Q&A: Instrument purchases

photo, Write From Karen

Here are some of the questions readers sent me in celebration of this blog’s 10-year anniversary. I have edited, combined, and otherwise adapted some of them but hopefully there are answers here for those of you who were kind enough to inquire.

What starting models do you recommend as an entry point for each woodwind?

Hi! What brand of clarinet would you recommend for an intermediate high school clarinetist who plans on majoring in music education?

I suspect that you’re both looking for specific brand recommendations, which I mostly avoid doing on the blog, for reasons I’ve highlighted previously (tl;dr: equipment recommendations tend to outlive their usefulness—people cling to them while the market changes around them). Sorry. What I’ll do instead is offer some general advice that applies to beginners, college music majors, woodwind doublers, everybody.

If you’re buying an instrument on a budget, because you’re a beginner, or because you’re a doubler picking up a secondary instrument: buy the highest-quality student-model instrument you can afford. Get good, current, targeted advice from your private teacher (contact/hire one before you buy your instrument!).

If you’re in, or about to be in, college: consult with your professor. Period. Head off to college with the instrument you already have, and let your professor guide you through the process of buying what you need.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s what most woodwind players need to get through their complete formal musical training: a good beginner instrument, and then an instrument suitable for college-level study. “Step-up” or intermediate instruments generally aren’t worth it—they cost most of what a college-suitable instrument costs, but don’t play much better than a good beginner instrument. If your budget is bigger than necessary for a student-level instrument but not big enough for a college-appropriate one, buy a good student model and save up the rest for the next purchase.

For clarinetists, saxophonists, and oboists, often the college-level instrument is a true professional model, and you won’t ever need anything fancier. Professional level flutists and bassoonists may have more of a need(?) for a nicer instrument beyond their undergraduate degrees, and these can sometimes be in the price range between a new car and a new house.

How do I deal with the cost of buying all of these woodwind instruments for college?

If you’re thinking of studying multiple woodwind instruments as a college undergraduate, firstly I recommend that you think that through carefully, and get in touch with the music faculty at the school(s) you are considering. I think for most undergraduate students (including my past self), it makes sense to major in just one instrument, for reasons I’ve addressed previously, and at many schools high-level undergraduate study of multiple woodwinds is impossible or impractical. I think that for most aspiring doublers, graduate school is a better place to dig deeply into it.

To address your question, though: college-suitable woodwind instruments are expensive, but almost certainly less expensive than tuition or room and board at an American university or maybe even a few semesters’ worth of textbooks. If you’re college-bound in the USA, a pro-level clarinet or oboe is probably the least of your financial woes.

If you’re planning to pay your way through school with scholarships, then that might not be money you’re able to access for things like instrument purchases. Depending on your personal financial values, it may be worthwhile to get student loans to cover the cost of a new instrument, and pay them off at relatively low interest after you graduate.

Depending on the instrument and the school, you may be able to borrow or rent a suitable school-owned instrument while you make arrangements to purchase your own.


Thanks for the questions! Good luck with your instrument purchases.

More 10-year anniversary Q&A

Grading student practicing

Each week I have my university woodwind students submit a report on the number of hours they have practiced, and I award them points based on that number. (They are additionally graded on how well their lesson goes.)

I don’t think points-for-practicing is an ideal situation, and perhaps not necessary at some more competitive, more performance-oriented schools. The students at my small, regional university have a range of backgrounds and ability levels, but certainly for some the idea of an intensive practicing routine is new and challenging. This approach helps keep them incentivized (bribed? threatened?) to practice several hours per day, until hopefully it becomes a self-motivating habit. Or, in some cases, it helps them realize that their commitment level isn’t compatible with the degree program.

I use a simple formula for grading practice hours. Each student has a weekly practice hours target, which varies depending on the degree program (or, more precisely, the number of credit hours of lessons: more for performance majors, fewer for music education majors, etc.). If they put in that exact number of hours, they get 100% of the points. If they put in half the hours they get 50% the points, if they put in one and a half times the target they get 150% of the points, and so forth.

(hours practiced)/(required practice hours) × (possible points) = (grade as a percentage)

That gives them essentially unlimited extra credit if they want to go above and beyond, or lets them practice a little extra during slower weeks so they can free up some time for weeks that are busier with midterms or band trips.

Practice reports are due every single Monday of the semester, even holidays. This works better than having them report hours between lessons, since sometimes things get moved around in my schedule and it ends up being more or fewer than seven days between lessons. I have streamlined the reporting process quite a bit by using the university’s LMS to automatically administer a weekly “quiz,” which looks like this:

For Thanksgiving break in November and spring break in March (each a full week with no classes) I have been collecting practice reports, and treating them as pure extra credit. That way I’m not punishing students who spend those vacation days with family or who need a break from the instrument. But the students who are serious about playing usually put in a pretty solid effort during those weeks and earn a nice grade bonus for it.

When I explain this system to other educators I often get asked about honesty. I haven’t found it to be a major issue. That might be partly because of my students’ background and upbringing (it’s the Bible Belt), and maybe partly because lying turns out to be pretty unsustainable: if their reported practice hours don’t seem to match their level of achievement, I start asking tough questions.

When I was a first-year undergraduate music major and not yet fully convinced of the importance of practicing several hours per day, a nudge/threat from the music department scared me into changing my ways. But the sudden “motivation” to apply myself a little better soon started paying off. As I had more and more success I felt more and more inclined to practice because I got more and more out of it. Ultimately, I learned to enjoy and even crave the hours in the practice rooms. It’s exciting to see my students making that same transition.

What I listen for in scholarship auditions

photo, Janeen

It’s scholarship audition season again, which means I get to meet and listen to some very nervous high school seniors (and community college sophomores).

My university is a small regional one, so our audition process probably isn’t as intense as some of the big name-brand music schools. If you’re preparing for an audition, you should definitely check in with that school to see what they expect, but here’s what I usually hear auditionees play, and what I’m thinking while I listen. Continue reading “What I listen for in scholarship auditions”

When you’re too sick for a lesson

photo, Ankarino

Sometimes I have students cancel their lessons due to seemingly very minor, manageable health concerns (physical or mental). Other times students drag themselves to lessons when they are clearly miserable and contagious.

The better approach is clearly somewhere in the middle, but my newest college students are usually living away from their parents and the formal rules of high school for the first time and sometimes aren’t used to making those judgment calls on their own. Continue reading “When you’re too sick for a lesson”

Sample woodwind methods syllabus

Shortly before the beginning of fall and spring semesters, I usually get a few emails from new university professors and adjuncts looking for advice and resources on teaching woodwind methods courses. I’m happy to hear from folks, but thought it might be helpful to make available a generic syllabus based on how I teach my class.

My class is 2 credits, and meets 50 minutes 3 times per week during an approximately 15-week semester. A few points of interest:

  • I cover all five major/modern woodwind families (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, saxophone) within the single semester.
  • I do four units, with students playing a different instrument during each unit. Students who major in a woodwind instrument will play the four besides their major; everybody else plays just one of the double reeds. (In a perfect world I wouldn’t slight the double reeds this way, but there are some practical/logistical reasons.)
  • I teach my class with students playing a heterogeneous group of instruments, but since I use a concept-oriented approach this sequence should also work if you have everybody playing flute at the same time, etc.
  • I of course use my own book. Since I have students all playing different instruments, I pair it with a band method. If I were using a homogeneous group of instruments, I would swap out the band method for a series of individual methods.

Download the syllabus in your preferred format:

Advice on graduate performance study and university teaching careers

photo, John Walker

My university students are mostly undergraduate music education majors, but many at some point inquire about graduate school, including a performance degree path and eventual university teaching. Here are some things you should know about graduate performance studies if you’re an undergraduate music major. Continue reading “Advice on graduate performance study and university teaching careers”

What I would do differently as a college music major

Believe it or not, some of my college students make mistakes that seem somehow familiar. If I could go back to college (and graduate school) and do it all over, here are a few things I might choose to do differently.

photo, m00by
photo, m00by
  • Embrace my teachers’ approaches. As readers of this blog know, I tend to be a bit opinionated about woodwind playing, and as a student I was sometimes too quick to dismiss what I was being taught. A better approach would have been to learn enthusiastically and immersively my teachers’ playing styles, thought processes, equipment choices, and philosophies, mine them for every bit of value and wisdom, and wait until later to make better-educated decisions about what to keep and what to discard.
  • Invest more time and effort into fundamentals. Like many students (and professionals?) I spent a fair amount of practice time focused on learning an étude or repertoire piece, as opposed to learning to play the instrument and to make music. The recitals and concerts I was so fixated on at the time seem much less important now, but the time I could have spent working on basics of tone production, finger technique, and interpretation would have paid nice dividends in the years since.
  • Listen to more music. Mostly I did pretty well at attending concerts on campus. And I went to a few things in the community. And I checked out a few recordings. But why let such a large percentage of my musical intake be performances by other students, or by the professors whose playing I already knew well? What if I had made a point of listening to something new every day, even for a few minutes? What kind of musical depth could I have developed by listening to 365 great woodwind players per year?

Study and practice smart!

Solo/chamber stage etiquette for first-year music majors

Here’s what I teach my first-year music majors as they are preparing for their first public performance of solo or chamber repertoire. Customs may vary in your area.

photo, Converse College
photo, Converse College
  • Dress professionally and comfortably. Formalwear/eveningwear is overkill and a distraction for most music major recital performances. For men, I recommend a necktie and preferably also a jacket. For women, something of roughly equivalent dressiness (slacks are 100% fine).
  • Enter the stage by walking swiftly and confidently. Stop just short of the music stand, so that it isn’t between you and the audience (at least not yet).
  • Before you do anything else, acknowledge your audience with a bow. (If you are on stage with collaborative musicians, wait for them to get into position so you can all bow together. Whoever is standing closest to the front should start the bow as soon as everybody is ready.) To bow: bend at the waist, look at your shoes for a second, then straighten back up. Keep both hands either on your instrument or at your sides. Don’t curtsy. Don’t shrug or roll your eyes or pull faces. (I suggest practicing your bow a little before your performance. Maybe take smartphone video so you can see if you are doing something weird.)
  • After bowing, make any last-minute arrangements or adjustments: arranging sheet music, checking reeds, etc.
  • If you are taking a tuning note on stage, turn to whoever is providing the pitch. Mostly listen, then play briefly, adjust, and if needed play one more time (briefly!) to be sure. Don’t play a long tuning note, like you’re trying to convince yourself that you’re right. If you’re uncertain about your ability to tune accurately on stage, you can tune to a tuner or other reference before going on stage, and use the onstage tuning as a chance to just play a note before you begin the performance.
  • During the performance, don’t make faces or gestures in response to mistakes. It calls unnecessary attention to what probably are barely-noticeable glitches, and takes you and your audience out of the moment.
  • As you and/or your collaborators play the last note of each movement or piece, freeze in place. Hold your position until the last note finishes reverberating in the performance space, then another second or two.
  • If you just finished a complete musical work (not just one movement of the larger work you are performing), you can bring your instrument down into a carrying position, look out into the audience, and smile to signal that the piece is complete. They should start to applaud at this point.
  • Leave the stage quickly. Don’t be caught still on stage when the applause ends. In some situations you can leave your sheet music behind to be retrieved later.
  • In some cases the audience will continue to applaud enthusiastically after you leave the stage. If you like, you can return to the stage for another bow and then leave quickly again. Sometimes the audience doesn’t bring you back for another bow—don’t take that personally.

Break a leg!

Students and paying gigs

Sometimes I get phone calls from people hoping to hire my students for gigs. I’m delighted when I can pass a professional opportunity on to a hardworking, high-achieving student, but often these calls are troubling.

Obviously, the callers want students because they assume students will work cheaply. Lots of college students work for not much money, as restaurant waitstaff, custodians, babysitters, and so forth. Those jobs don’t pay much because they are (ostensibly) “unskilled” labor. But “musician” is very much a skilled job.

The Symphonic Wind Ensemble is the premier wind/percussion ensemble in the School of Music.  This highly select, 40-member ensemble represents the finest wind and percussion instrumentalists on campus. The ensemble will perform at this year's Penn State President's Concert at the Strathmore Music Center near Washington, D.C. The President's Concert, a joint production of the Penn State President's Office, the School of Music, and the Alumni Association, has been held at major concert venues including Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh, Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. Last year's concert was held in Carnegie Hall.
photo, Penn State

Not long ago I was hired to play lead alto saxophone for a gig backing up a singer, and the contractor asked if I had a couple of students who could play in the section. Then he asked what I thought would be fair to pay them. I told him immediately that he was hiring them to do a professional service, and should pay them as professionals. Happily, he saw my point and agreed to those terms.

I suppose some hiring parties assume that students will be cheaper than non-students because they are not as skilled, and therefore can’t negotiate higher fees. (This may or may not be the case—I’ve certainly played gigs with “professionals” who would be far outclassed by undergraduate music students.) Sometimes they want to compensate for hiring less-skilled musicians by planning extensive rehearsals. In most cases, I think they would better spend that same money hiring skilled players to sight-read.

Musicians, enrolled students or not, are specialized, skilled professionals, and should be treated (and compensated) as such.

Things you need to cover in woodwind methods class

A few years back I posted a rant about non-mission-critical information in woodwind methods textbooks.

This is a course primarily for instrumental music majors, who will go on to become school band or orchestra directors, and who need a crash course in the playing and pedagogy of each instrument that will be in their future ensembles. At the places I’ve taught, it means taking students from zero to playing a little bit of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone, all in one semester. It’s a semester-long sprint.

I went on to list things I have found in textbooks intended for these courses, which I think are distractions or filler or otherwise misguided.

photo, Ace Foundation
photo, Ace Foundation

What should a woodwind methods class focus on?

  • Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals. Fundamentals. For woodwinds, the following are absolutely, non-negotiably crucial technical elements: breath support, voicing, embouchure, articulation, and finger technique. They must be understood and properly connected to audible elements: tone, intonation, response, volume/dynamics, and fluency (of finger movements). This material should probably make up 90%+ of lecture, readings, in-class activities, etc.
  • Woodwind-specific band-room survival skills: minor instrument repairs and adjustments, reading and interpreting fingering charts, woodwind transpositions, selecting equipment (this needs to be a much bigger conversation than just a list of brands and models), and matching students to instruments (hint: gender, anatomical factors within broad norms, and ill-conceived proficiency testing are not good ways of doing this).
  • Introduction to additional resources. One, two, or even several semesters are not enough to make a undergraduate student into an effective teacher of woodwinds; they need to know how and why to consult available pedagogical books, journals, and online materials.

Also, disturbingly, I have been hearing occasionally from woodwind methods teachers who are choosing or are being encouraged to skip or minimize the double reeds and focus on flute, clarinet, and saxophone. (I even heard from a publisher alerting me to their woodwind methods textbook that does not cover the double reeds!) I think this is a disastrous side effect of a marching-band-centric approach to music education, and leaves future music educators woefully unprepared to lift their band programs above that level. You have to teach oboe and bassoon!

The question I get a lot from new college professors about to teach their first woodwind methods course is which textbook to use. I don’t have a strong recommendation. Dietz and Westphal seem to be commonly used, but they are expensive and have the other problems I have previously described. I currently use some materials of my own with my woodwind classes, which may or may not at some point become available. If you like, join this mailing list and I’ll use it to spam you if I ever get everything edited into a book-like form. Update: the book is now available!

Make sure you are using your woodwind class’s time well, preparing them to teach woodwind fundamentals clearly and thoroughly.