To my own amazement, this blog is rapidly approaching its 15-year anniversary later this month, May 24th. (Some of the content is dated at even older than 15 years, because I wrote it before starting the blog and retroactively turned it into blog posts.)
If you like, send me question(s) about whatever you want, about woodwind playing, doubling, blogging, teaching, or whatever. You can remain anonymous if you like. If it makes sense to do so based on the responses, I’ll answer them in one or more blog posts starting on about the 24th. If the response is low or the questions are not particularly of interest to my audience at large, I’ll answer as many as I can privately.
For woodwind doublers and lots of other musicians, the shopping list can go on and on. Do I need a clarinet in A? In E-flat? Do I need an alto flute? A contrabassoon? A bass saxophone?
Clearly there’s no one-size-fits all answer, but here are some things to consider.
Are you doing, or aspiring to, the kind of gigs where not having access to the right instrument is a dealbreaker? Or the kind where nobody minds too much if you cover that bassoon part on something else? (The answers to these may depend on a lot of factors like the musical genre, the hiring contractor, the location, and the availability of other musicians in the area.)
Are you happier being the person who is equipped for every situation? Or are you happier being the person who gets by with the necessities? (It’s okay to be either, or some of each.)
Do you expect, in purely financial terms, a return on investment for your new instrument? Do you see a clear path to pay for the instrument, its upkeep and accessories, and then some, by getting gigs you wouldn’t otherwise get? (It’s also okay if you have non-financial motivations.)
Are you pondering another purchase because of opportunities you’ve had to turn down? Or are you betting on future opportunities? Or just fascinated by another shiny object? (Any of those can be acceptable reasons if they fit with your financial resources and goals.)
If the purchase is part of a strategy to get more opportunities, what is the market like? For a particularly expensive instrument like a contrabassoon, it might be worthwhile if there is an unmet or under-met need for it in your area. (But if other contrabassoonists nearby have already locked down all the gigs, your expensive toy might end up collecting dust.)
It’s hard to predict which instrument purchases will help you meet employment or income goals. Ultimately, it’s up to you to weigh the tangible and intangible factors and decide whether investing in something new is the right choice. Good luck!
I teach a woodwind methods course at my university. This class (sometimes known as “woodwind techniques” or “class woodwinds”) is for music education majors. It’s a kind of crash course in the woodwind instruments (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone) in preparation for careers in school band directing. Here are some things I try to keep in mind when teaching it.
It’s a pedagogy course, not a performance course. Since my background is in performance, not music education, it’s tempting to veer off into the finer points of playing. But while hands-on experience with the instruments is crucial, the real goal here is that they are able to effectively teach beginning and intermediate students, which is a (somewhat) separate skill. Give your students lots of chances to practice their teaching.
Keep it concept-based. While some time needs to be spent on the quirks of each instrument, it’s more efficient to teach underlying principles like breath support, voicing, embouchure, and finger movement, which vary from woodwind to woodwind less than many educators think. Help your students make connections between how the instruments are played, rather than walling the concepts off into a flute unit, an oboe unit, etc.
Keep it mission-critical. Mine is a one-semester course; some schools offer the luxury of spreading the woodwinds over several semesters. But even a semester for each instrument wouldn’t be nearly enough. Be disciplined about sticking to the most central, useful concepts. Knowing the early history and development of the oboe isn’t a bad thing, but it’s not critical to this course. Ditto for show-and-tell with the alto flute or sopranino saxophone, discussion of circular breathing and double-lip clarinet embouchure, and reedmaking. Be ruthless about cutting what are probably your favorite lectures—the more advanced, obscure ones.
Expect your students to forget everything. They can probably learn just enough clarinet fingerings to get through the test, but they will almost certainly forget them as soon as you hand them a bassoon. Gear your woodwind methods course activities toward broader skills like the ability to read a fingering chart, rather than short-term memorization of specifics.
Give your students their best chance at becoming successful woodwind teachers!
I’ve been having fun with woodwinds enhanced with pickups or microphones. (If you’re interested in natively-electronic instruments like wind controllers, I’ve written about those elsewhere.)
I still have a lot to learn about working with electronics. But here are a few observations in case anyone finds them helpful.
Which instrument(s) to use? I find lower-pitched instruments to be more fun, since they can provide convincing bass lines. Electronics can pitch a high instrument down, of course, but I haven’t had the success I would like making this sound good. So far I’ve installed pickups into a bassoon bocal, a bass clarinet neck, and an English horn bocal. I’ve used microphones for other instruments.
Which gadgets to use? I’m personally using the Little-Jake pickups, a looper, and a multi-effects unit. When I started getting into effects pedals, I found it alarmingly easy to accumulate quite a few. This was a good and inexpensive way to get started. But I quickly discovered that it was becoming unwieldy to try use use more than a few in performance (I literally had to walk back and forth across the stage to get to them all). A multi-effects unit turned out to be much more practical, with a few foot switches I can configure to operate a large number of effects. (I’m currently using one by Boss.) It takes a little more advance setup than individual pedals, but greatly simplifies the onstage footwork. And I was pretty easily able to sell off the individual pedals to fund the purchase.
Which effects to use? I think the best-known guitar-type effects are distortion, delay/echo, and reverb. Those are fun to play with, but I’ve become more interested in ones I can use to give my instruments new capabilities, rather than just give their sounds a little grittiness or echo. For example, smart harmonizers (which add harmony lines based on a selected key) and pitch shifters (which add harmony lines based on selected intervals) make my instruments polyphonic, a significant upgrade for a woodwind player. And a looper, or even a cleverly-used delay, can create counterpoint.
Switching between any two instruments, even two closely-related ones, is a challenging prospect. You must practice for many hours to do it well. But often people switching between clarinets (such as between B-flat clarinet and bass clarinet) are making larger changes than necessary.
The fundamental concepts in clarinet tone production are breath support, voicing, and embouchure. These should remain basically the same whether you are playing the largest or smallest members of the clarinet family.
Breath support should, in all cases, be powerful and constant. Voicing, even on low clarinets, should be high (think “cold air”). You may find the lower clarinets are somewhat more forgiving of lower voicings, and even that some pleasing effects can be achieved. But a consistently high voicing across the clarinet family pays off in intonation, evenness of tone, and ease of response.
Embouchures must adapt, but really only to accommodate different sizes of mouthpiece. In general, the larger the instrument and mouthpiece, the more mouthpiece you will take into your mouth. However, this amount can vary even between two B-flat clarinet mouthpieces. To find the correct position for each of your mouthpieces, insert a piece of paper between the mouthpiece and reed. Where the paper stops is approximately the place where your lip should contact the reed.
Beware advice suggesting that larger clarinets use a “looser” embouchure. Embouchures for all clarinets should be airtight, but not tight.
The angle of the embouchure is also important. Clarinet mouthpieces of any size are best played at a relatively steep angle (compared to, say, a saxophone or oboe), around 30 degrees from vertical. Some larger clarinets, depending on their neck curves, seem to lend themselves to a more-horizontal angle. But bringing the bottom end of the clarinet closer to you helps to achieve a more optimal position.
Fingerings are mostly the same for members of the clarinet family, but there are some exceptions and adaptions. Advancing players should consult a good fingering chart (such as Stefanie Gardner’s bass clarinet chart) for differences. (Or even better, get a private teacher.) Note in Dr. Gardner’s chart some differences from B-flat clarinet: the use of the left hand index finger vent for C-sharp6 through G6, and the special fingerings for the extra keywork for notes below E3, if available on your instrument.
There are few more coveted clarinet techniques than the smooth glissando, as heard in the famous opening to Rhapsody in Blue. But the technique isn’t intuitive, and lots of questions persist about how to do it.
(Incidentally: the Rhapsody in Blue score doesn’t call for a smooth portamento-type effect, but a scale with discrete notes. But the portamento became tradition early in the piece’s life and is now more or less required.)
How the clarinet glissando is done, technique-wise
One key thing to understand is that finger movement is the smallest part of the clarinet glissando. It’s not possible (or at least I’ve never seen it done) to achieve the full effect by simply uncovering toneholes gradually. The real work here is done with voicing.
Let’s break the technique down. We’ll use Rhapsody in Blue as an example, but the principles can be applied to other repertoire (or improvisations).
First, let’s look at what’s called for in the score:
Glissandos that cross register breaks are a particular challenge, so most clarinetists avoid that, opting to play a scale in the lower register, and beginning the glissando at the lower-clarion B or C.
High C is the destination note. Start by playing that note and using your voicing (think of blowing warmer air) to bend the pitch downward. Resist the urge to “lip” it down with your embouchure muscles or to let your breath support sag.
Bend it down absolutely as far as you can, until the note quits. It can take some practice to get a wide pitch bend range. Don’t strain; play around with it for a few minutes, then try again tomorrow.
Once you’re able to bend it fairly far, try kicking in some extra breath support. The air column is reluctant to vibrate when it’s bent too far (I’m fudging a little here on the acoustics). Use powerful air, even more powerful than usual, to make it keep vibrating, and see if you can bend even farther.
Now go to the lower part of the glissando, B or C in the staff. Try to bend it. You probably can’t bend this long-tube note, with lots of closed toneholes, nearly as much as you could bend the short-tube high C.
Now play the note, and gradually let your fingers lift, just a little bit, off the toneholes.
Notice that with the toneholes just slightly vented, the note becomes much less stable—or more bendable. Play around with the pitch to get the feel of it.
Now play the lowest note of the glissando (I’m using C here for simplicity). Move the fingers a little off their toneholes (all of them, except the left thumb, which stays in position for high C) while simultaneously bending the pitch down hard with voicing. (Remember to keep breath support strong.) While gradually moving the fingers farther off the toneholes, bend gradually upward with voicing. As the fingers finally completely clear the toneholes, the voicing arrives at its standard high position, and the pitch settles in on high C.
It takes practice to get the fingers and voicing coordinated, and to gain enough control to shape the bend just how you want it.
To execute the Rhapsody in Blue opening, play a scale in the lower register, then switch as seamlessly as possible to a glissando just above the register break. Some players play the scale portion as written, but some attempt to make it sound more glissando-like by turning it into a chromatic scale. Sometimes they also start the scale on chalumeau F-sharp rather than the written G.
How the clarinet glissando is done, taste-wise
Mastering the technique of the glissando, like mastering any technique, is only the first step. The next and perhaps more important step is to learn to do it with good musical taste.
When performing a glissando, carefully consider the shape of the pitch bend. How long is the bend overall? Should the pitch move in a straight line from one pitch to another? (Unlikely.) Should it have more of a curve, staying low at first and then rising at an increasing rate? Should there be a moment at the beginning or end at which the pitch remains stable, or is it constantly in motion?
These are fine distinctions, but important to the character of the glissando. Careful, detailed listening is crucial to the process—be sure to check out as many good recordings as you can, and note the differences in approach. If your intention is for the glissando to sound jazz-like, make sure you are listening to jazz players who use that effect, not just classical players who may or may not have done their homework.
Why it’s a clarinet-specific effect
The clarinet, unlike any of the other major modern wind instruments, uses a very high voicing for general playing. This leaves room to lower the voicing considerably for this special glissando effect. Flutes and double reeds (and brass instruments) use a very low voicing, which theoretically can be raised, but a raised voicing on a low-voicing instrument doesn’t cover as much territory pitch-wise; in other words, it’s harder to raise the pitch with voicing than it is to lower it. The saxophones, with an in-between voicing, have some flexibility here, but also have to contend with large keys on large toneholes, which are not as precise for hole-uncovering as fingertips on small clarinet toneholes. (The keys situation also explains why the larger clarinets aren’t nearly as agile with glissandos, even though those instruments are properly played with a high voicing.) In short, the technique lends itself particularly to the high clarinets, and may be much more difficult on other woodwinds.