What kind of ligature should I get?

I’m on record as believing that clarinet and saxophone ligatures make little if any actual difference in how you sound. You’re welcome to disagree, but you might want to watch Michael Lowenstern’s video about it first.

So, assuming the ligature has little direct influence on sound, what is the best kind to buy?

Consider the humble fabric-type ligature:

Fabric-type clarinet and saxophone ligatures

They can be made of fabric or various other flexible materials. Fake-leather materials are popular.

Here are their advantages over most other ligatures:

  • Generally inexpensive, although there are pricier versions available if paying more makes you feel better
  • Relatively easy to fit to even unusual mouthpieces and reeds, since they are flexible
  • Durable: I still have and use one I bought in high school
  • Not easily damaged: can be dropped, stepped on, or otherwise battered with little if any ill effect
  • Won’t dig into or otherwise damage reeds or mouthpieces
  • More expensive than an actual shoelace, but quicker and easier to install
  • Ambidextrous: many of the popular inexpensive ones can be switched for left- or right-handed screw tightening
  • Usually just one screw to tighten, so 50% less tightening/loosening time than the many other kinds of ligatures that have two screws
  • Available: no waiting lists or custom-building, easily purchaseable from just about any brick-and-mortar or online band-instrument retailer

I have a number of fancy and expensive ligatures that various teachers required I buy over the years of my education, including some plated in actual gold. They don’t outperform my fabric-type ones in any meaningful way. You may still see them in my performance videos, etc., as I am still trying to get my money’s worth out of them. When they break or wear out, I’ll replace them cheaply and easily with good reliable fabric ones.

Get a good, reliable, no-nonsense ligature to hold your reed in place, and happy practicing!

Why doesn’t my new mouthpiece work?

a person s hand holding saxophone mouthpiece

So you bought a new mouthpiece! How exciting. But wait—it’s not playing as well as you hoped. Maybe it squeaks, or some (or all) notes don’t come out very well, or the tuning is weird. Let’s consider some possible reasons why:

  • First, it’s always a good idea to review the fundamentals of tone production: breath support, voicing, and embouchure. Those things probably didn’t really change when you got a new mouthpiece, but maybe the old one was more forgiving of some weaknesses in your technique, and the new one is revealing those issues.
  • A new mouthpiece is likely to require a different reed than the old mouthpiece. Try some harder or softer reeds and see if your results change. In general, a mouthpiece with a larger tip opening tends to like a softer reed, and a smaller opening works better with a harder reed. But it’s more complicated than that, and the only way to really know which strength, cut, brand, etc. will work best is to try them out. (Some mouthpiece makers do suggest reeds that go well with their mouthpieces, but your results may vary.)
  • Also: even if your new mouthpiece is compatible with the reeds you have been buying, ones that you previously used on the old mouthpiece may have kind of molded to the old mouthpiece. Try some fresh ones.
  • Not all mouthpieces are created equal, even mouthpieces of the same brand and model. This can be due to hand-finishing or other manufacturing variables. It’s possible that the one you got isn’t as good as the one that your friend or teacher or favorite professional player uses. If possible, it’s worth trying several before you pick one. And especially with older or used mouthpieces, they can warp or otherwise change shape in small ways, and that can change their playing characteristics and ability to mate well with a reed.
  • Let’s consider one more hard truth: if you bought a mouthpiece never having played on it (or at least one like it) before, you may have picked something that just isn’t going a good match for you. It’s easy to get caught up in the promises in advertising copy or on product websites, or to assume that your favorite player’s mouthpiece will be suited to your equipment and playing style. Some mouthpieces are made for extreme or unusual reed choices, embouchures, or playing situations, but most players benefit from a relatively middle-of-the-road mouthpiece. And, of course, some mouthpieces just aren’t as good as advertised at all. Your best bet might be to return or sell the new mouthpiece, and invest instead in lessons with a good teacher who can either guide you in a better-informed purchase, or help you get the results you want out of a mouthpiece you already have.

A good rule of thumb is that a mouthpiece can’t give you skills, talent, or creativity. It can only remove, or add, obstacles to tone production. Pick a mouthpiece that makes it easier for you to do what you do, and get some help from a qualified teacher if needed. Good luck!

Common woodwind-playing myths

Watch out for these woodwind myths:

Why do I need to use alternate fingerings?

person s hands with paint

Woodwind instruments including the flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone all have more than one fingering for some notes. Why is that, and do you need to learn them all? Instead, could you just learn the one main fingering for every note and get really good at using it?

Here are some things to think about:

  • There’s not always one “main” fingering. For example, the clarinet has its “pinky finger” notes that have left-hand or right-hand options, and you need to know both equally well to play above the beginner level. The flute has “1 and 1” and “thumb” fingerings for B-flat that are both common and standard. The oboe has two or three standard fingerings for F. The bassoon’s thumb and pinky options for F-sharp and A-flat and the saxophone’s “side” and “bis” B-flats are also arguably equally important.
  • Using an alternate fingering can sometimes help avoid awkward movements. One example is flip-flopping (one finger lifting up while another presses down) with F to F-sharp on saxophone or in the clarinet’s middle register. Another is sliding (moving a finger from one key to another) like going from D on the oboe to F with the right-hand F key. Sometimes these awkward movements are unavoidable, but good woodwind players avoid them whenever possible.
  • Alternate fingerings don’t always sound or respond the same. Some do, such as the clarinet’s pinky finger notes, because the pinky keys open and close the same holes. But some alternate fingerings might be a little louder or softer, sharper or flatter, more or less resistant, or brighter or darker in tone. Excellent woodwind players use these differences in artistic ways.

So alternate fingerings are important and useful. But do you need all of them?

There can be a lot of alternate fingerings. Advanced bassoonists sometimes refer to a book of fingerings that is over 300 pages long! (There are books for other instruments, too.) Sometimes there can be dozens of fingerings for a single note.

If you’re currently learning an instrument and using a method book (individual or band method) that has a fingering chart, you could check to see which notes have more than one fingering. It might be a worthwhile challenge to learn all those fingerings, and see if the book gives any hints about when to use which ones.

If you’re a more advanced student, the music you’re working on might present challenges when fingering patterns get awkward. Take on the challenge of researching lesser-known alternate fingerings that might help. (Sometimes a fingering has both advantages and disadvantages that you have to weigh carefully.) Start collecting useful fingering charts, or compile your own.

If you have my sights set on playing professionally, then you will need to know lots of alternate fingerings, have good resources to consult when you need more options, and know exactly how each fingering sounds, responds, and tunes on your instrument.

Good luck!

What to listen for (or ignore) in cane vs. synthetic reed comparisons

selective focus photography of gray stainless steel condenser microphone

With the recent release of the second-generation Venn clarinet and saxophone reeds from D’Addario Woodwinds, there’s a new rush of YouTube videos and social media posts comparing them to cane reeds (and/or to other synthetics). Here are a few questions raised by those kinds of comparisons that you should be cautious of:

  • “Do synthetic reeds sound as good as cane?” You could decide whether one of the specific reeds in question sounds better to you, but if it’s the cane one, does that mean that all cane reeds are better-sounding than all synthetics? You could almost certainly find a cane reed that would sound much worse than either of the ones tested. Plus, if you’re hearing a comparison to a seasoned player’s favorite reeds, it’s likely that those are the reeds the player used to select their mouthpiece, and that they have been practicing and performing on for years. You may be hearing the new reed being played on a mouthpiece or embouchure to which it’s not well-matched.
  • “Can you tell the difference between cane and synthetic?” Would you be able to tell the difference between two different cane reeds? In many cases the difference between two high-quality, similarly-purposed reeds is audible (if subtle). Being able to hear a difference between this specific cane reed and that specific synthetic reed isn’t particularly remarkable or important. I’m not aware of any manufacturer claiming their synthetic reeds sound identical to any specific cane reed (even in the case of D’Addario, who is making both; they consider the Venn to be a new “cut” of reed, not a clone of one of their cane products).
  • “Is this synthetic reed the best-sounding of all reeds?” Tone is important, but remember to consider other factors. Sure, that includes response/articulation, pitch, etc., but it should also include some of the potential upsides of synthetics, like longevity, stability, and consistency. If a synthetic only “sounds” 98% as good as your cane reeds, but it lasts for months, isn’t affected by weather, and plays identically to others of the same model, is it worth it to you to switch? Is it likely that the 2% gap will narrow or even disappear with some practice and tweaks to your setup?

Here is a better question to ask yourself as you consume the reviews, videos, comments, etc.:

  • Do I hear evidence that this is a viable reed? In other words, is it possible to sound good on it, in a way that’s competitive with my current favorites? (A comparison to a player’s old standby reeds can be useful here.) If the answer is yes, then you can decide whether you wish to pursue the possibility further. If the answer is no, that only tells you that you weren’t impressed by that specific demonstration; the reeds might work quite well for another player, another mouthpiece, etc.

New products are exciting! But keep a level head.

(Full disclosure: I have in the past made exactly the kind of comparison I’m criticizing here, but no longer think it’s that useful of a format.)

Doubling up pinky fingers on the clarinet

There are two basic fingerings a clarinetist can use for B4:

option 1option 2


But there are some other possibilities, such as adding either of the pinky C keys. Doing this doesn’t open or close any additional toneholes, so the note isn’t affected at all:

option 3option 4

While the extra pinky finger is technically unnecessary, it is sometimes convenient and conducive to smoother technique. For example, option 4 is frequently taught as a “standard” B fingering in beginning band method books. That is probably because it works well in a C major scale:

When moving from A to B, this only adds one extra finger, the right hand pinky, to the B. Since there are already several fingers of the right hand moving in the same direction (down onto keys), this is only a minimal issue. And the movement from B to C is very simple: just release the left pinky.

The same sequence can be played without the extra key:

This is very slightly advantageous for A to B, since there is one fewer finger to move. But it introduces a more significant complication for B to C, since there is a “flip-flop:” the left pinky is lifting up as the right pinky is pressing down. A good clarinetist can execute this successfully, but it’s a little risky, since fingers on different hands are moving in different directions. There’s a possibility of finger mistiming that can result in an audible blip—a moment when both fingers are up together, producing a brief D5.

So there are advantages to using “extra” pinky fingers in some cases, but it doesn’t make sense in others. Some of my students stumble over sequences like this:

The right-hand pinky isn’t needed for the B, but some of my students use it out of habit whenever they see that note. Then they run into trouble when they have to slide the pinky to a different key for the E-flat. Advancing clarinetists should be aware of the fingerings they are using, and make each choice purposeful. Careful, consistent scale and arpeggio practice can help reinforce and habituate good fingering choices.

By the way, for the sake of completeness, you can add the opposite-hand C/F key for any of these written notes on the clarinet:

Adding pinky keys to any other pinky note will affect pitch.

To make your own fingering and note images like the ones in this post, try the Fingering Diagram Builder and the Note Image Generator.

Creating “lightness”

a white feather pen

Composers (or a performer’s interpretation) often call for “lightness” in music. How do you play a wind instrument “lightly?”

When I discuss this with my students, they often suggest that the way to play lightly is to be lighter with their tongue. When I turn that around on them—”is there a situation where you should use a heavier tongue?—they are quick to say no, the tongue should never be heavy. Sometimes instead they suggest using “lighter” air, but upon further interrogation they aren’t able to explain that without stumbling into no-nos like “less air” or “less powerful support.”

Creating musical lightness is easy, if not completely intuitive. The key is to forget about trying to make the tone light, and focusing instead on making the texture light. That means creating some contrast.

For example, consider the second movement of the Bernstein clarinet sonata. After an Andantino introduction, the musicians are instructed by the composer to play “Vivace e leggiero” (lively and lightly). Here are clarinetist Wonkak Kim and pianist Eunhye Grace Choi:

Notice the subtle but important contrasts Dr. Kim creates in the clarinet line. Many of the notes have a small accent at their beginnings, then quickly taper to a softer volume. Some notes get more emphasis from higher volume or from sustaining the note with less taper. The lightness comes from stringing softer notes between the more emphasized ones, or even from individual notes having louder and softer moments within them.

The volume in the Bernstein clip is soft, but this approach is very effective at louder dynamics, too. I stress this when rehearsing my university’s jazz big band, since things can easily get heavy- or angry-sounding at fortissimo. To bring some lightness back into a loud, thickly-orchestrated passage, I ask the band to look for the marked or implied accents and let those set the fortissimo ceiling. The in-between notes can be brought back down perhaps to a comfortable mezzo-forte, giving the musical line some texture and headroom without losing the excitement of the louder dynamic.

Creating lightness in music means giving some notes some gravity, so the others can float weightlessly.

Woodwind trill technique

Ideally, a trill is done with one finger, and preferably a finger that is nimble and independent, like an index or middle finger:

flutebassoonclarinet

In many cases that isn’t possible. When two fingers (or more!) are needed, it’s best if they can be fingers of the same hand, moving in the same direction (moving down onto keys/holes simultaneously).

fluteclarinetsaxophone

If the most obvious trill fingering involves more than one finger, try moving them each individually and see if you can produce something that works. If the pitch of the trilled note isn’t quite right, many woodwind players lean toward a sharper upper note rather than a flatter one.

There are good fingering charts available online and in print that offer possible trill fingerings for when common/standard/obvious fingerings don’t work. If you find you need to invent a fingering, a good starting point is to finger the lower note on your instrument, and see what holes there are that you could open with a finger or two to possibly produce the upper note. Try each of them, and some combinations, until hopefully you find one that produces the right pitch. If you have a good understanding of your instrument’s registers, you may also find that you can borrow fingerings for one or both notes from other registers.

Sometimes the tone, pitch, or response of the trill fingering isn’t good when you sustain it as an individual note, but will work acceptably in the context of a trill.

The two notes of the trill should be about equally balanced, so that if you were to record it and slow it down you would hear that the individual notes of the trill are equal in duration and volume. Trills should also fit volume-wise into the context of the musical phrase; use strong and consistent breath support, as though you were playing a single long note.

Trill speed is an artistic decision. Generally trills should be fast enough to give the impression of an effect applied to a single note, rather than a sequence of separate notes. They usually shouldn’t be so fast as to sound jarring or unnatural. The speed of the trill can change for musical effect, and when it does it usually starts slower and accelerates. The best way to learn appropriate trill speeds is by listening to great performances and recordings.

A woodwind player’s introduction to: Native American flutes

There are many Native American flute traditions, but the one commonly called the “Native American flute” today is the endblown Lakota-style flute, native to the Dakotas.

  • It is a duct- or fipple-type flute, which means it easily produces sound, like a recorder or pennywhistle, though the construction is different.
  • Many of the commercially-available flutes are labeled as Native-American-“style” flutes, which has to do with US laws about who can and can’t sell products as “Native American.”
  • Many Native American “flutes” are sold as decorative or souvenir items, and not suitable for serious playing. My best recommendation is for the Butch Hall “concert” flutes (which I’ve reviewed previously). They are relatively simple in appearance (though beautifully crafted); some other makers’ flutes are highly-decorated, which does not guarantee high instrument quality.
  • Modern NAFs generally have five or six finger holes. The five-holed flutes usually produce a minor pentatonic scale, and the six-holed ones add an additional note (the major sixth scale degree) plus some additional possibilities for cross-fingerings. Playing chromatically requires skillful half-holing in addition to cross fingerings, and these instruments really are better suited to mostly-pentatonic-type melodies. Most high-quality flutes are capable of playing over one octave but less than two.
  • F-sharp minor and G-minor are common keys for solo playing, though many keys are available. If you need to play with Western-tuned instruments, you may wish to double-check before purchasing that a flute is tuned to your preferred pitch standard, as they are not tunable.
  • There’s no surviving authentic ancient repertoire for these instruments; they are thought to have been mostly used for improvisation. (Prior to the influence of Western musicians, these instruments likely did not adhere to Western-type scales anyway; some were built with hole spacing based on the player’s hand size.) There is some modern (post-1970) repertoire for the instrument, most notably the compositions of R. Carlos Nakai (who is also probably the modern instrument’s best-known performer; also check out Grammy winner Mary Youngblood).
  • There is some consensus for notating NAFs in the key of written F-sharp minor, and treating flutes in other keys as transposing. Nakai uses a kind of tablature notation system that closely resembles this, but is intended to use lines and spaces on a Western staff to express fingerings rather than pitches, so it can be used to notate for flutes with atypical tunings.
  • The Nakai school of playing often incorporates bird- and animal-like sounds, including chirps at the beginnings and ends of notes produced by sudden bursts of air. (The required airflow for “standard” tone is low compared to modern Western woodwinds.) Vibrato, trills and tremolos, double- or flutter-tonguing, pitch inflections and portamenti, and grace notes are also common. Digital delay effects are commonly used to suggest the flute echoing against canyon walls.
  • The only traditional ensemble for a NAF is pairing with a Native American drum, but NAFs are commonly played solo, or in New-Age-type settings.
  • Native American flutes, like most fipple flutes, generally respond well to a low, open voicing, though the tone aesthetic is broad enough to potentially accommodate other approaches.

A woodwind player’s introduction to: pennywhistles

The pennywhistle (or “tinwhistle” or “Irish” whistle) is common in Irish traditional music, and has found a home in some other styles such as southern African kwela music. They appear famously in movie soundtracks such as the Lord of the Rings movies and Titanic.

Here are some important things to know:

  • There are high-quality pennywhistles with good intonation, clear, pure tone, and nice even response. (The Burke whistles are among my favorites.) But some high-profile players of traditional Irish music prefer the chirpier, raspier, less-perfect sounds of inexpensive, mass-produced ones (such as Generation whistles). Those players might try many inexpensive whistles to find the most playable ones.
  • There are also some in-between options. The very consistent but relatively inexpensive plastic whistles from Susato have the advantages of high volume, excellent tuning, and availability in lots of keys. (They also have a reedy tone that some people find too recorder-like.) Or, there are “tweaked” whistles like those made by Jerry Freeman, inexpensive whistles with some adjustments made for better playability.
  • Pennywhistles are available in various sizes, but the way they are named doesn’t match with the conventions of orchestral wind instruments. The most common and traditional whistle is the high D whistle. These are usually notated with the instrument’s six-fingers-down note, D, appearing as D on the staff and sounding one octave higher. (By the terminology used for, say, clarinets and saxophones, this would be considered a “C” whistle.) Other whistles are named by their 6-finger note as well.
  • For non-D whistles, there aren’t firmly-established notation practices. Some notation treats them as transposing instruments, with music written so that a notated D at the bottom of the treble staff is always played as the six-finger note. In other cases, music may be written at the intended sounding pitch (or, often, one octave below, like piccolo transposition), and it is left to the whistle player to select an appropriate instrument.
  • Whistles use a simple-system fingering scheme, and are best used in mostly-diatonic contexts. Some chromatic fingerings are possible but cross-fingerings tend to be weak and half-holed fingerings are awkward in technical passages. To play in multiple keys, most whistle players keep whistles in a variety of sizes on hand. For chromatic passages, something like a soprano or sopranino recorder might be more suitable.
  • Like most fipple flutes, pennywhistles have relatively low breath requirements. The upper octaves are achieved almost entirely by overblowing, so they tend to be louder and brighter. (Some more expensive whistles are designed to “improve” on this traditional characteristic.)
  • Pennywhistles respond best to a low, open voicing.
  • Pennywhistle playing in Irish traditional music uses a sophisticated system of ornamentation and inflection inherited from bagpiping traditions. Since pipers don’t stop to breathe, whistle players use a system of placing breaths that is also somewhat unfamiliar to orchestral woodwind players, leaving out selected notes to breathe rather than trying to insert breaths between notes. For slower tunes whistle players may use a flattement-style finger vibrato. By far my favorite resource for learning these techniques is Grey Larsen’s book.