2015 in review

Here are some of the things that went on here at your favorite woodwind blog during the past year.

If you have read anything interesting or useful here during the past year, I hope you will consider leaving a comment, getting in touch via email or social media, buying a shirt or sending a donation, contacting me aboutadvertising opportunities for your relevant business, and/or pointing your all your woodwind friends toward bretpimentel.com.

Thanks for reading in 2015, and best wishes for the new year!

Favorite blog posts, December 2015

I am pleased once again to share some excellent woodwind-related blog posts from the past month, and especially to point you toward some bloggers appearing here for the first time. Enjoy!

Pedagogical recipes

I want to follow up on something I touched on in my last post. I described in that post how I had my woodwind methods class evaluate some online pedagogical resources, and mentioned that I had them compare the information found online to the information presented in class. My idea was to prepare them to deal with conflicting information, which will be part of their reality as public school band directors.

Woodwind pedagogy, unfortunately, is a mishmash of contradictory ideas. This is supported by a culture of hero worship of certain teachers and performers, a permissive editorial process for publishing pedagogical materials (increasingly so with the rise of the internet), and an attitude that music is not subject to scientific method.

When conflicts exist between one school of thought and another, in some cases that is because one or both sides is incorrect. In other cases the problem is a communication failure: both sides are applying the same techniques in the same way, but describing them poorly (or at least differently). But I think there are other cases where the difference can be attributed to what I think of as different “recipes.”

photo, Sarah Horrigan
photo, Sarah Horrigan

There are many ways to make a chocolate cake. Some cake recipes might be objectively better than others by some measure or another. Some might produce results that are generally satisfactory but especially suited to certain tastes. And in some cases, two different recipes might produce results that are very similar. In those cases, the way the ingredients and techniques balance is significant: one recipe might call for two eggs instead of three, but has more of another ingredient that makes up the difference, or a difference in baking time and temperature.

I think a similar thing can happen with “recipes” for woodwind playing. Equipment preferences are a fairly clear example: one clarinet teacher might favor very stiff reeds, while another prefers softer ones. Both might produce excellent results, so long as they are balanced properly—the first teacher probably balances stiffer reeds against mouthpieces with a more closed tip, and the other might use softer reeds with more open mouthpieces. One oboe teacher might clip his reeds to 70mm while another clips hers to 69.5mm, but they probably balance this with narrower or wider shaper tips, or tweaks to any of a dozen other variables.

Playing techniques are a little more abstract and complicated to separate out, but I think the same concept applies. One bassoon teacher might encourage some jaw movement when articulating lower notes, while another teaches a more stable embouchure, but it’s always more complicated than that: the technique’s usefulness and effectiveness has to be evaluated in the context of each teacher’s approach to breath support, voicing, embouchure, equipment, and more.

The idea that I wanted to bring across to my class is that, for band directors or other musicians and music educators who might not be specialists in each of the woodwind instruments, it is important to beware little pedagogical proverbs taken out of context. Something like “firm up your embouchure” or “use a stiffer reed” or “use the alternate F-sharp” can seem like a quick and digestible solution, but can’t be applied casually and without understanding of the larger picture.

Student-selected online woodwind pedagogy articles

In the past I have had my woodwind methods classes make woodwind pedagogy notebooks. The idea is to have them explore some available pedagogical resources, and assemble them into a resource they can use for reference in their future teaching. But that assignment is starting to feel a little weird, especially since I have been trying to go increasingly paperless in my own life, and because it has been increasingly difficult to persuade my digitally-oriented students to go to the actual library and look at actual books.

To be clear, I’m a lover of libraries, and for me there’s no question that there are tremendously valuable resources there that are not available online (yet?). But it seemed like time to experiment with embracing an online approach to the assignment. So during the past semester I had them each locate some online articles they thought might be useful. Then they used a discussion board to collaborate on vetting the articles for usefulness and author credentials, and to compare their content against the concepts we covered in class.

I’m going to provide here a heavily-edited report of their results with my own commentary. Some articles were proposed but were rejected by classmates as less useful or credible, and I don’t see any need to list those. Also, I wanted my students to go through the process of vetting online information, but I didn’t entirely agree with their conclusions, so I’m omitting some that I personally think are problematic. (If you’re wondering, my own blog posts were off-limits.)

photo, Knight Foundation
photo, Knight Foundation

Here are some of the articles my students voted to be worthy of inclusion in a digital notebook:

  • Clarinet Basics: Maintenance Habits, written by Julie DeRoche for The Woodwind and The Brasswind. This one was very highly regarded by the class, and I am inclined to agree with their assessment. My students liked the article’s thoroughness and day-to-day applicability. Two cautions with this article: firstly, I think it’s wise to be careful with (paid?) articles from websites that want to sell you things, but Ms. DeRoche’s credentials are above reproach and the information checks out. Secondly, the article does describe briefly the process of oiling a clarinet’s bore, though it does not strongly recommend this procedure. That is probably information best not given to beginners—at that stage it should be prescribed and carried out by a professional.
  • Reed Help for Beginners, written by Sarah Hamilton. This oboe-related article was another top pick by the class, who appreciated its down-to-earth advice, clearly-explained concepts, and helpful illustrations. I agree that this is a great resource, though some of the reed evaluation and adjustment procedures described might be beyond the scope of what a non-oboist band director can or should attempt.
  • Beginner Clarinet Tips, written by “Andrea.” This one is really more of a table of contents to some other articles on the site. My class liked the breadth of material covered and the extensive photos. I find the information to be very similar to much of the conventional wisdom regarding beginning clarinet playing, which mostly but not completely agrees with my preferred approaches.
  • The Big Switch, by Amanda King. My students found this advice on switching students to the bassoon to be useful. I am on record as disagreeing with the premise that beginners should start on some other instrument before switching to the one they want, but the article does raise some relevant points for cases where that is happening.
  • Teaching the Beginning Bassoonist, written by Terry Ewell for The Double Reed. I’m including this excellent article even though it really is geared toward private bassoon teachers rather than band directors; it’s a good example of solid information that would be mismatched to this particular audience. It’s also a good (and relatively harmless) demonstration of the importance of using up-to-date materials, as bassoon reeds now cost well over $6 USD.
  • Tips for Teaching Beginning Flute Players written originally for BandWorld Magazine by Randy Navarre. My students liked the article’s concision and clarity. I generally agree with the information presented.

I think some good things came out of the assignment, though I still feel like I sold out a little by excusing my students from visiting the library. I stayed fairly hands-off through the discussion process, and that did result in the students selecting some articles that weren’t really a fit for what I wanted them to learn. In the future I might consider being more involved with guiding the discussion. I’m also concerned that the final product—this blog post—isn’t as tangible as an actual notebook, and might not be as ready at hand, but hopefully they have developed some skills in evaluating information they find online.