Should I buy something new?

shopping business money pay
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Changing your instrument, mouthpiece, headjoint, reeds, etc. on a frequent basis isn’t productive, but sticking with the same equipment forever isn’t a virtue either. Here are some questions to ask yourself (or a trusted teacher or colleague) when you start feeling the itch to spend money on shiny new things:

  • Does this new equipment make it easier or more comfortable to do what I do? Or am I hoping it will magically endow me with abilities I didn’t have before?
  • Does this materially improve some concrete aspect of my playing, like intonation, response, dynamic range or finger movement? Is it an improvement that is more subjective, fleeting, or malleable, like tone quality? (Tone quality isn’t nothing when purchasing woodwind gear, but it’s not everything, either.)
  • Does this really change how I sound? Does it change how it feels to play, physically? Does it change how it feels to play, emotionally? (All of these can be valid reasons to change, but it’s worth sorting out what’s really changing.)
  • Is this new equipment appealing in some way that is more about appearance or cachet than playability? Is that worth the investment to me? Would I be sacrificing some playability for bling factor?
  • How did I come to desire this particular item? Was I influenced by advertising, celebrity endorsements, a commissioned salesperson, an internet stranger, or someone/something else that might have motivations separate from my success? Was I happy with my current setup before I learned of this product’s existence?

If you’re currently a student, be sure to check in with your teacher before any new gear purchase!

Factors in woodwind instrument response

person holding brown glass bottle
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Response is how readily the equipment/player combination produces sound. “Good” response generally means that the player-plus-instrument are able to produce a sound that starts precisely when intended, with clarity and with no unwanted additional noise. Many factors affect the quality and reliability of the response:

  • Instrument condition. An instrument with leaks, cracks, problematic dents, etc. will often respond in a delayed or unpredictable way.
  • Instrument quality. The instrument’s design and manufacture also play a role—an instrument of inferior design/build may respond inconsistently.
  • Setup. Mouthpieces and reeds are similarly subject to design and manufacturing flaws, and must also be well-matched to each other and the instrument. A common issue with single-reed instruments, for example, is using a “strength” of reed that isn’t a good fit for the mouthpiece.
  • Breath support. One of the most immediate and effective ways to improve response, even when other factors are less than ideal, is to use powerful, consistent breath support.
  • Embouchure. Any embouchure problem can affect response, but by far the most common is embouchure tightness or tension. Remember that all woodwind embouchures should be relaxed.
  • Voicing. This is one of the least-taught and least-understood, but one of the most crucial aspects of good woodwind playing. Properly-calibrated, steady voicing improves response (and just about everything else).
  • Finger accuracy and timing. Fingers that arrive on their keys or toneholes out of sync, or that fail to form proper seals, impede response like the leaks that they are.
  • Inherent acoustical problems. Even the best-made instruments have some built-in compromises that might make certain notes less responsive even under the best circumstances. A common example is the lowest notes on the flute, the oboe, and the saxophone, which may tend toward slight sluggishness even for the best players and equipment. Players may need to compensate in various ways.
  • Musical context. Related to the acoustical problems of the various woodwinds, certain musical contexts may exacerbate issues. For example, the bassoon has some specific intervals that are hard to slur smoothly, and skilled bassoonists might use special fingerings to improve these.

For your best response on every note, be sure to address each of the many factors involved.

Using “borrowed” fingerings in EWI mode

The Akai EWI series’ “EWI” fingering mode is powerful and flexible. It bears a resemblance to basic saxophone fingerings (while wisely eschewing saxophoney compromises like rollers and palm keys). But with a little imagination EWI players can “borrow” a number of useful fingerings from other woodwinds, too.

For clarity, I’m considering any fingering that appears in the EWI 4000s’s Reference Manual under “EWI Fingerings” as a basic, non-borrowed fingering. Some of the fingerings I’m listing do appear in the manual for other fingering modes (saxophone, flute, and oboe). Some of the fingerings aren’t great-sounding fingerings on the “real” (non-electric) woodwind instruments, but work beautifully on the EWI, which of course isn’t subject to the acoustical problems of air-filled tubes.

And of course these fingerings work in any octave, which is not always the case with “real” woodwinds. I have arranged them octave-wise here in ways that will mostly look familiar to woodwind players.

Right C-sharp
Borrowed from: oboe, clarinet
Provides a useful alternative in left-hand-pinky-heavy passages.

Left E-flat
Borrowed from: oboe, some clarinets
In the example, prevents having to “jump” the right pinky from one key, over another, to another.

Side F-sharp
Borrowed from: saxophone, clarinet
Similar to using the saxophone’s side F-sharp key or clarinet’s side F-sharp(/B-natural) key (shown here in the wrong octave for clarinet), except using the right pinky rather than the ring finger. Useful for avoiding the right index-middle flip-flop.

Right G-sharp
Borrowed from: oboe
Provides a useful alternative in left-hand-pinky-heavy passages.

1+1 B-flat
Borrowed from: flute, saxophone, clarinet
Similar to a standard flute fingering, or to a problematic saxophone or clarinet alternate fingering (shown here in the wrong octave for clarinet). Of course on the EWI there are no pitch, timbre, or response issues with this (or any) fingering.

1+2 B-flat
Borrowed from: saxophone
A slightly lesser-known alternate fingering for saxophone (which, on saxophones, often sounds better than 1+1). Useful for transitions such as F-sharp to B-flat.

Right B
Borrowed from: clarinet
Similar to the sensation of using the clarinet’s right B(/E) key, but in this case you must use the right pinky to press two keys at once. In the example, this allows you to keep the movement in one hand, rather than having to coordinate both pinkies.

Side C
Borrowed from: saxophone
Useful in chromatic passages and trills for avoiding the left index-middle flip-flop.

These fingerings of course only scratch the surface of what’s possible with the EWI-mode fingering system. But because of their familiarity and time-tested usefulness to players of “real” woodwinds, they can be adapted easily and fruitfully to EWI playing.

Do woodwind instruments have similar fingerings?

"clarinet fingers" by MikeBlogs is licensed under CC BY

I get lots of emails and search traffic from people trying to find the answer to questions about woodwinds and “similar” fingerings: Do they use the same or similar fingerings? Which instruments are the most similar? Can I use fingerings from _____ instrument on _____ instrument?

I’ve addressed before why these questions might be coming from misconceptions about woodwind doubling, and why the answers might not be as useful as one might think. But beyond that, some of those questions are difficult to answer in a straightforward way.

Do any of the major modern Western woodwind instrument families use identical fingerings (such as saxophones using the same fingerings as oboes, or clarinets using the same fingerings as bassoons)? No.

Do instruments within those families use identical fingerings? Kind of. For example, the members of the concert flute family (piccolo, flute, alto and bass flutes, and others), use fingerings that are at least very similar. But some use slightly-varied fingerings to improve pitch, tone, or response of certain notes: for example, piccolo players often use a modified fingering for the third-octave A-flat, which they wouldn’t use on a lower-pitched flute. And the keys that appear on flutes aren’t set in stone—some might have a special C-sharp trill key, or a low B key, that other flutes lack. And clever flute makers can add anything else they dream up that customers will pay for.

Do any of the woodwind families have similar enough fingerings that you can play them without significant additional effort to learn how? No, not if you want to play them well.

But really, which ones are the most similar? It’s not as simple as counting up the number of “matching” fingerings between two instruments. You could argue that the written note D below the treble clef staff is “similar” for flute, oboe, and saxophone. D uses the three middle fingers of each hand on each of these instruments. But the flute also requires pressing a left-hand thumb key, while the others don’t. And the oboe has more than one key for the right ring finger, and I suppose it’s up to you whether the correct one for this note feels the “same” to you as the other two instruments. On clarinet, this written note uses a very different fingering, but the note written an octave higher has similarities to the flute/oboe/saxophone note. And the bassoon doesn’t have a D fingered in a closely similar way, but its low G uses a similar fingering that falls into roughly analogous scale fingering patterns.

(While brainstorming this post, I briefly considered trying to create some kind of chart showing which fingerings were the “same” or “similar” across the woodwind families. I quickly abandoned the idea because the necessary exceptions, explanations, and context would have complicated it beyond any usefulness.)

Like asking if two languages are similar, asking if two instruments’ fingerings are similar begs an answer that is incomplete, misleading, and ultimately not useful. If your intention is to apply that answer to playing or teaching woodwind instruments, your success will depend on instead approaching each instrument on its own terms.

Teaching with your ears

"listen" by Jay Morrison is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

We have this conversation often in my woodwind methods classes:

Me: What do you hear in so-and-so’s playing?
Student: Their embouchure is too tight?
Me: Can you hear their embouchure muscles?
Student: …?
Me: Not directly, right? But what are you hearing that makes you think their embouchure is tight?
Student: Well, it looks like it could be kind of tight.
Me: But what do you hear?

Woodwind teaching isn’t, or shouldn’t be, primarily a visual activity. Crucial parts of woodwind-playing technique happen entirely out of view, inside the player’s body. And the most important element—air—is mostly invisible.

But lots of teachers like to focus on visual things. (It’s easier!) My college students often arrive on campus able to explain in elaborate detail the “right” way to sit in a chair when playing, but with little understanding of less-visible concepts like breath support and voicing. Students in my woodwind methods course, given opportunities to critique woodwind playing, often zero in on how a classmate’s embouchure looks, rather than on the sounds they are making. I see educators from beginning-band directors to world-famous masterclass teachers tackling the most immediately visible elements of a student’s approach, while ignoring glaringly audible issues.

Additionally, visual evaluation is complicated by the variety of human bodies. I regularly have to talk students literally off the ledge, as they sit precariously on the forwardmost inch of their chairs, determined that this is the one-size-fits-all correct position, regardless of the size and shape of their bodies. And I can’t count the times that I’ve seen a pedagogical book describe in breathless detail the way a player’s lips should look when playing, always assuming that those lips are of a very specific size and shape (and sometimes color).

Like many teachers, I’ve done much of my instruction in recent months remotely, via video. In the early weeks of the New Normal, I got caught up in concerns about lighting and camera angles. But I find lately that I really don’t look at the screen much when my students are playing. Most of the information I need comes from their audio feeds. Visual evaluation is at best a helpful supplement.

It’s hard to break the habit of always using our eyes first, or of jumping to conclusions about things we can’t observe directly. Start with the sound, and work from there.

Giving feedback in masterclasses and competitions

As a graduate student and younger professional I started to get opportunities to teach in masterclass/workshop settings and to adjudicate competitions. I had taught private lessons for many years. But sometimes I found it challenging to give effective feedback in these newer situations, where I was hearing someone play for the first time and needed to give useful suggestions after just a quick first impression. For example:

  • I would listen to a talented competition entrant who played at a much higher level than my students, and I would find myself at a loss for what to address.
  • I would listen to a struggling masterclass student with deep fundamental flaws in their playing, but it seemed too overwhelming to tackle in fifteen minutes. So instead I would harp on some small detail like an esoteric alternate fingering or the various possible approaches to a certain grace note.

There are plenty of “right” ways to teach in these situations, but here’s the breakthrough that really helped me:

  1. Have a specific list of things in mind to listen for. In terms of the woodwind sounds I’m hearing, I generally focus on tone, response, intonation, execution of volume/dynamics, and finger and tongue fluency. Assuming these are generally in place, I might also consider non-woodwind-specific musical/interpretive factors.
  2. While listening, make a list, mental and/or written, of a very small handful of items I want to address (sometimes just one). I do my best to pick the most bang-for-the-buck ones, or the ones I haven’t already addressed with another student in the same masterclass, but I don’t stress over it too much.
  3. Have some accumulated ideas of techniques and approaches that can be applied to the problem areas. For woodwind fundamentals, which are appropriately addressed at every stage of advancement, I zero in on posture and playing position, breath support, voicing, embouchure, finger and tongue movement, and fingering selection. For interpretive matters, I might address small-scale phrase shaping, and from there work up to interpretation of larger structures like themes, movements, complete pieces, and even full recital programs.

Your lists (what to listen for, and what techniques/approaches to apply) might differ from mine, though you are welcome to adopt them if you need a starting point. The object is to have a methodical approach to listening and problem-solving, so I’m making efficient and effective use of time.

Good luck!

Stop teaching clarinet and saxophone embouchures like this

As a ten-year-old beginning saxophonist, I was taught to form an embouchure like this:

  • Put your top teeth on the mouthpiece
  • Let your lower lip sort of roll or squish over your lower teeth
  • Close your mouth

That’s how I played for years. As I advanced and started to practice more, I would sometimes hurt the inside of my lower lip, drawing blood or forming blisters or scar tissue. I considered this a badge of honor: I practiced until I bled.

But I don’t play that way anymore, nor do I teach students that way. I made an important change to my embouchure that lets me play for extended periods pain- and blood-free, while sounding better and having more control.

The problem with the lower-lip-over-the-teeth approach is that it sets the lower lip up to serve as a sacrificial cushion, to protect the reed from the lower teeth. Sure, you can just tell your students to “stop biting,” but if you’re teaching them an embouchure that’s based on biting, then good luck.

It’s more useful to think of the embouchure this way:

  • Put your top teeth on the mouthpiece
  • Let your jaw hang open a bit, so your lower teeth stay clear of the reed
  • Keep your jaw open, and allow your lips to close around the mouthpiece and reed.

This approach makes sure the lips are used to form the embouchure, not the jaw. It improves tone, response, dynamic range, and more, and virtually eliminates lower lip pain.

Left: jaw-formed clarinet embouchure. Right: lip-formed clarinet embouchure.

If you are used to a jaw-formed embouchure concept, you might find that switching to the lip-formed embouchure leaves you feeling like you’ve lost some control of pitch and tone. If so, double-check your breath support; with the jaw out of the way you will need to depend on those support muscles more for stability.

Don’t play through pain—use a better approach.

“More air”

"Grace under Pressure" by A.Davey is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

When I use the term “breath support,” students and colleagues often echo back something like “oh, right, more air.” But is breath support the same thing as “more air?”

Measuring quantities of air isn’t completely straightforward—when we say “more air,” we might rightfully wonder whether that means a greater volume filled with air, or a greater number of air molecules, or whether we’re really thinking of something like airflow or air velocity.

For my purposes in teaching, I find a few different measures to be relevant:

First, you must set up breath support with a good inhalation, and I think it’s generally helpful to inhale a large volume of air into the lungs.

Then, you must pressurize the air by engaging the torso muscles, constricting the space in which the air is contained. (The diaphragm’s relaxation alone does create pressure, but not enough for good woodwind playing.)

The increased pressure makes the air escape your embouchure at a higher velocity. You can adjust the size of your embouchure, allowing more or less air to pass through, which is the basic mechanism woodwind players use to change (sound) volume (or “dynamics”).

I’m most directly concerned with air pressure when I talk about breath support, and in some ways in which that does translate to “more” air. But since “more” can be measured in multiple ways, I like to use a more exact term like “breath support.” That also has the concreteness of referring to something that the player actively does, rather than focusing the imagery on air, which is invisible.

Be precise in your pedagogical vocabulary, and consistent in your breath support.

Keeping your fingers “close”

"A Love Supreme (B&W)" by Roger Smith is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

There’s a common idea with woodwind players and teachers that it’s important to keep your fingers close to the keys. Keeping the fingers within a certain reasonable distance does have benefits:

  • It’s easier to keep track of where the keys are and not “miss,” especially for beginners
  • Allowing the fingers to rise too far can introduce tension into the hands

But I think finger-closeness is a concept that gets over-taught and over-stressed. It seems to be motivated by a desire for finger speed (or some euphemism like “fluidity”).

Assuming the fingers are within a reasonable range, I think working toward extreme closeness probably doesn’t offer much if any speed increase, but does make tension more likely. It’s a micro-optimization only worth thinking about when you’ve solved every other problem with your technique, and even then your results may differ on whether it’s productive (or even counterproductive). Definitely don’t stress out your beginning students over it.

Try this if you like: bring a finger down onto a key from, say, 1-2mm above the key (about the thickness of a couple of credit or ID cards). Then try from ten times that distance, 1-2 cm (the width of a fingernail or two). What do you notice about speed? How about tension?

Keep the fingers close enough to stay in position and not bend backward, but don’t worry too much about dialing in extreme closeness.

Clarinet vibrato

"Key Change" by jmmcdgll is licensed under CC BY

The question of whether the clarinet should use vibrato has been argued to death, and I won’t pursue the question further here. Suffice it to say that it’s a matter of taste and a matter of tradition.

American and European classical clarinetists usually don’t use it. Why that particular quirk of taste and/or tradition has taken hold probably can’t be pinned down for certain. But there are some weak theories that are worth retiring for good:

  • That the clarinet’s sound is somehow special or has unique properties that make vibrato unnecessary or undesirable.
  • That vibrato cannot be artistically executed on the clarinet.
  • That the orchestra just “needs” a vibrato-less sound, and clarinetists happened to step up to volunteer.

I don’t see any reason to believe that the clarinet is uniquely unsuited to vibrato, or that there’s anything inherently “right” about the clarinet being vibrato-free.

Among proponents of clarinet vibrato, there is disagreement about which body part(s) produce the effect—the lips? the diaphragm? the cheeks? This is essentially a settled matter among clarinetists’ closest cousins, saxophonists, who nearly universally produce vibrato with jaw movement. I find this to be the only really viable option on the clarinet, as well, since it can be manipulated mostly independently of tone, response, intonation, and dynamics (by maintaining stable embouchure and breath support).

As to why vibrato hasn’t become standard in the clarinet world, my best theory is that the clarinet’s unique high voicing is relatively easily disrupted by jaw vibrato. While it’s very possible to do clarinet jaw vibrato well, it does take some care to do it without destabilizing the voicing and causing pitch and tone instability. I suspect that over the centuries clarinetists have found this to be a mild deterrent, and instead have leaned into clear, vibrato-less tone as a virtue.

In any case, some classical clarinetists have used it with great success, but the prevailing tradition is a pure and un-embellished tone, without even a trace of vibrato.