Masato Honda plays recorder

I’ve been practicing the Telemann recorder suite this summer, and I had been meaning to write a recorder-related post. I thought I might mention this video of Masato Honda, a Japanese woodwind doubler and fusion/smooth jazz artist, but Gandalfe at The Bis Key Chronicles beat me to the punch today with this post featuring another video, of Mr. Honda’s really nice saxophone playing.

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Public domain woodwind clip art

Artist Karen Hatzigeorgiou has posted some charming public domain images of woodwind instruments at her website, like this lovely clarinet. The others are in a similar pen-and-ink (or is it some kind of etching?) style.

clarinet

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What’s in a name? What “doublers” call themselves

I’ve struggled a little with what to call myself as a player of several woodwind instruments. “Woodwind doubler” seems like the most accepted nomenclature, but “doubler” seems a little inapt for someone who plays more than two instruments (my flute teacher calls me a “five-aler”).

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Does material affect tone quality in woodwind instruments?: Why scientists and musicians just can’t seem to agree

Most woodwind players would be surprised if you asked them whether the material from which their instrument is made affects its sound. Certainly!—most would reply. An inexpensive nickel-plated flute has a tone lacking in character and brilliance, but a fine silver flute sounds, well, silvery! It has a tone that sparkles, that sings, that carries to the back of the concert hall. The most discriminating flutists might opt for the more luxuriant timbres of white, yellow, or rose gold, or even the rare and weighty quality of platinum.

And any self-respecting oboist or clarinetist would refuse to even consider an instrument made of lifeless black plastic. Only the finest aged African blackwood can provide the dark, rich, woody tone that a true artist requires. Bassoonists likewise insist upon bassoons made from the best maple, and preferably treated with a secret-formula varnish, which, like that of the famous Stradivarius violins, is rumored to impart a special vividness and resonance to the instrument’s sound.

And fine saxophones, though most often made from brass and lacquered in a gold color, can be special-ordered in silver or even gold plate, which, saxophonists just know, bestow a unique sonic personality. Some saxophonists are willing to pay a premium for certain hard-to-find French instruments made in the decade following World War II, which are reported to be made from melted-down artillery shell casings, and to have a correspondingly powerful quality of tone.

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Buying woodwind instruments

General advice

The information on this page is intended for beginning and intermediate players, including woodwind doublers who already play another instrument. Here are some rules of thumb:

  • Get the advice of a good teacher, preferably one that doesn’t get a sales commission from a music store. It’s okay to ask advice before starting lessons. A good teacher wants you to have a good, working instrument.
  • In fact, be very skeptical of anything you are told by music store salespeople. My students frequently begin lessons with poor, non-working woodwind instruments that were highly recommended by the guitar player working behind the counter. Ask the salesperson to demonstrate the instrument. If they can’t do it, there’s little reason to take their recommendations.
  • The most important consideration for a beginner’s instrument is its condition. Woodwind instruments use pads made of leather, skin, or cork that MUST seal properly. Poorly adjusted instruments are one of the top causes of frustration in beginning players. Don’t waste your time fighting with a leaking instrument. Cosmetic flaws like worn or scratched finish or small dents (except in vital spots such as a flute’s headjoint or saxophone’s neck) do not necessarily affect an instrument’s playability, but may be warning signs of larger problems. It is possible to buy a non-working instrument and have a good technician restore it to playable condition, but it would be a good idea to get their appraisal of the instrument before you buy it.
  • Don’t buy musical instruments from department stores, megastores, or warehouse stores. These temptingly cheap instruments are made from inferior materials and are almost always in poor adjustment. Good repair shops won’t even work on them because they tend to break under the normal strains of routine maintenance.

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The woodwind section in Mozart’s late symphonies

Introduction

The woodwind section of the symphony orchestra has long held a place of preeminence. Woodwind historian Anthony Baines gushes: “…the woodwind [section] is a small cluster of musicians in whom the greatest virtuosity in the symphony or opera orchestra is concentrated. It is the orchestra’s principal solo section… They are stars because composers for over two hundred years have made them so…”1 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart certainly made stars of the woodwinds—in fact, he may have been the most important link between the string-heavy ensembles of the early symphonies and the lush, varied sounds of the post-Beethoven orchestra.

Nathan Broder points out that Haydn and a multitude of lesser figures made contributions during this same period. However, when comparing Haydn and Mozart:

Of the two, Mozart was the more progressive. Younger, more impressionable, more sensitive to contemporary music, and possessed of a wider knowledge of it because of his travels, it was he who, after having learned much from the symphonies of Haydn, took the lead and reached the pinnacle of pre-Beethoven instrumentation. It was he in whose work were combined all the progressive tendencies of the various outstanding composers of the time, and whose symphonies present a summing-up of orchestral advancement in the latter half of the eighteenth century.2

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Woodwind doubling in musical theater orchestras: Taking the insanity out of Crazy for You

Crazy for You is a Broadway-style stage musical by Ken Ludwig. The show, which premiered in 1992, uses songs written by George and Ira Gershwin for musicals in the 1930’s. In January and February, 2003, the Brigham Young University Department of Theatre and Media Arts and School of Music produced the show.

Synthesis, BYU’s award-winning jazz ensemble directed by Dr. Ray Smith, filled the role of pit orchestra. The five-member Synthesis saxophone section became an orchestral woodwind section, with a combined arsenal of over twenty instruments. The practice of “doubling,” or playing more than one instrument, is common in theater orchestra woodwind sections. A woodwind doubler may be expected to play instruments from all five woodwind families (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone) in a single show!

The woodwind parts in Crazy for You provide an excellent case study for the challenges facing the woodwind doubler. The show requires five woodwind players. The first woodwind part calls for flute and piccolo, clarinet, and soprano and alto saxophones. The musician playing this part is the primary flute, piccolo, and soprano saxophone soloist, as well as the lead saxophonist in saxophone ensemble passages. Special considerations include extensive use of the extreme high ranges of the flute and piccolo, as well as trills in less-common keys and in the high register; and jazz inflections, including pitch bends, in the saxophone parts.

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