Buying a new instrument

I went saxophone shopping with a student yesterday. We picked out a nice instrument that suits his playing style and personal tastes, meets my requirements, and ought to serve him well for years to come. Here are a few thoughts on picking out a new horn.

  • Do your research ahead of time. We made phone calls to several music stores in the region, and found out what instruments were available to try. We both familiarized ourselves with the various bells and whistles (so to speak) of the different models, and had some idea of the differences between the instruments the stores had in stock. This became important as we were evaluating a saxophone that seemed to be almost the right fit for the student—luckily we knew that model came from the factory with two different necks. We asked for the other neck, and sure enough, the horn turned out to be a winner.
  • Bring a trusted set of ears. If you are a student, try begging or bribing your teacher to go shopping with you (they want you to have the best instrument you can afford!). Remember that what you hear when you play the horn is different from what a listener hears. When I picked out an oboe a few years ago, I found two specimens of the same model that seemed equally good to me. My oboe teacher listened to me play both, and immediately picked out “the one.” He could hear something out front that was escaping me back behind the reed.
  • Put the instrument through its paces. How does it respond, feel, sound, and tune at fortissimo? At pianissimo? High notes? Low notes? Articulated notes? Check the pitch, stability, response, and tone of every single note, including alternate fingerings. Use your own familiar mouthpiece(s) and reeds. Spend a significant amount of time playing a new horn before you even think about buying it. My student and I each played some of our current classical repertoire and some jazz stuff before making a judgment on the instruments.
  • Prioritize realistically. Remember that your tone will be a little different on an unfamiliar instrument, but that your individual sound will come through more as you gain comfort with the instrument. Intonation, however, is built into the horn for good. Get an instrument that will let you play in tune without unnecessary gymnastics.
  • Don’t forget the old reliable. Bring your old instrument along for periodic reality checks, even if you know it has significant shortcomings. I was impressed enough with one of the instruments I tried yesterday that I briefly considered what would have been a rash and probably unwise purchase. I put the mouthpiece back on my own alto and realized that I am better off with what I’ve got.

Happy shopping!

Dear 2000

I’ve been reading the “Dear 1999” blogging project started by the guys over at The project, which launched last month, was to have musician-bloggers answer this question:

If you could go back to 1999 and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?

I enjoyed the responses, including one from clarinetist Marion Harrington.

Although I was (*ahem*) not invited to participate, I’ve been thinking about the last ten years of my life and what brought me to where I am now. Over the last few weeks I’ve gotten a number of emails from musicians who are about the age I was ten years ago, who are interested in pursuing graduate school in multiple woodwinds, and so I’ve been in advice-giving mode already.

Since I missed posting at the end of 2009 anyway, I figure I can go ahead and change the format a little, as I think I’ve got more than one piece of advice for 2000 me.

Most of the “Dear 1999” bloggers are pursuing careers as performers, which I consider to be an important part of what I do, but my newly-begun main gig is as a university music professor. I am fortunate to be doing pretty much exactly what I love and what I’ve been aiming for for the past ten years, although sometimes it was hard to tell if I was headed in the right direction.

So here’s my advice, 2000 Bret:

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Using autotune in your practice sessions

Autotune has been getting a lot of attention lately. Whether you use it in recording or in performance is between you and your sound guy, but I think it also has useful application in the practice room. Here’s how to use it to shed some light on your own intonation. (I’m using all free Windows software: Audacity and the GSnap plugin. You can also do it with Garage Band if you’re a Mac person.)

  1. Record yourself playing something you would like to get better in tune. Slow scales and arpeggios work great for general intonation practice, but you can also use a repertoire piece.

    Record yourself

  2. Make a duplicate copy of the track.

    Duplicate the track

  3. Dial up some fairly rigorous autotune settings. The simplest way to do this is to use equal temperament settings, but depending on your software and your practicing goals, you can also adapt this to other tuning systems. This is just for practice, so don’t worry about making things sound unnatural. Go a little T-Pain on it.

    Autotune settings

  4. Apply autotune to one of the tracks.

    Autotune one track

  5. Play both tracks back together. The notes that make you wince the most are the ones that are most out of tune. Are there certain notes, registers, or dynamic levels that are consistently a problem?

  6. Try muting the original track and playing along with the tuned one.

I like this method because it’s aural rather than visual (unlike using a chromatic tuner) and because it’s very results-focused. Try it over a few days or weeks and see how quickly you correct the pitch issues in your playing.

MS Excel music hack: Sort musical instruments by score order

For today’s Stupid Microsoft Office Trick, we will be teaching Excel how to sort musical instruments into score order. This has lots of uses for musicians and music educators:

  • Inventories of instruments, sheet music, CD’s, you name it
  • Rosters of students, orchestra members, sub lists, and so forth

For example, suppose I have a list of sheet music for various woodwind instruments:


If I sort alphabetically by column C, I’ll get bassoon pieces first, then clarinet, flute, oboe, and saxophone. But as a musician I rarely have reason to sort things that way. I would rather have the flute pieces on the top, followed by oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone—a typical score ordering.

I’ll show you three easy steps to make this happen. I’m using Excel 2007 and Windows Vista, but I believe this feature exists in earlier versions of Excel as well. You are on your own for the exact details, unless someone cares to share in the comments section.

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Know your foreign musical terms

This is a bit of one of the excerpts that I provided for my saxophone students to play at their beginning-of-the-semester band auditions.


I heard some very fine playing during the auditions, but many of the students were fooled by the “senza vib.,” with some going so far as to use fairly extreme vibrato at the beginning of the note.

As my blog readers already know, of course, senza vibrato means without vibrato.

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More on airline travel with musical instruments

Since my post earlier this week about air travel with instruments, two of my favorite woodwind bloggers have also addressed the subject, both inspired by the “United Breaks Guitars” video phenomenon.

I think it’s also worth sharing the musical instrument policies of a few of the major (US) airlines:

Travel safely.

Airline travel with musical instruments

airplaneDuring the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to do some traveling with my instruments, on a number of airlines and through quite a few airports. Here are a few thoughts on getting instruments safely and smoothly to your destination.

Going through airport security

  • In most cases, your plan should be to carry your instrument(s) onto the plane with you. That means taking the instrument through airport security, and sending it on the conveyor belt through the x-ray scanner. In my experience, security personnel are generally very good about recognizing musical instruments as such, and sending them on through without raising an eyebrow.
  • Security personnel may, however, wish to open instrument cases for closer inspection. In my experience, inspectors are uniformly courteous and respectful about this, and usually notify me before they begin. Earlier this week I had a security officer let me know that he needed to open my oboe case, which I had sent  through the x-ray within a larger carry-on bag. I asked politely if he would let me open the case for him, and he was more than happy to allow this. I recommend taking this approach, since security personnel may not know which side is “up.” If you open the case yourself, you won’t have to worry about instrument parts rolling out onto the airport floor.
  • I also like to lock any carry-on instruments cases that can be locked, and, of course, make sure I keep the keys handy. This ensures that security personnel can’t open the case without me while I’m still trying to get my shoes back on. Besides, airports and planes can be crowded, and I like to be sure that my cases won’t pop open if jostled or bumped.

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Why I don’t list my equipment

Many musicians are eager to tell you what equipment they use. They list their equipment on their websites, in the signature lines of their forum postings, and so on. I don’t.

I’m rarely impressed with what I see on fellow woodwind players’ lists. Ownership of impressive equipment (assuming the gear is, in fact, paid for?) does not make a fine player. Ownership of unimpressive equipment seems, well, like it’s not worth boasting about.

Some musicians seem to see their equipment listing as a service to the musical community, as though others will benefit from knowing what instruments they play. Buying instruments, mouthpieces, reeds, and so forth just because another player uses them—even a truly fine player—is much like buying the same shoes your favorite basketball player wears. No doubt they are fine shoes, but they might not suit your feet, your ability level, your playing surface, or your personal sense of style. Equipment listings are especially hazardous to younger beginners, who may be easily convinced that owning certain equipment will solve their problems, or who may ill-advisedly buy equipment that isn’t a good fit for them.

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More on brass doubling

Prior post: Brass doubling?

Boston Symphony Orchestra bass trombonist Douglas Yeo has a page on his website with doubling tips. In addition to bass trombone, he plays bass trumpet and serpent. Not tenor trombone.

I don’t knock anyone for finding their niche. And Mr. Yeo is clearly a very accomplished musician—listen to some of his sound clips if there is any doubt. But I have to admit a few items from his doubling tips amused me as a woodwind doubler.

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