Switching between saxophones

"saxophone" by gudka is licensed under CC BY

If you are an alto saxophone player and pick up a tenor or baritone for the first time, it’s pretty common to have a thin, weak tone, to be on the sharp side, to struggle with low note response, and to have issues like the top-of-the-staff G and G-sharp squeaking.

If you are a tenor player having your first alto experience, or an alto or tenor player newly picking up soprano, you might find that your tone is tubby, your pitch unstable and tending toward flatness, and your palm key notes unreliable.

There are a couple of key things to check as you make the switch from one saxophone to another:

  1. How much mouthpiece you are taking in. I like this trick as a starting point for finding the correct position: gently insert a piece of paper between the mouthpiece and reed. The point where the paper stops is approximately the place where your lip should contact the reed.
  2. Voicing. The best way to check this on saxophones is by playing a note on the mouthpiece alone. These are the concert pitches you should produce: If you aren’t producing these pitches, adjust by blowing warmer air to lower the pitch, or cooler air to raise it. Don’t adjust by biting or by shifting the mouthpiece in your embouchure. (It takes some practice.)

Getting mouthpiece position and voicing right for each saxophone helps you achieve good tone, pitch, and response no matter which you are playing. If you are actively playing multiple saxophones, check both of these things on each instrument as part of your daily warmup, and then follow up with overtone exercises and full-range scales and arpeggios. On a gig, I find it helpful to be conscious of mouthpiece position and voicing as I put one saxophone down and pick up another.

Happy practicing!

What should be on your musician website

"Meta property tags in html" by https://tvorbaweb-stranok.sk is licensed under CC BY

It’s cheap and easy to create a website. Any serious freelance musician (or aspiring musician) should have one.

This should be a website about you, an individual musician. It should be separate from your ensemble’s website or your academic institution’s website. It should exist long-term, and serve as a sort of permanent address for finding you online. If you do most of your online stuff on social media sites or on your organizations’ sites, that’s fine. Your individual website doesn’t have to replace or duplicate any of that. It can simply point people to those resources.

I won’t go into any technical details here, because there is very extensive information available online about the ways to make websites. Suffice it to say that if you have only enough technical skill to send and receive email and post things on Facebook, there are website services simple enough for you to operate. Or if you want to roll up your sleeves and code every line from scratch, you can learn how to do that too.

Here’s what you need, content-wise:

Mandatory items

  • A domain name. Preferably this is something very simple and clear, like your name. Mine is bretpimentel.com. It works well because there aren’t a lot of Bret Pimentels, so web searches for my name usually put my site right at the top of the results.
    • If you have a more common name, you might need to add something meaningful to it. bretpimentelwoodwinds.com might work well, or bretpimentelmusic.com.
    • Pay for a real domain name. It’s not expensive. Something like bretpimentel.freewebsites.com looks unprofessional.
  • At minimum, a simple indication of what it is you do and how to contact you. That’s enough to be your whole website if you like. Here’s an example: “Bret Pimentel is a performer and teacher on the woodwind instruments: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone. Reach him at bret@bretpimentel.com.”
  • Some longevity. Go ahead and prepay the domain name and whatever hosting services you need for a good long time, maybe five or ten years, or set it up to renew automatically.

Optional items

  • A more detailed biography.
  • A nice picture of you, especially one that helps reinforce what you do (like one where you’re holding your instrument).
  • Links to your social media profiles, YouTube channel, or other online things you want people to find.
  • Links to the websites of things associated with your career, like your performing ensembles or the institutions where you teach.

Optional items with caveats

Most of these things have to do with updating the content of your site on some kind of regular basis. That’s worth doing if your intention is to bring people back to visit your site again in the future. If you prefer to use your site as just sort of a digital business card, with no updating content, that’s fine too, and is much less effort to maintain.

  • A calendar of your upcoming performances. Only do this if you are thoroughly dedicated to keeping it up to date. An expired calendar makes your website look abandoned.
  • Recordings (audio and/or video) of some of your performances.
    • If you are hoping your website will help you get hired for things, only include recordings that you think appropriately and honestly reflect your current abilities.
    • Only post material you are certain you have the rights to post. For most individual-musician websites, chances are slim that anyone will take legal action against you for posting copyrighted material, but it’s still decent and polite to respect others’ intellectual property. (Acknowledging your non-ownership doesn’t make it okay to post something that isn’t yours. The copyright owner has to specifically give you permission or license the material to you in some way.)
  • A blog and/or some articles or other resources.
    • Again, this should be your own intellectual property or something you have explicit permission to post.
    • If you start a blog, start with a post that is about something, not a post about how you intend to start blogging soon, or asking people for ideas what to blog about. Lots of blogs start that way, with a single post promising big things to come, and then nothing more ever.
    • You don’t have to blog on any particular schedule if you don’t want to, just post when you have something to say.

Don’t include these

  • Lists of who you have played with, unless they are significant and career-defining.
    • As a graduate student I got to play at a university event honoring Dave Brubeck, including playing in an ensemble “with” him. For years my professional biography indicated that I had played with Dave Brubeck, even though after the one gig was over he almost certainly wouldn’t have remembered me, much less considered me some kind of collaborator. Listing him on my website was a pretty transparent inflation of the truth. (If he had hired me to join his quartet and go on the road for a few years, that would definitely be worth mentioning on my site.)
    • There have also been many less-famous names I have performed with, and why list those?
  • Lists of the equipment you use. One possible exception is if you have official endorsement deals that contractually require you to include this information. Otherwise, what is the list for? To prove how much money you have spent? To encourage others to blindly buy the same products as you?
  • “Links” lists, except in the rare case that your curation brings something valuable to the table. Lists of sites that you think are interesting or somehow related to your site are an artifact of earlier days of the web. Now if people want to find sites related to a topic, they just do a web search or follow related entities on social media.
  • Gratuitous photo albums, unless there’s a good reason to post them. Being attractive and/or vain isn’t a good reason, if you are hoping people will focus on what you have to offer musically. And you do need permission from the copyright holder.

A simple website is part of the modern musician’s professional face—you need one the same way you need a phone number, an email address, and black clothes for the gig. You can start for a few dollars and finish in less than an hour, or spend years building it into a powerful communication outlet. Get started today!

Favorite blog posts, January 2019

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Decrescendo to zero

"Volume" by Jenn Durfey is licensed under CC BY

Woodwind players often struggle with decrescendos that quit too soon. (“Decrescendi” if you prefer.) It’s pretty disappointing to play a graceful phrase and have the last note end abruptly instead of fading down smoothly to zero.

There’s not a special technique to deploy in order to make successful decrescendos to niente. This delicate dynamic effect just exposes a common shortfall in the fundamentals of tone production. Correcting this makes good decrescendos possible.

Softer dynamics are produced on the woodwinds by shrinking the aperture (opening) in the embouchure. The flute has an independent aperture, which can be made smaller or larger at will. The aperture on reed instruments is built around the opening of the double reed, or the opening between the single reed and the mouthpiece. Reducing the aperture of the lips on reed instruments applies a slight pressure that squishes the reed closed a little, reducing its opening. (This is a lip movement, not a jaw movement).

As the opening is reduced, airflow into the instrument decreases. At a certain point there is no longer enough power to keep the reed or flute air jet vibrating, so it stops. Hopefully, this occurs at such a soft volume that it seems like the note faded away completely.

When the note ends too abruptly, check to make sure breath support isn’t decreasing with the decrescendo. Steady, powerful breath support as the aperture decreases equals an increase in air pressure. This keeps the reed vibrating as the opening and the volume decrease toward zero.

Consistent, strong breath support and a flexible, well-formed embouchure are the keys to successful decrescendos.

Observing woodwind playing objectively

"Woodwinds" by Michael @ NW Lens is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

I have my woodwind methods classes do a lot of observing of woodwind playing. They comment on each other’s woodwind playing in class, write concert/recital reports, and make written comments on each other’s playing exams (for my eyes only). This is a crucial skill for their future teaching careers.

I try to push them to keep their observations objective. But often the comments are things like:

  • “Your tone sounds really good.”
  • “Your articulation was sluggish.”
  • “So-so finger fluency.”

Remarks like this, especially if detached from technique observations or recommendations, are unhelpful but often also unfounded. “Good” tone is a difficult thing to pin down, even for a specialist in the instrument. Even my college woodwind-instrument majors usually haven’t done enough critical listening in their lifetime for me to fully trust their judgments of what tone is “good,” even on their own instrument.

I find it more helpful to the development of my students’ disciplined, precise teaching to hold them to a standard of objectivity. Tone isn’t inherently “good” or “bad.” (It might be more possible to effectively use a standard like “characteristic,” but even that requires some context.) But it’s fairly straightforward, and more useful pedagogically, to determine whether tone is, say, consistent.

Some better versions of the above observations might be:

  • “Your tone is consistent from note to note, and also seems characteristic of the instrument.”
  • “I hear a moment of air noise before each note, especially in the low register. Try increasing breath support to help each note respond immediately.”
  • “Your fingers seem to move quickly and confidently to most notes, but you seem to arrive late at the F-sharps. Let’s review that fingering.”

Keeping observations factual and non-judgmental makes lessons more efficient and targeted, and keeps lines of communication open for better teaching and learning.

Which college should I choose for music?

"Newnham College" by kaet44 is licensed under CC BY

“I want to be a flute major. Which college should I go to?” This is the kind of question that I often see asked on internet message boards, Facebook groups, and email threads. If you’re asking that question and people are giving you lists of schools, you probably shouldn’t take them too seriously. And if you’re answering someone else’s question by tossing out a recommendation, you might reconsider whether this is really helpful.

Interest in studying a subject isn’t nearly enough for anyone to give a reasonable recommendation of a college, university, or conservatory. Even a fairly detailed history of your prior teachers, repertoire studied, and competitions won probably only scratches the surface. Internet strangers are often happy to tell you what their favorite schools are, and many of them are probably genuinely high-quality programs. But if 20 people answer, you will probably get nearly 20 possibilities.

Here’s my best general advice for choosing a college for your music studies.

  • Consult your current private teacher. If you don’t have one, strongly consider getting one. (You will probably be competing for admissions and scholarships against people who have one!) This person is probably the one best suited to offer recommendations based on actual knowledge about you and about the wider world of your instrument.
  • Especially if you are planning to study music performance, the teacher of your instrument will be the most important figure in your college education. In a perfect world you would get to meet a bunch of flute (or whatever) professors, spend some time with each of them, take a lesson or two, and figure out who you like best, and then apply to the school they teach at. There’s a chance you have already encountered some of the nearby ones, maybe at a masterclass, a Flute Day, or when they visited your high school (to meet and recruit students like you!). If you’re able to do some travel, some others might be able to make time to meet you. At the very least, see if you can find recordings on YouTube or their personal or school website and see if they are someone you would like to learn to play like.
  • If you don’t already have some schools in mind, start nearby. If you live in the US, there is probably a state university that is sort of an unofficial flagship for music, and you won’t have to pay out-of-state tuition. These universities aren’t always the most nationally-known, name-brand music schools, but they generally have outstanding faculty and students, beautiful facilities, and everything else a large state school can offer. You probably won’t go wrong.
  • If your financial means and/or scholarship potential give you some more flexibility on location, great! You can add to your list your picks of the 50 flagship state-school music departments, or private universities or conservatories.
  • If you have some more specific goals about where you want to go, then definitely apply for those schools. But also have one or more solid backups. I auditioned at one school against 60 other players of my instrument. They only had room to accept 4 that year, so lots of very talented people didn’t get in. If you can fall back on a good state school, you will still get an excellent education, probably cheaper.
  • If you have reasons to stay close to home, accrue less debt, or maybe seek out a program with less stringent admissions, there are lots of small, regional universities (like mine!) that offer excellent educations. There’s a good chance that your nearest one has talented faculty, good ensembles, and lots of opportunities to learn. If they offer an accredited major in music, they will be able to offer all the classes and experiences you need for a quality music education, but they may lack some of the extras offered in a larger program.

Choosing a college is a big decision, but there are lots of high-quality options, and some of them are probably near you and relatively affordable. Good luck!

Favorite blog posts, December 2018

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

The difference between “student” and “professional” instruments

"Project 365 #312: 081118 Sax Appeal" by comedy_nose is licensed under CC BY

Visit a music store or an instrument maker’s website and you will frequently see band instruments sorted into categories like “student,” “intermediate/step-up,” and “professional.” It’s important to understand that these distinctions are not bound to any specific criteria, and not policed by any governing body. The labels have a lot to do with target market, and not much to do with the instruments’ actual playing characteristics.

For example, I often have prospective college music majors proudly show me their “professional” clarinets, a specific model that a local retailer labels as such even though very few professional players would find the instrument to their liking. These students will, in most cases, have to purchase another, more expensive instrument to meet the demands of college-level playing.

On the other hand, some of my college students have instruments that are positioned by the maker as lesser than the maker’s more premium line, but which are popular and well-regarded among professional musicians.

“Student” instruments are rarely better for students, mostly just less expensive—made more cheaply or with fewer features. In most cases, if money were no object, I think it would be an advantage for a beginner to start on a high-quality (“professional”) instrument. Sometimes “student” instruments are designed to be more comfortable for smaller players, which of course doesn’t necessarily correspond to quality requirements.

Labeling instruments as “intermediate” or “step-up” is another exercise in creative writing. In my experience, these are rarely worth it—they tend to cost nearly as much as “professional” instruments but play only slightly better than “student” ones.

There are a very few other designations that have specific meanings. For example, the term “full conservatory” for oboes is widely accepted as meaning the instrument has certain required keys and mechanisms on it. However, an oboe maker or retailer can label any oboe as “full conservatory” without any formal consequence. (My nearest retailer does this exact thing.) Many makers sell “modified conservatory” oboes, which has no specific meaning—it’s just aimed at people who can’t afford “full conservatory” but like to believe they have gotten some version thereof.

If you are a student (including a college student) or are purchasing an instrument for one, you should ideally do so with significant input from your teacher. And if you are a professional, you should prioritize carefully which features and qualities are most important, regardless of labels.

FAQ: Ligatures

"My New Ligature" by Jordan Hoskins is licensed under CC BY-ND

These are questions I am often asked about clarinet or saxophone ligatures, by blog readers or by my students.

  • Is there a ligature that can accomplish _____ for me? If you are looking for something to hold the reed onto the mouthpiece, then yes. If you are hoping to achieve something loftier, then probably not.
  • Should I get one of the rigid (usually metal) kinds, or one of the soft (usually some leather-ish synthetic) kinds? The very cheapest options are usually metal, and they generally work fine. If they are of especially low quality, they might break quickly, or scratch your mouthpiece or dig into your reed. The soft ones are a little more expensive, but have the advantages of (a) better gripping an oddly-shaped mouthpiece or reed and (b) surviving being stepped on.
  • What about a fancy one, with jewelry metals or cryogenic treatment or inset “tone jewels” or some other expensive gimmick? Won’t those make me sound better? This is extremely doubtful. There’s a possibility that you will sound a little different inside your own head, and that might make you play a little differently. Or that platinum plating (or just having spent a lot of money) will increase your confidence. But it’s very  questionable that the ligature has some inherent sound quality that your audience can hear, unless you plan to hit it with a drumstick. Remember that in some parts of the world, top orchestral clarinetists use shoelaces. (I heard a story of one of these clarinetists being asked what kind of shoelace he used. His response: “Black.”) If you are deeply invested in the idea that a ligature needs to be fancy or expensive, Michael Lowenstern has a video you might find enlightening.
  • But doesn’t a ligature affect the reed’s vibrations? The vibrate-y part of the reed is the thinner part, away from the ligature.
  • Should I use the kind with one or two screws? What about those ones with no screws? Any number of screws is fine, as long as it holds the reed on the mouthpiece.
  • Should I get the kind where the screws go on top of the mouthpiece or underneath? I really cannot emphasize enough the unimportance of the screw situation.
  • How tight should my ligature be? Tight enough to hold the reed securely in place.
  • How far back or forward should I put the ligature? You could try some different positions and see if one feels better to you. Some mouthpieces have a line on them to suggest where the ligature should go. You are not obligated to follow this guideline, but if you are having difficulty deciding where your ligature should go then I suggest using this as a starting point.

If you would like to purchase something that will improve your tone quality or your articulation or whatever, I recommend getting some recordings of very fine clarinetists and some lessons with an excellent teacher. Enjoy!

Things beginning band directors say to clarinet sections

photo, byronv2
  • “Firm up those embouchures!” An efficient embouchure is relaxed, not tight (nor “firm” nor any other euphemism) and allows the reed to vibrate easily for a beautiful, seemingly effortless sound.
  • “You’re flat!” This is very, very often a voicing issue. It’s not helpful in the long run try to fix it with biting (or “lipping up”), overly resistant reeds, or needless equipment purchases.
  • “Next year, I’m making you all move up a reed strength.” Stiffer reeds won’t make you play better any more than larger shoes make you better at basketball. Use what fits
  • “You all need to switch to a ________ mouthpiece.” Sweeping gear recommendations aren’t useful. Often they are based on outdated or incomplete information, plus mouthpiece purchases in the beginner stage are often pricey lateral moves. Mouthpieces aren’t always made consistently, either, and having a student switch blindly to a bad specimen (even of a highly-regarded model) may actually make things worse. Generally, stock mouthpieces are fine for beginners, and advancing players would be wise to consult with a private teacher who can work with them individually on upgrades. And the finest professional clarinet sections in the world play on non-homogenous equipment and blend beautifully—having everybody play the same thing isn’t the key to matching tone or pitch.
  • “Get ready, because next month you’re going to learn how to cross the break, and it’s going to be hard.” Crossing the break is only as hard as you make it. If you are teaching good tone production and finger technique, crossing the break is a non-event, not even worth mentioning.
  • “Keep those chins flat and pointed.” “Wow, your chin sounds amazing,” said nobody. Focus on the real issue: forming a relaxed embouchure within the space of an open jaw, backed up with good voicing and breath support. You will know it’s working because of good response, characteristic tone, and stable intonation, not because everybody’s chins look a certain way.

Focus on the important and too-often-overlooked fundamentals for success in your clarinet section.