Favorite blog posts, June 2016

Tonguing and language sounds

Be wary of pedagogical approaches to woodwind articulation that depend on analogies to speech sounds.

The most common, at least in the English-speaking world, is the idea that tonguing is like saying “too” or “doo.” And certainly there are significant mechanical similarities, especially with “too.” “Doo” doesn’t work as well because it is a voiced consonant, produced essentially the same way as “too” but with vibration of the vocal cords, an undesirable effect for woodwind playing (except for some extended techniques).

Some teachers recommend something like “too” for crisper articulations and “doo” for gentler ones. If you compare carefully your whispered (unvoiced) “t” and “d” sounds, you may find that they are not, in fact, completely identical. My “t” gives a bit more explosive sound, because I release the entire tongue, and my “d” is softer because I tend to release only the tip of the tongue, keeping the back in contact with my molars. But this difference doesn’t apply to good woodwind playing technique, in which the back of the tongue must be kept independent from the tip in order to manipulate voicing.

“Loo” is another one that gets mentioned sometimes for gentler articulations. This one also doesn’t work well if taken literally because (1) the “l” sound is voiced and (2) it leaks air around the sides of the tongue. (You can approximate an unvoiced version by whispering “lll…,” but that sound isn’t typically used in English.) A woodwind book I read recently recommends some additional oddities like “droo” or “thoo.” “Droo” doesn’t work well because it has a sequence of two consonant tongue positions, one of which is voiced. “Thoo” (presumably the unvoiced version) leaks air near the tip of the tongue.

Another point worth making is that consonant sounds in English aren’t necessarily the same as consonants in other languages, so even if we select some workable English consonant sounds, it’s not a given that those are the ideal choices. (Plenty of study has already been done on this topic.)

And that’s just the consonants. Assuming they are used as a shorthand for describing articulations, with an understanding that they do not precisely represent articulation technique, vowel sounds can still cause confusion. Consider the “oo” in “too.” Vowel sounds are loosely analogous to woodwind voicings, so it is best to match the vowels to the instrument. Is “oo” the right voicing to evoke?

For low-voiced instruments, an “oh”- or “ah”-like vowel sound is a better match. (“Oh” is still problematic because English speakers pronounce it as a diphthong, two vowel sounds in sequence—this will cause unstable pitch and tone when applied to a woodwind instrument. To avoid this, we must borrow an “o” sound from another language.) For the clarinet, “ee” is the closest match. For saxophones, the vowel sound needs to be somewhere in between, perhaps near the schwa (ə) sound like the “a” in “about.”

Language sounds can be used only as a very limited analogy for woodwind articulation technique—use them with care.

Woodwind instrument “care kits” are bad news

Congratulations on your new student-level flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, or saxophone! Your music store’s friendly sales associate (or your online retailer’s auto-suggest software) is probably insisting that you purchase a “care kit” as well. This kit ostensibly contains all the items you need to keep your new instrument working well and looking shiny. I recommend that you do not buy it, because it is, at best, a waste of your money, and, at worst, a hazard to the instrument’s wellbeing.

photo, Greg Williams
photo, Greg Williams

Here are some of the items that frequently appear in these terrible kits:

  • Polishing cloths. Chemicals or polishes (liquid or embedded in cloths) can gum up pads and mechanisms. Students can “polish” their instruments with a soft, dry cloth, like a piece of an old t-shirt. Your repairperson can remove the keys and do a more thorough polishing safely.
  • Swabs. Woodwind instruments should definitely have swabs, but beware the kinds in these kits.
    Silk is preferable for pull-through swabs (oboe, clarinet, bassoon, saxophone) because it is absorbent and compressible, so it’s less likely to get stuck inside the instrument than a cheaper felt swab. Even for a student instrument, it’s worth a few extra dollars to get silk.

    "headjoint swabs"
    “headjoint swabs”

    For flutes, avoid “headjoint swabs” that are little oddly-shaped pieces of chamois (or a synthetic version), unless you want to have to fish them out of the headjoint every time you try to use them. Instead, use the cleaning rod that came with the flute, plus a strip of fabric cut from an old bed sheet.
    The fuzzy “cleaning” brushes that look like giant pipe cleaners, that you insert and leave inside the instrument, do exactly the wrong thing by keeping all the moisture inside the instrument, instead of wiping it out like a good swab does.

  • Cork grease. Yes, for instruments with parts that friction-fit together with cork, such as clarinets, oboes, and saxophones. Flutes don’t have any corked joints (though some piccolos do). Some bassoons have corked fittings, but some have thread wrappings instead. Use cork grease on cork only—never on thread-wrapped or metal-to-metal joints.
  • Screwdrivers. Yikes! Woodwind instruments often have “adjustment” screws. Bored students and well-meaning dads can’t resist just tightening everything up, just to make sure. This leaves the instrument in unplayable condition, and only a professional can put those adjustment screws back just right.
  • Reed guards/cases. Yes! Keeping reeds in one of these generally keeps them intact and in playing condition for longer than the disposable ones that the reeds come in. Those little plastic or cardboard sleeves that clarinet and saxophone reeds come in don’t keep them flat when they dry. And oboe and bassoon reeds often come in tubes that are too flimsy for regular use, or hinged plastic cases that come apart in the instrument’s case, leaving the reeds to bounce around unprotected.
  • Mouthpiece brushes. These are basically little vegetable brushes, with scratchy synthetic bristles and the dreaded twisted-wire core, much too aggressive for cleaning clarinet and saxophone mouthpieces. Instead, try a gentle rinse with room-temperature water and a drop of mild dish detergent. Stephen Howard’s vinegar-and-cotton method is good for occasional deeper cleanings.
  • Neck or bocal brushes. Probably too aggressive for use on these particularly delicate and crucial instrument parts. Plus, a strong risk of getting something stuck.
  • “Tone hole cleaners.” These are usually garden-variety pipe cleaners. Tone hole cleaning isn’t a task for beginners to do. The pipe cleaners’ twisted-wire cores can damage toneholes, the instrument’s bore, or pads.
  • “Pad papers.” It’s really tempting to use a lot of pressure with these, which can distort pads and cause leaks. Some are coated with a powder—these operate on the same principle as getting some gum stuck on your shoe, then stepping in some dirt so the gum won’t keep sticking to the sidewalk when you walk.Pad papers and other powder treatments should be an emergency treatment applied wisely and carefully by a knowledgeable musician, not a daily treatment applied badly by a student.
  • Key-dusting brushes. Gently removing some dust from the instrument’s mechanism isn’t an all-bad idea, but be advised that it’s easy to knock springs and things out of place. The brushes in these kits usually have twisted-wire cores, which can scratch instruments’ finishes. Instead, consider using cheap kids’ watercolor paintbrushes. Or, even better, make sure the instrument gets professional maintenance and cleaning at least once a year.
  • Key oil. No, no, no. This is a job for a professional to do. Besides, the kind in these care kits is usually cheap 3-in-1-type oil. Even if applied properly, it tends to drip back out of the keywork onto fingers, or worse, pads.
  • Bore oil. Absolutely not. Using this at all (only in wooden instruments) is controversial. When you bring it in for its annual maintenance, your repairperson can apply bore oil properly and safely if they deem it necessary. (My opinion: if in doubt, don’t bother.)
  • Care manuals. These are generally provided to justify the other items in the care kit.

Skip the care kit—they are a way for retailers to squeeze a few more dollars out of you at purchase, and then more when you bring the instrument back in to fix the damage you have done with your brushes and oils and screwdrivers.

Stuff bad music teachers say

We can all stand to improve our teaching. Here are some things I’ve either said or heard said that are symptomatic of gaps in pedagogical knowledge.

“I’ve been doing it this way for years and I’m very successful.”

Nobody is arguing with your success. But success isn’t a reason to stop improving, nor is it evidence of a perfect approach. Be open to new ideas. Choose to accept or reject a new approach based on its merits, not based on inertia.

“My famous and well-respected teacher taught it to me this way.”

The craft doesn’t progress if your let hero worship blind you to new ideas. Would your teachers want you to cling to outdated pedagogy out of loyalty, or to further your knowledge and advance the discipline?

“Well, those scientific results don’t matter, because this is music and it can’t be studied in that way. I think musicians know a little more about music than scientists, don’t you?”

Sound is a phenomenon very observable, measurable, and understandable through empirical study. Don’t worry, more information won’t ruin the magic. Take the example of high-level athletes and embrace careful, systematic scientific method as a means of achieving more.

In woodwind teaching in particular, I hear a lot of vague, contradictory, or fantastical ideas that fall apart after even a cursory study of anatomy, acoustics, or fluid dynamics.

And, just like you wouldn’t expect a stodgy old scientist to fully grasp the finer points of your musical performance, recognize your own limitations when it comes to scientific rigor. The Wikipedia article or a blog post you read probably aren’t very solid sources, and the experiment you did with different mouthpieces in your living room probably wouldn’t pass muster with a scholarly journal.

“It’s not a contradiction.”

If your teaching is making you and your students experience cognitive dissonance, getting defensive and brushing past the problem doesn’t help. Watch out for this kind of nonsense: “You have to increase the breath support as you go up to the high register. No, no, don’t reduce the breath support as you go back down to the low register.”

“No, I haven’t read it.”

Music teachers should be active readers of pedagogical materials new and old, and should be actively questioning what they read. (Attending masterclasses, watching videos, etc. is also good, but you will find someone’s clearest, most organized thinking when they have to commit it to paper and/or digital text.) Proliferation of small publishing companies, self-publishing operations, and, of course, the internet, have made the bar for “expertise” very low, but have also made it possible for conscientious readers to consume more and to police what is written. Readers shouldn’t take anything at face value, and authors shouldn’t expect a pass on low-quality work.

Have the courage, conscience, and dedication to pursue deeper, broader, and more accurate knowledge of the concepts you are teaching!