Favorite blog posts, June 2017

Random Note Picker, version 0.3

The Random Note Picker web app got a facelift and a few new features. I use this mostly for quizzing my students on their scales.

Two features added by popular request: a timer function, so you can generate new groups of random notes every few seconds hands-free, and (optional) double-flats/double-sharps.

Check it out, and send me your bug reports, feature requests, or other thoughts and comments.

Woodwind doubling on both oboe and bassoon

Mid- to late-20th-century music written for woodwind doublers, such as musical theater “books,” largely solidified around three main types of doubling specialists. The most common of these is the clarinet/saxophone/flute player. Less common but still widely used are the oboist with passable single reed skills, and the “low reeds” bassoon/bass clarinet/baritone saxophone player.

In the 21st century, “doubler” woodwind sections have shown a tendency to shrink in number of players while growing in number of instruments. That means that some new combinations of instrument are becoming common that weren’t before: for example, it would have been very unusual in the late 20th century to write both flute and oboe into the same book, but this is becoming much more commonplace.

My sense is that woodwind doublers today are more willing/likely to embrace double reed playing, despite those instruments’ reputation (deserved or not) for being more difficult and their reputation (deserved) for being more expensive. But there seems to be some emerging conventional “wisdom” that oboe or bassoon is the way to go, and that playing both is inadvisable. I have to disagree.

It seems unlikely to me that the trend of shrinking woodwind sections, with increasing demands on individual players, is going to reverse. I predict that within a decade or two we’ll see movement in major Broadway productions toward doublers playing oboe and bassoon in the same book.

There’s another wrinkle to this: not all doublers are making their living in top-tier performance situations. It’s quite common for a small- to medium-sized university, or a large high school to hire one person to teach “double reeds.” Nearly always, this means hiring someone who is well-qualified on oboe or bassoon and relatively clueless on the other. I think oboists or bassoonists headed for doctoral degrees and university teaching would be well-advised to consider getting a minor, or at least some lessons, in the other double reed. (There may even be room for someone to develop a graduate program in “double reeds,” or perhaps at least the ability to tailor an existing multiple woodwinds degree to accommodate this.)

Woodwind doublers already understand the benefits of being able to get the doubling gig, but also to get a broader array of single-instrument gigs. If you have the motivation to pursue both oboe and bassoon, I think you will find—as I have—more opportunities to make music.

How are you going to improve this?

I’ve blogged previously about getting my students to give more than pat answers about how they think their playing sounds:

It’s an ongoing battle to get my students to listen more deeply than that. Was the articulation “not good” because it started with air noise instead of tone? Because it was accompanied by an unwanted percussive sound? Was the articulation technique perfect but you failed to follow the composer’s markings? Or was it something else?

The next step is getting students to make a clear, actionable plan to improve. That conversation often goes like this:

Me: Okay, what are you going to do to improve that aspect of your—

Student [rolling eyes]: Practice.

Me: Well, obviously. But how are you going to prac—

Student [sighing]: Keep practicing until I get it right.

Me: No, I mean what specific practice tech—

Student [through clenched teeth]: Use a metronome.

In other words, the “plan” is usually to suffer for a few hours in the practice room, and maybe, against all odds, emerge with the problem magically fixed.

But practicing without a plan rarely produces the desired results. I’m much more optimistic about the student’s success if they can tell me something like: “Well, I need to slow this way down, slow enough that I can get it exactly right, and use the metronome to make sure I’m not rushing. When I can play this passage with the correct articulations 10 times in a row without mistakes, then I’ll inch the metronome up by a couple of clicks and try again.” That’s a clear commitment to a tried-and-true method. It will probably be a much more productive and satisfying practice session, which means the student is more likely to put in some more good hours the next day.

Less-experienced students might have a smaller repertoire of practice techniques, and I consider it a lesson-time priority to teach them more of those techniques. Trial and error in the practice room will help them refine these techniques, and determine which ones are most effective for them.

Productive practicing requires identifying an area to improve, selecting a technique (or series of techniques) to apply to it, evaluating progress, adjusting the practice technique as needed, and noting what does and doesn’t work for future practice sessions.