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

Q&A: Reeds

photo, quack.a.duck

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.

How do you (or how do you help a student) select the appropriate hardness of reed?

This is a careful balancing act and involves tradeoffs. In general a too-soft reed causes pitch instability (tending toward flatness), good piano response but limited forte range, improved low-register response but weak upper register, and a thin and/or bright tone. A too-hard reed usually has poor piano response, a more resistant low register, and a stuffy or labored tone.

I find that many reed players use reeds that are too stiff, perhaps due to the strange but pervasive idea of “moving up” in reed strength as a rite of passage or indicator of skill.

Also: with clarinet and saxophone, reed strength is (a) inconsistent between brands and (b) tied very closely to the characteristics of the mouthpiece, so it’s not especially useful to make broad recommendations (“beginners should start on a 2½…”). It’s entirely likely that two clarinetists playing different mouthpieces might need dramatically different reed strengths.

How can I obtain better than mass produced double reeds for my beginning oboe and bassoon students? Do you have any tips on how to learn to improve already made reeds, store bought or otherwise?

Absolutely double reed players should, if at all possible, work with private teachers for this very reason. The ideal scenario is for a private teacher to make and continually adjust reeds for beginning double reed players. An alternative might be to connect with nearby symphony players, professors or graduate students, military musicians, or other nearby double reeders who might be willing to sell reeds (face-to-face, so adjustments can be made) or do occasional reed classes or adjustment sessions.

Improving/adjusting reeds involves some specialized skills, one of which is playing the instrument at a high level. Reed adjustment is an iterative process of making a small change and then testing, small change and test, small change and test. If you can’t play the instrument well, then reed adjustment is shooting in the dark.

One possible exception is that minor changes to bassoon reed wires are basically reversible, so there may be some room to experiment with that. I won’t get specific here as wire adjustments have been dealt with in detail by many previous authors, but careful, small adjustments can potentially improve response in various registers, pitch, and tone.


Thanks for your questions, and good luck with your reeds!

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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.

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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.