Getting an “outsider” opinion

May 20, 2012

Photo, Pirate Scott

Saxophones, more than many other instruments, have a tendency toward mechanical noise: clicks and clanks are a hazard of the relatively large keys and articulated mechanisms and of the relative popularity of “vintage” instruments. Much of the noisiness can be solved by a good technician, but it’s sometimes surprising how much key noise saxophonists tolerate on their otherwise pristine recording projects.

The oboe has a particularly sensitive mechanism involving the right index finger and a linkage between the upper and lower joints. It requires a great deal of finger precision to avoid unwanted “blips” (brief, unintended notes) when moving between, say, A and C. If you are listening for that sound, you will find that it is not uncommon, even on recordings that are technically impressive in other ways.

I think a lot of saxophonists would be scandalized by “blips” in each other’s playing, and oboists would be equally appalled by rattling, clanking keywork. But it is easy to become accustomed to hearing those sounds in our own playing, and to stop really noticing them.

I work frequently with a very detail-oriented pianist, who occasionally comments (in a non-judgmental way) about the way my notes respond. Getting notes to respond immediately isn’t an issue for pianists in the same way that it is for wind players, and any good pianist will surely notice when his or her wind-playing collaborators’ entrances have even a slight delay. My colleague’s comments catch me by surprise, because my ears have become inured to those response issues.

Each instrument has its own quirks of response, intonation, tone, dynamic range, and so forth. It is important as musicians that we learn as best we can to hear ourselves with fresh, unbiased ears.

The best solution is to get feedback from a trusted and honest friend with good ears, who doesn’t play your instrument. They won’t expect anemic clarinet throat tones, an out-of-tune flute C-sharp, or unresponsive bassoon slurs, so they will point them out when they hear them. Find a partner who plays an instrument different than yours, and give each other some friendly, constructive critique.

In between partner sessions, try some individual exercises to open up your ears to what you have been ignoring in your own playing:

  • Record yourself. It doesn’t have to be a big production—use your smartphone’s voice memo feature, and just record a phrase or two at a time.
  • Transpose your music to a new key and see if various technique issues or tone production issues improve or worsen.
  • If you can, play your music on a different instrument. For me, even plunking out a few phrases on the piano can be an ear-opener.
  • Use my favorite auto-tune trick for an intonation wake-up call.
  • Use visual cues to call attention to aural phenomena you might be missing. Play while watching yourself in a mirror, or record video. A fairly simple recording setup can also show you waveforms of your playing, which can reveal interesting things (for an example, see my post on crossing the saxophone’s register break).

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