Favorite blog posts, June 2015

Interesting things from the woodwind blogosphere in June:

All of my favorite blog authors from June are ones I’ve featured previously, some many times. That’s fine by me but I’m always anxious to check out ones I haven’t been reading already. If you think I might be overlooking some, please get in touch! I’m in the process of updating my blogroll, and happy to add new woodwind-related blogs.

Playing in tune: five factors

One of the first “technical” things I wrote on this blog was about playing in tune. I ran across that now-embarrassing post recently and decided it is time to revisit that topic since my thinking about it has crystallized a bit more.

To play a woodwind instrument in tune, there are five factors to address:

Photo, Shaylor
Photo, Shaylor
  1. Ears. If you don’t know what “in tune” sounds like, you probably won’t do it by accident. I still like the Tuning CD (now available as a download) for this. Follow the instructions for your instrument and do a few minutes every day over the long term. Sing, too. Electronic tuners have some uses but ear training doesn’t happen to be one of them.
  2. Equipment. Play the best instruments, mouthpieces, etc. you are able to get. If you are picking out new equipment, intonation should probably be your top priority over sexier things like “tone,” which is both more subjective and more malleable. (Incidentally, this is one of the best arguments for playing new woodwind instruments rather than “vintage,” since, generally speaking, incremental improvements mean that each generation of instruments plays better in tune than the one before.) Sure, you can “play” a lesser instrument in tune, but let your equipment do as much of the work for you as possible.
  3. Playing technique. This includes, for starters, consistent and powerful breath support, accurate and stable voicing, and a well-formed embouchure. Even small weaknesses in any of these areas makes your pitch less steady and predictable, and more significant weaknesses can make good intonation virtually impossible.
  4. Adjustment of the tuning mechanism(s). This means pulling something in or out to slightly adjust the instrument’s length, but it could also include, say, selecting a clarinet barrel or a bassoon bocal. Assuming good equipment and solid playing technique, there will be a “spot” where the mouthpiece/barrel/headjoint/etc. should go for the instrument to play optimally in tune at its intended pitch level (A=440? A=442? etc.). Any deviation from this should be a carefully-considered compromise. For example, if you are playing with an ensemble that tunes a little sharper than you’re used to, you can “push in” to make it a little easier to get up to pitch, but you will find that the instrument’s intonation characteristics change: some notes will get a little sharper, some a lot sharper.
  5. Adjustment of individual notes. Even on the best instruments, some notes have undesirable pitch tendencies. And sometimes you have to play a note a little “out of tune” to match another musician’s pitch, to meet the demands of “just” intonation, for expressive purposes, or for a variety of other reasons. These adjustments are best made by using alternate fingerings or by making slight temporary changes in voicing. Be wary of using any other technique, including things like “rolling” the flute or making any embouchure changes (“dropping the jaw”), which are unwieldy and compromise other aspects of tone production.

Development of good intonation is a cycle of revisiting each of these elements again and again: each improvement to your ears, each equipment change, each change in your technique, each adjustment of a tuning mechanism, and the needs of each individual playing situation may require further refinements of all the other areas. If intonation isn’t something you have tackled seriously before, then start by working on your ears, and be patient.

Fingering Diagram Builder, version 0.7

I have released version 0.7 of the Fingering Diagram Builder. Mostly it supports some new instruments. Let me know if you run into bugs or have suggestions or feature requests.

Here’s what’s new:

  • I fixed a bug that was preventing saving custom presets. Not sure if anybody noticed.
  • Viennese oboe diagrams.
  • German clarinet diagrams, in Oehler and Albert variants.
  • French bassoon diagrams, in Jancourt and modern Buffet variants.
  • The (Conservatory) oboe diagram now (optionally) has a thumb low B key.
  • The (German/Heckel) bassoon diagram now (optionally) has an offset C-sharp trill (hat tip to Trent Jacobs).
European woodwindy goodness. L-R: Viennese oboe, Oehler clarinet, Buffet bassoon
European woodwindy goodness. L-R: Viennese oboe, Oehler clarinet, Buffet bassoon

Note that I do not play or own a Viennese oboe, an Oehler- or Albert-system clarinet, or a French bassoon, nor am I suitably fluent in European languages to 100% understand the related pedagogical literature, so I could really use some assistance on making sure these new diagrams look right and things are named properly. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have suggestions/improvements.

As always, I’m glad to hear from folks who are using the FDB, and to see the cool things you are making (websites, blog posts, books, posters, handouts…). The FDB generates thousands of images every month, which I think is pretty cool.

Review: D’Addario Select Jazz alto saxophone mouthpieces

I like mouthpieces that are easy to play, especially in terms of response and tuning. But I also really like something easy to replace; I don’t like the idea of a mouthpiece that is so expensive, variable, or rare that if I drop it I can’t just order a new one, have it in a few days, and expect it to play like the old one.

A few years back I did a fairly detailed review of the Rico Reserve clarinet mouthpieces (in two parts), and have been happily using the Reserves as my main clarinet mouthpieces ever since. The Reserves are, in particular, astonishingly consistent from specimen to specimen, presumably due to the very precise tooling that obviates the need for hand-finishing (which sounds cool but ultimately means a relatively high degree of variability).

The pro-line products formerly released under the Rico name are now D’Addario Woodwinds products, and they now include some alto saxophone mouthpieces, the Select Jazz series. I was pleased to hear from a contact at D’Addario Woodwinds who sent me some samples to try out.

My point of reference is the various Meyer-ish alto mouthpieces I have played for about the last 20 years, most recently the V16 series from Vandoren. I used the A6/medium chamber for a number of years, but more recently switched to the A6/small chamber, which gave me a little more bite in my sound that works well for me in louder situations (like big band lead playing, or blues gigs here in the Mississippi Delta) without having to strain as much.

The new D’Addario Select Jazz alto mouthpieces are currently available in three flavors, the D5M, the D6M, and the D7M. Larger numbers in the middle correspond to larger tip openings (details at D’Addario’s website). I got a couple of each to try. Each one says “medium chamber” on the box, so maybe D’Addario is considering other chamber sizes. At the moment street price seems to be a little higher than the V16s, but still basically in the same class.

If you read the second part of my Reserve mouthpiece review, then you won’t be surprised to see that the Select Jazz mouthpieces are extremely consistent. Check out the very even and symmetrical rails and tips.

L-R: two each of the D5M, D6M, and D7M. Click for higher resolution.
L-R: two each of the D5M, D6M, and D7M. Click for higher resolution.

As mentioned in a couple of other reviews, the Select Jazz mouthpieces have an unusually tight fit on the neck cork, and they chewed up my aging cork a bit. Cork grease!

The mouthpieces have individual serial numbers, like the Reserve clarinet mouthpieces. When I asked about this during my clarinet mouthpiece review, the Rico/D’Addario rep told me there might in the future be some way of registering your mouthpiece online, maybe to access some kind of members-only content. I haven’t seen anything happen along these lines, so maybe there’s a more logical explanation, like that the numbers are just for quality control.

Here is a sound clip of each of the six mouthpieces I received, plus my two V16 mouthpieces for comparison. For all the sound clips I used the same inexpensive fake-leather-type ligature, but different reeds, a D’Addario Select Jazz filed 3S and a filed 3M, depending on which worked best with each individual mouthpiece. The V16s and the Jazz Select D5Ms worked better with the 3M reed, and the Jazz Select D6Ms and D7Ms seemed to prefer the 3S reed.

D’Addario Select Jazz D5M, specimen #1

D’Addario Select Jazz D5M, specimen #2

D’Addario Select Jazz D6M, specimen #1

D’Addario Select Jazz D6M, specimen #2

D’Addario Select Jazz D7M, specimen #1

D’Addario Select Jazz D7M, specimen #2

My old Vandoren V16 A6M

My old Vandoren V16 A6S


The differences are minor at best, and really in a pinch I could make any of these eight mouthpieces work, but here are a few observations:

  • The Select Jazz mouthpieces have noticeably more stable intonation than the V16s, especially the D5M. This is a bigger deal than tone, which is more malleable and more subjective.
  • The Select Jazz mouthpieces are, again, very consistent. This is the killer feature of D’Addario’s mouthpieces. I found the two D5Ms to be virtually interchangeable in terms of tone, response, and tuning, and the two D7Ms too. One of the D6Ms (#2) has, to my ear, just a tiny bit of an edge that I find unpleasant. I suspect that this one is slightly “off,” but the difference between the two is still quite minor compared to the differential in hand-finished production mouthpieces.
  • I do still want something with some edge to it, and the V16 small chamber still feels like is has more of that than any of the seven others, but not by much. The Select Jazz mouthpieces seem to have a bigger core and body to the sound, plus a bit higher volume, so I’m thinking it may be an acceptable tradeoff as far as making my presence known among the electric guitars.
  • Overall, I find the Select Jazz to respond better both down low in the staff and up above it than the V16s do. I didn’t play any altissimo in the sound clips, but I find the Select Jazz to have a slight advantage in that register as well.
  • The D5M and, to a lesser extent, the D6M, seem to be the best fit for my style and needs. The D7M doesn’t work as well for me—it has the louder but more spread tone and less-stable intonation you might expect from a larger tip opening—but it’s still one of the best mouthpieces I’ve played in that category, and it’s really only slightly large, not nearly as extreme as the tip openings offered by some other makers.

I think the Select Jazz D5M is going to be my new mouthpiece. (I’m keeping a D6M in my case for now too until I can try them both on a loud blues gig, but so far the D5M has worked well for small-group jazz.) The combination of solid intonation, pretty-but-gutsy tone, budget-friendly price, and amazing consistency make this a solid, versatile, and practical option for a working saxophonist. They are great for educators, too—they are easy to recommend to students because they are so easy to play and because they are so reliable in quality (much less need to order a half-dozen on approval and hope there’s a “good” one in the bunch). A great all-around, no-nonsense alto jazz mouthpiece.

I look forward to more offerings from D’Addario Woodwinds, perhaps alto mouthpieces in other chamber sizes, or mouthpieces for other saxophones.