Favorite blog posts, April 2018

The flute bloggers were especially busy in April.

Students and gig pay

Over a year ago I wrote about responding to free or underpaid gig “offers.” A commenter asked a fair question, which has haunted me since:

I was wondering how much of this still applies when taking on gigs as a student.

I’ve wrestled with this a bit and I’m not sure I have a real answer, but I do have some thoughts. (As usual, I’m talking here about markets that don’t benefit from a strong union presence, such as most of the USA.)

For someone hiring musicians for a gig, I don’t see a good reason to consider student status at all. You should hire musicians who can do the job, and should pay them fairly. If they are students, what does that have to do with anything?

photo, Ryan Hyde

But the Right Thing to Do seems a little less clear from the student perspective. In a situation where someone is attempting to treat student musicians (or anyone) in an exploitative way, the options are to accept, to attempt to negotiate better terms, or to refuse the gig. The problem is that freelance careers depend heavily on word-of-mouth recommendations, and being “easy to work with” is a prized quality. A student musician trying to get a foothold in the business could hurt his or her cause by complaining about unfair pay, or by staying home instead of playing.

Student musicians have to find the best balance they can between advocating for fair treatment and going with the flow. It’s not reasonable for the least-experienced musicians to have to navigate such a complicated thing with their careers hanging in the balance, but it’s the way things are.

Here are some questions you might ask yourself if you’re a student musician and think you’re being undervalued in the professional freelance marketplace:

  • Who else is on the gig? Would this be a genuine opportunity to make some connections and let some other musicians hear what you can do? Are those musicians the kind who might be able to offer you future opportunities in the near term, or are they others who don’t have much of a career yet?
  • Do you have peers who have taken this gig in the past? Did it pay off in terms of “exposure” or future gigs?
  • Is the experience something that would look good on your word-of-mouth “résumé,” or would it be kind of an embarrassment?
  • Do you have a trusted friend or mentor who is more established in the business, who can advise you on this specific situation? The music world is a small one, and someone who knows the local freelance scene might be able to offer some background.

Be careful of talking yourself into free or below-market gigs because you “just want to play.” That kind of attitude serves you well in school, but not so well when you’re trying to make a living, and it drags down other musicians’ ability to make fair money and pay their bills.

A parting thought: I certainly did some free and underpaid gigs as a student, and in some cases that may have opened doors to better opportunities. (It’s hard to connect the dots definitively.) But I think those of us who are established as freelancers should be careful about treating unfairness as a “paying dues” rite of passage. Shouldn’t we be using our success to make things better for the next generation of musicians?

Review: D’Addario Reserve alto saxophone mouthpieces

If you have read my reviews of the D’Addario clarinet and jazz alto and tenor saxophone mouthpieces, you won’t be surprised to learn that I’m a big fan of their new classical alto saxophone mouthpiece, too. (As with the last several reviews, D’Addario sent me some mouthpieces at no cost, with the possibility but not the promise of a review.)

I’ve been hammering on one point with all the D’Addario mouthpieces, but it’s worth bringing up again because it’s an important innovation in how mouthpieces are made and bought. D’Addario’s manufacturing process (precisely milling mouthpieces from solid rod rubber) produces mouthpieces that are extremely consistent, much more so than other mass-produced professional mouthpieces, which are generally finished a little by hand. The old system is that you try out a bunch of mouthpieces that are the same make and model (by going into a store or putting a big deposit on your credit card), and pick out the one that plays best. The new system is that you order a D’Addario mouthpiece from your favorite retailer, and know that it plays just like all the others. This is a game-changing development in the sub-$200 mouthpiece market.

And, of course, like the other mouthpieces in D’Addario’s lineup, the new Reserve alto mouthpiece plays great.

I’ve been playing on a Vandoren Optimum AL3 for the last 8 or 9 years (and used an AL4 for a few years before that). What I like about the Optimum is that it’s very easy to play, with good response in all registers, good dynamic range, a lot of stability (so pitch and tone are very consistent, without much effort from the player), and tone that tends toward a warm, almost muted quality (in a good way). It’s a mouthpiece for a 21st-century classical saxophone player.

The D’Addario mouthpiece has these same qualities, with some subtle but important improvements. When I started playing on the AL4 I liked its richness of tone, but ultimately decided I needed to sacrifice that a little to embrace the AL3’s superior high register. The D’Addario Reserve does an impressive job of blending those qualities, and even improving upon both.

In particular, I have been impressed with scalar movement in the altissimo register, which on my Vandoren mouthpieces could be just a little lumpy as I crossed from one partial to another. The D’Addario mouthpieces make this feel really smooth, effortless, and secure.

I have been using mostly D’Addario Reserve reeds for classical saxophone playing, and with my Vandoren mouthpieces I sometimes wished I could get a reed strength between 2.5 and 3.0. I did hope that switching to the D’Addario mouthpiece would eliminate that need, but after trying them I still feel like a 2.5+ would be a useful option. (D’Addario does make some “plus” reeds, such as the Reserve alto saxophone 3.0+.) If I have one complaint about the Reserve mouthpiece, it’s that I don’t get quite the ease of low-register response I would like with the 3.0 reed. A 2.5 helps that but plays a little brighter than I want.

The Reserve mouthpiece comes in three flavors at the moment: D145 (1.45mm tip/medium facing), D150 (1.50mm tip/medium-long facing), and D155 (1.50mm tip/medium facing—yes, it is the same tip opening as the D150). The mouthpiece has what D’Addario touts as a “unique oval inner chamber.”

I’m really quite impressed with all three of the Reserve options, and not 100% settled yet on which will be my go-to. But I recently used the D150 (with a Reserve 3.0 reed) for a concerto performance with band that involved some double tonguing and plenty of altissimo. The D150/3.0 setup worked well for that situation—just the right amount of resistance to make the double-tonguing comfortable and easy, good security in the altissimo, and enough guts to be heard over the band without getting spread or edgy.

Here’s a quick comparison between the D’Addario Reserve D150 and the Vandoren Optimum AL3. I’m using the same ligature and reed in both clips.

D’Addario Reserve D150:

Vandoren Optimum AL3:

To my ear, the D’Addario has a richer, fuller, and more even sound, and also responds better to dynamic changes.

So far D’Addario is scoring 100% with me on their mouthpieces: each new mouthpiece they have released has replaced my former setups (clarinet, jazz alto, jazz tenor, and now classical alto). I look forward to whatever is next.

ReedCast™ scientific reed forecasts on Alexa

I was hoping to announce this a week ago, on the anniversary of the ReedCast™’s debut, April 1, 2015,but things got a little delayed. Anyway, you can now get your guaranteed-accurate, highly scientific ReedCast™ on your Alexa device. Check it out!

You can, of course, still get your classic ReedCast™ on the web.