Favorite blog posts, October 2014

Lots of very fine woodwind-related blog posts this month.

Isolating problem spots

Earlier this month I posted about a fundamental practicing concept that sometimes escapes my less-experienced students. Here is another:

Me: Play your D melodic minor scale.

Student: [Begins D minor scale, plays a wrong note in the second octave.]

Me: Whoops, remember to play B-natural.

Student: Okay. [Starts over, makes same mistake.]

Me: Please start at the second-octave A, and play just from there to—

Student: [Starts from second-octave A, makes the same mistake, proceeds to finish the scale.]

Me: No, I want you to start at the A, play just to the B-natural, and stop.

Student: [Plays.]

Me: Okay, that’s correct. Now—

Student: [Starts over, makes same mistake.]

Practicing in overly large segments is an issue for less-experienced students for at least three reasons. The first is that is it makes it difficult to notice exactly where the problem is happening. Students may tend to “power through” a section and evaluate it as a whole (“That wasn’t very good”), then simply start over again and hope for the best. Sometimes my younger students are surprised when I point out that they are actually making the same mistake over and over. In their minds, it’s a roll of the dice every time, hoping that everything turns out right, and if it doesn’t, then start again and hope for better luck this time. Practicing in smaller segments makes it much easier to identify and isolate problems.

photo, Basheer Tome
photo, Basheer Tome

The second issue is that even if the precise problem is known, practicing it within too large a segment increases the cognitive load—it’s hard to devote enough attention to the actual problem when there are so many other notes to think about. Plus, practicing too long of a segment raises the stakes in a way that often doesn’t work well for inexperienced practicers: by the time you actually arrive at the problem spot, the pressure is really on to get it right, since you’ve already invested a lot in this run-through. If you isolate the problem to a much smaller segment, it’s not such a big deal if you have to start again.

The third issue is efficiency. If your goal is to correct one wrong note, which lasts less than a second, and you play 30 seconds’ worth of music leading up to it and another 30 seconds’ worth after it, then you can only get about one repetition done per minute. Even if you get it right, it will take you hours to really solidify that passage. But if you can narrow the problem down to two seconds’ worth of music, you can do many repetitions per minute.

In most cases, the problem that needs fixing has to do with getting from one note to another successfully. It may be that the second note isn’t the right one, or that it doesn’t respond right, or that the articulation isn’t correct, or a variety of other things, but the crucial concept is that there is a pair of notes, and the first note is right, and the second one isn’t.

Step one is to practice just those two notes, not just once through, but many times. If this is only accomplished with difficulty, it may be due to the second note having a less-familiar fingering, or perhaps some kind of particular response difficulty. Practice those two notes—and only those two notes—over and over until they improve. If they don’t, consult a teacher who can help to you diagnose and improve your technique.

If playing the two notes is trivially easy, then the problem is something about the context in which they appear. Add one more note before the first one, and repeat it several times. If it’s still easy, add one more. Continue until the problem returns, and practice that sequence of notes slowly and carefully until it feels natural and solid. If it becomes clear that adding more notes before the problem isn’t what’s triggering it, then start again from the two notes and gradually add notes after them. Sometimes anticipating what follows can cause something to go wrong.

Don’t be overly anxious to put the (former) problem spot back into the “context” of a whole scale or etude or movement. Make most of your practicing small-segment work, and very gradually reassemble the small segments into slightly larger ones. Repeat the slightly larger ones many times, then combine them again into still larger ones.

Take the time to break your practicing down into smaller chunks, isolate the problem spots, and work them methodically and repetitively.

Slowing down

I can’t tell you how often I have had this happen in lessons, especially with my younger students:

Me: Play your E-flat major scale.

Student: [Begins scale at breakneck speed, plays 3-4 notes, makes a mistake, stops. Begins again at the same speed, makes a different mistake, stops.]

Me: Wait—

Student: [Begins again at breakneck speed, makes a different mistake, stops.]

Me: Wait. Please slow down and play accurately.

Student: [Begins again at same speed as before, makes a different mistake, stops.]

Me: Okay, let me show you what I mean. [Demonstrates.]

Student: [Rolls eyes. Plays the scale slowly, with much-improved accuracy.]

Me: Good. See what I—

Student: [Plays at breakneck speed. Makes a mistake.]

Younger or less-experienced students in particular seem to get fixated on a perceived need to play everything as fast as possible, and often seem to prefer fast-with-mistakes over slower and more accurate. But as more experienced practice-ers know, time spent practicing this way is virtually 100% wasted.

Mastery of a technical sequence, such as playing a scale or musical passage, requires repetition. If my scale turns out differently every time because I’m playing too fast and sacrificing consistency, then I really haven’t done any repetitions. Or if I’m making the same mistake repeatedly because I’m not giving myself time to think while I play, then I’m doing repetitions of something that I didn’t want to master: an incorrect version of the passage. I spent many of my younger years throwing away practice time doing each of those things.

It’s also a mistake to move on too quickly from playing slowly. Sometimes I will see a student make several hasty, sloppy attempts at a passage, then relent and play it slowly, and then, having “succeeded,” immediately return to playing too fast. Once isn’t nearly enough. It may take several, or dozens, or hundreds, or more accurate, controlled repetitions before it’s possible to play the passage at the desired speed. But if I have laid this foundation well, I find that speed is the least of my worries—I have all the speed I need, and with solid accuracy.

And the speeding-up part of the process often takes place very late in my preparations. I think sometimes my students expect their speed to increase like this:

speed-straightBut I get much better results if I allow this to happen:


I spend more and more of my time polishing every detail of a passage at a slow tempo, and let the speeding up happen later and later. When I do this, I learn technical sequences much more thoroughly and much more efficiently (in other words, the “Time spent practicing” for a particular passage gets shorter and produces better results).

Don’t waste time and effort practicing mistakes. Be patient, slow down, play it with accuracy and control.

Review: ReedGeek “Universal” reed tool


I’m a little late to the party on this, as the ReedGeek has been around for a number of years now and has been widely reviewed, but I finally picked one up (at ClarinetFest) after a long conversation/demonstration with inventor Mauro Di Gioia.  I have been using mine for a few months now and wanted to add a few points to the conversation. Here is my take.

The ReedGeek isn’t completely replacing my traditional reed tools, but, I am using it for some of the tasks that I used to do with those tools:

  • Flattening the backs of single reeds. This seems to be what the ReedGeek does best, and it is now my go-to tool for this procedure (by far the most frequent adjustment I make to my clarinet and saxophone reeds). I used to do this with wet-dry sandpaper on a piece of glass, and with flat files prior to that. Using the ReedGeek is faster and neater, doesn’t remove as much cane unnecessarily, and leaves a nice smooth non-shredded finish even on wet cane. I had also experimented in previous years with using knives for flattening, which is fast and leaves a nice finish but is risky because it’s so easy to gouge out chunks of cane by accident. The ReedGeek is much safer.reedgeek-2_mini
  • Smoothing out oboe reed windows. I still like my double-hollow-ground knives for carving out oboe reed windows, but I do have a tendency to leave the windows a bit rough and craggy (like from knife chatter). That’s fussy and time-consuming to fix with a knife, and if not handled delicately a knife can actually exacerbate the problem. But the ReedGeek cleans up my windows pretty quickly and easily, with much less risk of making the gouges worse. I mostly use the squared-off end for this.reedgeek-5_mini
  • Scraping bassoon reed channels. The concave parts of a bassoon reed blade are all but impossible to get at with a straight knife, and I find round files or sandpaper to be only a little less clumsy. The ReedGeek’s slightly curved tip works very well for this. Mr. Di Gioia describes this as being similar to using a pencil eraser—you just “erase” the cane you don’t want.reedgeek-4_mini

I’m not currently using the ReedGeek for:

  • Balancing the corners of the tips of single reeds, though it certainly can be used for this. I’m still used to sandpaper and glass, which at this point feels more controlled to me. If I have both tools available I still grab the sandpaper but if I’m away from my reed desk and traveling light, the ReedGeek will do the job. The ReedGeek can, I think, be used effectively to target specific spots on a reed’s profile (using either the square or the curved end), but I personally do very little of that.
  • Double reed making. (It’s fair to point out that the ReedGeek isn’t exactly being marketed as a tool for this anyway, though the company does publish a document on its website that provides some instruction for double reed players.) For one thing, the ReedGeek is quite small, and for reedmaking I like big, chunky, comfortable knife handles. A handle would also get my hand out of the way, which was a problem for me when I tried to use the ReedGeek for some fine tip work on oboe reeds—it was hard to get everything angled so I had control and could see what I was doing. I spoke to Mr. Di Gioia on the phone while preparing this review, and he hinted at a soon-to-be-revealed, more double-reed-oriented version of the ReedGeek, with some kind of extension for increased leverage (though he shied away from calling it a “handle”), and with scraping surfaces tailored more for double-reed applications. Because of the ReedGeek’s extremely hard alloy, it may be tougher on reed plaques than a traditional knife, but if you’re planning to use the ReedGeek in that way, the price difference between the ReedGeek and a good knife will buy you dozens of plaques.

The ReedGeek is very portable, won’t be confiscated at an airport security checkpoint, and doesn’t need sharpening like a knife or replacing like sandpaper. (When I spoke with Mr. Di Gioia he joked that he has to hope that people lose them so they will have to buy more.)

The ReedGeek has a hole drilled though one end (visible in the oboe reed picture), which I thought might be a way to attach some kind of handle, or perhaps to put it on a lanyard or keyring. In my follow-up call with Mr. Di Gioia, he explained that the hole has to do with the ReedGeek manufacturing process, and that keeping the ReedGeek on your keyring would likely damage your keys as it is much harder than the metals keys are made from. Also, the ReedGeek’s edges feel sharp to me, but not really in such a way that I would cut myself on them; Mr. Di Gioia recommends handling it with care but isn’t aware of people injuring themselves with it. He has an idea for a sleeve or sheath that may become available at some future date, and that could make carrying the ReedGeek in your pocket more feasible.

The verdict: for me, it’s useful and I will easily get my money’s worth out of it as long as I don’t lose it. For a single-reed player, I think it can realistically replace most or all of your tools. For a double-reed player, it’s currently a supplementary tool at best, but stay tuned for a possible new product.

At the time of this writing the ReedGeek goes for right about $50 from the ReedGeek store; some retailers also carry it.