Favorite blog posts, July 2018

  • Saxophonist Ben Britton offers some hints on overtones. (Related: my review of Ben’s overtone book.)
  • Flutist Nicole Riner provides some bullet points on self-auditing your private studio’s business model, in two parts.
  • Clarinetist Jenny Maclay reminds us about proper head position.
  • Erin Nichols compares available bass flute models. (Sort of a commercial post, but there is useful information.)

How to write boring program notes

photo, Pat M2007

Things to include in your program notes for maximum boredom:

  • More than a sentence (two, tops) of general biography on the composer.
  • Unremarkable facts about the piece’s structure (sonata form! key of F!).
  • A blow-by-blow description (first there is a kind of sad theme! it starts out low and soft but then it gets higher and louder!).
  • Unfounded judgments about the piece or composer (this is one of the greatest pieces in the repertoire! the composer is truly a genius!).
  • Explanation (excuses and/or bragging) about how difficult the piece is to play, or inside baseball about playing technique (this piece goes way up into the third octave! the performer has to use triple-tonguing in this one spot!).
  • Show-offy or obscure terminology, especially if it’s not part of your usual vocabulary and there’s a chance you are using it wrong.
  • Length greater than a slow reader can get through in the breaks between pieces.

But if you prefer program notes that are less boring, I guess you could try these:

  • Stick mostly to biographical information that relates specifically to the piece being performed.
  • Stick mostly to language and content that is accessible to someone who is new to this kind of music and nervous that they won’t get it.
  • If you must describe the piece to your audience, imagine you are writing program notes for a movie instead. Don’t give away the ending or the celebrity cameos or the plot twist, and don’t give a scene-by-scene breakdown. Give just enough to pique their interest.
  • If the piece itself is likely to be challenging or inaccessible to your audience, give them a sense for what is interesting about it. (For example, explain in two or three simple sentences about 12-tone serialism or microtonality or minimalism.)

If you’re a student writing program notes as an assignment, you might have to hit a certain target length, include specific information, cite sources, etc. If you’re a teacher assigning those things, consider that maybe what you really wanted was a book report or a theory paper instead.

Generally, program notes should give an intelligent but not necessarily musically-trained audience a few things to help them enjoy the performance more, without feeling like homework. Be ruthless about trimming away anything that doesn’t contribute to that, and don’t be afraid of brevity.

Reedmaking and choosing your college oboe or bassoon professor

photo, quack.a.duck

US college/university music departments and conservatories are filled with talented, qualified faculty. If you are an oboist or bassoonist bound for a large school then there will almost certainly be both oboe and bassoon professors there with outstanding credentials and years of high-level teaching and performing experience.

Smaller schools are also well-stocked with excellent music faculty, and can provide a very, very good education. But one thing to bear in mind is that in smaller music departments, the faculty members often have to wear multiple hats, sometimes teaching instruments that they don’t perform on.

Those professors still have much to teach you, and while it’s not an ideal situation it’s also not unheard of. However, for double reed students, there’s an additional wrinkle: the need to learn reedmaking.

Reedmaking is a crucial skill for oboists and bassoonists. At larger schools it’s not unusual for the oboe and bassoon professors to offer classes in reedmaking, or at least to spend a significant chunk of lesson time on it. And while still learning this art, you will probably need someone to provide you with reeds or adjust ones you purchase elsewhere. (The ones from your local music store or online retailer aren’t likely to play at the level you will need for college study.)

So, if you’re considering a school where you might study with someone who isn’t a performer on your double reed instrument, it would be worthwhile to find out their plan for teaching you reedmaking. If they don’t have a detailed and convincing one, you might think about some other schools, especially if you are planning to pursue a performance degree, or ask your teacher about ways to fill that gap in your education.

Problem-specific vs. general solutions

photo, Elisabeth D'Orcy

I hinted at this idea in my recent post about clarinet undertones:

Many of the ideas shared by the distinguished authors seemed like just descriptions of good basic clarinet technique (“ensure correct, stable embouchure formation,” “establish breath support/air pressure before releasing tongue”). … If you can play with a beautiful, characteristic tone, mostly in tune, with good response, then your undertones are probably mostly gone already.

For teachers it’s useful to be aware of this distinction: to solve my student’s specific problem, do I need a solution that is uniquely geared to that problem? Or is the problem just a symptom of a larger failure to use good basic playing technique?

In terms of the clarinet undertone example, just ensuring good basic technique does a great deal to solve the problem, but due to a quirk of the instrument’s acoustics, extraordinary measures are required to finish the job. Woodwind playing is full of similar phenomena.

I find solidification of my fundamental technique to be an ongoing and critical part of sounding my best, and most of the solution to most of my issues. It’s worthwhile to think carefully about when to introduce tricks or special techniques.