How to get 10 good reeds from a box

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

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

Planning breaths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To summarize:

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

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

Bassoon jaw movement: survey of published opinions

photo, Indiana Public Media

I mentioned in a previous post that I wanted to examine a “controversial” aspect of bassoon playing: the movement of the jaw during articulation.

I was already aware of Terry Ewell’s well-reasoned article from The Double Reed journal, which concludes that jaw movement is unnecessary and inefficient. But I was also under the impression that there were advocates of jaw movement. A skimming of some pedagogical materials at hand seems to debunk this—I couldn’t find a single author strongly and clearly in favor of jaw movement.

The Ewell article should be the go-to for anyone interested in the topic. In a different article, Ewell summarizes:

Chewing motions with the jaw should not be used during the tonguing because the tongue should function independently of the jaw.

Terry Ewell: “Basic Bassoon Articulations,” in Woodwind Anthology, Volume II, 1999 edition. Northfield, Illinois: The Instrumentalist, 1999, p. 951. Article originally printed in The Instrumentalist

Here are the other anti-jaw-movement examples I could find:

One of the worst possible habits is to tongue in a “chewing” fashion. The movement of the jaw and lips not only distorts the tone each time they move, but actually slows down the action of the tongue.

William Spencer, rev. Frederick A Mueller: The Art of Bassoon Playing. Princeton, New Jersey: Summy-Birchard Music, 1958, p. 54.

In staccato passages, the collapse of pressure can produce a ‘gobbling’ reaction in the jaw. As a result the quality of tone and attack may suffer. … As we tongue more rapidly, we must try to involve only the tongue and not allow the jaw and throat to become involved… The momentary opening and closing of our lower jaw may be in response to the change of pressure inside the mouth once the support is switched off; however it is more likely to betray and involuntary ‘gobbling’ with the jaw in sympathy with the activity of the tongue.

William Waterhouse, BassoonYehudi Menuhin Music Guides. London: Kahn & Averill, 2003, p. 116-123.

Needless to say, there should be minimum outward movement of the lip or jaw, as this will hinder the tongue’s freedom of motion.

Homer Pence, Teacher’s Guide to the Bassoon. Elkhart, Indiana: H. & A. Selmer, Inc., 1963, p. 2-3.

The following refers to the woodwinds in general:

Jaw should not move during articulation

H. Gene Griswold: Teaching Woodwinds. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2008, p. 31.

Movement of the jaw in tonguing. This is the result of too large or too violent movement of the tongue, frequently accompanied by changes in pitch of the tone. … Jaw movements can occur with all methods of correct tongue placement, as well as with incorrect tongue placement, and these prevent the development of speed in articulation.

Frederick W. Westphal, Guide to Teaching Woodwinds, Fifth Edition. Boston: McGraw Hill, 1990, p. 227.

This may include the jaw:

The goal on all wind instruments, and particularly the bassoon, is to maintain an open mouth and throat position while playing. The bassoon tone is very sensitive to this positioning.

William Dietz: Teaching Woodwinds: A method and resource handbook for music educators. Belmont, California: Schirmer, 1998, p. 14.

Here is the closest I could find to advocacy for jaw movement, though it’s not 100% clear that that is what the author intends:

On both double reeds, embouchure pressure on the reed will vary to control the ends of notes. Increasing pressure on the reed will keep the pitch from dropping. For this reason, you will see embouchure movement while articulating, which will be more pronounced with bassoonists…

Charles West: Woodwind Methods: An essential resource for educators, conductors, and students. Delray Beach, Florida: Meredith Music, 2015, p. 68.

I also turned to Christopher Weait’s Bassoon Strategies for the Next Level and Arthur Weisberg’s The Art of Wind Playingboth of which seemed like likely sources on information, but could not locate passages in either that directly addressed the issue.

In summary, there seems to be little support for the idea of jaw movement in bassoon articulation. If you are aware of sources that encourage this technique, I would be curious to hear about them.

Music practice and technical debt

photo, nigel_appleton

In software development there’s a concept referred to as “technical debt.” The debt is created when software code is written in a less-than-optimal way. The computer program works, but has some bugs or inefficiencies that will need to be fixed or improved later. Like other kinds of debt, it can be a useful way to get something done now, but will cost more (time, effort, dollars) in the long run.

The metaphor works well for practicing music, too. Suppose I am working on a passage where a certain alternate fingering would be the most efficient choice. But I don’t use that fingering very often and I’m not completely comfortable with it, so I fall back on a more familiar solution. That gets me playing the passage now with some degree of success, but it also solidifies my attachment to the familiar fingering. Or perhaps my articulation is a little too heavy and thumpy, and I cover that up by adding some slurs in crucial places. That makes the passage work, but means that if I ever want to play it right I’ll have to improve my tongue movement and unlearn the slurs.

In a perfect world I would always tackle the issue head-on: invest whatever is necessary to habituate the alternate fingering or clean up my articulation technique. In reality sometimes a looming performance means plastering over the problem and promising myself I’ll fix it later, at a greater price.

I have found it useful to keep a running list of things I want to improve in my playing, including technical debts that need to be paid off. Incorporating relevant exercises, a few at a time, into my warmups helps me make small daily payments, so that hopefully the next time I need those techniques I own them free and clear.

The bassoon’s special(?) staccato

photo, Paolo Benegiamo

I have a vague memory from childhood, well before my bassoon-playing days, of learning that the bassoon had some special quality to its staccato notes. (From an educational tv show? a children’s book on musical instruments? I can’t recall.) My impression was that this sound was different in some way than staccato produced on other instruments.

That idea stuck in my mind, but it occurred to me recently that in my subsequent years of bassoon study I had never heard a bassoonist actually address this. I turned to some published sources to see if I could locate any information.

Several books on orchestration (geared toward composers, not bassoonists) refer to the bassoon’s supposedly unique or unusual staccato. A masters thesis by Melissa Pipe brings several of these together. (I should confess I pulled these quotes directly from Ms. Pipe’s paper, and haven’t verified them with the original sources.)

The real state of the matter is that the Bassoon has a preternatural power of playing staccato, and, if it is forced to play passages of a humorous, grotesque, or macabre sort, it easily endows them with a dry spiccato quality that is almost toneless.

—Cecil Forsyth, Orchestration. London: Macmillan and Co., 1948, 2nd edition, p. 235-236.

Its reedy staccato is often invoked for prankish diversions…

—Bernard Rogers, The Art of Orchestration: Principles of Tone Color in Modern Scoring. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1970, p. 36-39.

For while certain passages (especially staccato passages) have a way of sounding comical on the instrument…

—Kent W. Keenan, The Technique of Orchestration. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970, p. 89.

Staccato passages are second nature to the bassoon.

—Henry Mancini, Sounds and Scores: A Practical Guide to Professional Orchestration. New York: Northridge Music, 1986, p. 86.

This passage from Adler is a little ambiguous, and may actually be saying that rather than being unique, the bassoon’s staccato is akin to the oboe’s:

Like the oboe, the bassoon performs lyric melodies beautifully and produces attacks and staccato passages as incisively… Other composers have treated the bassoon as the “clown of the orchestra” and have written staccato passages for it that truly sound humorous.

—Samuel Adler, The Study of Orchestration. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 3rd edition, 2002, p. 221-222.

When playing staccato passages, on the other hand, it is an excellent instrument to portray humour…

—Sammy Nestico, The Complete Arranger. Delevan, N.Y.: Fenwood Music Co., Inc., 1993, p. 57.

But while orchestrators seem to find the bassoon’s staccato noteworthy, few bassoonists seem interested in addressing that aspect of it. (Many explain staccato technique, but do not point it out as remarkable or unusual.) I found only two counterexamples, but both are well-respected sources.

Although each tone is started with the tongue, a tone may be stopped with either the the tongue (as in saying “tut”) or with the breath (as in saying “tuh”). Not all notes which are marked staccato should be played with the “tut” style of tonguing. It should only be used in passages in which the composer seeks to use the rather humorous, dry effect of the bassoon’s sharp staccato. Two quite typical examples are the bassoon solos in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, First movement, measure 64, and in Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

All other notes which are marked staccato … should be stopped with the breath…

—William Spencer, rev. Frederick A. Mueller, The Art of Bassoon Playing. Princeton: Summy-Birchard Music, 1958, p. 54.

Among all the woodwinds our instrument possesses a special capacity for the rendering of staccato. This important effect features in many of the solo passages written for the Classical Bassoon by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; the 19th century French instrument possessed a quality of dry, crisp staccato which was also capitalized upon by many composers. My teacher Archie Camden declared: “a good reliable staccato is one of the brightest jewels in the bassoon player’s crown!” (Camden, 1961). However these days the German system bassoon has somewhat changed in character, being designed more for sonority and strength rather than the delivery of these effects. All too often today’s playing styles are better suited to powerful expressiveness rather than light staccato. Nonetheless we must strive to achieve these articulation effects by the judicious choice of equipment and deployment of technique…

When stopping a note, there are occasions when we wish to terminate it precisely — chopping it off cleanly as if it were a slice of salami. At other times a more artistic effect will be called for — allowing the sound to die away like the tail of a comet. For the former we may use the tongue, for the latter the breath.

—William Waterhouse, Bassoon. Yehudi Menuhin Music Guides. London: Kahn & Averill, 2003, p. 112.

So, one possibility is that the bassoon’s supposedly special staccato is the effect of ending notes with the tongue. This technique is not unique to the bassoon, but is controversial. (Personally I use the technique on all woodwinds when I believe it to be musically appropriate. And I think most woodwind players do, too, even those who claim they don’t.) Perhaps the relatively open discussion of this technique by high-profile bassoonist-authors correlates to its being viewed as uniquely a bassoon effect.

One other possibility I would like to explore is the possible relationship of bassoon staccato to another controversial technique: the bassoonist’s jaw moving during articulation.

If you have thoughts or resources regarding the mystique of bassoon staccato, please join the discussion in the comments section!

Frequently-asked questions about woodwind doubling, and their unpopular answers

photo, Jon Delorey

Q. Should I be a woodwind doubler?

A. In most cases, no. If you already feel driven to do it, and have the time and resources to devote to it, then maybe.

Q. What’s the trick to getting in enough practice time on all these instruments?

A. Figure out what to de-prioritize in your life to devote more hours to practicing.

Q. What’s the trick to affording all these instruments?

A. Figure out what to de-prioritize in your life to devote more money to instrument purchases.

Q. What instrument/mouthpiece/etc. should I buy?

A. The one that you have carefully, methodically selected from among dozens or more high-quality specimens, without blindly following internet recommendations.

Q. What’s a good mouthpiece, instrument, etc. for a doubler?

A. Only buy things “for doublers” if you want to sound like a doubler. If you want to sound like, say, a good clarinetist, use what good clarinetists use.

Q. Which instrument should I learn next?

A. Whichever motivates you enough to devote the necessary time and money.

Q. Playing one instrument already means it will be easy to learn another, right?

A. If your goal is to develop only a superficial command of the instrument, then yes. 

Q. How do I know when I am “good enough” at an instrument to count it as one of my doubles?

A. You stop getting fired for how you sound.

Q. How do I get gigs?

A. Sound great, behave professionally, and be liked by the right people.

Reedmaking and choosing your college oboe or bassoon professor

photo, quack.a.duck

US college/university music departments and conservatories are filled with talented, qualified faculty. If you are an oboist or bassoonist bound for a large school then there will almost certainly be both oboe and bassoon professors there with outstanding credentials and years of high-level teaching and performing experience.

Smaller schools are also well-stocked with excellent music faculty, and can provide a very, very good education. But one thing to bear in mind is that in smaller music departments, the faculty members often have to wear multiple hats, sometimes teaching instruments that they don’t perform on.

Those professors still have much to teach you, and while it’s not an ideal situation it’s also not unheard of. However, for double reed students, there’s an additional wrinkle: the need to learn reedmaking.

Reedmaking is a crucial skill for oboists and bassoonists. At larger schools it’s not unusual for the oboe and bassoon professors to offer classes in reedmaking, or at least to spend a significant chunk of lesson time on it. And while still learning this art, you will probably need someone to provide you with reeds or adjust ones you purchase elsewhere. (The ones from your local music store or online retailer aren’t likely to play at the level you will need for college study.)

So, if you’re considering a school where you might study with someone who isn’t a performer on your double reed instrument, it would be worthwhile to find out their plan for teaching you reedmaking. If they don’t have a detailed and convincing one, you might think about some other schools, especially if you are planning to pursue a performance degree, or ask your teacher about ways to fill that gap in your education.

Problem-specific vs. general solutions

photo, Elisabeth D'Orcy

I hinted at this idea in my recent post about clarinet undertones:

Many of the ideas shared by the distinguished authors seemed like just descriptions of good basic clarinet technique (“ensure correct, stable embouchure formation,” “establish breath support/air pressure before releasing tongue”). … If you can play with a beautiful, characteristic tone, mostly in tune, with good response, then your undertones are probably mostly gone already.

For teachers it’s useful to be aware of this distinction: to solve my student’s specific problem, do I need a solution that is uniquely geared to that problem? Or is the problem just a symptom of a larger failure to use good basic playing technique?

In terms of the clarinet undertone example, just ensuring good basic technique does a great deal to solve the problem, but due to a quirk of the instrument’s acoustics, extraordinary measures are required to finish the job. Woodwind playing is full of similar phenomena.

I find solidification of my fundamental technique to be an ongoing and critical part of sounding my best, and most of the solution to most of my issues. It’s worthwhile to think carefully about when to introduce tricks or special techniques.

Voicing and clarinet undertones

photo, Aprilyn Podd

A few months ago I shared a list of published opinions on how to avoid undertones on the clarinet.

Many of the ideas shared by the distinguished authors seemed like just descriptions of good basic clarinet technique (“ensure correct, stable embouchure formation,” “establish breath support/air pressure before releasing tongue”). I agree that the most important way to improve undertones is to have a solid baseline tone production technique. If you can play with a beautiful, characteristic tone, mostly in tune, with good response, then your undertones are probably mostly gone already.

I do have one small tip that I find helps a great deal with clearing up any remaining undertones, that wasn’t mentioned by any of the sources I consulted. My readers know I frequently discuss the importance of keeping voicing very stable, but as I have indicated previously that’s only one side of a multifaceted issue.

I have good success with lowering my voicing just a little bit in the upper clarion register. (I tell my students to think of warming the air by just a degree or two.) This seems to stabilize and clarify those notes.

As always, expect any change in voicing to have multiple consequences, for tone, pitch, and response. In the case of clarinet upper-clarion notes, I find a very slight lowering of my voicing to have only minimal and acceptable effects.

If anyone is aware of others teaching this technique, I would be curious to hear about it.

Q&A: Woodwind doubling

photo, Neil Moralee

Here are some of the questions readers sent me in celebration of this blog’s 10-year anniversary. I have edited, combined, and otherwise adapted some of them but hopefully there are answers here for those of you who were kind enough to inquire.

What are the highlights of your career related to doubling thus far?

Hello, I was wondering about how feel about what you play as a woodwind doubler vs as a single instrumentalist. Do you feel like you’re still able to connect musically with things like pit orchestra as opposed to solo repertoire? Or what other options are there for woodwind doublers to express themselves?

I’m not a Broadway pit orchestra doubler, or a Los Angeles studio doubler, or even working in a medium-sized market. When the opportunities have arisen I’ve done the usual journeyman doubling work: playing local musical theater, regional orchestras and chamber groups and big bands, church gigs, and rock and blues bands. I enjoy all of these, and in particular I enjoy the variety in my performing career.

For me the biggest highlights have been connected to my academic career. This includes my attempts at bringing doubling to the recital hall, doing recitals (on my own college campus and others) of concert repertoire on multiple instruments. It also includes my teaching of multiple instruments in a studio setting, as well as woodwind methods courses, plus the textbook I wrote. This blog has been a highlight, too, that has put me in touch with woodwind doublers around the world, including some of my heroes.

How does someone with a full time job, kids, etc. who does doubling as a hobby effectively split practice time among all of their instruments? I’m usually able to practice 1 hour per day. Should I split my session among instruments, or focus on one a day? What’s a good rotation? Any tips or tricks are appreciated!

There’s never enough time in a day for a woodwind doubler. The answers to your questions will probably depend on you: what are your goals? do you want to play all your instruments equally, or do you want to have a “primary” instrument? are you practicing for specific performances or with specific goals in mind, or are you just trying to maintain and develop your skills in a general way? I think the answers to these questions will help clarify for you how you should be allocating your time.

For me personally, an hour is just enough to feel like I’m making some amount of progress on a single instrument, so I suppose if I were in your situation I would mostly practice one instrument per day. Your results may vary. If you’re practicing for general skill development, I do think some kind of pre-planned rotation is valuable, though I don’t think the specifics are important. For me, just having some kind of purposeful rotation makes sure I don’t fall into a rut of, say, grabbing my flute every time because it’s easier than getting a reed wet.


Thanks for your questions! It’s extra special to me to hear from fellow woodwind doublers.

More 10-year anniversary Q&A