Synthetic reeds are probably the future

crop chemist holding in hands molecule model

I was pleased to receive recently some samples of D’Addario Woodwinds’s new “Venn” synthetic clarinet and saxophone reeds. In an upcoming post, I’ll share some thoughts about and demonstrations of the specific products. But here are a few thoughts to set the stage:

  • I’m thrilled to see a major cane reed manufacturer like D’Addario take on this challenge. My hunch is that other major reed makers are either close at their heels or betting on musicians’ provincial thinking about modern materials. Let’s hope it’s the former.
  • I am a strong believer that synthetic reeds are the future. Modern science has invented amazing materials for clothing and smartphone screens and space travel; we can invent something that works great for reeds. Natural cane isn’t sacred or magical—it’s a material with upsides and some very clear downsides.
  • It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying something like a synthetic reed and asking the question, “does this synthetic material sound as good as cane?” And, if the reed doesn’t play as well as one’s usual cane reeds, to answer the question with a no, and perhaps to further opine that nothing can ever sound as good as “real” cane. But that knee-jerk reaction fails to take into account all the other things we already know about reeds, such as that their geometry matters a great deal, and that their match to the mouthpiece is equally crucial. We’ve all found the reed-plus-mouthpiece combinations that work for us, and introducing any random new reed (cane or synthetic) isn’t especially likely to improve the situation. The better question to ask is, “Is this a viable reed?” In other words, does it function like a reed should, when paired with an appropriate mouthpiece: with appropriate response, stability, and characteristic tone, regardless of whether it is my new personal favorite?
  • Assuming there are viable synthetic reeds available, it may make sense to adopt them and claim all the potential benefits (consistency, longevity, resistance to warping, reduced waste, cost savings), and, if necessary, seek out new mouthpieces that are well suited to them. I have mouthpieces I like, but if I can replace them and never have to deal with the problems of cane again, that seems like an option well worth considering.

Zealous loyalty to “traditional” materials isn’t a virtue. (If you’re a woodwind player like me, there’s a good chance your equipment already includes materials that are “new” since the instrument’s invention anyway.) Keep an open mind!

Favorite blog posts, April 2021

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

Flute pressure against lip: survey of published opinions

person playing wind instrument

My own past flute teachers gave me conflicting advice about how much the flute headjoint should press into the lower lip. One would pull on the crown of my flute while I played to make sure it came away from my lip with no resistance. Another would push the headjoint more firmly into my face as I played. (I improved under both teachers’ approaches.)

I got curious about it recently and looked up what some flute pedagogues have had to say. I’m presenting my findings here without taking a personal stance (yet).

It’s a little tricky to parse some of these, since many speak in terms of avoiding too much pressure, but don’t clarify whether that means to use as little pressure as possible or some moderate amount of pressure.

In the avoid-too-much-pressure camp:

A very important point to remember is never to force the mouth plate against the lower teeth as such forcing will limit the amount of flexibility after the embouchure has been developed.

James Pellerite: “Improving Tone Production in Flute Performance,” in Woodwind Anthology, volume I, 1999 edition. Northfield, Illinois: The Instrumentalist, 1999, p. 11. Article originally printed in The Instrumentalist in 1953.

Do not press the head joint hard against the lips. Control of the tone must come from the lips themselves, not from pressure.

George Waln, “First Flute Lesson,” in Woodwind Anthology, volume I, 1999 edition. Northfield, Illinois: The Instrumentalist, 1999, p. 25. Article originally printed in The Instrumentalist in 1957.

“The chin is, of course, an aid in support, but it must not be depended on for support, since pressure against the jaw will seriously disturb the embouchure.”

Edwin Putnik: The Art of Flute Playing, revised edition. Miami, Florida: Summy-Birchard Inc., 1970, p. 7.

In order to correct this problem [sharpness/pinching], the student should be certain that he is not pressing the flute against his lower lip, but rather thinking of the flute as resting lightly against the lip…

Mary Jean Simpson: “Flute Intonation Trouble: Spare Not The Rod,” in Woodwind Anthology, volume I, 1999 edition. Northfield, Illinois: The Instrumentalist, 1999, p. 117. Article originally printed in The Instrumentalist in 1972.

Do not press the flute too tightly against the chin because too much pressure will alter the tone and pitch.

Kathleen Goll-Wilson, “Erratic Intonation in Flute Sections,” in Woodwind Anthology, volume I, 1999 edition. Northfield, Illinois: The Instrumentalist, 1999, p. 661. Article originally printed in The Instrumentalist in 1992.

Excessive pressure against the chin should be avoided.

William Dietz, Jerry Kirkbride, Hal Ott, Mark Weiger, Craig Whittaker: Teaching Woodwinds: A Method and Resource Handbook for Music Educators. Belmont, California: Schirmer, 1998, p. 174. Note: Hal Ott is the flutist among the authors, so this presumably reflects his opinion.

…the flute should rest lightly against the chin in order to leave the lips free and flexible.

Nancy Toff: The Flute Book: A Complete Guide for Students and Performers, third edition. Oxford University Press, 2012, p. 94.

[Common problems:] Too much pressure into the lip. The teacher should be able to tap the flute off of the lip with very little effort. … [for piccolo:] Too much pressure into the face, especially upper register. Excessive pressure makes high notes much more difficult if not impossible.

Charles West: Woodwind Methods: An Essential Resource for Educators, Conductors, and Students. Delray Beach, Florida: Meredith Music Publications, 2015, p. 17.

These are the ones I could find that seemed to advocate for at least some pressure, although neither is explicit about how much:

Students should keep in mind the three points of pressure… [including] the lips pushing out against the flute…

John Knight, “Flute Intonation,” in Woodwind Anthology, volume I, 1999 edition. Northfield, Illinois: The Instrumentalist, 1999, p. 529. Article originally printed in The Instrumentalist in 1989.

“Keep a relaxed embouchure, but place the flute firmly on the chin.”

Michel Debost: “Basics of Flute Playing,” in Woodwind Anthology, volume I, 1999 edition. Northfield, Illinois: The Instrumentalist, 1999, p. 632. Article originally printed in The Instrumentalist in 1991.

John Knight is the only author to speak in terms of the lips putting pressure on the flute, rather than the reverse.

In any case, among the sources I consulted, there seems to be some consensus that pressure of flute against lip should be light, or at least not “excessive.”

The Great Woodwind Doubler Census of 2021

mockup of white clipboard with blank paper

Back in 2011 I did a “census” of woodwind players. It’s been 10 years, so I guess we’re due to be counted again. If you’re a doubler of any stripe/ability, you’re invited to take the survey. I’ll share the results as I did last time.

It’s a long survey, so set aside a little time if you’re willing, but all questions are optional and I’m happy to take whatever data you care to share. And of course feel free to share this survey far and wide with people who might be interested in participating.

At this point I’m thinking I’ll keep the survey active through the end of May, but if responses are still coming in strong I’ll be flexible.

Take the survey Update: the survey is now closed. Thanks!

Favorite blog posts, March 2021

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

Note Image Generator, version 0.2

I’m pleased to announce a new release of the Note Image Generator, my web app for quickly creating images of notes on staves (such as you might use for fingering charts, note identification flash cards, etc.).

I’ve added some new features for all users, but also some special features for those kind enough to donate to the Note Image Generator (there’s a PayPal link near the bottom of the page).

New features include:

  • More bar line options.
  • A new handwriting-type “jazz” notation font.

    Plus a bunch more new fonts for donors!
  • Parentheses around accidentals.
  • Enharmonic note spellings for donors.
  • More precise image sizing options for donors.
  • Various bug fixes and speed/stability/usability improvements.

Enjoy!

Fox bassoon crutch modification

I use an inexpensive Fox plastic crutch on my bassoon. The shaft has always been a little too short for my preference, and I wasn’t interested in paying for a custom-made one, so I decided to attempt removing and replacing the shaft. I’m sharing this information here in case anyone else wants to do the same.

I wasn’t sure if the stock shaft was glued or molded into the plastic or if I would be able to remove it without destroying the crutch. But a little heat, slowly applied to the shaft not too close to the plastic, did the trick and the shaft pulled right out. (It’s hot! I used pliers.) The plastic inside the hole was slightly mangled, so I reamed it out a little with a drill bit.

I replaced the shaft with some brass that I had on hand. 3/16″ turned out to be too thick to fit into the bracket on my bassoon, but 5/32″ (just under 4mm) worked. The stock shaft seems to be somewhere in between. I cut the brass a bit too long with a Dremel cutting wheel, so I could gradually trim it down until it was just right.

I cut some shallow notches into one end to imitate the stock shaft, hopefully giving the glue something more to hold onto. My 5-minute epoxy had hardened, so I substituted some gel-type cyanoacrylate (“super”) glue.

After a little trimming I found the length I wanted. (I use my crutch in this position, which I think is less-common, but gives me the “ball” of the crutch right in the palm of my hand which feels good for balance.)

With my minimal skill set and tools, plus a little trial and error, this was a manageable and successful project.

Big dynamics

If you’ve ever been to a theater production, and then gotten to meet any of the actors up close, you might have been shocked by their makeup. You don’t notice it much when they are on stage, but up close it can be pretty extreme.

Stage actors need strange-looking makeup because they perform under bright lights, which can wash out their features. And they need their facial expressions to be unmistakable to audience members, even in the very back row. Their special makeup techniques, which look unnatural up close, help them look natural and communicate visually under the unusual circumstances of a stage production.

Musicians need to take this same approach. If I practice a piece of music in a small room, subtle dynamic contrasts seem like plenty. But in the very different situation of a performance, in a large and reverberant concert hall, those nuances can disappear. I need to go bigger, stage-makeup-style.

That means practicing my music in ways that sometimes feels over the top or even a little obnoxious. But on stage or in a recording it will probably be just right—my sweeping, melodramatic dynamic contrasts will come across as natural and tasteful.

Don’t be afraid to go big on dynamics!

Favorite blog posts, February 2021

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