Favorite blog posts, February 2017

Another month dominated by flute bloggers. Leave me a comment if there are excellent blogs by reed players that I should be reading.

Concept-based woodwind methods

Most college students studying instrumental music education have to take a woodwind “methods” course, a sort of crash course in teaching the woodwind instruments. I have taught woodwind methods classes for about the past ten years.

A typical approach is to divide the semester into instrument-based units: x weeks studying the flute, x weeks studying the oboe, etc. I’ve taught woodwind methods that way, and it’s tough to get through all the material. How can you realistically cover the pedagogy of five instrument families in one semester? (Some schools offer this scant improvement: two semesters.)

photo, Kerr Photography

One big reason that woodwind methods teachers get stuck in the one-instrument-at-a-time paradigm is that existing textbooks, syllabi, etc. treat the woodwinds as being hopelessly different from each other. While the woodwinds are more diverse than the brasses or bowed strings (though perhaps not the percussion), the techniques of playing them are not as unrelated as many seem to believe.

A symptom of this misunderstanding is the woodwind-methods-by-committee approach, in which a textbook has chapters written by five different authors, or in which a course is taught by a rotating cast of woodwind professors. This invariably leads to holes in the curriculum, confusion over vocabulary, and contradictory ideas.

I have much, much better success when I focus on the basic concepts underlying good woodwind playing. My course addresses audible aspects of how woodwinds sound (tone, response, intonation, volume/dynamics, fluency), and connects them to elements of playing technique (posture/position, breathing and breath support, voicing, embouchure, tuning, articulation, finger movement, and selection from among alternate fingerings). When my students are conversant in those concepts, it’s almost trivial to apply them to a diverse group of instruments: “the clarinet uses a very high voicing, but the flute uses a very low voicing.”

That’s still a lot to cover in a semester, but I actually find that I can get through the material efficiently enough to leave some days open for review, Q&A, or special/requested topics. And, more importantly, my students absorb widely-applicable concepts rather than trying to memorize seemingly unrelated factoids about seemingly unrelated instruments.

This is a valuable approach for woodwind doublers, too, who have to parse out the differences in the instruments but also the differences in culture and tradition that have developed around those instruments and their pedagogy. Understanding the underlying concepts helps to make sense of the sometimes very different approaches to the same problems.

Warning: commercial-ish plug

I’ve hinted on the blog a few times about my upcoming book, based on materials I have developed for my woodwind methods courses. It clearly and concisely covers the most crucial concepts in woodwind playing. Since I usually teach a mixed-instrument class I pair it with a band method (such as Essential Elements or Accent on Achievement) for hands-on playing activities, but it would work just as well paired with an individual method (such as the Rubank series) if you have the luxury of a full class set of each instrument.

I’m hoping to get the book launched before 2017 slips away. If you like, you can join a mailing list to be notified if when it becomes available. Update: the book is now available!

Why scales?

I recently asked one of my (woodwind) students why she thinks I make her practice scales. She didn’t have a ready answer, and I realized maybe I hadn’t been clear about the value of scales. Here are some reasons to practice scales (and arpeggios, and other methodical technical materials):

photo, Aprilyn Podd
  • To develop good finger movement. Scales provide a systematic way to work each finger, and to work them together in just about every combination.
  • To build familiarity with the instrument. A rigorous scale routine makes you use every key and every fingering on the instrument.
  • To get comfortable playing in every key.
  • To explore the instrument’s range. Full-range scales are a good way to make yourself play in the highest and lowest registers of the instrument every day.
  • To provide a canvas for working on other techniques. Ever notice how woodwind instruments articulate a little differently on different notes? How different notes respond differently to vibrato? How some notes tend to be flat or sharp? Learn your scales well, and then use them as a way to take those techniques through every note on the instrument.
  • To train for musical situations. Most music is made up of bits and pieces of scales and arpeggios. Getting those patterns into muscle “memory” frees up mental bandwidth for sight-reading, ensemble, expression, and more.
  • To develop your ears. Internalize major, minor, diminished, whole tone, chromatic, and other modalities.
  • To satisfy requirements. If you are a music student at just about any level, scales are probably part of your lessons, exams, and auditions for the foreseeable future.
  • To have a familiar, habitual technical workout that you can improve upon for the rest of your life, without need for an étude book.

Practice scales every day!

Review: “So You Want to Play in Shows…?” by Paul Saunders

I got a review copy of So You Want to Play in Shows…?, a new woodwind doubling etude book. The author, Paul Saunders, is a woodwind player in London’s West End.

The book includes seven studies for doubler playing flute, clarinet, and alto saxophone. It also includes a piano accompaniment book, with piano part recordings available for free on the publisher’s website. This is an elegant solution to one of the problems of woodwind doubling etudes: how do you enforce quick instrument switches? Chris Vadala’s book provides rests and trusts you to observe them. Gene Kaplan’s duo book pairs you with another woodwind doubler. Saunders’s book, used with the recordings, provides a simple way to work out quick switches alone in a practice room. (For a real-world challenge, cue up the recordings in a playlist, and sight-read the book beginning to end with no breaks between etudes.)

Saunders’s tunes are fun and musically satisfying—to my tastes, the best among the doubling etude books so far. Styles are what you might find in contemporary rock/pop-based musical theater. Here is a quick-and-dirty demo of etude #3, “How Cool Can You Be:”

Mr. Saunders emphasized to me that the etudes are intended for aspiring woodwind doublers, and therefore are of moderate difficulty. I would say So You Want to Play is not as challenging as the Vadala book, comparable overall to the Kaplan book. The most technically-demanding material nearly always falls to the clarinet. The flute parts tend to stay in a comfortable register, rarely breaking into the third octave, and maxing out at a high G. There is a note or two of saxophone altissimo. There are frequent instrument switches, a few of them very quick.

Mr. Saunders was also kind enough to send me early drafts of some a couple of etudes that will appear in a forthcoming second volume. They appear to be more difficult, with some swing feel and doubles on soprano and tenor saxophone.

As I’ve mentioned in reviews of previous materials, I wish there were more resources available for doublers that included the double reed instruments and/or auxiliary instruments. But, as you may know, double-reed doubling is less common in the West End than it is on Broadway, so this book is probably a good fit for most British woodwind players (like Mr. Saunders), and quite a few American ones. So You Want to Play is a solid addition to the flute/clarinet/alto materials available, challenging but fun for an up-and-coming doubler.