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

"saxophone" by gudka is licensed under CC BY

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!

Things beginning band directors say to clarinet sections

photo, byronv2
  • “Firm up those embouchures!” An efficient embouchure is relaxed, not tight (nor “firm” nor any other euphemism) and allows the reed to vibrate easily for a beautiful, seemingly effortless sound.
  • “You’re flat!” This is very, very often a voicing issue. It’s not helpful in the long run try to fix it with biting (or “lipping up”), overly resistant reeds, or needless equipment purchases.
  • “Next year, I’m making you all move up a reed strength.” Stiffer reeds won’t make you play better any more than larger shoes make you better at basketball. Use what fits
  • “You all need to switch to a ________ mouthpiece.” Sweeping gear recommendations aren’t useful. Often they are based on outdated or incomplete information, plus mouthpiece purchases in the beginner stage are often pricey lateral moves. Mouthpieces aren’t always made consistently, either, and having a student switch blindly to a bad specimen (even of a highly-regarded model) may actually make things worse. Generally, stock mouthpieces are fine for beginners, and advancing players would be wise to consult with a private teacher who can work with them individually on upgrades. And the finest professional clarinet sections in the world play on non-homogenous equipment and blend beautifully—having everybody play the same thing isn’t the key to matching tone or pitch.
  • “Get ready, because next month you’re going to learn how to cross the break, and it’s going to be hard.” Crossing the break is only as hard as you make it. If you are teaching good tone production and finger technique, crossing the break is a non-event, not even worth mentioning.
  • “Keep those chins flat and pointed.” “Wow, your chin sounds amazing,” said nobody. Focus on the real issue: forming a relaxed embouchure within the space of an open jaw, backed up with good voicing and breath support. You will know it’s working because of good response, characteristic tone, and stable intonation, not because everybody’s chins look a certain way.

Focus on the important and too-often-overlooked fundamentals for success in your clarinet section.

How to get 10 good reeds from a box

photo, alyak
  1. If you are getting less than 80% playable clarinet or saxophone reeds from the boxes you are currently buying, buy different ones.
  2. Be realistic about strengths. If you are only getting 2-3 good reeds out of a box, you aren’t just being “choosy.” You are probably playing on reeds that are too resistant, and those 2-3 are the softer ones. Let go of the nonsensical old myth that better players play stiffer reeds. If you are getting less than 80% “good” reeds from a box, try moving down (or, in rarer cases, up) a half strength.
  3. Update your shopping list. There are many, many available reed options! Clarinet and saxophone players used to be stuck with the few brands available at nearby music stores. Now there are more brands, shipped anywhere in the world, probably for cheaper than buying at your local store. Don’t let a misplaced sense of brand loyalty or tradition keep you putting good money into bad reeds.
  4. Skip the sandpaper, mostly. If you are buying reeds that actually work for you, you won’t have to do more than a few minutes’ worth of adjustment over the reed’s useful lifetime. The available variety of cuts and profiles is staggering. And modern reed companies can shape reed vamps with very good consistency and accuracy.

A brand that genuinely makes clarinet or saxophone reeds with less than 80% success doesn’t deserve your repeat business. But there’s a strong chance you have simply mismatched the reeds to your mouthpiece and playing requirements. Keep searching!

Planning breaths

When learning a new étude or repertoire piece, it’s common to practice at first with focus on the notes, often playing them at a slow tempo and/or divided into chunks. This is a good approach for mastering the needed finger technique, but it may neglect one of the crucial parts of a performance: breathing.

In some music, it’s obvious where to breathe. But in a page of nonstop sixteenth notes, it’s harder to find the right places, and to execute them gracefully. Adding to the problem, I find that when I am nervous or playing under pressure, my breathing is one of the first things that falls apart: I start breathing in unaccustomed places, or skipping breaths that I know I really need.

I recommend establishing a breathing plan early in the process of learning new music. That way you can practice the breaths just like you practice the notes—they become a part of your muscle memory, and will happen automatically even under pressure.

The first step for a wind player should be to mark in the musical breaths, the ones that demarcate phrases. These are breaths that you will take (or possibly fake) regardless of your need for oxygen, because they serve the music. How exactly to do that is beyond the scope of this post, but here are a few quick tips:

  • Beware breathing at bar lines. They look like nice stopping points, but often don’t make musical sense. (They are there only for your convenience in counting.)
  • Background in music theory helps a lot, but you can also use your ears to help you figure out intuitively where a phrase comes to rest, or steal ideas from a good recording.
  • To go deeper, consider studying phrasing, perhaps from a book like David McGill’s. (Put that one on your wish list if you haven’t read it already!)

Once the breaths required by the music are in place, you may decide you need more, perhaps because you haven’t worked the piece up to its full tempo yet (or because the piece isn’t written with sensitivity to your desire to survive). Mark in-between “survival” breaths as needed, perhaps in parentheses so you remember which ones they are. Put them in the best places you can find, and execute them as musically as you can, but as your tempo increases you may be able to skip them. If so, be sure to erase them so your marked-in plan stays up to date.

Choosing places for survival breaths is a trial-and-error process. Mark some in and give them a try, then adjust as needed. If you feel uncomfortable while playing, this can lead to panicked decisions on stage, so choose breaths for your comfort.

Particularly for the oboe, you may find you need some “breaths” where you can actually exhale stale air. Mark these clearly, too.

Always update your pencil marks if you decide to change the plan at all, so that your plan is 100% clear and you can practice it in a consistent way. You can change your mind later, as long as you change your marks.

To summarize:

  • Start early in the process of learning a new piece.
  • Mark in musical breaths, which you will observe even if you’re capable of playing longer without stopping.
  • Mark in survival breaths, if necessary. Use trial and error to get them right.
  • Practice the breaths just as diligently as you practice the notes.
  • As you get closer to the performance, you might alter the breathing plan as your interpretation evolves, or as you no longer need some of the survival breaths.
  • Be strict about keeping the markings current, and about playing just what is marked.

Well-planned, thoroughly-practiced breaths contribute to a relaxed, musical performance.