Required recordings, spring 2014

Here are the recordings I’m requiring my university students to add to their collections this semester (depending on which instrument they play). All are available on CD or for download from Amazon or iTunes.

Allan Vogel: Oboe Obsession

Amazon (CD) | Amazon (download)

Repertoire: Saint-Saëns Sonata, Poulenc SonataBritten 6 Metamorphoses after Ovid, Schumann Three Romances, W. F. Bach Duet, Shinohara Obsession. Continue reading “Required recordings, spring 2014”

Anatomy of a bad bamboo flute

Bamboo flutes and other “world”-type woodwinds of true musician quality can be difficult to find, and if you’re not experienced with them it can be nearly impossible to tell if an online seller’s wares are genuinely playable or more like souvenir items. I’m going to share an experience of mine in which I gambled and got burned, in case it is instructive to anyone out there.

Recently I needed a bamboo flute in a specific and unusual key (high B-flat) on very short notice for a gig (a performance of the Duke Ellington Nutcracker Suite). My favorite trusted flutemakers don’t currently make flutes in that key, so I placed an order with a flutemaker that I hadn’t bought from before. (I won’t identify the flutemaker here, but I will say that he and his staff were very nice to me. When there was a totally-understandable wrinkle in getting the flute shipped on time, they even overnighted it plus threw in a very nice flute bag at no extra charge.)

Ability to ship quickly was certainly a factor in my choice of vendors, but I was also reassured by the fact that the maker sells flutes in three grades: student, intermediate, and professional. I ponied up the money for a professional flute, and expressed to the flutemaker my need for excellent intonation and a strong high register.

Here is what I received:

cute, right?
cute, right?

Now, the proof of a flute is in the playing, and there’s no way to know for sure if it’s any good without giving it a try. But here are some immediate visual warning signs:

  • Uh-oh
    uh-oh

    The embouchure hole is strangely shaped. I don’t know for sure what the flutemaker intended, but round-ish is pretty standard. Since bamboo is an irregular material, a certain amount of air noise (vibrational inefficiency) is to be expected, but this flute is very airy, and I suspect the oddly-shaped and roughly-finished embouchure hole is a contributor to this.

  • This is an extremely wide-bored flute. Often for flute-like instruments we see a length-to-diameter ratio of something around 30:1, but this one is closer to 15:1. To oversimplify the ramifications of this a bit, a wider-bore flute (a smaller ratio) will generally tend to be stronger in the low register and weaker in the high register. For this gig, I needed a flute that could play just to the second octave above the fundamental note—not an unreasonable demand for any common variety of bamboo transverse flute. I couldn’t get this flute to do it. A smaller-diameter bamboo would improve this flute’s upper range.
  • The finger holes are fairly large, and about the same size. Generally, similarly-sized holes leads to more even tone across the instrument’s scale, but also means that the right hand index and middle finger holes are placed very close together for a simple-system major-scale flute, and on this one the holes are uncomfortably close for me. Larger holes decrease the likelihood of finding usable cross-fingerings; I needed one good cross-fingering for this gig, and couldn’t find one that worked—couldn’t even “lip” the chromatic note into tune. A well-designed flute strikes a balance between large and small holes, and similarly- and differently-sized holes.
  • The second octave is quite noticeably flat. This is a common problem of bamboo flutes (or any cylindrical-bore flutes), but this one is particularly difficult to wrangle into tune. Really excellent bamboo flutes are sometimes made from bamboo carefully selected to have just a bit of taper in the embouchure-hole end, like a concert flute’s headjoint, or have some bore work done to create an internal taper; this helps to bring the upper register into tune with the lower.

When I realized that the flute wasn’t going to be usable, I packed my piccolo and a B-flat pennywhistle as possible alternatives. As it turned out, we didn’t end up playing the movement in question, so I was off the hook.

Shop smart!

Saxophone altissimo books: Raschèr vs. Rousseau

My university saxophone students are anxious to tackle the altissimo register, and it’s not at all uncommon for them to show up to their first lessons clutching the Sigurd Raschèr Top-Tones for the Saxophone book and wearing a hopeful expression. I also see the Raschèr book frequently and glibly recommended on online forums. With the greatest respect for Raschèr, I think this is a mistake.

Don’t get me wrong: the Raschèr book is a classic and contains a great deal of wisdom. It is a must-have for the well-read saxophonist. But I think most saxophonists would do better to start with Eugene Rousseau’s Saxophone High Tones, and have the Raschèr on hand for supplementary exercises and instruction.

Get this one first
Get this one first
Use this one as a supplement
Use this one as a supplement

I’m going to make the following point first, not because I think it’s necessarily the most important, but because it’s the one that will click with those of you who are hoping to “learn altissimo” in an afternoon by looking at a fingering chart: Rousseau’s fingering charts are much better. They are better suited to “modern” (Mark VI and beyond) instruments and more complete (in the sense of providing many more options for each note, though Raschèr’s chart does go a little higher). Rousseau also provides separate fingering charts for soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone, while Raschèr provides only one chart, which he indicates in the first-edition foreword is intended for “E-flat saxophones”—altos, that is. (I do have a few issues with the visual layout of Rousseau’s charts, and Raschèr’s too, but that’s another rant.) Continue reading “Saxophone altissimo books: Raschèr vs. Rousseau”

Review: Butch Hall Native-American-style flutes

For years now I’ve told anyone who will listen how much I love my Butch Hall Native-American-style flute in F-sharp minor. I recently bought it a little friend in G minor, and realized it is high time I did a proper review of these lovely instruments.

Hello, beautiful.
Hello, beautiful.

The modern instrument commonly referred to as the “Native American Flute” is related to a certain flute tradition associated with the Lakota people; of course labeling anything as “Native American” mistakenly implies that it is common to all the groups lumped together as “Native American.” As an additional complication name-wise, there are certain legal requirements regarding who can sell products under the designation “Native American,” so some flutemakers, for example, must sell their wares as “Native-American-style.” In general, flutes of this type, regardless of seller, are a contemporary take on a traditional instrument, often made with modern tools and processes and tweaked to suit contemporary Western-world pitch standards. This suits me just fine—I’m interested in the instrument’s history, but as a working musician I like an instrument that I can buy affordably and play in a variety of situations.

If you are in the market for an instrument of this kind, be very careful about souvenir-type flutes, including some popular makes sold on the internet and in souvenir shops as “professional” instruments. If you want an instrument that plays beautifully, easily, and in tune, and is genuinely suited to professional playing situations, I strongly recommend that you send money to Butch Hall immediately. These are real-deal musician-quality flutes, and the amount of money involved is shockingly small. Continue reading “Review: Butch Hall Native-American-style flutes”

Required recordings, fall 2013

As you know, I require my university woodwind students (oboe, clarinet, bassoon, saxophone) to grow their personal listening libraries by a minimum of one recording per semester. Here are this semester’s picks. They are all available from Amazon on CD or MP3 or both (links provided), and also on iTunes.

Carolyn Hove: English Horn & Oboe

Oboists get some key English horn repertoire this time around, as performed by the reigning queen.

Carolyn Hove: English Horn & Oboe

Amazon (CD)

Repertoire: Hindemith Sonata; Salonen Second Meeting (oboe); Marvin Pieces; Persichetti Parable; Carter Pastorale; Stevens Triangles IV Continue reading “Required recordings, fall 2013”

Review: Oboe Reed Maker PRO iPhone app

I saw a post a couple of months ago by Patty Mitchell (reigning champion of online oboe journalism) about the iPhone app Oboe Reed Maker PRO, and decided to bite the bullet, part with the $1.99, and take it for a spin. Here is my review. As is my custom lately, I have tried to keep the review balanced and accurate by involving the maker of the product. In this case that is Christopher Gaudi of the San Francisco Symphony and OboeClass.com.

(Note that this is a review of version 1.0 of the app, so if you’re reading this after my publication date, then the app may have changed by now. I’ll update this post if I use any future versions that have changes worth mentioning; you’re also welcome to add your own updates in the comments.)

In the world of iPhone apps, I’ve grown accustomed to getting a lot of good stuff for free, and hesitate even to buy a 99-cent app unless I’m sure it’s going to be great. For $1.99, it had better be outstanding! However, in the past I’ve paid the better part of $100 for individual books on reed making, so, realistically, $1.99 isn’t much if you’re looking for a few tidbits of information. And that’s what this app offers. If you’re interested in this thing, think of it as a very cheap book (a pamphlet, really), rather than an expensive app. Here is the main screen, as shown in the iTunes store:

mzl.zazwdwoj.320x480-75

If you’re reading this on my website you’ll see a border that I have added to the image, which reveals some white space at the bottom (the border might not show up in RSS feeds, etc.). Note that this space, in the actual app, contains an advertisement (at the moment, a 1-800 number for a criminal defense attorney). In my opinion, including ads is bad form for a paid application. There are additional monetization efforts built into the app. The “Oboe Gear” button leads to affiliate links to Amazon products, which are providing someone, presumably Mr. Gaudi, with additional income. The “More” button provides income-generating affiliate links to additional paid apps, some ostensibly music-related, some not. Mr. Gaudi responds:

I can understand the criticism of the ads in a paid app though I hope you can understand the need to monetize it. The app wasn’t created for free. There was a considerable cost to produce it and there are costs to revise and update it over time. I hope you can appreciate the need for monetary compensation for those who create a product for sale. My time and knowledge is worth something, just as my private students pay for weekly lessons as do countless other oboe students across the country pay for private lessons.

This is a fair response, I think, if the user knows they are paying for a product that will include advertisements; I was unaware of the ads before my purchase but you can consider yourself now warned. For every other app on my phone, paid versions are reliably ad-free. In my opinion, it would make more sense in the current app marketplace to raise the price on the app itself, if necessary, and scrap the ads, or maybe keep at least some of the ads/monetization and give the app away for free.

The actual useful content of the app is accessed with the green “Reed Maker” and “Reed Doctor” buttons. The “Reed Maker” button leads to a summary of the reed scraping process, starting with a reed blank (tying is not addressed). The summary is ten pages, most with one or two sentences of text, and each showing the same image of a reed with different areas highlighted. Knife technique is not addressed, just which areas to scrape in which order. There are some interesting bits of information here, but be forewarned that this app does not attempt to teach the full process of reedmaking. (It doesn’t specifically claim to, but you don’t know what ground the instruction covers until you buy.) Mr. Gaudi points out: Continue reading “Review: Oboe Reed Maker PRO iPhone app”

Follow-up: Hercules woodwind stands

A few months ago I did a review of the Hercules DS538B dual-saxophone stand with flute/clarinet and soprano saxophone pegs.

I had some concerns about the stability of my flute on the flute/clarinet pegs, but got some advice in the comments section that the DS602B peg (sold separately) might be better. In the meantime, I’ve gotten to like other aspects of the stand well enough that I decided I needed a smaller version for one-saxophone gigs, so I recently picked up the DS530BB stand, which holds one alto or tenor saxophone and includes no pegs (though it has sockets to accept up to two). Most of my comments in the previous review apply to the DS530BB, so I’ll just provide a couple of photos:

Despite my poor photography, you can gather that it folds up to just over a foot long.
Despite my poor photography, you can gather that it folds up to just over a foot long.

It also includes a bright yellow drawstring bag, and the string makes it a little easier to carry if you’ve already got your arms full of instruments.

The DS602B “Deluxe” peg, which Hercules indicates is for “French/German Clarinets and Flutes,” is quite good. It works for my clarinets and oboe as well as the standard combination pegs that come with the DS538B, and works much, much better for my flute.

I tried to demonstrate the stability difference between the standard peg and the deluxe peg. You can see it a bit in the photos below, but I think I failed to really capture the improvement in the deluxe peg. Continue reading “Follow-up: Hercules woodwind stands”

Required recordings, spring 2013

As regular readers know, I have my university students (oboists, clarinetists, bassoonists, and saxophonists) each add a new recording to their library each semester. During the course of their respective degree programs, they should each accumulate a nice curated collection of recordings. Here are this semester’s selections:

Peter Cooper: Cooper & Marriner

Peter Cooper: Cooper/Marriner

Amazon (CD) | Amazon (download)

Repertoire: Concerti by Strauss and Mullikin. Continue reading “Required recordings, spring 2013”

Review: Ben Britton’s A Complete Approach to Sound for the Modern Saxophonist

I have been in touch with saxophonist Ben Britton since I mentioned his blog in a roundup review last year. He’s a nice guy, not to mention a great (and award-winning) saxophone player:

I was pleased to hear from Ben about his new book, A Complete Approach to Sound for the Modern Saxophonist. It is now available in print from Amazon (currently a very reasonable $14.95) and as a download from Payhip (a steal at $9.95).

The book is around 60 pages long, but it’s not densely packed text. It can easily be skimmed in one sitting. What you get for your money is a highly-concentrated, efficient approach to tone production. I (and probably you) have shelves of much longer and much more expensive books that take a week to read and longer to extract anything useful from. Ben’s book is a straightforward, less-is-more approach that is refreshing and worthwhile.

My copy arrived just in time, as my tenor hasn’t been getting enough attention lately (teaching classical repertoire means lots of alto) and, as I feared, my tone and control have suffered a bit. I soaked some reeds and spent the morning with the book. Continue reading “Review: Ben Britton’s A Complete Approach to Sound for the Modern Saxophonist”

Review: Hercules DS538B woodwind stand

After my recent glorious victory in the Saxquest trivia contest, I had a gift certificate burning a hole in my pocket and I decided to get a new stand to hold my saxophones and perhaps some other woodwinds in my office and on gigs.

I had been tempted previously by SaxRax stands, which I continue to hear good things about but haven’t been able to try out seriously in person. I find it difficult on SaxRax’s website to find out exactly what products they are currently making; I had to use their contact form and wait for a response to determine that their single alto and tenor stands can no longer be joined with a special connector, and the double flute-clarinet peg is no longer made (though some old stock are apparently still available). I had hoped to buy a single saxophone stand and eventually build onto it with a second, but now you have to buy a combo alto-tenor stand, and that is currently out of my price range.

Click for larger.

Next on my list were the stands by Hercules, which are more expensive than the various cheap stands but considerably less costly than the SaxRax. Hercules’s website is very clear about what products they make. I settled on the DS538B, which holds alto and tenor saxophones, and includes a soprano saxophone peg and two flute-or-clarinet pegs. Saxquest currently sells them for USD $69.95, plus a fairly steep shipping charge (the stand is a little heavy, I guess).

Many moons ago, I did some mini-reviews of various stands, including the Hercules DS543B flute-piccolo-clarinet stand. I had a complaint about it, that holds true for the DS538B as well:

It has yellow trim. Not on the pegs, which might be useful in the dark, but on the base, where its only function is to call attention to itself (and perhaps provide a little free advertising).

I got in touch with a Hercules representative, who pointed out a functional reason for the bright trim on the base:

The reason we make the yellow trim eye-catching is to prevent stumbling over the stand or instrument on the dark stage.

The DS538B appears as though I could disassemble it with an adjustable wrench; it’s tempting to attempt this and spray-paint the yellow parts black. (I can only assume that attempting something like this voids applicable warranties.) Continue reading “Review: Hercules DS538B woodwind stand”