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.

Shaping a phrase

When a woodwind player plays a phrase like this:

…it could have a variety of shapes, depending. But often a rising line gets a subtle crescendo, and a long note at the end gets a little decrescendo:

To play create this shape, you blow air that makes the shape. You can imagine playing a single note, like this:

…and then let your fingers and tongue play the notes over the shape.

But sometimes less-experienced players blow like this:

That makes the phrase sound weird, like the notes each have their own shapes. For the notes to unite into a phrase, they need to combine into one shape.

To practice this, first decide what shape your phrase should have, and mark it into your music. Then, without your instrument, blow air that makes the shape of the phrase. Then pick up your instrument and do the fingerings, blowing the air shape outside the instrument. If some notes should be tongued, add that next. Once you are comfortable with all those steps, combine them to play a smooth, connected, well-shaped phrase.

A woodwind player’s introduction to: recorders

For a “modern” woodwind player, recorders might show up in “period” classical music performance or in commercial situations like musical theater or studio gigs. They might be used in commercial settings to evoke Renaissance or Baroque periods, to function generically as “world” or folk flutes with robust chromatic capabilities, or (maybe due to their association with elementary school classroom music) to suggest themes of childhood or naivete.

The use of recorders in classroom settings is an odd one, as something like a pennywhistle has a similar just-blow “fipple” (duct) mouthpiece and a much simpler fingering scheme. The effort required to play recorders fluently and convincingly shouldn’t be underestimated.

Here are some important things to know:

  • While the finest recorders are usually made of wood, there are high-quality and relatively inexpensive ones made of plastic that are quite playable. The top-of-the-line plastic ones made by Yamaha and Aulos are well worth considering, at least as a starting point.
  • The alto (“treble”) recorder is the primary instrument of Baroque repertoire, with a solo range similar to the Baroque flute. The soprano (“descant”) is the one used in elementary classrooms.
  • Recorders are available in “modern” pitch (A=440 or similar) and in various historical pitches, which may be required for playing with period ensembles.
  • Recorders are often misunderstood as being in the “keys” of C or F. This isn’t quite the same thing as, say, clarinets in B-flat and E-flat, since properly-written recorder parts are always written in concert pitch (sometimes with octave displacements). Rather than learning one set of fingerings and reading from transposed parts, recorder players learn two different sets of fingerings, and may read in multiple clefs. (I’ve written more about this in a previous post.) However, some composers and orchestrators get this wrong, and transpose parts for “F” recorders as they would for F horns.
  • Recorders require much less breath than “modern” woodwinds. Like most fipple flutes, they don’t have much dynamic range, since blowing harder tends to cause sharpness or unwanted leaps into the upper registers.
  • The recorder’s left-hand thumbhole functions as an octave vent (this feature distinguishes the recorders from pennywhistles and other fipple flutes). The thumb octave vent helps balance the volume of the upper and lower registers, and gives the player some agility for moving between them.
  • Recorders respond best to a low, open voicing.
  • Vibrato may be produced on recorders using the breath-pulse technique used on modern flutes and double reeds. It can also be done with flattement, a microtonal trill technique common in the Baroque period.
  • There are many historical and modern method books available for recorders; I like Walter Van Hauwe’s The Modern Recorder Player (in three volumes) as a good introduction that assumes a strong musical background.

Some woodwind problems with competition repertoire rules

mockup of white clipboard with blank paper

Here are some repertoire-related problems I’ve encountered trying to get my woodwind students signed up for competitions. These range from significant national/international competitions down to small competitions within my own university music department. Some are competitions designed by woodwind-savvy folks and some aren’t. I mention these problems here in the hope that it will be helpful in designing competitions that are fair and sensitive to the particular repertoire quirks of the woodwind family.

Style periods. The clarinet’s repertoire really takes off in the Romantic period (with some notable Classical exceptions), and the saxophone’s doesn’t really get going until the 20th century. Competitions that have requirements related to style periods make things difficult for these instruments, especially if there are restrictions on playing transcriptions. It can also be a challenge if rules for determining style period aren’t clear: can I count something like a Saint-Saëns woodwind sonata as Romantic, even though it was likely written in the 1920s?

Accompaniment. While a pianist, classical guitarist, etc. can play significant repertoire alone, most wind-instrument repertoire is accompanied. This involves extra cost, rehearsal time, and logistics for the woodwind entrant. Concerto repertoire in particular often has unrealistic piano reductions that require a pianist who is both skilled and creative (and therefore expensive and busy). There exists unaccompanied repertoire, to be sure, but pieces of this nature often provide significant challenges to the less-experienced woodwind player. To write convincing unaccompanied works, composers often write for virtuoso players capable of filling up the space with notes. Stamina issues, too, are different for wind players than for pianists and others, and unaccompanied pieces can be especially taxing.

Timing. Competitions that favor singers tend to have shorter time limits, which circumscribe repertoire options for instrumentalists, particularly if there are restrictions on playing partial pieces or making cuts.

Cost. Pianists, singers, violinists, and others can buy large collections of public-domain repertoire by great historical composers for relatively little money. More recent works, such as those for the clarinet and saxophone, are much more likely to be under copyright and sold individually at higher prices. For me as a teacher, this means that I have in my file cabinet, for example, only so many unaccompanied-pieces-for-sophomore-level-clarinet-players-that-fit-within-eight-minutes-and-are-flashy-enough-for-competition. Are there more pieces out there? Definitely, but even to look at the scores may require expensive purchases. There probably won’t be IMSLP downloads or many YouTube performances to peruse.

Multiple instruments. There is significant clarinet repertoire for clarinets in B-flat and for clarinets in A. Saxophone repertoire favors mostly the alto and the soprano saxophones, but also exists for tenor and baritone instruments. Competitions with too-tight restrictions on playing “more than one instrument” limit options for these entrants. It’s a nice courtesy if there is time and patience for entrants needing to bring a second instrument up to temperature before starting, or to wet a second reed.

Many of these concerns dissipate at least somewhat at high levels of competition. But smaller competitions are often geared more toward participation opportunities than toward crowning victors, and a little care in designing the rules can help achieve this goal.

Preparing for a fatiguing performance

alone bed bedroom blur

If you are practicing and concerned about fatigue during an upcoming performance, here are some (woodwind-centric) things to consider.

  • Embouchure. The embouchure is a frequent site for fatigue, but it shouldn’t be. Embouchure pain or tiredness in a conventional performance situation is usually a sign of incorrect tone production technique. (Not a matter of needing to “strengthen the muscles” or “build endurance,” neither of which makes sense for a well-formed, properly relaxed embouchure.) Rather than relying on the small, weak muscles of the embouchure, use good…
  • Breath support. The breath support muscles in your torso can (and do) work all day. If you are feeling fatigue in your embouchure or other small muscles, lean on your breath support more.
  • Breathing plan. Another frequent cause of fatigue is oxygen deprivation. Reconsider your breathing plan (you have one, right?) and make sure you are getting enough oxygen to your body and brain (and venting carbon dioxide, too).
  • Practice. Ask yourself how you can practice in a way that will leave you less tired and prepare you for a performance situation. Consider starting your practice with breaks frequent and long enough to let your body and mind rest, and gradually making them shorter and less frequent. When I’m preparing for a recital, I usually do a few rounds of recording the whole program: the first recording might take me half a day with longer breaks, but later recordings happen within a shortening time frame, approaching my intended recital length.
  • Equipment. I had some pain and fatigue in my back a number of years ago when I was practicing a lot of tenor saxophone. I bought a new neckstrap and the problem went away immediately. There are lots of products and alterations available for various instruments that can reduce strain on your body.
  • General health. Playing a musical instrument is serious physical activity. Make sure you are getting good rest, nutrition, exercise, life balance, physical and/or mental health care, and whatever else will keep you energized.