Favorite blog posts, July 2015

Woodwind doubling and flute problems

Many doublers start out as clarinetists or saxophonists, and many doublers would say that the flute is particularly challenging as a double. These phenomena are related. Let’s look at some of the issues woodwind doublers have with the flute. I’ll offer a sort of glib, inadequate tip or two for each situation, but the real solution here is to learn the flute right, with lots of patience, years of dedicated practice, and a well-qualified and longsuffering flute teacher.

photo, Peri Apex
photo, Peri Apex

Lightheadedness, inability to play long phrases, fuzzy tone, weak low register. These are products of a too-large aperture (the opening in your lips). Single-reed players tend to have a mental image of a relatively large clarinet or saxophone mouthpiece held in their embouchures. Think instead of the actual opening between the tip of the reed and the tip of the mouthpiece—this is much closer to the size of opening you need to create in your lips. (Think especially of a high-pitched instrument like a clarinet or soprano saxophone, and a mouthpiece with a narrow tip opening.) Or try this: close your lips and relax them as much as possible, then blow gently until a tiny “needle” of air pokes through the center of your lips. That’s how much smaller your aperture needs to be.

Thin/shrill tone, weak low register. The saxophone uses a medium voicing, and the clarinet uses a high voicing, but the flute uses a very low voicing. (Flute doublers coming from a double reed instrument or even a brass instrument have an advantage here.) Keep your airstream very warm, even in the highest register, to give your tone depth.

Uneven intonation and tone. If you are counting on similarities between flute fingerings and clarinet or saxophone fingerings, then you are likely committing a number of flute crimes. F-sharp uses the right third finger, not middle finger. And you must master the ballet between the left index finger and right pinky finger, especially in the transition from first to second octave. (If middle-finger F-sharp and a lazy right pinky sound fine to you, it’s because your tone production technique and tone concept aren’t well developed yet.)

No dynamic control. The typical problem is loud third octave, medium-loud second octave, and very soft first octave. This is a sure sign that you are trying to change octaves by blowing harder or softer. Your “octave key” on the flute is your flexible, well-trained embouchure. Instead of cranking up to gale force for the higher octaves, try pushing gently forward with your lips. (As a side note, if you find in doubling situations that your embouchure is tense and swollen when switching from reeds to flute, that’s a sign that you are playing reeds with too much tension.)

Sluggish technique. There are two main problems here that doublers bring to the table. The first is the habit of moving relatively large, heavy, stiffly-sprung keys. A flute’s keys are small, light, and move with a feather touch. The second issue is insecurity in holding the instrument. It can be hard for a beginner to get the instrument properly balanced (laziness about fingerings can contribute to this, too), and that will slow you down. If the flute keeps trying to roll out of your hands, rotate it a few degrees so the bulk of the keywork sits right on top of the instrument.

Sight-reading disasters in the third octave. Flutists play way up in the ledger lines as a matter of course. If you want to hang in the flute section, it’s time to learn to read those notes fluently. Stumbling around above the staff is also a sign that you haven’t really payed your dues technique-wise yet: you’re getting by within the staff because the fingerings are similar enough to saxophone and clarinet, but above the staff is a different story. Practice your scales and arpeggios.

Good flute playing doesn’t come from casual “dabbling.” Take the flute seriously, study it diligently with good instruction, and it will be a joy to play and a boon to your doubling career.

Pushing in and pulling out

As a follow-up to last month’s post on playing in tune, I would like to revisit the idea of adjusting woodwind tuning mechanisms (generally by the “pushing in” or “pulling out” of some joint of the instrument). Note that this information is probably of most value to advanced players; beginning and intermediate players should be focusing their intonation efforts on breath support and voicing.

A simplistic view of “tuning” is that “pulling out” makes the instrument play a little flatter and “pushing in” makes it play a little sharper. The problem is that not all notes are affected equally.

For example, let’s keep the math simple and imagine an instrument that is 100cm long with its tuning mechanism pushed all the way in. And let’s imagine that instrument has a tonehole that can be opened to give the tube an effective length of 50cm.


Now suppose that you pull the tuning mechanism out by 1cm. The lengths of the tube for the notes are now 101cm and 51cm.


They have changed by the same absolute length, but not by the same percentage. The shorter-tube notes (those with more open toneholes) are more dramatically affected by changes in the tuning mechanism than the long-tube notes are.

This is a problem without a tidy solution. A high-quality instrument is built to play at a specific pitch standard (A=440, A=442, etc.) with the tuning mechanism adjusted to a precise location and at a specific temperature. The “easiest” way to play in tune is to own an instrument built to your preferred pitch standard (such as the one your ensemble tunes to), play only in spaces having a suitable temperature, and adjust the tuning mechanism to that precise spot every time. In reality, of course, we need the flexibility of a moveable tuning mechanism to adapt to a variety of circumstances, but we have to be aware of the consequences of pushing in and pulling out.

An additional wrinkle, so to speak, is that adjusting tuning mechanisms can introduce perturbations to the instrument’s bore. Skilled instrument makers can purposefully create perturbations to improve an instrument’s intonation, but undesirable perturbations can have non-intuitive effects on the instrument’s scale.

Here’s what I mean by the tuning mechanism creating a perturbation. Notice how when the tuning mechanism is pushed in the bore is a consistent width, but when the tuning mechanism is pulled out, there is a wider spot in the bore:


This is one of the benefits of tuning a clarinet or bassoon flatter by switching to a longer barrel or bocal: you get the additional length you need without creating a bore perturbation (though remember, notes are still affected unequally). A workaround for clarinetists is to use tuning rings, preferably matched to the instrument’s bore size at that joint, to fill in the perturbation.

Most of getting tuned up has to do with obtaining a high-quality instrument and playing it with high-quality basic technique (good breath support, voicing, and embouchure). That last little bit of improvement is complex and elusive, and understanding some of the reasons for that can help you get there.

Five things to do before starting a new school year as a college music major

Most colleges and universities will be starting classes again within the next month or two. If you are a music student, now might be a good time to make some preparations that will set you up for success in the new school year.

photo, KosmoKarlos Photography
photo, KosmoKarlos Photography
  1. Get your instrument ready. After a year of hard playing in ensembles, lessons, solo recitals, and the practice rooms, your (woodwind) instrument is most likely in need of a little maintenance. Take (or ship) your instrument to your teacher’s recommended technician for some care and you will be glad you did—a well-maintained instrument is fun to play, and makes you sound better with less effort. High-quality woodwind instruments played daily probably ought to have a full overhaul at least every 5-10 years; this is a bit expensive and includes things like replacing all the pads and corks, making sure the keywork fits precisely, removing dents or bends, and thorough cleaning and lubrication. In between overhauls, get your instrument checked out at least annually for what some shops call “playing condition”—a cheaper service, replacing or repairing just what is necessary to fix the most immediate issues.
  2. Get in shape. If you can feel a case of “summer chops” setting in, then now is the time to start getting back into fighting shape. If your summer days are long and unstructured, it can be easy to procrastinate, so set up a routine. Make a practicing schedule and stick to it. I recommend doing it first thing in the morning, before you get distracted by other things.
  3. Get a jump on lesson preparation. If you are a returning music major, you probably have a good idea what you will be assigned in that first lesson (let me guess: scales and/or technical exercises, etudes, and repertoire?). How pleased would your teacher be if you showed up to the first lesson of the semester with a week’s worth (or more) ready to go? What kind of momentum would that give you for the semester? You might not know yet exactly what repertoire your teacher will want you to tackle in the fall, but this could be a great chance to get started on a piece you would really like to play. (I, for one, am usually happy to accommodate students who show that kind of initiative.) If you are a new music major or aren’t sure what to expect, your teacher may or may not be answering email or phone calls over the summer, but it wouldn’t hurt to try.
  4. Clean up and stock up. Take a few minutes to clean out your instrument case, reed case, backpack, sheet music filing system, etc. and get rid of the clutter. If you have been working at a summer job or saving rent by living at home, now might be a good time to provision yourself for the coming months (reeds, cleaning swabs, cork grease, pencils). If you have been saving money toward a new instrument or mouthpiece, hold onto it and get your teacher to advise and assist you with that purchase after the semester starts.
  5. Choose some new, positive habits. Times of changing routine (such as the start of a new semester) are great times to insert new habits. Ask yourself what habits a really excellent music student would have: increased practice? better recital attendance? instrument care? reedmaking? listening to recordings? Make a list, commit to some plans, and hit the ground running from day one.

Have a great year!