Focus on fundamentals, not localized fixes

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As I’ve discussed here previously, when trying to solve woodwind-playing problems there’s a useful distinction between problem-specific solutions and simply shoring up fundamental technique.

Here are some examples of problem-specific solutions:

  • Second-octave G-sharp tends to crack on saxophone, especially tenor? When you get to that note, blow warmer air (in other words, use a lower voicing).
  • Low notes on oboe respond sluggishly? Try dropping your jaw a bit as you descend into that register.
  • Flute pitch sagging at softer dynamics? Increase your breath support as you decrescendo.

Notice that all of these suggestions give you a sort of localized task to perform—make some change to your tone-production technique whenever you play a certain note. This is an exhausting way to play: trying to remember and execute a handful of directives for each note that goes by; discovering that a constantly-changing tone-production technique makes tone, pitch, and response unstable; adding another layer of fixes to try to counteract the instability. It can quickly become too much to process, and higher-order things like musical expression get sacrificed.

Sometimes these localized fixes are necessary, usually as a workaround to some flaw or compromise in the equipment’s design or manufacture. But much more often the “fix” should be an improvement to fundamental technique:

  • If lowering your voicing helps the cracking G-sharp on tenor, what would happen if you used that lower voicing on every note?
  • If taking some jaw pressure off the oboe reed helps the low notes speak, what would happen if you didn’t add that pressure back in the higher registers?
  • If increasing breath support helps buoy up softer notes, would it hurt the louder ones?

My guess is that by making these fixes part of your fundamental technique, instead of applying them here and there like bandages, you would discover:

  • a richer, more in-tune tenor saxophone tone
  • clearer, more immediate oboe articulation, with less fatigue/pain
  • flute playing improved in virtually every aspect

Examine your problem-specific fixes carefully, and try making them your default approaches rather than special-occasion ones.

When dealing with problem spots in your music, it’s okay to remind yourself of relevant and helpful fundamental techniques, but the ultimate goal should be to remove as much as possible of the mental overhead and physical gymnastics from your playing. Develop good basic technique that lets the instrument more or less play itself, so you can focus on the creative aspects.

What are registers?

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“Registers” are a tricky concept in woodwind playing. Here’s how they work.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s say I am playing a flute with a C footjoint. If I finger a low C, that closes all the instrument’s toneholes and produces a C4:

Make your own woodwind fingering diagrams: fingering.bretpimentel.com

As I work my way up the chromatic scale, I gradually open more and more of the flute’s holes. When I reach C-sharp 5, I run out of holes to open. (Using standard fingerings, that is.) To continue upward, the fingerings sort of restart—I close a bunch of toneholes again, fingering D5 in almost the same way I played D4. By the time I get to E5 I am using fingerings identical to the ones from an octave lower.

I can play higher notes using the same fingerings I used for lower ones because I have moved into a higher register, which in this case is an octave above the lower register. On flute, I do this by changing something about my tone production; on reed instruments I get extra help from octave/register/”whisper” keys.

If I continue my scale up to C-sharp 6, I run out of toneholes again, and move up to the third register, which is a fifth higher than the second. To play D6, I use a fingering that looks similar to G5, but sounds a fifth higher.

So, for typical flute playing situations, we can consider the second register to begin at D5, and the third to begin at D6.

But this doesn’t paint a complete picture in terms of the instrument’s acoustical properties. When the fingerings “start over” at D5, that’s not really starting over—I have left out the low C and C-sharp fingerings. And it turns out I can in fact play C5 and C-sharp 5 using those fingerings. The reason that flutists typically don’t is that the “standard” fingerings (with most of the toneholes opened) happen to work better for most situations, with regard to pitch, tone, and/or response. Likewise, when I reach C-sharp 5 and C-sharp 6, I haven’t completely run out of toneholes to open. If I open everything I have left (both trill keys, plus maybe the G-sharp key) I can get up to about D-sharp in either octave. But I usually don’t do that unless I have a special reason, because the standard fingerings are more usable.

And starting the third register on D6 with an adapted “G” fingering raises this question again, but with an even larger gap. What about third-register notes using the fingerings from “low C” up to “F-sharp?” The answer is that those fingerings work, too (producing G up to C-sharp, an octave plus a fifth above the corresponding low-register fingerings). But, again, they aren’t as useful because of their pitch, tone, and response characteristics.

So from an acoustical standpoint the first and second registers overlap in the C5-D-sharp 5 range, and the second and third overlap in the G5-D-sharp 6 range.

When there’s overlap, there are fingering options available. The “standard” fingerings are the ones that have been chosen over the centuries by flutists as the ones best suited to most situations, but the others (sometimes called “overtone” fingerings or “harmonic” fingerings) can be used to good musical effect at times.

The flute and most of the reed instruments follow the same pattern of registers: the second register is an octave above the first, and the third is a fifth above that. Additional registers above those are also used sometimes, spaced with increasingly small intervals. This series of intervals is a naturally-occurring phenomenon known as the harmonic series.

The clarinet is an exception; due to its acoustical characteristics it uses only every other harmonic. This is why the clarinet doesn’t have an “octave” key, it has a “register” key that skips the octave register and goes straight to an octave plus a fifth.

Understanding registers is helpful in navigating between them and in finding alternate fingerings for special situations. Happy practicing!

Woodwind doubling and oboe problems

"Reeds, ready" by vincentfuh is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

There’s an increasing expectation that woodwind doublers be competent and confident oboists. It can be a challenging double, but a worthwhile one. Many of my doubling gigs have come to me because of my ability and/or willingness to play the oboe. And even though it’s not my strongest instrument, there are considerable spans of my career during which I’ve made more money playing the oboe than any other instrument.

Here are some of the common problems woodwind doublers, often coming from background in the single reed instruments, have with the oboe:

Fingering awkwardness. Dedicated, conscientious practice of scales/arpeggios and technical material goes a long way here, but there are some additional considerations specific to the oboe.

First, the oboe’s toneholes are rather widely spaced, maybe surprisingly so for clarinet and saxophone players. (This has to do with the oboe’s very narrow bore—the toneholes have to be quite small so as not to catastrophically weaken the instrument’s body, which means they have to be spaced widely to produce a scale.) This can be a cause of tension. Work diligently at keeping your hands relaxed. If it helps, use a neckstrap to further reduce hand strain.

Second, the oboe, more than the other woodwinds, tends to have more keys the more you pay for it. It’s very worthwhile to save up for an oboe with a left F key, and to learn to use it fluently. The left F key should be seen as part of the instrument’s core fingering technique. Many of the other keys available on professional or semi-professional instruments are less-used, but valuable in specific situations.

Uneven tone and intonation. The oboe requires a very low voicing, lower than a saxophonist is used to and much lower than a clarinetist is used to. It also offers little forgiveness for weak or inconsistent breath support. Learn to balance low voicing against steady support to even out the instrument’s sound and stabilize its pitch. (Like fellow conical-bore instruments the saxophone and the bassoon, the oboe’s response suffers particularly in the lowest register when your voicing is too high.)

Similarly, embouchure should remain open, not pinched, regardless of register. Remember that the embouchure’s function is to be a mostly-passive gasket between your air system and the instrument. Resist the urge to bite when moving into the highest register—rely on good breath support instead.

Overall response sluggishness/unreliability. My experience is that many, many intermediate (and especially self-taught) oboists are playing on reeds that are far too stiff. If your notes won’t respond reliably and delicately at a soft dynamic, and you’re sure your breath support, voicing, and embouchure are working well, you should consider a more responsive reed.

Because oboe reeds are so susceptible to change, the best way to sound like a pro reed-wise is to spend a few years’ worth of lessons learning to make (or at least adjust) them yourself. Failing that, it’s worth it to buy reeds face-to-face from a good reedmaker, rather than from a music store or a distant internet reedmaker, so that they can adjust them for you on the spot. Reeds from a local reedmaker are also adapted to your altitude and climate.

Another important and ongoing concern is adjustment of the instrument itself. The oboe has many adjustment screws that need occasional tweaking. It’s best of course to learn this art under the supervision of a good teacher. But if you’re mechanically-inclined and have a good oboe technician standing by to bail you out, there are a number of books and resources that explain the method in a clear and methodical way. A small tweak here and there can transform a stuffy, stubborn oboe into a responsive, cooperative instrument that is a joy to play.

Approach the oboe on its own terms, equipped with good reeds and a good grasp of tone-production fundamentals, and enjoy!

Does woodwind doubling prevent you from being the “best?”

"20070402 - Clarinet - 005" by C.K.H. is licensed under CC BY-ND

My recent post about woodwind doubling has been cited lately on various social media sites to fuel discussions over whether doubling is a good or acceptable pursuit.

Many of those arguing that woodwind doubling is a bad idea raise the issue that the “best” players of such-and-such instrument don’t double, and you can’t be the “best” at such-and-such instrument if you are doubling. If you think that, I could name a dozen prominent doublers who might change your mind, but that’s not really the important point.

As an undergraduate saxophone major, I daydreamed occasionally about being the “best” saxophonist. For me it probably wouldn’t have been a realistic goal, and the pursuit of it wouldn’t have led me to happiness, nor to success as I would have seen it through that lens.

When I made the decision to commit myself to woodwind doubling as a career path instead, I knew that would mean my progress on the saxophone would slow down. But it has been a very worthwhile choice for me: I get to play interesting music in a variety of settings, I get to spend all day at my university teaching job talking about the music and instruments that fascinate me, and I even have an audience of like-minded folks who stop by to read my blog posts. Now it’s hard for me to imagine myself being content to play just saxophone music all day.

Most of us won’t land a top orchestral job or tour the world as a concert soloist. And, believe it or not, not all of us want that anyway. We should be encouraging aspiring musicians to seek out niches that they enjoy and are motivated by.

Very, very few of us will ever be the “best,” so if that is your goal then I wish you luck. But for many of us, myself included, that’s not the goal at all. Mine is to have a successful and enjoyable career doing what I love, and so far, so good.

Does woodwind doubling ruin your embouchure?

"Oboe reed" by quack.a.duck is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Nope.

We use our embouchure muscles for all kinds of things: facial expressions, speech, eating, kissing. Do any of those things “ruin” your embouchure? Of course not. The embouchure is made up of very flexible, agile muscles that are very capable of carrying out multiple tasks.

When people (almost always non-doublers) express concern about embouchure ruin, most of the time what they seem to be talking about is tension, or sensitivity loss, or buildup of callused tissue, or maybe strengthening the “wrong” muscles. If playing any woodwind instrument is giving you these kinds of problems, you are playing it wrong. Your embouchure for any and every woodwind instrument should be relaxed, balanced, and pain-free. Get some lessons with a qualified teacher, quickly.

Woodwind doubling presents real challenges. No need to invent fictional ones!

Switching between saxophones

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If you are an alto saxophone player and pick up a tenor or baritone for the first time, it’s pretty common to have a thin, weak tone, to be on the sharp side, to struggle with low note response, and to have issues like the top-of-the-staff G and G-sharp squeaking.

If you are a tenor player having your first alto experience, or an alto or tenor player newly picking up soprano, you might find that your tone is tubby, your pitch unstable and tending toward flatness, and your palm key notes unreliable.

There are a couple of key things to check as you make the switch from one saxophone to another:

  1. How much mouthpiece you are taking in. I like this trick as a starting point for finding the correct position: gently insert a piece of paper between the mouthpiece and reed. The point where the paper stops is approximately the place where your lip should contact the reed.
  2. Voicing. The best way to check this on saxophones is by playing a note on the mouthpiece alone. These are the concert pitches you should produce: If you aren’t producing these pitches, adjust by blowing warmer air to lower the pitch, or cooler air to raise it. Don’t adjust by biting or by shifting the mouthpiece in your embouchure. (It takes some practice.)

Getting mouthpiece position and voicing right for each saxophone helps you achieve good tone, pitch, and response no matter which you are playing. If you are actively playing multiple saxophones, check both of these things on each instrument as part of your daily warmup, and then follow up with overtone exercises and full-range scales and arpeggios. On a gig, I find it helpful to be conscious of mouthpiece position and voicing as I put one saxophone down and pick up another.

Happy practicing!

Decrescendo to zero

"Volume" by Jenn Durfey is licensed under CC BY

Woodwind players often struggle with decrescendos that quit too soon. (“Decrescendi” if you prefer.) It’s pretty disappointing to play a graceful phrase and have the last note end abruptly instead of fading down smoothly to zero.

There’s not a special technique to deploy in order to make successful decrescendos to niente. This delicate dynamic effect just exposes a common shortfall in the fundamentals of tone production. Correcting this makes good decrescendos possible.

Softer dynamics are produced on the woodwinds by shrinking the aperture (opening) in the embouchure. The flute has an independent aperture, which can be made smaller or larger at will. The aperture on reed instruments is built around the opening of the double reed, or the opening between the single reed and the mouthpiece. Reducing the aperture of the lips on reed instruments applies a slight pressure that squishes the reed closed a little, reducing its opening. (This is a lip movement, not a jaw movement).

As the opening is reduced, airflow into the instrument decreases. At a certain point there is no longer enough power to keep the reed or flute air jet vibrating, so it stops. Hopefully, this occurs at such a soft volume that it seems like the note faded away completely.

When the note ends too abruptly, check to make sure breath support isn’t decreasing with the decrescendo. Steady, powerful breath support as the aperture decreases equals an increase in air pressure. This keeps the reed vibrating as the opening and the volume decrease toward zero.

Consistent, strong breath support and a flexible, well-formed embouchure are the keys to successful decrescendos.

Observing woodwind playing objectively

"Woodwinds" by Michael @ NW Lens is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

I have my woodwind methods classes do a lot of observing of woodwind playing. They comment on each other’s woodwind playing in class, write concert/recital reports, and make written comments on each other’s playing exams (for my eyes only). This is a crucial skill for their future teaching careers.

I try to push them to keep their observations objective. But often the comments are things like:

  • “Your tone sounds really good.”
  • “Your articulation was sluggish.”
  • “So-so finger fluency.”

Remarks like this, especially if detached from technique observations or recommendations, are unhelpful but often also unfounded. “Good” tone is a difficult thing to pin down, even for a specialist in the instrument. Even my college woodwind-instrument majors usually haven’t done enough critical listening in their lifetime for me to fully trust their judgments of what tone is “good,” even on their own instrument.

I find it more helpful to the development of my students’ disciplined, precise teaching to hold them to a standard of objectivity. Tone isn’t inherently “good” or “bad.” (It might be more possible to effectively use a standard like “characteristic,” but even that requires some context.) But it’s fairly straightforward, and more useful pedagogically, to determine whether tone is, say, consistent.

Some better versions of the above observations might be:

  • “Your tone is consistent from note to note, and also seems characteristic of the instrument.”
  • “I hear a moment of air noise before each note, especially in the low register. Try increasing breath support to help each note respond immediately.”
  • “Your fingers seem to move quickly and confidently to most notes, but you seem to arrive late at the F-sharps. Let’s review that fingering.”

Keeping observations factual and non-judgmental makes lessons more efficient and targeted, and keeps lines of communication open for better teaching and learning.

The difference between “student” and “professional” instruments

"Project 365 #312: 081118 Sax Appeal" by comedy_nose is licensed under CC BY

Visit a music store or an instrument maker’s website and you will frequently see band instruments sorted into categories like “student,” “intermediate/step-up,” and “professional.” It’s important to understand that these distinctions are not bound to any specific criteria, and not policed by any governing body. The labels have a lot to do with target market, and not much to do with the instruments’ actual playing characteristics.

For example, I often have prospective college music majors proudly show me their “professional” clarinets, a specific model that a local retailer labels as such even though very few professional players would find the instrument to their liking. These students will, in most cases, have to purchase another, more expensive instrument to meet the demands of college-level playing.

On the other hand, some of my college students have instruments that are positioned by the maker as lesser than the maker’s more premium line, but which are popular and well-regarded among professional musicians.

“Student” instruments are rarely better for students, mostly just less expensive—made more cheaply or with fewer features. In most cases, if money were no object, I think it would be an advantage for a beginner to start on a high-quality (“professional”) instrument. Sometimes “student” instruments are designed to be more comfortable for smaller players, which of course doesn’t necessarily correspond to quality requirements.

Labeling instruments as “intermediate” or “step-up” is another exercise in creative writing. In my experience, these are rarely worth it—they tend to cost nearly as much as “professional” instruments but play only slightly better than “student” ones.

There are a very few other designations that have specific meanings. For example, the term “full conservatory” for oboes is widely accepted as meaning the instrument has certain required keys and mechanisms on it. However, an oboe maker or retailer can label any oboe as “full conservatory” without any formal consequence. (My nearest retailer does this exact thing.) Many makers sell “modified conservatory” oboes, which has no specific meaning—it’s just aimed at people who can’t afford “full conservatory” but like to believe they have gotten some version thereof.

If you are a student (including a college student) or are purchasing an instrument for one, you should ideally do so with significant input from your teacher. And if you are a professional, you should prioritize carefully which features and qualities are most important, regardless of labels.

FAQ: Ligatures

"My New Ligature" by Jordan Hoskins is licensed under CC BY-ND

These are questions I am often asked about clarinet or saxophone ligatures, by blog readers or by my students.

  • Is there a ligature that can accomplish _____ for me? If you are looking for something to hold the reed onto the mouthpiece, then yes. If you are hoping to achieve something loftier, then probably not.
  • Should I get one of the rigid (usually metal) kinds, or one of the soft (usually some leather-ish synthetic) kinds? The very cheapest options are usually metal, and they generally work fine. If they are of especially low quality, they might break quickly, or scratch your mouthpiece or dig into your reed. The soft ones are a little more expensive, but have the advantages of (a) better gripping an oddly-shaped mouthpiece or reed and (b) surviving being stepped on.
  • What about a fancy one, with jewelry metals or cryogenic treatment or inset “tone jewels” or some other expensive gimmick? Won’t those make me sound better? This is extremely doubtful. There’s a possibility that you will sound a little different inside your own head, and that might make you play a little differently. Or that platinum plating (or just having spent a lot of money) will increase your confidence. But it’s very  questionable that the ligature has some inherent sound quality that your audience can hear, unless you plan to hit it with a drumstick. Remember that in some parts of the world, top orchestral clarinetists use shoelaces. (I heard a story of one of these clarinetists being asked what kind of shoelace he used. His response: “Black.”) If you are deeply invested in the idea that a ligature needs to be fancy or expensive, Michael Lowenstern has a video you might find enlightening.
  • But doesn’t a ligature affect the reed’s vibrations? The vibrate-y part of the reed is the thinner part, away from the ligature.
  • Should I use the kind with one or two screws? What about those ones with no screws? Any number of screws is fine, as long as it holds the reed on the mouthpiece.
  • Should I get the kind where the screws go on top of the mouthpiece or underneath? I really cannot emphasize enough the unimportance of the screw situation.
  • How tight should my ligature be? Tight enough to hold the reed securely in place.
  • How far back or forward should I put the ligature? You could try some different positions and see if one feels better to you. Some mouthpieces have a line on them to suggest where the ligature should go. You are not obligated to follow this guideline, but if you are having difficulty deciding where your ligature should go then I suggest using this as a starting point.

If you would like to purchase something that will improve your tone quality or your articulation or whatever, I recommend getting some recordings of very fine clarinetists and some lessons with an excellent teacher. Enjoy!