Just one post to share this month:
I remember as a young college student attending a masterclass by a world-class musician. He was scornful of students spending a lot of time in practice rooms playing scales. He urged us instead to get outside and watch a sunset, and then “play the sunset.”
Advice like that has its place. But I was doing exactly as my teacher assigned: spending a lot of time in practice rooms playing scales. My teacher assigned that because it was what I needed at that stage in my development. I wouldn’t have had much success trying to “play the sunset” because I hadn’t yet learned the technique I needed.
I have my university woodwind methods students do an assignment evaluating pedagogical articles. They use a few criteria, including appropriateness for teaching beginners. The articles’ authors don’t always make that clear. In fact, I suspect many of the authors would resist the idea that their advice is level-specific. “Oh, no, my ideas apply to all students.”
I understand the appeal of that viewpoint, that good woodwind pedagogy is made of unassailable truths. But here’s a counterexample. With beginner and intermediate students, I teach that voicing is stable; you learn the “correct” voicing and then stick with it. But with more advanced students I teach that voicing is a tool to adjust tuning, response, and tone. Their technique, ear for pitch, and expressive requirements have reached a higher level, and they are ready. (I’ve addressed this two-phase approach to voicing previously.)
Masterclasses like the one I attended are often taught by very high-level performers. Their own teaching studios are filled with advanced, high-achieving graduate students. With those students, it may be productive to discuss heady philosophical or creative ideas. But the less-elite students really do need to hit a practice room and learn their scales. For them, high-level advice is pointless, frustrating, and condescending.
Consider carefully the needs of those you teach. When necessary, be clear that your teaching may be geared toward students at a particular level.
That people prefer to move in energetically optimal ways has been established for decades and now represents a central principle of movement science. … Energy optimization may also occur over the course of a lifetime, as years of experience could allow people to learn the optimal way to move in familiar situations and allow training to tune physiology to be more economical. An additional hypothesis—one that underpins many modern theories of motor control—is that people can adjust their movements to continuously optimize energetic cost.Selinger, Jessica C., Shawn M. O’Connor, Jeremy D. Wong, and J. Maxwell Donelan. “Humans can continuously optimize energetic cost during walking.” Current Biology 25, no. 18 (2015): 2452-2456.
I certainly see this phenomenon in my own woodwind playing and teaching. How many times have you encountered these?
- More resistant notes failing to respond because there’s just enough breath support for the less-resistant ones
- Embouchures losing their shape, reverting to a neutral/normal mouth position
- Voicing, such as the high, cold-air voicing needed for clarinet playing, or the low, warm-air one for flutes and double reeds, lapsing into a medium, luke-warm state that negatively affects tone, pitch, and response
- Pitch sagging at ends of notes as breath support peters out
These are often addressed by teachers as “habits,” which may be true, but they may also be fed by the brain’s capacity—and priority—to micro-optimize our muscle use to conserve energy. No wonder they are difficult to overcome! Patience and persistence are necessary to train our bodies to put the right amount of effort into playing our instruments.
A factor in this is establishing a suitably high bar for success. For a beginner, the only question might be, “did a sound come out?” For a slightly more advanced student, it might become, “did the correct approximate pitch come out?” A more advanced player might examine the precision of the pitch, the quality of the tone, and the immediacy of the response, among many other factors. It takes a relatively low amount of energy to meet the beginner’s threshold of success, but potentially much more for the advanced player’s.
Additionally, this intentional use of greater energy resources must be managed carefully to avoid its misapplication, which can result in excessive tension.
I find that when I am playing at my best balance of efficiency and effort, an hour of playing a woodwind instrument leaves me feeling like I have done some light exercise; I’ll feel the mild and pleasant fatigue of having taken a walk or reorganized a bookshelf. Serious tiredness or soreness are warnings that I’m overusing my body. (Your results may vary depending on your physical capabilities.)
Be in tune with your own body as you play, and teach your students to be in tune with theirs, so that you’re in the sweet spot of working hard enough but not harder.
- International Clarinet Association (Samantha Wright): The Jazz Scene
- Rachel Taylor Geier (flute): Fix my Flute, Macgyver! Flute Repair 101
- oboealli (Alli Gessner): How to clean oboe reeds…
- Jenny Maclay (clarinet): How to choose a new clarinet mouthpiece
- Jennet Ingle | Oboist: Freelancer Math
- The Flute View (Julie Stone): Careers in Music for Flutists
- Best. Saxophone. Website. Ever. (Katisse Buckingham): Anchorman “Jazz Flautist” on Avoiding 4 Most Common Flute Pitfalls for Saxophonists
- Joffe Woodwinds (Ed Joffe): Does Equipment Matter?
In a recent recital I performed my own arrangement of Ravel’s Boléro for multiple woodwinds soloist using electronics, with piano and snare drum. I used electronics to try to approximate some of Ravel’s harmonies (and timbres), and used what in my mind are three different techniques, which I’ll try to outline here.
In performance, I used the BOSS GT-1000CORE guitar multi-effects unit to do most of the heavy lifting. I did find that it had difficulty tracking my flute playing (though, surprisingly, it did better with piccolo), so I used an Electro-Harmonix Pitch Fork + to assist with that instrument in particular. I also used a BOSS SY-200 to try to create some non-woodwind tone colors. There are plenty of other equipment options that can achieve similar effects, but you’re on your own to read the manuals.
All of this was done with a microphone rather than pickups, which was less complicated for quick instrument switches, but did make it difficult to get relatively isolated woodwind sounds into the electronics, which ultimately caused problems with the audibility of some of the electronic sounds.
The warts-and-all live performance is available on my YouTube channel, but I’ll provide some clearer, isolated examples here. For rehearsal numbers in the orchestral score, I’m referring to the Durand Edition on IMSLP.
Technique 1: parallel intervals
At rehearsal mark 8 in the score, horn and celeste play the A theme in octaves, with two piccolos playing in parallel a perfect fifth and a major tenth above the celeste’s highest octave, perhaps in imitation of a pipe organ’s mixture stop.
To achieve this harmony with electronics, I played the upper piccolo part “live,” and routed the piccolo’s sound into the GT-1000CORE where I split it into two separate signal paths. One got transposed down using a digital pitch shifter to create the second piccolo part. The other got transposed down to the melody pitch and split into octaves, then routed through the SY-200 to turn the sound into something vaguely celeste-like.
Since the intervals are strictly parallel, this is a pretty straightforward use of pitch shifting: whatever note I play on the piccolo gets transposed to the specified intervals.
Technique 2: smart harmonization
At rehearsal mark 16, a thickly-orchestrated ensemble of woodwinds, brass, and strings plays the A theme in harmony. I opted to play this portion on soprano saxophone, thickened and harmonized with a synthesized string section.
Since the harmony in this section is largely diatonic, I used the GT-1000CORE’s smart harmonizer. I added voices a diatonic fourth and diatonic sixth below in the key of G (like a first-inversion triad), which tracks with the notes in the first part of the theme. But there’s a moment in the first part that uses F-natural instead of F-sharp, and the second part of the melody uses F-naturals exclusively, so I used the unit’s footswitches to change to the key of C major as needed. I routed all of this through the SY-200 to change the three soprano saxophones into a string section sound, with the “live” soprano remaining audible in the room.
For the key switching, I set one footswitch as a “momentary” switch, so it changes the key just while I’m pressing it, and another as a “toggle” switch, so I can press and release it and the key remains changed. This gives me some helpful options for live performance.
Technique 3: smart harmonization with custom scales
The smart harmonizer works well out of the box as long as you want to use notes of a major scale (or mode thereof), but at rehearsal mark 15 Ravel’s harmonization is more complicated than that. Luckily, the GT-1000CORE supports smart harmonization with custom “scales.” What this really means is that I can tell the unit that any time I play a certain pitch, it should add one or more pitches that I can specify arbitrarily. I can add whatever pitches I like to each note of the chromatic scale.
I chose to play this section on clarinet, using the electronics to turn it into a 3-part clarinet section. During the first phrase, the melody pitches are harmonized in a consistent way: every time there’s a melody concert B-flat it’s harmonized with a G and an E, every time there’s a melody C it’s harmonized with an A and an F, every time there’s a melody E it’s harmonized with a C and a G, and so forth. I can just tell the effects unit which harmony notes to add to each melody note.
But things change in the first half of the second phrase: melody B-flat is now harmonized with G and D, and C is now harmonized with A and E. To accommodate this I have to create a second custom “scale,” and use a footswitch to activate it at the right time. To finish the second phrase requires a third scale, engaged with another footswitch.
Because of the flexibility of the custom scale system, I can recreate harmonies that use a variety of intervals. With a little analysis I can figure out where the scale changes need to be (basically anywhere a given melody pitch is harmonized in a new way).
There are some limitations to using pitch shifters and harmonizers, depending on your equipment. Each virtual pitch shifter and harmonizer in the GT-1000CORE can only add two voices, though by (virtually) splitting the audio signal into multiple paths and passing each through its own shifter/harmonizer I can build thicker chords.
When trying to reproduce specific harmonies written by a composer, there may be some decisions to make to balance accuracy with practicality. Serendipitously, most of Ravel’s harmony translated fairly easily to the effects unit’s capabilities. But there were a few spots where I decided that certain chord voicings were close enough, and that I didn’t need to complicate things with one more custom scale plus the corresponding onstage footwork.
As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m more interested in electronic effects that give my woodwinds new capabilities, like polyphony, than in just adding some distortion or echo (though those are also fun). Enjoy!
Here are a few predictions (or wishes) about the woodwind instruments we might be able to buy in the future.
With the amount of worry musicians expend over repetitive motion injuries and other playing-related ailments, it’s truly baffling that instruments are still almost entirely a one-size-fits-all affair.
For just one example: for generations, saxophonists have applied cork or other stuff to their palm keys to help avoid collapsing the hand to press them. Most of the finest saxophones in the world still offer palm keys in a single height, meant to accommodate child and adult hands, male and female hands, large and small hands. (A couple of exceptions are Keilwerth’s wrench-adjustable left hand palm keys, and Cannonball’s “Stone Series” instruments, which can be purchased or retrofitted with stone touchpieces of varying heights for both left and right palm keys.) And this is only one of the ergonomic issues of saxophones and other woodwinds.
Imagine buying a production woodwind instrument that had fully adjustable keywork that could be matched to your individual hands. This could be done with interchangeable parts, or with keywork adjustable via screws or other means.
Related to this is a need to re-examine the possibilities of plateau (“closed”) keys. Most of the modern woodwinds have at least some fingerholes or keys with holes in them, and these cannot be moved to accommodate ergonomics without affecting pitch and tone. But the touchpieces on a saxophone or bass clarinet can largely be located according to convenience, to open or close toneholes somewhere else on the instrument’s body. Our largely unfounded derision of plateau keys on woodwind instruments prevents us from embracing much better ergonomic possibilities.
Far too much credit is given to materials, especially if those materials are costly and pretty, for their contribution to an instrument’s sound. Inventors have created incredible new materials for aerospace, automotive, and electronics applications. Why couldn’t we make woodwind instruments out of amazing new materials that are inexpensive, crack- and dent-resistant, sustainable, lightweight, and beautiful? (Buffet-Crampon’s “Greenline” instruments are an example of high-quality instruments made from synthetic materials.)
A move to new materials could reduce investment in instrument purchase and maintenance, prevent the heartbreak of a new clarinet or oboe cracking, stop over-harvesting of certain woods, and reduce repetitive-motion injuries.
And it wouldn’t be the first time woodwind players gave up traditional materials for better ones; there aren’t a lot of players still using boxwood flutes and clarinets.
Imagine, too, the possibilities of reeds and pads that are long-lasting, stable, and consistent.
It’s axiomatic among woodwind players that good instrument technicians are getting harder to find. In my rural area, it’s a 2½-hour drive to a city where I can get my high-quality instruments worked on competently, by people doing instrument repair in their homes rather than in music stores or commercial repair shops.
Many woodwind instruments have at least some adjustment screws or other relatively intuitive ways to keep them adjusted and playing well. Installing pads is still somewhat of a specialist art, but imagine how that could change with improved materials for pads and for toneholes, and with approaches like MusicMedic’s “self-leveling” Neo Pads.
Imagine instruments that are user-adjustable using common household tools or tools included with the instrument, supplemented with detailed instructional videos. Some routine tasks like pad or bumper replacement could become the player’s responsibility, or something that could be done by a minimally-trained music store employee, school band director, or private teacher.
Let me know what features and qualities you would like to see in the woodwind instruments of the future!
- Kessler & Sons Music (David Kessler): A Selmer C* is a C* is a C* – or is it? [saxophone mouthpieces]
- DoctorFlute (Angela McBrearty): Experiment with Your Tone
- oboealli (Alli Gessner): Do you know how to use the half-hole on the oboe?
- The Vintage Clarinet Doctor – Blog (Jeremy Soule): Why Buy Vintage Clarinets?