“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.

Should I buy a “step-up” instrument?

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Should you buy a “step-up” or “intermediate model” woodwind instrument? In most cases, I think the answer is no.

For flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, or saxophone, I think the wisest course, if you can afford it, is usually to start with a high-quality, best-in-class student-model instrument. The advantages of this are:

  • Lower price range (though maybe in the upper part of that range)
  • High-quality student instruments are easier to play than low-quality ones, giving beginners an advantage and a positive experience
  • Quality student instruments can, in some cases, be used all the way through high school band
  • Quality student instruments retain their value better, so you may be able to recoup some of your investment if the instrument falls into disuse or you replace it with a more advanced model

At some point, the option may be suggested, by an educator or a salesperson, to “step up” to an intermediate model. My experience with these is generally:

  • The price range is not much lower than professional-quality instruments
  • The quality not much better than good student instruments
  • Sometimes they have some cosmetic differences that make them seem more “professional” or luxurious but which do not give any real advantage to the player

So, in most cases my advice is to skip the step-up instrument. Instead consider investing in some private lessons with a good teacher. These will bring much greater benefits.

And if you intend to audition for college scholarships, participate in competitions, or otherwise play at a high level, the private teacher is a crucial resource when you are ready to buy a professional model. These are instruments suitable for the demands of college music programs and at least semi-professional playing situations. Because they are expensive, it’s worth choosing one very carefully, and a good teacher can help you figure out what you need, connect with a reputable dealer, and get the best price.

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!

The right clarinet or saxophone reed strength “for you”

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How do you pick the clarinet or saxophone reed that is the right strength “for you?” You mostly don’t, really.

It’s important that the reed be a good match to the mouthpiece. In most cases the primary consideration is the mouthpiece’s facing curve and resultant tip opening. Generally, a shorter curve and/or wider opening require a softer reed, that can flex enough to meet the mouthpiece while vibrating. A longer curve and/or narrower opening need a stiffer reed, which will have enough guts to spring back after flexing to the mouthpiece.

This means that the “right” strength for a player using a particular mouthpiece will be pretty close to the “right” reed for anyone else using that mouthpiece.

Some players and teachers object to this, insisting that the “strength” of the embouchure needs to be accounted for. But the embouchure shouldn’t employ much “strength”—it should close just airtight (but not tight) around the mouthpiece and reed. If you are using your embouchure to muscle the reed around, then you might think you need a stiffer reed, but what you really need is a more open, relaxed embouchure. (If you feel like you will lose control by relaxing your embouchure, make up for it with powerful breath support.)

So, assuming a reed reasonably well-matched to the mouthpiece, and a correctly-formed embouchure, the only thing left to consider is personal preference for how much resistance is in the setup. A slightly more resistant setup is good for things like soft, gentle articulations and stable pitch and tone. A slightly less resistant setup favors crisp, immediate articulations and some pitch and tone flexibility. I find this acceptable range of reed stiffnesses to be small enough that I can usually find some softer and some stiffer specimens within a box of reeds that are nominally the same strength.

Some mouthpiece and reed makers publish information about which reeds match to which mouthpieces. If you find yourself straying far from these recommendations, take a closer look at your embouchure and your stability/flexibility priorities.