Auxiliary instruments and college study

At the small, regional university where I teach, it is common for incoming instrumentalist music majors’ entire previous musical experience to be limited to junior high and high school band. Few have had private instruction prior to entering college. (Although this has obvious disadvantages, I’m not complaining: our program isn’t trying to position itself as a highly-selective conservatory, and our new students generally arrive eager to learn.)

One thing that seems to surprise some prospective students is that we have different views about what I consider “auxiliary” instruments. For example, it’s common for prospects to identify themselves as bass clarinetists, or as tenor saxophonists. Some of these students have never even attempted to play a B-flat clarinet or an alto saxophone, and sometimes show little interest in doing so. They started on bass clarinet or tenor or baritone saxophone as beginners in the public school band and haven’t played anything else.

At the university, I don’t have bass clarinet “majors” or tenor saxophone “majors,” but neither do I have majors in B-flat clarinet or in alto saxophone. I do have majors in clarinet or in saxophone—that is to say, majors in the whole clarinet family or the whole saxophone family.

photo, Carst van der Molen
photo, Carst van der Molen

Since most of my students don’t have prior exposure to serious solo pieces and are taking a less-performance-heavy degree path like our major in music education, I like to focus on core repertoire. For clarinetists, that means probably 95% B-flat clarinet repertoire, perhaps with a few pieces for A clarinet done on a borrowed school instrument or played in a transposed arrangement. The idea of a “primary” member of the saxophone family is a little sketchier, even for classical study, but certainly a large majority of the central repertoire calls for the alto. For a student who has a strong affinity for an auxiliary instrument, I am happy to make sure they get to do a little extra solo repertoire or ensemble participation on that instrument, but at this point it doesn’t make sense to me take them through a four-year degree playing, say, nothing but bass clarinet.

A large fraction of our student population is made up of first-generation college students, and many depend heavily on financial aid and part-time jobs to meet tuition and housing costs, so blithely “requiring” them to buy professional-quality instruments immediately upon matriculation generally isn’t a feasible solution. And I obviously can’t expect high school band directors to steer all their students toward “primary” instruments in the event that they decide to study music in college. Ideally, those students would all be taking lessons while in high school, and those teachers would prep them on what to expect, but that isn’t a reality in this area.

It’s tempting to draw a hard line—nobody blinks when a professor at a top music school insists that his or her students meet specific equipment requirements—but certain of my students genuinely cannot afford to buy another instrument within the timeframe of college acceptance to college graduation. The university serves an almost exclusively regional student population, and is generally more focused on boosting enrolments than on tightening down selectivity.

At this point I don’t have a great solution to this problem. I try to make sure that prospective students understand the situation as early as possible and encourage them to start saving. I tell them that I can work with them now or after they arrive on campus to help them find a good deal on an acceptable instrument. I try to spread the word to high school band directors so that they can start dropping hints to students who seem bound for college-level music study.

I welcome some discussion on this. Am I old-fashioned to expect my saxophone majors to play mostly alto and my clarinet majors to play mostly B-flat, especially if they are headed for public-school band directing instead of performance? How firmly can/should I insist? Are there ways to better serve and accommodate (but also educate and challenge) college music majors who see themselves as “bass clarinetists?”


Teaching multiple instruments in higher education

My academic credentials in multiple woodwind instruments have served me well so far: I was fortunate to be one among my graduating class who did get a college teaching job right out of school, and it’s a job that happens to be an excellent fit. Part of the reason it’s a great fit is because teaching multiple instruments is what I want to do, at least at this point; sometimes others assume that I’ve taken a multiple-woodwinds job as a stepping stone to something else, but that isn’t the case.

While I thoroughly enjoy the variety in my day (I’m teaching oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone), there are some additional things worth considering if you take on multiple instruments in a collegiate teaching career. For example:

  • Resources allocated per faculty member sometimes get spread extra thin. When I arrived at my new job, I was given a little bit of funding for library acquisitions in my area. If I were teaching a single instrument, my current and future students would have benefited from all that money being spent on items directly relevant to them. Instead, I was able to get only a few items related to each instrument. My students, through no fault of their own, got fewer applicable new library resources.
  • Time also gets spread thin. We recently hosted a high school honor band on our campus as a recruiting event. At one point the visiting students were sent to masterclasses with the professors on their instrument, so I got all the reed players. It’s certainly not impossible to run a worthwhile masterclass in that situation, but the circumstances do complicate things a bit. The same problem exists with studio classes for my college students.
  • Some of the work multiplies. When we hold our ensemble auditions, I select audition excerpts and sightreading material for four instruments instead of one. When it’s time to submit textbook orders to the bookstore, I submit separate requests for each instrument’s separate batch of course numbers.
  • It is common for applied music professors to attend their professional organizations’ conferences annually, and to seek out officer positions in those organizations as a way to enhance their tenure portfolios. I would love to attend the annual conferences of the International Double Reed Society, the International Clarinet Association, and the North American Saxophone Alliance each year, but my limited travel funding and the potential time away from my teaching make this unrealistic. And since I don’t attend any one conference every year, it’s difficult to get taken seriously as an officer candidate.
Photo, Trevor Hempfling Photography
Photo, Trevor Hempfling Photography

Not that I am complaining—I am grateful every day that I get to do what I love for a living, and most of these problems can be mitigated with a little effort and creativity. But I think they are worth knowing about if you see yourself headed for a career in college music teaching.


FAQ on multiple woodwinds degrees

I get to hear fairly often from aspiring woodwind doublers who are considering the option of a college degree in multiple woodwinds. Here are some of the questions I answer most often.

What school should I go to?

There are a few options for undergraduates, more at the masters degree level, and a few for doctoral students. I maintain a list that is meant to be comprehensive but probably isn’t; please let me know if there’s anything missing or erroneous.

Mostly, the schools that have multiple woodwinds degrees are ones that have large and reputable music programs. I personally did one multiple woodwinds degree at a music school that is widely regarded as one the best; this was an excellent experience but I found my opportunities limited in terms of professors’ attention and ensemble placement. I did a second multiple woodwinds degree at an excellent but less-famous music school, and got many more opportunities. Your mileage may vary.

Will I need to be able to play all the instruments well before I start the degree?

Most multiple woodwinds programs seem to be for either three instruments of your choice or for all five major/modern woodwinds (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone). In most cases you will need to enter with some level of proficiency on each instrument that is covered in the degree, and will need to be well-accomplished on at least one of them. By “proficiency” I mean evidence of a disciplined and serious approach to the instrument over a non-trivial period of time, preferably under the guidance of a good teacher. I entered my masters degree program with an undergraduate degree in saxophone, several serious summers’ worth of flute and clarinet lessons plus some experience playing those instruments in university ensembles, and a semester’s study each on oboe and bassoon.

Will I need to own all the instruments? Continue reading “FAQ on multiple woodwinds degrees”

My studio “fresh air” policy

Last year I posted a small sign on my studio door:

Fresh air policy

If you smell of tobacco, alcohol, or illegal drugs, you will not be permitted to enter my office, whether or not you were the one using those substances. If your grade depends on you being here for a lesson, coaching, or other meeting, you will receive a zero.

Thank you.

Happily, I haven’t had occasion to enforce the policy since then, though I have previously had the occasional student who would have been in violation. It should go without saying that you shouldn’t ever show up to any college course or professional situation under the influence of any mind-altering substance, including alcohol, and my university also happens to be a “tobacco-free” campus, which is rare and awesome.

I wrestled a little bit with the “whether or not you were the one” clause, but it’s my workspace and I don’t like the smell of cigarettes, especially since my work involves a lot of deep breathing. Also, it means I don’t ever have to try to guess whether students are lying (not that any of mine would).

My students’ choices are their own, and I try to be extremely conscientious about not foisting my personal beliefs on them. However, I am also responsible to teach them to protect their health, at least as it relates to their woodwind playing, and to behave professionally. So fresh air—free of tobacco, alcohol, and drugs—is my policy.

Student auditions

I hear auditions on a pretty frequent basis: my college students audition for placement in university ensembles, prospective students audition for admissions and scholarships, high school musicians audition for the honor band the university hosts. It is pretty routine for me, but clearly sometimes extremely stressful for them.

I thought it might be helpful to some auditioning students to have some idea what is going on in my mind while I am listening to auditions. I expect my thoughts are reasonably typical of someone who hears these kinds of auditions regularly. Bear in mind of course that I’m not talking about extreme high-pressure situations like auditions for full-time positions in major orchestras, or even for admissions to a big brand-name university/conservatory; I’m generally hearing students within a range of ability and preparation levels.

Photo, VermontJm
Photo, VermontJm

Firstly, I am more or less a regular guy and not looking for nit-picky reasons to deny you your goal. Some students seem to be overly stressed about tiny matters of protocol: will he be mad if I knock on the door? Will he be mad if I DON’T knock on the door? Just be your best, most professional self, and exercise a little common sense. Continue reading “Student auditions”

Buying a new instrument for college-level study

If you are preparing to start a college music degree, you may need or want a new instrument. I strongly suggest that you contact your professor before making this purchase. Every professor is of course different, but here are some things that you are likely to discover in most cases:

Photo, Andrew Shieh
Photo, Andrew Shieh
  • The professor will be happy and relieved that you are seeking their advice before making a purchase, and will be anxious to work with you on finding the right instrument. They have seen previous tragedies involving students arriving on campus with new, expensive, and totally unsuitable instruments.
  • The professor will likely encourage you to start the semester with your current instrument, even if it’s not really college-worthy, so that you can take the necessary time to pick out a new instrument together. The professor will in many cases want to try out instruments with you to help you pick out the very best one.
  • The professor in many or most cases will have a variety of suitable makes and models in mind, including some (relatively) budget-friendly options. They are likely to have a favorite—probably the model they play on themselves—but will likely concede that the same instrument is not suitable for every single musician. Still, some may require a specific model.
  • Serious college study will require a professional-grade instrument. If you are window-shopping at a music store or online retailer, you can likely assume that anything marked “student” or “intermediate” will not be adequate for the rigors of college study. On the other hand, be aware that not everything labeled “professional” by the seller is high-quality enough for true professional use, even if it’s that maker’s top-of-the-line model. Additionally, instruments that were genuine professional models several decades ago might not be considered such anymore.
  • You may need to prepare yourself for some sticker shock. Depending on your personal financial values, it may be appropriate to use student loan funds to cover this educational expense.
  • The professor’s opinions may not jive with your opinions, the opinions of your old private teacher or band director, or opinions you read on the internet. Be prepared to learn your professor’s way for now, and make better-informed decisions on your own after graduation.

The same advice holds true for mouthpieces and other paraphernalia. Have a great semester!

How I use my undergraduate core music curriculum every day

My university students are sometimes unconvinced of the value of their core music curriculum. Like most music programs, the core at my school includes music theory, applied theory (aural skills like sight-singing and dictation, and piano/keyboard skills), and music history. Most of my students will be educators, like I am (most of them will teach music at a middle or high school level). Here is just a small handful of the ways that, as a teacher, I use my undergraduate music skills on a daily basis.

Manuscript paper
Photo, Andrew Malone
  • Evaluating student performances (aural skills, theory, history). Sometimes when I pick out a wrong note in a student’s performance, they express amazement that I have so much music “memorized.” I don’t. But I can follow the score and tell when what I’m hearing doesn’t match.
  • Preparing lectures, presentations, program notes, and so forth (theory, history). What makes this repertoire piece, this composer, this technique, this performance practice important? Context is crucial.
  • Selecting appropriate repertoire (history, theory). A good student recital or ensemble concert needs to balance the students’ educational needs and the audience’s attention span. And even once the repertoire is chosen, a broad-based musical education is key to differentiating between published editions.
  • Arranging, adapting, transposing, and transcribing music for soloists or ensembles (theory, aural skills, keyboard skills). This can be elaborately creative or simply functional. But every working musician and music educator at least needs to be able to take a given piece of music and make it work for a different instrumentation, taking into account instrument ranges, chord voicing, and balance.
  • Making and communicating interpretive decisions (theory, history). Good interpretive decision-making can mean following the “rules” with strictness, or making informed decision to bend or break those rules. Understanding the canon—insofar as one exists—of performance practices, and having the vocabulary to discuss them with precision, helps tremendously in either case.
  • Demonstrating musical effects for students/ensembles (theory, aural skills, keyboard skills). Good music teachers don’t let the instrument(s) collect dust, even if their primary outlet is as a conductor. Music is an aural tradition, and a “picture” is worth a thousand words. (“Instruments” in this situation includes the voice, for singers and non-singers alike.)

That list is teaching-focused; as a performer I use all of those skills just as much, if not more. Study hard!

Why college music education majors need applied study

Most of my university students are music education majors, with plans to become public school band directors. Their academic schedules are absolutely packed full with core music theory and musicology classes, keyboard proficiency, teaching methods, ensembles, and of course general education requirements. There isn’t room for anything extra. And yet they are required to take “applied” private lessons on their major instrument every semester in residence (on paper, that’s seven semesters, with the eighth being a student teaching assignment; for many students it turns into more semesters than that). At my school, I think the requirements for the music education applied sequence are pretty typical: weekly 1-hour lessons, 12 or more hours of practice per week (that’s my studio requirement for music education students), a scale/arpeggio exam, juried playing exams each semester, and a small juried recital. That’s a pretty serious multi-year commitment for a student who is already swimming in term papers, exams, rehearsals, and probably a part-time job.

Photo, peffs

And it’s likely that many of them, once settled into jobs, won’t have much time to spend with their instruments anymore—they will be consumed with the endless details and crises of running a public school band program, and the ensemble itself will become their primary “instrument” for musical expression. Few of them will ever again perform solo repertoire.

So why put so much emphasis on applied study for music education undergraduates? Is it possible or wise to reduce the individual instrumental study burden? I don’t think so. Continue reading “Why college music education majors need applied study”

The myth of beginning band instrument “tests”

Photo, Dyvo

I’ve ranted about this previously, but since we are heading into a new school year, I thought it might be worth covering again and in more detail.

Some beginning band programs kick off the year by allowing prospective students to “try out” the various instruments, ostensibly to determine which instrument they have the most natural aptitude for. I find this ludicrous.

Firstly, no one is born knowing how to play the flute or the trombone or the snare drum. And physiological factors are only important at the most basic level: if a student isn’t strong enough to manage the weight of a tuba, then perhaps the euphonium would be a better starting point for this year, and if she can’t comfortably stretch her fingers far enough to reach all the baritone saxophone’s keys, tenor or alto might be a good alternative. Beyond that, and barring significant physical deformities or significant learning disabilities, any student is physically and mentally capable of playing any instrument he or she wishes. If your child’s future band director is examining your child’s lips or fingers and opining about which instrument he or she is destined to play, they are wasting the time of everyone involved.

Secondly, the first few minutes that a child (or adult) spends with an unfamiliar musical instrument can turn out very differently depending on a large number of factors. When your child spends two minutes trying out a flute and two minutes trying out a trumpet, and is pronounced a budding trumpet virtuoso, is it really because of some genetic predisposition to the trumpet? Or is it that the flute had leaky pads? Or that the band director’s explanation of the flute embouchure wasn’t clear enough? Or that your child accidentally leaned on one of the flute’s trill keys, and the band director failed to spot it? Did your child do better at bassoon than oboe because the bassoon reed was well-balanced and vibrant, while the oboe reed was stuffy and insufficiently soaked? My point is that there are too many potential issues to sort out in a few minutes (perhaps even a few hours—or years), and judging aptitude at that stage is no better than guesswork.

There is one admittedly understandable reason why even band directors who know better might still carry out the charade of the instrument aptitude test, and that is ensemble balance. The band director needs to balance the success of individual students with the success of the group, and the group’s chances for success are better if the instrumentation is well-proportioned: the right number of students on each instrument. I suspect that some shrewd band directors are “testing” students while keeping mental tallies and telling white lies: “Trust me—the horn is your instrument. I can tell already. Yes, I’m sure.”

If you really want to know what instrument your child will be good at, ask them which one they want to play. Motivation is the make-or-break factor for beginning instrumentalists. (I do think that it’s worth introducing your child to the various instruments so that they can choose from all the available options, instead of just the ones whose names they already know.)

University of Northern Iowa offers new multiple woodwinds degree

The University of Northern Iowa is now offering a Master of Music degree with a multiple woodwinds (3-instrument) emphasis. A few points of interest, according to degree information from their website:

  • Students take 6 credit hours of study on a “primary” instrument, and 4 hours on a “secondary” instrument, and must “demonstrate proficiency” on a third. Presumably the third instrument must either be at a suitable proficiency level upon entering the program, or the student must study the instrument without the additional credit hours counting toward degree completion.
  • Students using oboe or bassoon as one of their three instruments must take an appropriate reedmaking course. This, I guess, means that students choosing both oboe and bassoon must take both reedmaking courses. And the reedmaking course must be completed even for the “demonstrate proficiency” instrument, which might not be part of the student’s coursework.
  • Students choosing flute or clarinet as primary or secondary instruments must take an instrument-specific pedagogy course, or presumably both if flute and clarinet are the primary and secondary (or vice versa).
  • There does not appear to be any special requirement (such as pedagogy or reedmaking) if saxophone is chosen as one of the three instruments.
  • The degree recital must include performances on at least two “of the five” woodwinds. Oddly, it is not specified that these must be the primary and secondary instruments.
  • Audition information from elsewhere on the UNI Music website does not make clear what is required for admission to the program.

See my hopefully-comprehensive list for more North American university/conservatory degree programs in multiple woodwind performance. (And please contact me if you see anything that needs to be added, removed, or updated!)