Favorite blog posts, March 2016

Woodwind doubling for flutists

Here is a cleaned-up version of my lecture notes from a presentation on woodwind doubling I gave last week at the Mid-South Flute Festival:

Woodwind doubling for flutists

  • What is doubling?
    • Primary-to-secondary doubling: Playing multiple instruments within a family, such as flute (primary), piccolo (secondary), and alto flute (secondary)
    • Primary-to-primary doubling: Playing instruments from different families, such as flute (primary), clarinet (primary), and saxophone (primary) [The idea of primary-to-secondary or primary-to-primary doubling comes from a web article by Mary AllyeB Purtle.]
  • Why double?
    • More (and more varied) gigs. Also, doublers can sometimes get bonus pay.
    • More teaching opportunities
    • Larger network
    • Fun; expanded horizons
  • Flute with non-flute woodwinds
    • Doubling opportunities in musical theater, backing up singers, jazz big bands (requires strong saxophone). With strong enough skills on secondary instruments, gigs on those instruments become a possibility. Employers often value musicianship over virtuosity.
    • The flutist’s advantage: flute and especially piccolo are often weak spots for woodwind doublers. A strong, soloistic flutist with at least basic reed skills can be a hot commodity.
    • For maximum pre-existing gig opportunities, add alto saxophone first, then clarinet. Convincing swing style is also helpful. For create-your-own opportunities, any combination can work!
    • To do multiple-instrument teaching really well, you need to play all of your teaching instruments well! To do this at a lower level, you will at least need to be familiar with current/respected pedagogical literature, a variety of repertoire (including method books, etudes, and solos), a variety of excellent recordings, and a variety of equipment options.
  • Flute with other flute-like instruments
    • Doubling opportunities in situations that increasingly call for “other” flutes: recent musical theater, studio recording, even recent orchestral music. Check out my dissertation on this topic.
    • “World” transverse flutes: bansuri, dizi, “Irish” flute. Also non-tradition-linked bamboo, wooden, or plastic flutes
    • Historical transverse flutes (baroque, etc.)
    • Fipple flutes: recorders, pennywhistle (tinwhistle)
    • Endblown flutes: quena, shakuhachi, panflutes (Romanian, South American)
  • Getting started
    • Be a beginner (but an informed beginner). Get a good teacher. Buy quality instruments within your price range. Do thorough work from good method books. Give yourself all the advantages you wish you had had when you started the flute.
    • Work out a practice schedule that reflects your priorities. If you are juggling a lot of instruments, it may not make sense to practice each one each day, but do practice each one at least a few days in a row to get some momentum.
    • What to practice? If your goal is maximum gig employability, prioritize intonation, rhythm, tone, and sight reading. Practice scales, arpeggios, and other technical drills in all keys, through the full range of the instrument. (Musicals are notorious for “singer” keys and unforgiving tessituras!) Begin working methodically through time-tested etude and technique books. Start learning the easier standard repertoire if that suits your goals.
  • Will doubling hurt my flute playing?
    • Some flutists believe that doubling can damage your embouchure. Realistically, if reed playing is leaving your embouchure swollen, numb, or sore, you need to reexamine your reed-playing approach. Embouchure muscles are agile, flexible, and accustomed to doing varied tasks: playing the flute, eating, speaking, facial expressions. If your tone production on all instruments is based on solid principles, embouchure is not an issue.
    • The real issue: doubling diverts time, money, and mental energy away from flute playing. Committing to “serious” doubling means committing to less time with the flute.

Repair or buy new?

Should you have your old (woodwind) instrument repaired, or put the money toward a new one? Here are a few things to consider.

First, you should understand the difference between having “playing condition” repairs done and having a full overhaul done. The overhaul is an expensive service, often costing a significant percentage of what you would spend on a new professional instrument. A good overhaul will make your instrument play like brand new, or better. It generally includes any necessary repairs to the instrument’s body, straightening/realigning/refitting of keywork and tenons, replacement of all or most pads/corks/felts/springs, and thorough cleaning and lubrication. The overhaul makes sense about every 5-10 years for a well-made, professional quality instrument that you love and intend to play long-term. It’s generally not worth the money for a student-quality or so-called “intermediate” instrument.

photo, Keith Jenkins
photo, Keith Jenkins

Playing condition repairs are cheaper, à la carte services to get the instrument back into a baseline playable state, maybe replacing a few pads or corks as needed, or fixing anything that is broken enough to make the instrument unplayable. If you are low on cash, a good repair shop can help you prioritize what needs to be done within your budget. Even if you are playing your dream instrument and getting it overhauled on a regular schedule, playing condition maintenance is usually needed on at least an annual basis to keep things working well.

If your instrument is of less-than-professional caliber, or if you want qualities that your current instrument does not possess, you may be better served by having playing-condition work done for now, and saving toward a new instrument. Bear in mind that “professional” is a term applied by makers and retailers to sell instruments; if you’re not sure, it wouldn’t hurt to check in with a real professional (such as your private teacher) to see if what you are playing on is really suited to professional use.

If you are playing on an older professional model, you might want to explore the improvements made to more recent instruments, especially with regard to ergonomics, intonation, and evenness of tone. (Some musicians make these comparisons and decide to stick with what they’ve got, and that’s okay, too.)

A high-quality, well-maintained instrument makes playing easy and a pleasure, and the instrument’s career might even outlast yours.

Thoughts on musicians’ websites

I first set up a personal website in about 2000 or 2001. There wasn’t much reason for me to do so—I was a college undergraduate, with virtually no worthwhile content to share. But it was a start, and fifteen or sixteen years later I have a few hundred blog posts and some other resources, plus a few college degrees and a university teaching position to perhaps bolster my reputation, and I enjoy a modest flow of web traffic. For what it’s worth, here are a few thoughts on websites for individual working (or aspiring) musicians, particularly those in non-“pop” genres and whose reputations exist primarily regionally or within specialized circles (such as academia).

photo, Markus Tacker
photo, Markus Tacker

“Home” page: Put some content here. Why have a “landing” page that is nothing but a menu/obstacle to the meat of your site? Put your professional biography here, or maybe a recent blog post (the actual text, I mean, not just links to blog posts).

Biography: Ask yourself, are your site visitors really interested in your life story? (“Bret Pimentel started playing the saxophone at the tender age of ten…”) Keep it simple, professional, and brief. Let people know what you do.

For “who I have played with” lists, I suggest keeping it to 10 or 12 entries, tops. When you play with someone famous/interesting enough to add to your list, drop someone else.

Résumé/vita: Potential employers (for gigs, teaching positions, etc.) aren’t harvesting résumés from websites. Your short bio is probably enough. If you insist on posting your résumé or curriculum vita, strongly consider posting it as a web page, not as a PDF or word processing document. (As a general rule, use a word processing document—preferably an “open” format—if people will want to download and edit it, a PDF if they will want to save or print it without editing, and a web page if they will just want to read it online.) And I suggest removing your address and phone number for safety and privacy.

Blog entries: Not everybody needs or wants a blog, and that’s okay. But if you are hoping to use your website to build an online audience, it helps to have an avenue for publishing new stuff. (Nobody is coming back to read and re-read your bio.) I strongly suggest real blog software (such as WordPress, or a link to a WordPress.com or Blogger.com hosted blog), rather than just typing new entries into a plain web page. That way you can benefit from built-in syndication feeds and other technologies that make it easy for people to find and follow your content in their favorite apps, leave comments, etc.

It’s okay to post only occasionally. Many, many of the musicians’ blogs I follow consist of annual apologies for not posting lately and promises of great stuff coming soon, and nothing more. Just post if you have something to post.

Even if you are planning mostly to use social media sites to connect professionally, bear in mind that those can come and go quickly, and it’s nice to have a home base for your content where it will remain under your control. By all means, post your new web content to the social networks you use yourself, as those connections are the ones most likely to reshare and amplify your content.

Articles/resources: For content that you intend to update or improve over time, it probably makes sense to publish it as a “static” page rather than a blog post. If you are old enough to remember these things, you might consider a blog post to be like a newspaper article, which you probably read once and then look for fresh content the next day, while “resources” are more like phone books, which you refer to on an ongoing basis and which get replaced by newer editions.

Audio/video: I think it makes sense to host these elsewhere (YouTube, SoundCloud, etc.) and link or embed them on your site, since putting them in places where people are already looking for music and video gets them to a larger audience and boosts their search engine juice. They should never play automatically—only when your site visitor intentionally starts them.

Photos: I used to have a photo gallery on my site, but I have removed it. Ask yourself: are you famous or interesting enough (yet) that people are going to have an interest in seeing your career’s visual history? Are you hoping they will be impressed by something related to your physical appearance? Consider using one or two photos on your bio page, and put the rest on Facebook for your friends and relatives to enjoy.

Equipment: I am on record as believing that listing what brands and models you play is useless at best.

(Also, if you have endorsement deals you want to brag about, remember that the correct wording is that you endorse the brand, not that the brand endorses you.)

Contact info: Contact forms are kind of a pain. I suggest providing a real email address so that people can communicate with you using the software or webmail of their choice. Worried about spam? Use a free webmail account with powerful spam filtering.

Social links: You don’t have to link to all the social media sites, just the ones you use and see as good places to connect with internet strangers.

Instructions on how to use a website: If your website includes instructions on how to use your website, either your website is poorly designed or you are talking down to your visitors.

In general, look at each page of your website and ask, is this here because it is potentially of use or interest to my site visitors, or is it only interesting to me? Would I read this content on someone else’s site?

Favorite blog posts, February 2016

Some woodwind blog posts I liked in February: