Favorite blog posts, May 2016

  • Saxophonist Michael Shults advocates a thoughtful approach to musical versatility (doubling, playing jazz and classical music, etc.).
  • Wistam Boustany discusses power vs. economy in flute playing.
  • Oboist Jennet Ingle compares methods of ensuring playable performance reeds.
  • Saxophonist Sven Seebeck suggests tips for trying out mouthpieces.
  • Rachel Taylor Geier explains the flute’s C-sharp trill key.

Please stop telling your clarinet students to tighten their embouchures

“Tighten your embouchure” is bad advice for young clarinetists.

That goes for young saxophonists, too, and really for any young woodwind players. But young clarinetists hear it often because their pitch is flat and their tone lacks focus. “Tighten your embouchure” gets thrown around as a fix-all, except it doesn’t fix all. It doesn’t fix anything. Unless your students are actually leaking air around the mouthpiece from utter slack-jawedness. In that case, they should tighten, but only a little.

The real issue isn’t embouchure, it’s voicing. Good clarinet playing requires a high voicing. (The opposite of almost every other instrument in the beginning band.) That’s why your clarinet section is flat and tubby-sounding. Tell them to blow ice-cold air, which fixes the voicing problem. Train them to back it up with powerful breath support. Let them relax their embouchures—not tight, just airtight. And enjoy the clear, full, ringing, and in-tune sounds!

photo, Melody Joy Kramer
photo, Melody Joy Kramer

Things you need to cover in woodwind methods class

A few years back I posted a rant about non-mission-critical information in woodwind methods textbooks.

This is a course primarily for instrumental music majors, who will go on to become school band or orchestra directors, and who need a crash course in the playing and pedagogy of each instrument that will be in their future ensembles. At the places I’ve taught, it means taking students from zero to playing a little bit of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone, all in one semester. It’s a semester-long sprint.

I went on to list things I have found in textbooks intended for these courses, which I think are distractions or filler or otherwise misguided.

photo, Ace Foundation
photo, Ace Foundation

What should a woodwind methods class focus on?

  • Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals. Fundamentals. For woodwinds, the following are absolutely, non-negotiably crucial technical elements: breath support, voicing, embouchure, articulation, and finger technique. They must be understood and properly connected to audible elements: tone, intonation, response, volume/dynamics, and fluency (of finger movements). This material should probably make up 90%+ of lecture, readings, in-class activities, etc.
  • Woodwind-specific band-room survival skills: minor instrument repairs and adjustments, reading and interpreting fingering charts, woodwind transpositions, selecting equipment (this needs to be a much bigger conversation than just a list of brands and models), and matching students to instruments (hint: gender, anatomical factors within broad norms, and ill-conceived proficiency testing are not good ways of doing this).
  • Introduction to additional resources. One, two, or even several semesters are not enough to make a undergraduate student into an effective teacher of woodwinds; they need to know how and why to consult available pedagogical books, journals, and online materials.

Also, disturbingly, I have been hearing occasionally from woodwind methods teachers who are choosing or are being encouraged to skip or minimize the double reeds and focus on flute, clarinet, and saxophone. (I even heard from a publisher alerting me to their woodwind methods textbook that does not cover the double reeds!) I think this is a disastrous side effect of a marching-band-centric approach to music education, and leaves future music educators woefully unprepared to lift their band programs above that level. You have to teach oboe and bassoon!

The question I get a lot from new college professors about to teach their first woodwind methods course is which textbook to use. I don’t have a strong recommendation. Dietz and Westphal seem to be commonly used, but they are expensive and have the other problems I have previously described. I currently use some materials of my own with my woodwind classes, which may or may not at some point become available. If you like, join this mailing list and I’ll use it to spam you if I ever get everything edited into a book-like form. Update: the book is now available!

Make sure you are using your woodwind class’s time well, preparing them to teach woodwind fundamentals clearly and thoroughly.

The role of tone exercises

Tone exercises are useful, sort of. Read last month’s post about tone for a reminder why tone exercises are only part of the process.

photo, valentina
photo, valentina

Here is what tone exercises do:

  • Excellent tone exercises demand solid fundamental tone-production technique, providing a chance to habituate useful muscular actions. Trevor Wye’s “Flexibility I” flute exercise is a perfect example. (I suggest you buy the whole Trevor Wye omnibus edition.) If your tone-production technique is correct, you can play the exercise successfully (in tune, in time, with all notes responding easily). But you will fail if your breath support, voicing, and/or embouchure are bad. If you are doing something wrong, you get immediate feedback.
  • Poorly-designed tone exercises lack that self-destruct trigger. Often the creators try to prop them up with text explaining fundamental technique: “Use strong breath support! Keep your embouchure flexible!” If that kind of textual instruction is necessary to make the exercise useful, then the content probably doesn’t really matter—it might as well be a single note with a fermata.
  • Regardless of quality, any exercise you do with tone in mind is an opportunity to focus on your tone. That’s a good thing.

Seek out high-quality tone exercises and do them regularly, but don’t forget to listen.