Learning to play a woodwind: is previous woodwind experience a disadvantage?

I teach a woodwind methods class as part of my graduate assistantship (and was the teaching assistant in the class for several years before teaching it on my own). In this class music education students get a crash course in playing and teaching the woodwind instruments, in preparation (too little!—but that’s another blog post) for careers as school band directors. My class is made up of woodwind players, brass players, percussionists, keyboardists, and even vocalists. It is interesting to see how to woodwind players fare in comparison to the non-woodwind players.

To be very general, I find that the woodwind players get started more quickly on a new woodwind instrument, being able to immediately (if crudely) apply concepts of airflow, finger technique, and articulation transferred from their primary instrument.

Meanwhile, the harp majors and operatic sopranos need to be taught things that woodwind players take for granted. (Hold the flute out to your right, even if you’re left-handed! No, you can’t just buy one reed to use for both saxophone and bassoon! Remember, blow into the pointy end!)

But, once the first, steepest slope of the learning curve is conquered, it’s often the non-woodwind players who have more success in further developing and refining their sound on the new instrument, learn fingerings with greater accuracy, and even score better on the written tests. I think it’s just too hard for a proficient woodwind player to learn a new instrument from scratch; the temptation to fall back on established habits is too great.

In my ongoing quest to thoroughly master each of the woodwind instruments, one of the biggest mistakes I made along the way was to ignore beginning method books. I did get good teachers early on, and asked for their help in developing good fundamental skills. I got some excellent instruction on embouchure formation, tone concept, and other basics, but my teachers and I mostly failed to deal adequately with lower-level technical material. (In my teachers’ defense, few had much experience, if any, teaching beginning lessons to someone with proficiency on another woodwind.) I had several teachers comment, in fact, that they felt it unnecessary to drill me on basic etudes, since, after all, I already had “good fingers.”

The result has been that I have struggled with some basic technical stuff: upper register fingerings on flute and bassoon, crossing the register breaks on the clarinet, articulating cleanly on the oboe, and so forth. This semester I am doing a little bit of clarinet playing in the university’s wind ensemble, surrounded mostly by undergraduate clarinetists. In many ways, I have the advantage over them in terms of musical experience and maturity, but they run circles around me in terms of fluency on the instrument. I have been spending some time with the Klosé method, desperately trying to shore up some basic skills.

If I could do it over again, I would ask my teachers to spend less time on too-advanced literature (my first flute piece was a Mozart concerto) and more time on basic material like the Trevor Wye Technique book for flute, the Barret oboe method, the Klosé clarinet method, and the Oubradous bassoon scale studies. I did get my basics covered on saxophone, my first instrument, but I would recommend the Lacour 50 Easy and Progressive Etudes for those in search of really basic study material. And do these right! Work with a qualified teacher, and put in serious time and effort on each study, even the really easy ones.

Each new woodwind instrument has to be approached from the ground up. No shortcuts!

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