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”

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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”

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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

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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.

Don’t say this to your beginning oboists

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Here is a version of a handout I provided recently to graduate students at the American Band College, a summer program for school band directors.

Band directors, don’t say this to your beginning oboists:

  • “Shh.” As a university oboe teacher, I routinely meet young oboists who play like they are terrified of making a sound. They often report that in their school band experience, every time they play the director gives them “the hand.” Playing softly on the oboe (or any woodwind) is an advanced technique. If you possibly can, encourage your beginning oboists to make big, resonant, confident sounds. Defend them from classmates who compare them unfavorably to waterfowl. It will pay off when you have a rock-star oboe soloist, with a glorious, ringing sound, for your high school wind ensemble.
  • “The oboe is really hard.” There’s a pointless myth that the oboe is at or near the top of the list of “hardest” instruments. Like any instrument, it has its own learning curve. But it’s quite manageable for a motivated student. Don’t give them unnecessary reasons to stress over it.
  • “Take this fingering chart home and figure it out.” Of course ideally all your students would be taking private lessons, right? But the oboe has a few unique quirks, like its fussy and delicate reeds, that really heighten the need for some specialist instruction. If you possibly can, get your beginning oboists in touch with qualified private teachers ASAP.
  • “Lip it up.” “Tighten your embouchure.” This is bad advice for any woodwind instrument. It’s a band-aid solution for flat pitch, buzzy tone, or squeaks. A good oboe embouchure is almost no embouchure at all—the lips remain pretty close to a neutral, non-oboe-playing position. (Do allow the corners of the mouth to come inward, and the lipstick part of the lips to roll in over the reed a bit.) Solve pitch, tone, and response problems with a relaxed, light embouchure, powerful breath support, correct voicing (low, “oh” vowel, warm air), and good reeds (preferably handmade and/or adjusted by the student’s private oboe teacher).
  • “Check out this oboe player on YouTube.” Listening and watching is a good thing, for sure. But be cautious about who you recommend: there are various “schools” of oboe playing in different parts of the world, that value different tone ideals and use differing posture, embouchure, and reeds. Generally the American-school players value a silky-smooth, relatively dark tone, and use a posture that keeps the oboe at around a 45° angle to the body. If you hear a livelier, brighter tone and see a more trumpet-like instrument position, that may not be the model you want for your young American oboists. (All the regional oboe sounds are lovely and valid, but oboe sounds from other locales should be presented with some context.)
  • “You can’t march it.” You’re absolutely right that oboes do not belong on the marching field, and your oboists should find some other way to get involved. But please encourage the oboe as a worthwhile pursuit for young musicians. It has a noble history and repertoire, is sought-after by university music department scholarship committees, and will bring something special to your concert ensembles.

Understanding response and stability

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A few years ago I drove a friend’s car. The accelerator was much more sensitive than I was used to, and it caused a jerky ride: every time I touched the gas, the car lurched forward. It was a different experience was driving a moving van full of heavy furniture. No matter how much I leaned into the accelerator, the speedometer crept upward with painful slowness.

The car I’m used to driving is somewhere in between—it’s acceleration isn’t quite as zippy as my friend’s car’s, and not as sluggish as the truck’s. With woodwind instruments it’s important to have a similar balance.

Response is how readily the system (you + the equipment) produces tone. A very responsive setup/technique will make a sound with the faintest whisper of air.

Stability is, in a way, the opposite of response. Rather than responding to the slightest puff of air, a more stable setup has some “cushion”—you lean into it a little more to produce a tone.

A very responsive setup takes less physical effort to make a sound, but the sound can be harder to control. The pitch and tone are more flexible, which can be a good or bad thing depending on your preference and playing situation.

A more stable setup takes more effort to produce tone, but it tends to have more steady pitch and tone. Again, this is a tradeoff.

For most players and situations, some kind of middle ground is the right choice: enough response to articulate notes at pianissimo, but enough stability that you don’t have to devote all your attention to keeping things in tune.

Assuming your tone production is a well-oiled machine (breath support, voicing, and embouchure all working well), your equipment choices and condition play an important role. That means matching reed/mouthpiece/headjoint to your instrument, and keeping pads and tenons in good non-leaking condition. For example, a saxophone that blows very freely (or, in other words, is very responsive) may need a little resistance in the reed and mouthpiece (to provide stability). A flute that has a lot of resistance built in may need a freer-blowing headjoint (for ready response).

Develop your basic tone-production technique and make smart, reasonable equipment choices to find the response and stability you require.

Working less hard

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As a 10-year-old brand-new saxophonist, I learned a bunch of tasks I needed to do to play the instrument: blow in a certain way, form my lips just so, put my fingers into such-and-such positions, and so on. Every time I thought I had learned all of the skills I needed, my teacher would add some more.

In the 30 years since, playing saxophone and other woodwinds, I have mostly worked on doing less—letting my embouchure relax, keeping my jaw still, keeping my breath support consistent, moving my fingers more efficiently. The more I can strip away the excess effort, the more my playing is easy, pleasant, pain-free, fatigue-free, and expressive.

On some level it feels more like teaching if I can tell a student a new thing to do. Assign them an additional task. But the most productive and valuable lessons (or personal practice sessions) are often the ones when I can convince a student (or myself) to do one fewer thing.

10 ways to strengthen your embouchure right now!

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  1. You don’t need a “strong” embouchure, you need a relaxed embouchure.
  2. Embouchure “strength” is a myth. Stop biting and pinching.
  3. Your embouchure is made up of little facial muscles, which are good at subtle, expressive movements, like for facial expressions and language (or for nuanced variations in woodwind dynamics and tone color). They aren’t good at feats of strength or endurance.
  4. Your abdominal muscles, on the other hand, are very good at strength and endurance. You use them all day long and they probably never feel tired unless you are doing sit-ups or something. Instead of straining with your embouchure, let breath support do the work.
  5. You should probably check on your voicing, too. I mean, you could bite your clarinet up to pitch instead, but it’s painful and causes lots of other problems.
  6. You know that thing where you play a reed instrument and you get a blister or callus from your teeth on your lower lip? Good news, you don’t need a dental appliance or some kind of tape. You just need to relax your embouchure. Try it! Now you can practice for hours without fatigue or blood, and sound better doing it.
  7. Ever try to play in one of the upper registers of the flute, and get an undertone or some dirtiness/growliness in your attacks? The key to clear, beautiful transitions into the upper register is a relaxed and flexible embouchure.
  8. We can argue about whether your jaw is part of your embouchure. Nah, never mind, I have better things to do. But in any case it should be open, creating space for the soft tissues of your lip and facial muscles to make the aperture. Go ahead and unclench. By the way, opening up your jaw is what people really mean when they tell clarinetists (mostly) to do weird things with their chins.
  9. I know, somebody taught you in your formative years about the vital importance of a brutishly muscular embouchure. Take a deep, cleansing breath. Everything is going to be fine.
  10. Go practice.

Woodwind doubling and saxophone problems

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It’s very common for woodwind doublers to be saxophonists first, and approach the other woodwinds later, often because of the demands of flute/clarinet doubling in jazz big band music. So advice for woodwind doublers is often really advice for saxophonists playing secondary instruments. But when players of other woodwind instruments pick up the saxophone, there are some challenges that need to be addressed as well.

Tone production problems (pitch, tone, response). Assuming good breath support is in place (the same as with any other woodwind), these problems are probably caused by some combination of embouchure and voicing issues.

As with the other reed instruments, your embouchure should be airtight but not tight—just enough to close around the mouthpiece and reed, with your top teeth on the mouthpiece and your bottom lip in a neutral position (not rolled in or out). A tight embouchure constricts tone and reduces dynamic range.

The mouthpiece should angle up to your embouchure a little, but not at nearly as steep an angle as the clarinet or the oboe. Too steep an angle contributes to an uncharacteristic, slightly clarinet-like tone.

Use the paper trick to ensure you are taking in the right amount of mouthpiece. Taking in too much mouthpiece creates a wild, honky tone, and to little causes a stuffy, labored tone.

Voicing is tricky to get right on the saxophones. Flutists and double reed players are used to playing with a voicing essentially as low as it can go, and clarinetists use an embouchure essentially as high as it can go. Saxophonists need to hit a target somewhere in between. Daily mouthpiece pitch exercises are the best way to train this. Using a too-high voicing causes the thin, pinched sound and poor low-register response that expose you as a doubler coming from the clarinet. A too-low voicing causes a tubby tone, unstable pitch, and unresponsive high notes.

Fingering problems. The saxophone’s fingering system is in some ways the simplest and most intuitive of the modern woodwinds, but it has its share of problems. “Side” and “palm” keys are among them—they are awkward and imprecise to use, and take a great deal of practice to develop fluency. Similarly, movement between the pinky-finger keys using rollers, especially on the left hand, is problematic and requires diligent training. Scales and arpeggios, practiced though the instrument’s full standard range, are essential. Fluency in the saxophone’s middle register is comparatively easy, but the lowest notes (left-hand pinky) and highest notes (palm keys, especially left hand) are a real test of saxophone skill.

Style problems. For doublers approaching the flute, clarinet, or double reeds, a solid classical/orchestral approach to the instrument will cover most musical demands. Not so with the saxophone, which is often used in jazz or popular styles. To play these styles convincingly requires meticulous attention to tone, inflection, articulation, vibrato, and other subtleties. Doublers learning the saxophone would be wise to consider taking lessons both from “classical” and jazz teachers, and to do a great deal of listening and study of many styles of music.

Effective improvisation in various musical styles is a lifetime pursuit, and essential for serious saxophone gigging. Find a good teacher.

Jazz and classical setups. For saxophonists, playing in different styles sometimes requires different equipment. It’s common to have a classical mouthpiece and at least one jazz/pop mouthpiece, plus reeds to suit each. A classical mouthpiece often doesn’t have the volume, brightness, or punchy articulation needed for jazz or rock, and a jazz mouthpiece may not have the warm/dark tone, pitch stability, and subtle/soft dynamics for classical music.

Jaw vibrato. Jaw vibrato is a technique unique to the saxophone among the other woodwinds. (Clarinetists most often don’t use vibrato, and flutists and double reed players use a breath-pulse vibrato sometimes mislabeled as “diaphragm” vibrato.) Mastery of this skill takes good instruction and lots of practice. The saxophone vibrato needs to be fast, narrow, subtle, and fairly constant for most classical applications. Jazz players traditionally tend toward a slower, wider, terminal vibrato.

The saxophone is a valuable and rewarding double, and opens up many gigs that aren’t available to players of just the “orchestral” woodwinds. Give it serious study on its own terms and with an excellent teacher. Practice well!