Bret on the Clarineat podcast

I had the pleasure of appearing on Sean Perrin’s Clarineat podcast. We talked about my blog, teaching, woodwind doubling, and more. Visit Clarineat.com to listen and subscribe, or search for it in iTunes or your favorite podcast app. Join the mailing list, too, to win a fancy ligature or future giveaways (plus stay up to date on new interviews).

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Favorite blog posts, September 2016

So many great woodwind blog posts in September. The flute bloggers are on fire!

Recital videos, August 2016

I performed a recital with a faculty colleague on our campus at Delta State University, and again at the University of Mississippi (“Ole Miss”). Program and videos are below.

The idea behind the first half was to play Paris Conservatory competition pieces from 1916 (100 years ago). The Büsser and Lefebvre pieces are not unknown, and the Fauré Fantaisie for flute and piano is core repertoire. The Paul Puget Solo for bassoon and piano was much harder to find, as it seems to have been out of print for some time. The University of Michigan library has it, and was willing to send their yellowed copy on interlibrary loan for a fee. (I am hoping to get it up on the IMSLP. Update: it’s now on the IMSLP.) If anybody is familiar with the piece, I would be curious to hear from you.

No special theme on the second half, just a couple of contemporary works I wanted to do. Greg Pattillo’s Three Beats for beatbox flute was a fun challenge and a crowd pleaser. (My beatboxing has a long way to go. Also: I bought the piece as a PDF through Pattillo’s website, but the site seems to have been updated and now I can’t find it to link to.) And Roberto Molinelli’s Four Pictures from New York is a charming piece for saxophonist playing soprano, alto, and tenor, performed here with piano but also available in several ensemble versions. I copied Otis Murphy‘s substantial cuts to the third movement, which make sense for the saxophone/piano texture.

Program (PDF)

The best practice routine

Lately I’ve been on a diet that has a weekly “cheat” day. Six days out of the week, my meals are Spartan, but on cheat day I get to eat whatever I want.

My guess is that isn’t the ideal way to manage my waistline. I would be better off eating more regimented meals every day. But I would burn out and quit. The cheat day is a compromise. It cedes a little ground to my sweet tooth, but keeps me going back to lentils and broccoli for another six days.

photo, Dave Crosby
photo, Dave Crosby

Every so often I decide to revamp my practice routine. It’s always ambitious. I plan hours of long tones, a battery of scales and exercises and etudes, piles of classical repertoire, and new jazz tunes. I see myself drilling every aspect of my playing for hours and hours every day.

It usually goes well for a few days, and then fizzles out. I tell myself that I’m not getting my routine done because of a deadline. Or a conflict. Or because I just needed to sleep in a little that day. But the truth is that I’m burned out—I’ve given myself a practice routine that I can’t or won’t sustain.

It’s often said that the best diet is the one you stick to. I think that’s good advice for practicing, too. It would be great to do a super-intense practice routine every day. But if a little lower intensity is what prevents burnout, then so be it.

If you are finding your latest practice routine to be hard to keep up, ask yourself what you can do to make it a better experience. What will bring you back again the next day? Shorter sessions? More frequent breaks? Fewer things to practice? A greater variety of things to practice? More structure? Less structure? A weekly “cheat day” when you get to skip scales and play whatever you want?

A practice routine, like a diet plan, should be good for you and should help you reach your goals, but it should also be something you can sustain and even enjoy.

A few thoughts on the new Roland Aerophone AE-10

To be fair, I haven’t tried out the new electronic wind instrument from Roland, and probably won’t bother. (Unless you’re out there, Roland, and want to send me a review unit to change my mind?)

Don’t get me wrong: it’s great to see another company get into this space, and I hope they will seek to innovate further in wind controllers and push other companies (Akai, Yamaha) to do the same. But Roland’s new Aerophone AE-10 seems like a misstep.

n06_0352

Much of the promotional material gushes about how “innovative” the instrument is, but there doesn’t seem to be much to support this claim—it is essentially a very similar instrument to the Akai EWI series or Yamaha WX series, both of which have been around for decades. In implementation and marketing, it really reminds me more of the Casio DH—a novelty for casual playing, not a serious instrument in its own right.

Roland brags about the familiarity of the AE-10’s fingering system: “most digital horns make you master a new fingering system, which can be a major setback…” This positions the instrument as a toy: something saxophonists can pick up and play immediately without having to pay any additional dues. This unfortunately seems to be embedded in the philosophy of the AE-10’s fingering system: fully embracing the limitations of a real saxophone, while missing an opportunity to solidify wind controllers as viable instruments in their own right.

The AE-10’s faithfulness to “real” saxophone fingerings extends to, for example, palm keys. Why do saxophones have palm keys? Certainly not for agility or comfort—palm keys are a significant technical issue for saxophonists. They are Sax’s 1840s solution to the problem of needing to locate tone holes at certain places on the instrument’s body. An electronic instrument has no such constraints: the keys can be literally anywhere on the instrument. (The Akai EWI series does a better job of balancing familiarity with innovation.)

Additionally, the keys appear to move, and to do so in a rather noisy, clicky way. I don’t expect the noise is enough to really be a problem in an amplified situation, but it seems cheap and sloppy—not up to the standards a professional woodwind player demands. (And it strikes me as a very fixable problem on Roland’s end.) Beyond that, I’m not sure that moving keys really make much sense on this kind of instrument. I find the Akai EWI’s motionless keys to be very comfortable and intuitive, similar in touch to playing a recorder or simple-system flute. It’s a very free, agile feeling compared to the relatively clunky mechanisms of a keyed instrument. Why unnecessarily introduce moving parts?

Also from Roland’s website: “There’s nothing worse than a studio session grinding to a halt because you need an instrument that you haven’t brought along. That won’t happen with the Roland Aerophone AE-10, which gives you a variety of additional acoustic instrument sounds like clarinet, flute, oboe, trumpet, violin, and more…” I suppose the AE-10 is being marketed here toward unprofessional studio musicians, who happen to be working on low-quality projects that will tolerate substitution of a synthesized sound when the musician fails to bring the needed instruments?

Speaking of which, most of Roland’s promotional materials surrounding the AE-10 seem to focus on its sounds that imitate “real” instruments (“Choose from alto, tenor, soprano, and baritone sax types that all respond just like their acoustic counterparts…”). But the videos are unconvincing. The saxophone sounds, as usual for an electronic instrument, seem especially unsatisfying—a poor choice for a product that seems to be aimed at the saxophonist market. (My preference is to use wind controllers for “synthy” sounds rather than imitative ones, and the AE-10 does seem to include some.)

The AE-10 does boast some nice but ultimately minor features that I wouldn’t mind having on my Akai:

  • Fingerings are, to some extent, user-programmable (though still not as flexible as the Akai’s EWI fingering mode).
  • An onboard speaker, which seems convenient for practicing. (Roland doesn’t pretend it is usable in a performance situation.)
  • A line-in jack, again probably useful mostly for practicing.
  • A number of handy user-customization settings.
  • It comes with a case.
  • The “Brass section” setting makes it easy to layer sounds.
  • The “Full range” setting automatically switches to different saxophone sounds depending on tessitura. I was unable to determine whether this setting is specific to the saxophone sounds, or whether it is programmable. Could be handy to have several sounds on tap depending on the octave.

The AE-10 seems to be priced in roughly the same ballpark as the Akai 4000S/5000 and Yamaha WX5. (Bear in mind that the Yamaha requires an external sound module at extra cost, while the Akai and Roland have some sounds on board.) My take: spend your money elsewhere.

Preparing for a multiple woodwinds recital

For over a decade, all of my solo recital performances have been on multiple woodwind instruments. Last month I performed (twice) a recital program with pieces played on flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and three saxophones. Here are some of the things I do to prepare.

multiple-woodwinds-recital_mini

  • Practice the physical changes. I opened my program with an oboe piece, and followed that with a flute piece with a delicate entrance. As the recital approached, I made sure to follow each oboe practice session by practicing that flute entrance, to be sure I could do it under those conditions. Something that didn’t work very well: after the oboe, flute, and bassoon pieces, my hands and jaw tended to be a little tense for clarinet playing. If I were preparing this recital again, I would bump the clarinet to the end of my practice sessions to work on playing relaxed even when fatigued.
  • Practice the mental changes. If I can put myself into the right place mentally for the instrument I’m about to play, my physical technique seems to fall into place. Sometimes I will do some rotating warmups—play, for instance, some scales on one instrument, and then immediately play them on another, and another. That gives me a chance to practice shifting mental gears. Once I have my program order set, I also make liberal use of Post-it Notes to give myself reminders between pieces: “take a moment to relax embouchure,” “keep breath support strong in low register,” “clear moisture from octave vent.”
  • Make thorough checklists. With seven instruments on my most recent recital, I surely would have forgotten something—a bassoon seat strap, a case of clarinet reeds, a piece of sheet music. I made a detailed list and used it to set up for a dress rehearsal. Sure enough, there were a few things that hadn’t made it onto the list, and I was able to retrieve those items and add them to the list before the first public performance. When I traveled a few hours for another performance, I was confident that I had everything I needed.
  • Use good stands. Good ones are sturdy and make it easy to set down or pick up an instrument without fuss. Since I played flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon on the first half without leaving the stage, having some good stands kept things moving smoothly and let me stay focused.
  • Do thorough warmups. As the performance approaches, it’s tempting to practice in panic mode, and skip over things like warmups. I always play much better if I do my warmups faithfully all the way up to the day of the performance. I find that if I warm up slowly and thoroughly on each instrument before the performance (this might take a few hours with multiple instruments! I usually do it in the morning), then I’m able to switch between them more easily.

Break a leg!