Woodwind trill technique

Ideally, a trill is done with one finger, and preferably a finger that is nimble and independent, like an index or middle finger:

flutebassoonclarinet

In many cases that isn’t possible. When two fingers (or more!) are needed, it’s best if they can be fingers of the same hand, moving in the same direction (moving down onto keys/holes simultaneously).

fluteclarinetsaxophone

If the most obvious trill fingering involves more than one finger, try moving them each individually and see if you can produce something that works. If the pitch of the trilled note isn’t quite right, many woodwind players lean toward a sharper upper note rather than a flatter one.

There are good fingering charts available online and in print that offer possible trill fingerings for when common/standard/obvious fingerings don’t work. If you find you need to invent a fingering, a good starting point is to finger the lower note on your instrument, and see what holes there are that you could open with a finger or two to possibly produce the upper note. Try each of them, and some combinations, until hopefully you find one that produces the right pitch. If you have a good understanding of your instrument’s registers, you may also find that you can borrow fingerings for one or both notes from other registers.

Sometimes the tone, pitch, or response of the trill fingering isn’t good when you sustain it as an individual note, but will work acceptably in the context of a trill.

The two notes of the trill should be about equally balanced, so that if you were to record it and slow it down you would hear that the individual notes of the trill are equal in duration and volume. Trills should also fit volume-wise into the context of the musical phrase; use strong and consistent breath support, as though you were playing a single long note.

Trill speed is an artistic decision. Generally trills should be fast enough to give the impression of an effect applied to a single note, rather than a sequence of separate notes. They usually shouldn’t be so fast as to sound jarring or unnatural. The speed of the trill can change for musical effect, and when it does it usually starts slower and accelerates. The best way to learn appropriate trill speeds is by listening to great performances and recordings.

Making every marking audible

music notes

When my students work on études (musical pieces intended for study but not performance) I stress with them the idea of making everything on the page audible. That means that if I were unfamiliar with the étude but a skilled transcriber, I could listen to my student play, and write down with confidence every:

  • Pitch
  • Rhythm
  • Articulation
  • Dynamic marking
  • Tempo change
  • Breath mark
  • Expressive marking, like “dolce” or “pesante” or “broadly”
  • Title or form indication, like “Aria” or “Folk Dance” or “Rondo”
  • And any/all other words or symbols left by the composer/editor

Sometimes it’s easy to get wrapped up in the pitches and rhythms and ignore or gloss over some of the other markings. But all of them have to be executed in a clearly audible way (otherwise, what are they there for?). If a performer technically tongues some notes but they sound slurred, then they weren’t tongued right. If some notes are marked with horizontal accents (like >), and some are marked with vertical ones (like ^), then they have to sound audibly different from each other. If the composer indicates that a certain passage should be played “dolce,” then it needs to sound audibly different from passages that don’t have that marking.

In performance repertoire, I do think there are (rare) cases when it makes sense to ignore or alter the composer or editor’s markings. But well-edited études (my students most commonly play Ferling or Rose) are an excellent opportunity to practice making each and every marking meet the ear with clarity and precision.

Practice fewer notes

printed musical note page

I can’t remember where I picked up this tip, but it has been a game-changer in how I practice technically-challenging passages. (If you know a source, please let me know!)

The idea is this: practice only as many notes as you can keep in your head. So, if I’m practicing an unfamiliar passage, and can only memorize the first 3-5 notes at a glance, that’s the size of chunk I should practice.

If the music has an obvious or familiar pattern, such as a common scale or arpeggio, I might be able to memorize more of it at a glance, so I can practice a larger chunk. Or, as I get increasingly familiar with the piece, I might be able to hold more of it in my memory at once, and can graduate to longer passages.

It’s tempting to practice in larger chunks, but start smaller at first to really develop your muscle memory. Gradually build to larger segments as you are able to store them in your short-term memory.

Favorite blog posts, February 2022

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

A woodwind player’s introduction to: Native American flutes

There are many Native American flute traditions, but the one commonly called the “Native American flute” today is the endblown Lakota-style flute, native to the Dakotas.

  • It is a duct- or fipple-type flute, which means it easily produces sound, like a recorder or pennywhistle, though the construction is different.
  • Many of the commercially-available flutes are labeled as Native-American-“style” flutes, which has to do with US laws about who can and can’t sell products as “Native American.”
  • Many Native American “flutes” are sold as decorative or souvenir items, and not suitable for serious playing. My best recommendation is for the Butch Hall “concert” flutes (which I’ve reviewed previously). They are relatively simple in appearance (though beautifully crafted); some other makers’ flutes are highly-decorated, which does not guarantee high instrument quality.
  • Modern NAFs generally have five or six finger holes. The five-holed flutes usually produce a minor pentatonic scale, and the six-holed ones add an additional note (the major sixth scale degree) plus some additional possibilities for cross-fingerings. Playing chromatically requires skillful half-holing in addition to cross fingerings, and these instruments really are better suited to mostly-pentatonic-type melodies. Most high-quality flutes are capable of playing over one octave but less than two.
  • F-sharp minor and G-minor are common keys for solo playing, though many keys are available. If you need to play with Western-tuned instruments, you may wish to double-check before purchasing that a flute is tuned to your preferred pitch standard, as they are not tunable.
  • There’s no surviving authentic ancient repertoire for these instruments; they are thought to have been mostly used for improvisation. (Prior to the influence of Western musicians, these instruments likely did not adhere to Western-type scales anyway; some were built with hole spacing based on the player’s hand size.) There is some modern (post-1970) repertoire for the instrument, most notably the compositions of R. Carlos Nakai (who is also probably the modern instrument’s best-known performer; also check out Grammy winner Mary Youngblood).
  • There is some consensus for notating NAFs in the key of written F-sharp minor, and treating flutes in other keys as transposing. Nakai uses a kind of tablature notation system that closely resembles this, but is intended to use lines and spaces on a Western staff to express fingerings rather than pitches, so it can be used to notate for flutes with atypical tunings.
  • The Nakai school of playing often incorporates bird- and animal-like sounds, including chirps at the beginnings and ends of notes produced by sudden bursts of air. (The required airflow for “standard” tone is low compared to modern Western woodwinds.) Vibrato, trills and tremolos, double- or flutter-tonguing, pitch inflections and portamenti, and grace notes are also common. Digital delay effects are commonly used to suggest the flute echoing against canyon walls.
  • The only traditional ensemble for a NAF is pairing with a Native American drum, but NAFs are commonly played solo, or in New-Age-type settings.
  • Native American flutes, like most fipple flutes, generally respond well to a low, open voicing, though the tone aesthetic is broad enough to potentially accommodate other approaches.

The wallpaper effect

white capsules on yellow background

Sometimes I see “challenges” similar to this posted on social media sites: can you find the letter J in the image below?

Of course you can. It’s not at all difficult. (But if someone online can convince you that it is, and that you’re one of the “special” few who can do it, then maybe you will “share” or “like” or whatever.)

Human brains are highly attuned to patterns. I’m not a brain scientist, but I suspect that’s why we like nice steady tempos so much. Dance music (from the Western Classical tradition to Country and Western to EDM) tends to have rock-solid pulses that make us want to move our bodies. Unsteady or inconsistent tempos? Not so much.

Have you ever been in a room with badly-hung wallpaper? A little gap or crookedness is immediately noticeable, and annoying.

In musical performance, little inconsistencies in patterns can be similarly distracting. Whether it’s a bebop tune or a baroque sonata, a tempo that varies when it shouldn’t is bad news. So is an unsteady trill, an uneven run, or off-kilter vibrato. An imperfection in the pattern breaks the spell.

While most kinds of music do place value on organic, human, dynamic elements, those need to be balanced against consistent, steady technique. For most of us, that means some long hours with the metronome, training our bodies to move predictably and unerringly.

To help your performance feel good, and get your audience tapping their feet, make sure the wallpaper is hung with care and precision.

List collection: Woodwind music by composers in underrepresented groups

I’ve added a new resource, Woodwind music by composers in underrepresented groups. This is a collection of lists other people have assembled. The object is to pull together some high-quality links for my own use and hopefully the use of others.

If you maintain or know of a well-researched list that should be included, please do let me know.

Favorite blog posts, January 2022

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Jazz education and the “ya gotta listen” cop-out

brass drums

It’s an article of faith among jazz musicians and educators that listening to jazz is crucial to learning to play jazz. This seems obviously true to me about jazz and about any style of music.

(Doubtless one of the reasons the jazz-initiated like to bang this drum, so to speak, is because most of Western music education is so notation-focused. The “classical” tradition has developed hand-in-hand with a notation system that does a pretty good—not perfect—job of breaking down classical music sounds into visual symbols. That system, unsurprisingly, works less well for non-classical styles like jazz. But jazz music is still often expressed in classical-type notation, with some kind of caveat, explicit or otherwise, that the player must apply some significant additional stylistic know-how that will override the usual meanings of some of the notation.)

But one thing classical music educators have done in their few hundred extra years is codify and explain many (not all, and not all well, and not all in agreement) of their stylistic and interpretive ideas. In jazz education, too often important details get waved away with a “ya gotta listen.”

“Ya gotta listen” to classical music to play it well, too. But there’s also more clear, thoughtful pedagogy available to help you know what to listen for, and how to apply it.

If you are a jazz educator and find yourself dodging questions or glossing over concepts with a “ya gotta listen,” can you add something to the picture? Try saying instead, “Ya gotta listen to how Cannonball Adderley ‘lays back’ in this particular phrase. He plays some notes later than expected in a way that sounds good. Listen a few times to see which notes, and how late.” Or: “Ya gotta listen to how Freddie Hubbard plays ‘outside’ over this turnaround. Can you figure out which scale he is drawing from? Where exactly does he resolve back to playing ‘inside?'”

How long would it realistically take for an unguided young musician to listen to jazz until they had fully absorbed the nuances? I used to feel pretty overwhelmed and hopeless when teachers three times my age with thousands of well-worn records told me I wouldn’t sound better until I had really listened. Luckily I had others who were willing and able to accelerate and focus my learning by giving some direction and context to my listening.

If you find that you have difficulty explaining some of the things you want your students to listen for, there are resources available to help you and them boil things down to understandable concepts. For improvisational theory, you might try free YouTube videos (or additional paid content) from teacher/players like Chad Lefkowitz-Brown or Aimee Nolte. For style, consider books like those by Caleb Chapman and Jeff Coffin or Ray Smith.

And yes, ya gotta listen.

Jazz and classical musicians’ concerns about jazz playing

man playing saxophone

Recently I asked some questions on social media related to (self-identified) non-jazz musicians playing on jazz or jazz-adjacent gigs. This kind of thing might happen, for example, at a symphony pops concert, or a big band gig in a smaller market.

A number of concerns were raised about this, but two stood out.

  • Self-described non-jazz players overwhelmingly expressed misgivings about having to improvise in these situations.
  • For jazz players, asked about having to play a gig with non-jazz musicians, none of them expressed concern about the non-jazz players’ improvisational ability. They were overwhelmingly concerned with style (mentioning specifics like swing, articulation, and inflection).

I think for a non-jazz player, being asked to improvise is understandably frightening. But I’m hard-pressed to think of a situation like this where improvisation would be strictly required. For example, if your local pick-up big band has some jazz players and some non-jazz players, it’s a simple enough matter to pass the improvised solos off to the jazz players. (And there are plenty of big band charts with written-out solos.) If I’m hiring for the gig, I’d certainly rather rearrange the solos than put somebody in a situation that will be to their embarrassment and mine.

But everyone on the gig needs to be prepared to do good section playing. I’ve been in the frustrating situation of trying to lead a section (from the lead chair or from the director’s stand) with players who aren’t tuned into the conventions and nuances of swing, articulation, and inflection. Often these things aren’t specifically notated, the way they would be in orchestral parts, or the notations aren’t intuitive.

(A case in point: a curved marking like ⌣ over a note, which I hear classical musicians interpret by playing the note at pitch, then bringing it down, then back up. I understand why they think it means that, but it’s an un-jazz-like sound—it should almost always be interpreted as a scoop up to pitch.)

My takeaway: if you don’t consider yourself a jazz musician, and aren’t planning to really become one but want to play some jazz-oriented music on the occasional gig, study jazz style.