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:
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.
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.
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).
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”→
Here, once again, are my required recordings for the new semester. These are recordings I select each semester for my university students, a different one for each instrument (I teach oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone), so that over the course of their degree program they build up a collection of great players playing great repertoire.
I mentioned in my recent review of the new Rico Reserve clarinet mouthpieces that Robert Polan, Rico Product Manager, was shipping me a few additional samples for comparison. I received three X5 mouthpieces this week, and I have been inspecting and playing them side-by-side with each other and with the one X5 from the original shipment.
As far as visual inspection, I think the best thing I can do is show you a photo of the tables. You can click for the high-resolution version (warning: it is large and may download slowly). Check out the tips and rails especially.
I’m certain that I have never seen a mouthpiece in this price class with this level of consistency. With the mouthpieces I’m accustomed to using, I would expect at least two out of four to have immediately-obvious asymmetry in the tips, and at least two to have rails of obviously different widths. The Reserves are visually much, much more symmetrical and even. If you look very closely at the high-resolution image of the Reserves, you can probably pick out a few imperfections—but it does require looking very closely. My sense is that Rico’s claims about precision and consistency are justified, at least so far as is relevant for relatively inexpensive mass-produced mouthpieces.
Do they play identically to each other? Not 100%, but probably at least 95%. Of the four, there are two that I find to be virtually interchangeable in terms of tone, and a third that feels just barely purer in tone (or less rich, if you prefer). The fourth feels like it has a slight brightness (or presence or “sparkle,” if you like) that sets it slightly apart from the others, but only slightly. I say that these mouthpieces “feel” purer or whatever because I wasn’t able to capture the differences convincingly on a recording, and I suspect that beyond the clarinetist’s personal space even another clarinetist would be hard-pressed to tell one mouthpiece from another. (I do think the differences might cause the clarinetist to play a little differently, and that might be audible.) And the differences between the mouthpieces are, to me, less noticeable than, say, the difference between my two best performance reeds.
Response (more important than tone in mouthpiece selection) is all but indistinguishable between all four mouthpieces. I could easily keep all four in my case, pull one out blindfolded, and perform on it without any worries about response or control. Any one of these four (six, really, counting the X0 and X10 from the original review) is at least as good as, and perhaps better than, the best cherry-picked examples of other mouthpieces in the same price class.
I can also use reeds interchangeably between all four mouthpieces without any issues. I usually recommend using different reeds for different mouthpieces (even of the same model), as the reeds tend to take on a slight imprint of the mouthpiece’s window, which can cause leakiness if the reed is used on a mouthpiece with a window of even slightly different dimensions. No significant concerns about that here.
My conclusion about these mouthpieces is that some clarinetists may find (as I did) that the Reserve is a better mouthpiece than others in its class; allowing for differences in taste, some may legitimately prefer to stick with what they’ve got. But the killer feature of the Reserve mouthpiece is its replaceability. With the Reserve series, I can get a fine mouthpiece without having to sift through a pile of them to find “the one.” If I break it, I can essentially grab the next one to roll off the production line and expect it to be very, very similar. I can recommend it to my students knowing that theirs will play like mine does. Those factors, to me, are what make these mouthpieces a really exciting development.
I was pleased to hear from a representative of Rico about their new “Reserve” clarinet mouthpieces, which they seem to be promoting very heavily and which are generating some buzz (no pun intended) among curious clarinetists. She was kind enough to send me a few to check out for myself and to review here, and to put me in touch with Robert Polan, Rico Product Manager, who answered some of my questions during the process.
Initial observations and thoughts
The mouthpiece is currently available in three models. Rico sent me one of each:
X0 (which has a 1.00mm tip opening)
I’m a fan of connecting model numbers to actual relevant measurements, as Rico has done here, rather than assigning seemingly arbitrary codes (take note, Vandoren), though of course the tip opening is only one of many measurements that affect a mouthpiece’s playing characteristics. Dave Kessler speculates that we might see some larger tip openings from Rico in the future, but it does seem that Rico has boxed themselves in on any smaller openings with this naming scheme; naming the mouthpieces something like X100, X105, and X110 might make more sense if future offerings were to include a sub-1.00mm tip opening (X095, etc.). Mr. Polan responded noncommittally to my question about future offerings:
Since the product is so new, it’s too early to know which additional models clarinetists will want. We are carefully evaluating the response to these three models in order to determine what is next.
The boxes’ design includes some faux-technical-drawings of the mouthpieces—which I initially thought was a cool touch, showing the precise dimensions of the mouthpieces—but the drawings are actually identical on the different models’ boxes, so they are probably mostly decorative.
The mouthpieces themselves are etched with the text “Reserve Rico,” a six-digit serial number (the first three digits are zeroes at this point), the model number (such as “X5”) and additional numeral 2 (I don’t know what the 2 means, and I couldn’t seem to get a response to my question about it). It seems a little unusual to see a serial number on an inexpensive, mass-produced mouthpiece (the Reserves seem to be going for a street price of about $100). I asked Robert Polan about this, and his response was:
Adding a serial number was an important feature for us. We are planning to offer online tools and future promotions for Reserve mouthpiece owners who register their mouthpieces on a soon-to-be released “Owners Area” on our website. Again, more to come on this in the coming months.
The mouthpiece is also bedazzled with a painted-on dullish-silver “R” logo on top, which I expect will wear off quickly; I think it would be a classier (and more permanent) touch to etch the logo. I am pleased to see the other identifying information etched into the mouthpiece; my old Vandoren mouthpieces get difficult to tell apart once the painted model numbers wear off. The Reserves also have the usual latitudinal lines which can be used to gauge ligature position.
One of Rico’s big claims about the Reserve mouthpieces is the extreme precision with which they are made, using a process of milling, or carving, the mouthpieces out of solid material, rather than pouring liquid material into a mold. In fact, Rico touts “Zero handwork for maximum consistency” as a feature of these mouthpieces. This seems like a daring choice; in the past, I’ve always seen mouthpiece makers anxious to point out the hand-finishing of their mouthpieces. Rico’s implication seems to be that other mouthpiece makers use hand-finishing because their manufacturing tolerances aren’t exact enough without it, and that Rico has found a way to improve those tolerances to the point that they can eliminate the extra step, cut costs, and take potential human error out of the picture. Mr. Polan clarifies:
Using the CNC technology to fully machine the Reserve mouthpiece allows us to control consistency to a very high level, resulting in greater repeatability than with hand-finishing. This is especially true with high volume production. One of the smartest operations experts I know once put it to me this way: “When you ask a human being to perform a task repeatedly, he or she will get it right on average about 80% of the time.” While a mouthpiece craftsman like Lee Livengood can no doubt produce results that rival our machines, finishing hundreds of mouthpieces a day would make maintaining repeatability challenging for even the most skilled hand-finisher. Considering that many competitors’ mouthpieces in the Reserve price range are finished by factory workers, most of whom do not even play clarinet, the attention to detail with the finishing steps is not the same as it is with someone like Lee Livengood, nor does it come close to matching the consistency we achieve with the Reserve mouthpiece.
[Ed. note: Lee Livengood is a clarinetist with the Utah Symphony, a mouthpiece maker, and a past president of the International Clarinet Association, and a technical consultant to Rico on the development of the Reserve mouthpieces.]
Rico claims that they can machine-mill mouthpieces to tolerances of 0.0005″. Kessler suggests that Rico is perhaps stretching the truth with this claim; when I mentioned this, Robert Polan responded:
Regarding the question about our machining tolerances, we are indeed holding tolerances as tight as .0005” in areas of the mouthpiece that require that precision. We do not claim to hold .0005” with every dimension; that would be both costly and unnecessary. But we are holding to that tolerance where it counts. Ultimately the player will judge any claims about tolerances and quality. We did our homework with the Reserve mouthpiece and we are confident it stands up to the most discerning players.
It’s fair to point out that I don’t really have a concept of what kind of tolerances are necessary for mouthpiece making, but, on close visual inspection, the precision of these mouthpieces does indeed appear very impressive. The rails and tips appear to my eye to be very, very symmetrical and even. This is something that I definitely haven’t seen in mass-produced mouthpieces before. Held in the right light, the tables reveal some visual evidence of the tooling process: some subtle lengthwise lines. However, the tables feel glassy-smooth to the touch.
I mentioned that it would be interesting to compare several of the same model and see if any variation could be spotted with the naked eye (my bet is: not much). Mr. Polan immediately offered to send me several more to compare, commenting:
We don’t claim that every mouthpiece we make is identical; offering identical measurements is impossible. We do, however, feel confident that there is a noticeable similarity between every mouthpiece we make, thanks to the control in our process. As Richie Hawley put it when we had him test our consistency, the Reserve mouthpiece has a “comfortable and predictable similarity” from one to another.
Though demand for the mouthpieces has delayed getting the additional mouthpieces to me (I understand Rico is currently backordered by 5oo units), I think it speaks to Rico’s faith in their product that they are willing to offer samples up for side-by-side scrutiny. I will post a follow-up when the additional mouthpieces arrive. [Update: read the follow-up here.]
It’s a new semester, so it’s time again for required recordings. I think I’ve got an exceptional group of recordings picked out for my students (and myself) this semester: lots of beautiful, virtuosic playing, and great repertoire.
Joseph Robinson: Principal Oboe, New York Philharmonic
Recently, I’ve noticed a lot of jazz musician bloggers opining about the evils of memorizing patterns and “licks,” and calling for original and creative improvisation. While I don’t think anybody will argue about the importance of individuality and creativity, I do think it’s a big mistake to ignore the value of memorizing, practicing, and internalizing established jazz vocabulary.
When a person learns a foreign language, they learn first to repeat some standard useful phrases. Then they learn to rearrange the vocabulary and syntax of those phrases to create new ones. Over a lifetime of study and practice, they may learn the language well enough to speak or write with their own distinctive creative voice. But if a student tries on the first day of French class to be creative and original, they aren’t likely to make much sense. To speak the language, you need to hear it, imitate it, and then repeat over and over. Genuine individual originality comes much, much later.
If you listen to a lot of Kenny Garrett, and if you take it upon yourself to transcribe a bunch of Kenny Garrett solos, and if you steep yourself in those Kenny Garrett solos, then chances are you will come out sounding an awful lot like Kenny Garrett.
Now, if that’s all you aspire to, then that’s where you’ll end up: as a Kenny Garrett clone. But if you desire to forge your own voice, then Kenny will simply become a part of your vocabulary, a vocabulary that includes other influences besides Kenny and increasingly reflects your personal explorations with melody, harmony, timbre, and nuance. You are an individual, after all, and the sheer force of your individuality will direct you toward your own sound and approach.
A good writer doesn’t become one by attempting to create a different dictionary. He or she develops expertise by becoming conversant with the existing language, and that happens largely through reading the works of great writers who have gone before. Through careful scrutiny and application of how others have handled the English language, the individual’s personal writing style emerges.
Shakespeare is noted for adding a huge number of words and phrases to the English language—undoubtedly one of the most creative minds working in that medium. But how many of the words and phrases in his works were really brand new inventions? Surely less than 1%. And how much did Charlie Parker or John Coltrane add to the jazz language, that wasn’t already there? Their contributions are staggeringly significant, but what they actually created out of thin air was a drop in the bucket among all the notes they played in their careers. For most of us mortals, our truly original contributions to the language (be it English or jazz) are few and far between; most of our creativity happens when we shuffle and remix the materials that are already before us.
Bob backs up his ideas about the importance of jazz vocabulary with his Giant Steps Scratch Pad project. The Scratch Pad provides a wealth of tasty and useful vocabulary for playing over the chord changes to John Coltrane’s tune “Giant Steps,” a tune that has challenged the best of jazz players for decades because of its unusual and elegantly symmetrical chord progression. Bob was kind enough to send me a review copy of the Giant Steps Scratch Pad Complete, a new PDF-only (at least for now) edition that contains the same material as the Scratch Pad, transposed into all twelve keys. The transposed material makes this especially good for those who aspire to play Giant Steps in all twelve keys, or who double on instruments of different transpositions.
The fall semester has begun, so it’s time for my students to buy their required recordings for the semester. This semester I wanted to address a few glaring gaps in the library my students have built so far:
The oboists don’t have anything Baroque yet.
The clarinetists don’t have anything by Weber yet.
The bassoonists don’t have the Mozart concerto yet.
The saxophonists don’t have the Glazunov concerto yet.
I think I found some great recordings to fill those voids. As a diversity bonus, three of the four are talented women, and one of those is a native Israeli.
I’ve been trying out the Rico single and double reed cases. These are plastic cases that can optionally accommodate Rico’s “Reed Vitalizer” packets, which, according to Rico, help keep your reeds at your desired humidity level. The single reed case holds eight reeds, baritone saxophone or smaller, and the double reed case holds five double reeds, oboe or bassoon. (I found contrabass clarinet reeds to be just a little too large for the single reed case. The double reed case holds English horn reeds just fine, but doesn’t work for oboe d’amore or contrabassoon.)
Detailed review follows, but here is the quick summary:
reasonable initial investment; pricier if you regularly buy additional Vitalizer packs