Q&A: Voicing

photo, CJ Oliver

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 your thought on voicings on the various extensions of the big five? I find I get optimal results on flute with low voicing, but on piccolo I use something more similar to high register alto sax.

I tend to be generally consistent within instrument families: low voicing for flute, so also low voicing for piccolo, alto flute, etc. High voicing for clarinet, so also high voicing for bass clarinet. Saxophones are a little different because they require a “middle” voicing, and I do think it’s worthwhile to target each member of the saxophone family precisely. The easiest way to do that is with mouthpiece pitch: a baritone mouthpiece should sound a concert D (a ninth above middle C on the piano), a tenor mouthpiece sounds a G, alto an A, and soprano a C.

I recently purchased a pennywhistle and I’m really enjoying it so far. I was wondering if there’s any specific kind of voicing associated with that kind of instrument. It feels easy to play the lower octave, but going up higher than the fourth or fifth in the second octave is really difficult without absolutely blasting.

For fipple flutes like recorders and pennywhistles (also known as tinwhistles or “Irish” whistles), I recommend a very low voicing, the same as for concert flute or double reeds. Recorders have a thumb hole that serves (sometimes) as a register vent, which tames the upper registers somewhat. Pennywhistles don’t have that—the only way to get to the upper register is to overblow. With some practice and finesse the registers can be balanced somewhat, but with fipple flutes don’t expect nearly the level of dynamic control that you have on a concert flute or modern reed instrument. Bear in mind, too, that fipple flutes generally take much less air than a band/orchestra woodwind.

Some nice handmade pennywhistles are designed to improve the register imbalance issue. (Narrower-bore whistles in particular tend toward a sweeter, softer upper register, but a weaker lower register.) But many professional whistle players prefer the more “authentic” sound of inexpensive whistles, and might try out quite a few to find one that plays well enough.


Thanks for your questions! Voicing is a little-understood, little-taught aspect of woodwind playing.

More 10-year anniversary Q&A

Q&A: Instrument purchases

photo, Write From Karen

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 starting models do you recommend as an entry point for each woodwind?

Hi! What brand of clarinet would you recommend for an intermediate high school clarinetist who plans on majoring in music education?

I suspect that you’re both looking for specific brand recommendations, which I mostly avoid doing on the blog, for reasons I’ve highlighted previously (tl;dr: equipment recommendations tend to outlive their usefulness—people cling to them while the market changes around them). Sorry. What I’ll do instead is offer some general advice that applies to beginners, college music majors, woodwind doublers, everybody.

If you’re buying an instrument on a budget, because you’re a beginner, or because you’re a doubler picking up a secondary instrument: buy the highest-quality student-model instrument you can afford. Get good, current, targeted advice from your private teacher (contact/hire one before you buy your instrument!).

If you’re in, or about to be in, college: consult with your professor. Period. Head off to college with the instrument you already have, and let your professor guide you through the process of buying what you need.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s what most woodwind players need to get through their complete formal musical training: a good beginner instrument, and then an instrument suitable for college-level study. “Step-up” or intermediate instruments generally aren’t worth it—they cost most of what a college-suitable instrument costs, but don’t play much better than a good beginner instrument. If your budget is bigger than necessary for a student-level instrument but not big enough for a college-appropriate one, buy a good student model and save up the rest for the next purchase.

For clarinetists, saxophonists, and oboists, often the college-level instrument is a true professional model, and you won’t ever need anything fancier. Professional level flutists and bassoonists may have more of a need(?) for a nicer instrument beyond their undergraduate degrees, and these can sometimes be in the price range between a new car and a new house.

How do I deal with the cost of buying all of these woodwind instruments for college?

If you’re thinking of studying multiple woodwind instruments as a college undergraduate, firstly I recommend that you think that through carefully, and get in touch with the music faculty at the school(s) you are considering. I think for most undergraduate students (including my past self), it makes sense to major in just one instrument, for reasons I’ve addressed previously, and at many schools high-level undergraduate study of multiple woodwinds is impossible or impractical. I think that for most aspiring doublers, graduate school is a better place to dig deeply into it.

To address your question, though: college-suitable woodwind instruments are expensive, but almost certainly less expensive than tuition or room and board at an American university or maybe even a few semesters’ worth of textbooks. If you’re college-bound in the USA, a pro-level clarinet or oboe is probably the least of your financial woes.

If you’re planning to pay your way through school with scholarships, then that might not be money you’re able to access for things like instrument purchases. Depending on your personal financial values, it may be worthwhile to get student loans to cover the cost of a new instrument, and pay them off at relatively low interest after you graduate.

Depending on the instrument and the school, you may be able to borrow or rent a suitable school-owned instrument while you make arrangements to purchase your own.


Thanks for the questions! Good luck with your instrument purchases.

More 10-year anniversary Q&A

Saxophone low notes

The saxophone’s lowest notes can be notoriously unresponsive. This is partly due to the instrument’s acoustics, particularly its fairly extreme conical bore. (For technical details, see for example Acoustics of Musical Instruments by Chaigne and Kergomard, section 7.4.6.1.) The oboe and bassoon, whose bores are conical but not to such an extreme, have this problem to a lesser extent, and the tips that follow apply to those instruments as well.

For the best chance at successful low notes you need:

  • A well-adjusted, high-quality instrument. Even a small leak anywhere on the saxophone makes the lowest notes more difficult. And the best-designed and most meticulously-made instruments help to minimize the difficulties of the low range.
  • A good mouthpiece and reed combination. This may involve tradeoffs: a mouthpiece/reed combination that really improves the low register may, for example, make the highest notes more difficult. Since mouthpieces and reeds vary in so many ways it’s hard to make reliable generalizations, but often I find that a wider tip opening with a softer reed tend to favor the low register more (and the high register less).
  • Good, stable fundamentals of saxophone technique. Breath support, voicing, articulation, and embouchure (let’s include jaw position in embouchure here) should be properly set, and shouldn’t change for the low register. If you find that you need to increase breath support, lower your voicing, change your embouchure or tonguing, or open your jaw to make the low notes succeed, then you should probably already be doing those things, in every register. Don’t make the low notes even harder by creating a moving target.

To expand on that last point a little, if you find that your low notes need a little extra help, then a small alteration to your voicing is the right way to provide it. But know the tradeoffs: lowering your voicing as you approach the low register affects pitch and tone, besides creating instability in your tone production technique. Manage these concerns by aiming for the smallest possible change.

Practice smart. No shortcuts!

Avoiding clarinet undertones: published techniques

Clarinet “undertones” or “grunts” are the unpleasant low sounds that happen usually at the beginning of tongued upper-clarion-register notes (about written G to C, above the staff). They are the lower register speaking out of turn—a clarion G’s undertone, for example, is the chalumeau C.

Fine clarinetists can more or less eradicate the problem, but there isn’t a lot of consensus or clarity among clarinetists about how exactly this is done. I checked some published clarinet wisdom that I had at hand, to see what some of the experts say about what causes undertones, or how to eliminate them. Here are the results:

To prevent clarinet undertones in the upper clarion register…

This listing isn’t comprehensive, so I welcome submissions if you can point me toward published sources. And in many cases I have done some interpreting of the authors’ intents. (Julie DeRoche, for example, lists a number of embouchure specifics in her article, which I have reduced to “Ensure correct, stable embouchure formation.”) If you are one of the authors, or have particular insight into their thinking, I also welcome corrections.

I’m refraining from comment or conclusion at this point, but stay tuned for a future post.

A minimal Little-Jake electric bassoon setup

Be sure to check out my recent interview with Trent Jacobs, the inventor of the Little-Jake bassoon/woodwind pickup.

During the past year I got myself a Little-Jake to experiment with some electrified bassoon playing. I didn’t know much about using electronics in this way, and it took some research and trial-and-error to figure out exactly what I needed to use the Little-Jake with my bassoon. I thought others might find it useful to see that information all in one place. Here’s a kind of minimum setup:

  • A bocal that you’re willing to have altered. I had an old one that I liked but wasn’t using much.
  • The bocal needs a small hole drilled in it and an adapter soldered to it. A skilled instrument technician can probably make you an adapter from scratch, or you can buy one pre-made. Forrests Music has one, and so does Midwest Musical Imports. I bought Forrests’s (cheaper) version, plus the threaded plug in case I want to use the bocal without the Little-Jake. I shipped my bocal to Forrests and they installed the adapter for a very reasonable fee.
    Brass adapter visible just above whisper key pip

    Adapter with plug
  • The Little-Jake pickup. It’s a thin cable with a 1/4″ plug on one end, and a little threaded connector on the other. The threaded end connects to the adapter on your bocal.
  • A preamp. The 1/4″ end of the Little-Jake connects to the preamp’s input jack. The preamp works some electrical magic to get the electronic “signal” ready for amplification. You can buy an inexpensive one made from an Altoids tin, or this L. R. Baggs one that Trent recommends, or there are other options if you know what you’re doing. The L. R. Baggs is handy because it clips to your belt and provides a volume control.
  • An audio cable, like the ones used for electric guitars. One end plugs into your preamp’s output jack.
  • An amplifier. The other end of the audio cable plugs into an input jack on the amplifier. There are many options at many price points. I use a small Mackie PA system for practicing or small venues, or a keyboard amplifier if I need more volume. Keyboard amps and PA systems are usually designed for a relatively “clean,” unaltered sound, whereas guitar amps tend to add their own character. This is a personal choice depending on what you want to sound like, but for me the keyboard/PA-type amp seemed to make sense as a starting point.
Assembled system: bocal → Little-Jake → preamp → audio cable → amplifier (in this case, a small PA system)

That’s enough to start making some fun sounds, but refer to Trent’s interview and an article on his website for some thoughts on adding effects pedals, which really make things interesting.

My current pedalboard setup

The Little-Jake can be used for some other instruments, as well, with the same setup (except the adapter must be attached to a saxophone or bass clarinet neck, clarinet barrel, etc.).

“Problems” vs. solutions

photo, Nina Hale

I often see this kind of thing in woodwind pedagogical books, workshop handouts, and lecture notes:

Common clarinet problems

  • embouchure too loose
  • chin not flat
  • fingers not curved enough

This bothers me because it’s really not clear that these are “problems.” Would you have a student tighten a “too loose” embouchure if they sound great and play with ease and control? Would you insist on a flatter chin or more curved fingers if there weren’t some persuasive reason to do so?

Real problems in woodwind playing generally have some audible result: notes that don’t respond well, or are out of tune, or have an uncharacteristic tone, or come too late because the fingers didn’t arrive in time. Alterations to embouchure, hand position, and so forth are solutions to specific issues, not commandments to be preached and enforced indiscriminately. Your doctor doesn’t give out a standard grab bag of medications to every patient—he or she (hopefully) finds out what your symptoms are and prescribes something appropriate (or tells you you don’t need any pills at all).

Diagnose problems mostly with your ears, not with a checklist of questionable dicta, and not with a picture from a textbook of what good playing should look like. Then offer solutions that fit the problems.

Stale air

The “stale air” phenomenon afflicts oboists (sometimes clarinetists and others). It can be hard to relate to if you haven’t experienced it.

Here’s how it happens. (The “math” and “science” here are very simplified for clarity.)

The oboist breathes in a lungful of air. The air is about 20% oxygen and 80% other gases. The oboist’s body starts absorbing the oxygen and replacing it with carbon dioxide.

The oboist starts to play. The oboe reed has a small opening in it, so the air leaves the oboist’s lungs slowly.

A few moments later, the oboist’s body has replaced the oxygen with carbon dioxide. But the player’s lungs are still, say, 50% full. The oboist’s brain needs oxygen and starts urgently demanding a breath.

The oboist tries, but his or her lungs are still 50% full of “stale” (un-oxygenated) air. He or she can only get a half-breath of “fresh” oxygen-rich air. Now the player’s lungs contain 10% oxygen, which isn’t going to last long.

This cycle repeats a few times while the oboist gets more and more uncomfortable.

The oboist finally panics and quits playing to “reset” his or her breathing and get some oxygen.

A well-meaning educator sees the oboist struggling with breathing. He or she unhelpfully pencils in a few more breath marks. This is going to make the problem worse as the oboist takes even more unneeded breaths.

The solution to this is to figure out an outlet for the stale air. (Taking smaller breaths isn’t a great solution because it encourages weaker breath support.) In some cases it may be necessary to use a “breath” to actually exhale stale air. Then, after playing a little more, get a satisfying breath into emptier lungsIn other cases, it might be a better solution to do a quick out-in breath.

Stale air isn’t something that people encounter day-to-day. So it’s not well understood, sometimes even by oboists and other wind players who deal with it. Being aware of the problem makes it relatively simple to solve.

Hercules stand clip modification

I made a small modification to my Hercules instrument stands so I could clip them onto my instrument cases for easier carrying.

The stands all have this same yellow sort of teddy-bear-head piece on the bottom:

Remove the nut from the center of the bear’s forehead:

I bought a handful of these. They are almost the right thing for the job:

…but they don’t quite fit: the holes are too small. The metal seemed fairly soft and not too thick, so I managed to open up the holes a bit with a handheld drill and a 1/4″ wood-drilling bit. It would probably be safer and more precise to use a drill press and a proper metal-drilling bit.

Or, even better, can anyone recommend a premade part with two 1/4″ (65mm) holes about 1″ (3cm) apart, no thicker than about 1/16″ (1mm), preferably without sharp corners?

Anyway, with the holes slightly enlarged, put the part in place and replace the nut.

Add a small carabiner.

Done:

This worked well on all my Hercules stands, with a minor modification for the bassoon/bass clarinet stand. The “forehead” bolt was too short to get the nut back on with the extra piece in place, so I installed it off-center. It works fine.

I’d be curious to hear about your favorite equipment modifications in the comments.

Be suspicious of instrument bling

photo, Ayaaa

If you are considering buying the newest, hottest instrument, accessory, gadget, etc., it’s worth asking yourself a few questions:

  • Is this item made out of materials that are usually used for fine jewelry or the dashboards of luxury cars?
  • How likely is it that the most visually-attractive materials also happen to have the ideal acoustical qualities? Is there really a good reason to believe that this particular material sounds better than other materials that happen to be less pretty and less expensive? Is there some reason to believe this couldn’t be made from practical and low-cost materials like steel or aluminum or oak or birch, or any of the incredible and endlessly varied synthetic materials?
  • Does the item come in a variety of materials at a variety of price points, with the most expensive materials being pushed as the best-sounding?
  • Does the marketing pitch sound like it might really be describing how the material looks, rather than sounds? “The brilliance of silver,” “the smooth dark sound of grenadilla,” “the rich sound of our proprietary gold alloy,” “the complex character of our highly-figured maple.”

You should use the instruments that work best for you. If precious metals and fragrant exotic woods make you happy and you can afford them, then you should have them. But be careful not to get caught up in a sales pitch that is more about bling than about real benefits.

Sample woodwind methods syllabus

Shortly before the beginning of fall and spring semesters, I usually get a few emails from new university professors and adjuncts looking for advice and resources on teaching woodwind methods courses. I’m happy to hear from folks, but thought it might be helpful to make available a generic syllabus based on how I teach my class.

My class is 2 credits, and meets 50 minutes 3 times per week during an approximately 15-week semester. A few points of interest:

  • I cover all five major/modern woodwind families (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, saxophone) within the single semester.
  • I do four units, with students playing a different instrument during each unit. Students who major in a woodwind instrument will play the four besides their major; everybody else plays just one of the double reeds. (In a perfect world I wouldn’t slight the double reeds this way, but there are some practical/logistical reasons.)
  • I teach my class with students playing a heterogeneous group of instruments, but since I use a concept-oriented approach this sequence should also work if you have everybody playing flute at the same time, etc.
  • I of course use my own book. Since I have students all playing different instruments, I pair it with a band method. If I were using a homogeneous group of instruments, I would swap out the band method for a series of individual methods.

Download the syllabus in your preferred format: