Molen

Since most of my students don’t have prior exposure to serious solo pieces and are taking a less-performance-heavy degree path like our major in music education, I like to focus on core repertoire. For clarinetists, that means probably 95% B-flat clarinet repertoire, perhaps with a few pieces for A clarinet done on a borrowed school instrument or played in a transposed arrangement. The idea of a “primary” member of the saxophone family is a little sketchier, even for classical study, but certainly a large majority of the central repertoire calls for the alto. For a student who has a strong affinity for an auxiliary instrument, I am happy to make sure they get to do a little extra solo repertoire or ensemble participation on that instrument, but at this point it doesn’t make sense to me take them through a four-year degree playing, say, nothing but bass clarinet.

A large fraction of our student population is made up of first-generation college students, and many depend heavily on financial aid and part-time jobs to meet tuition and housing costs, so blithely “requiring” them to buy professional-quality instruments immediately upon matriculation generally isn’t a feasible solution. And I obviously can’t expect high school band directors to steer all their students toward “primary” instruments in the event that they decide to study music in college. Ideally, those students would all be taking lessons while in high school, and those teachers would prep them on what to expect, but that isn’t a reality in this area.

It’s tempting to draw a hard line—nobody blinks when a professor at a top music school insists that his or her students meet specific equipment requirements—but certain of my students genuinely cannot afford to buy another instrument within the timeframe of college acceptance to college graduation. The university serves an almost exclusively regional student population, and is generally more focused on boosting enrolments than on tightening down selectivity.

At this point I don’t have a great solution to this problem. I try to make sure that prospective students understand the situation as early as possible and encourage them to start saving. I tell them that I can work with them now or after they arrive on campus to help them find a good deal on an acceptable instrument. I try to spread the word to high school band directors so that they can start dropping hints to students who seem bound for college-level music study.

I welcome some discussion on this. Am I old-fashioned to expect my saxophone majors to play mostly alto and my clarinet majors to play mostly B-flat, especially if they are headed for public-school band directing instead of performance? How firmly can/should I insist? Are there ways to better serve and accommodate (but also educate and challenge) college music majors who see themselves as “bass clarinetists?”


12(+) ways to practice a technical passage

A popular article from the Bulletproof Musician blog has been making the rounds on social media again, which, to oversimplify, recommends variety in your practice routine.

What is crucial is that you are keeping your brain engaged by varying the material.

One of the suggestions the author (clarinetist Christine Carter) makes is to practice passages “in different rhythmic variations.” She doesn’t go into detail because that isn’t the main thrust of the article, but here are some of my favorite ways of varying rhythms for practice.

Let’s take this example passage:

Original excerpt (from Piazzolla Tango Etudes, notation simplified)

The most obvious and common rhythmic variation for practice is to use uneven rhythms, alternating long and short notes. There are two ways to do it:

Methods 1-2: Long-short, then short-long

In all of these examples, note durations aren’t necessarily set in stone—they are just meant to show which are the long notes and which are the short ones. The first example above could alternatively be notated this way:

Method 1a

Those examples use groupings of two notes, a long one and a short one. We can extrapolate that to, say, groups of three notes, one long and two short. There are three ways to do that:

Methods 3-5: Long-short-short, short-long-short, short-short-long

Another variation would be groupings of four notes, done four different ways:

Methods 6-9

For additional practice, try groups of five, six, and so on.

Another extension of this technique is to keep the basic rhythm the same but shift it within the meter:

Methods 10-12

Use subtle anchoring to make this especially effective. Again, the possible variations are limited only by your imagination: try playing the passage in triplets instead of sixteenths, and then shift those within the meter.

I find these techniques to be an excellent way to keep some variety and interest in my practicing even when I’m stuck on a particularly frustrating passage. The Bulletproof Musician article suggests rotating between several passages in order to keep the routine varied, and I agree that is a useful way to practice, but I find that, in moderate doses, playing one passage in many different ways has similar effects.

Keep your practicing varied and goal-oriented!