Woodwind doubling and saxophone problems

"sax" by paparutzi is licensed under CC BY

It’s very common for woodwind doublers to be saxophonists first, and approach the other woodwinds later, often because of the demands of flute/clarinet doubling in jazz big band music. So advice for woodwind doublers is often really advice for saxophonists playing secondary instruments. But when players of other woodwind instruments pick up the saxophone, there are some challenges that need to be addressed as well.

Tone production problems (pitch, tone, response). Assuming good breath support is in place (the same as with any other woodwind), these problems are probably caused by some combination of embouchure and voicing issues.

As with the other reed instruments, your embouchure should be airtight but not tight—just enough to close around the mouthpiece and reed, with your top teeth on the mouthpiece and your bottom lip in a neutral position (not rolled in or out). A tight embouchure constricts tone and reduces dynamic range.

The mouthpiece should angle up to your embouchure a little, but not at nearly as steep an angle as the clarinet or the oboe. Too steep an angle contributes to an uncharacteristic, slightly clarinet-like tone.

Use the paper trick to ensure you are taking in the right amount of mouthpiece. Taking in too much mouthpiece creates a wild, honky tone, and to little causes a stuffy, labored tone.

Voicing is tricky to get right on the saxophones. Flutists and double reed players are used to playing with a voicing essentially as low as it can go, and clarinetists use an embouchure essentially as high as it can go. Saxophonists need to hit a target somewhere in between. Daily mouthpiece pitch exercises are the best way to train this. Using a too-high voicing causes the thin, pinched sound and poor low-register response that expose you as a doubler coming from the clarinet. A too-low voicing causes a tubby tone, unstable pitch, and unresponsive high notes.

Fingering problems. The saxophone’s fingering system is in some ways the simplest and most intuitive of the modern woodwinds, but it has its share of problems. “Side” and “palm” keys are among them—they are awkward and imprecise to use, and take a great deal of practice to develop fluency. Similarly, movement between the pinky-finger keys using rollers, especially on the left hand, is problematic and requires diligent training. Scales and arpeggios, practiced though the instrument’s full standard range, are essential. Fluency in the saxophone’s middle register is comparatively easy, but the lowest notes (left-hand pinky) and highest notes (palm keys, especially left hand) are a real test of saxophone skill.

Style problems. For doublers approaching the flute, clarinet, or double reeds, a solid classical/orchestral approach to the instrument will cover most musical demands. Not so with the saxophone, which is often used in jazz or popular styles. To play these styles convincingly requires meticulous attention to tone, inflection, articulation, vibrato, and other subtleties. Doublers learning the saxophone would be wise to consider taking lessons both from “classical” and jazz teachers, and to do a great deal of listening and study of many styles of music.

Effective improvisation in various musical styles is a lifetime pursuit, and essential for serious saxophone gigging. Find a good teacher.

Jazz and classical setups. For saxophonists, playing in different styles sometimes requires different equipment. It’s common to have a classical mouthpiece and at least one jazz/pop mouthpiece, plus reeds to suit each. A classical mouthpiece often doesn’t have the volume, brightness, or punchy articulation needed for jazz or rock, and a jazz mouthpiece may not have the warm/dark tone, pitch stability, and subtle/soft dynamics for classical music.

Jaw vibrato. Jaw vibrato is a technique unique to the saxophone among the other woodwinds. (Clarinetists most often don’t use vibrato, and flutists and double reed players use a breath-pulse vibrato sometimes mislabeled as “diaphragm” vibrato.) Mastery of this skill takes good instruction and lots of practice. The saxophone vibrato needs to be fast, narrow, subtle, and fairly constant for most classical applications. Jazz players traditionally tend toward a slower, wider, terminal vibrato.

The saxophone is a valuable and rewarding double, and opens up many gigs that aren’t available to players of just the “orchestral” woodwinds. Give it serious study on its own terms and with an excellent teacher. Practice well!

Favorite blog posts, December 2019

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

Triplets don’t swing

It’s common among non-jazz musicians to think of “swing” rhythms as having a triplet-like feel, and it’s equally common among jazz players to regard that as hopelessly incorrect. That conflict over swing style has been widely discussed elsewhere, so I won’t rehash it here.

But there’s another layer to the swing/triplets issue: It’s important to understand that real swing rhythms are essentially duple. The primary subdivision of the beat is into two parts, even though those parts aren’t equal in length.

So, writing or playing lots of triplets is a common mistake that non-jazz musicians make when they are trying to imitate a swing sound. That’s not to say that triplets can’t or don’t exist in swing rhythms, but they aren’t the underlying subdivision, and in most cases are best used sparingly.

For example, this can be played to sound like an authentic swing/jazz line:

And even this notation, while problematic, can be translated into something authentic-sounding:

But, to someone who knows jazz style well, this one never quite sounds like swing:

It might pass for a shuffle or something else, but it’s hard to make it swing.

When a well-written swing line does include a triplet, a fluent jazz player might play it to sound distinctly un-triplety:

That approach (one of several possibilities) might make sense to a jazz player because they are stretching the downbeat note, and letting the subsequent notes fall later in the beat—a very similar approach to playing a pair of swung eighth notes.

Written or improvised melodies, background figures, drum fills, and other things that are supposed to swing in an authentic way should avoid excessive triplets. Extensive listening and study of great jazz writing, interpretation, and improvisation are crucial to understanding real jazz swing style.

The right clarinet or saxophone reed strength “for you”

"Mouthpiece" by APMus is licensed under CC BY-SA

How do you pick the clarinet or saxophone reed that is the right strength “for you?” You mostly don’t, really.

It’s important that the reed be a good match to the mouthpiece. In most cases the primary consideration is the mouthpiece’s facing curve and resultant tip opening. Generally, a shorter curve and/or wider opening require a softer reed, that can flex enough to meet the mouthpiece while vibrating. A longer curve and/or narrower opening need a stiffer reed, which will have enough guts to spring back after flexing to the mouthpiece.

This means that the “right” strength for a player using a particular mouthpiece will be pretty close to the “right” reed for anyone else using that mouthpiece.

Some players and teachers object to this, insisting that the “strength” of the embouchure needs to be accounted for. But the embouchure shouldn’t employ much “strength”—it should close just airtight (but not tight) around the mouthpiece and reed. If you are using your embouchure to muscle the reed around, then you might think you need a stiffer reed, but what you really need is a more open, relaxed embouchure. (If you feel like you will lose control by relaxing your embouchure, make up for it with powerful breath support.)

So, assuming a reed reasonably well-matched to the mouthpiece, and a correctly-formed embouchure, the only thing left to consider is personal preference for how much resistance is in the setup. A slightly more resistant setup is good for things like soft, gentle articulations and stable pitch and tone. A slightly less resistant setup favors crisp, immediate articulations and some pitch and tone flexibility. I find this acceptable range of reed stiffnesses to be small enough that I can usually find some softer and some stiffer specimens within a box of reeds that are nominally the same strength.

Some mouthpiece and reed makers publish information about which reeds match to which mouthpieces. If you find yourself straying far from these recommendations, take a closer look at your embouchure and your stability/flexibility priorities.

Favorite blog posts, November 2019

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

Review: Duets for the ‘Double-Reed Doubler’ by Gene Kaplan

A few years ago I reviewed Gene Kaplan’s Duos for Doublers, a set of duets for woodwind doublers playing flute, clarinet, and saxophone. I was pleased to hear from Gene again recently about his new Duets for the ‘Double-Reed Doubler.’ It contains seven duets in a variety of styles, with one doubler playing oboe, clarinet, and alto saxophone, and the other playing clarinet, bassoon, and tenor saxophone. (No flute in either part.)

The books (a set of two, one for each player) are neat and easy to read, with well-placed page turns and spiral binding. Like the Duos for Doublers, this set currently costs $30.

I’m pleased to see more materials making their way into the world that address the growing pressure on woodwind doublers to be skilled double reed players. The idea of “doubling” meaning just flute, clarinet, and saxophone is increasingly a thing of the past. Working on doubling in a chamber music setting, like these duets, is a useful way to improve your skills as a soloist-level player of multiple instruments.

Here’s a demo of one of the duets, called “Machinations:”

I wouldn’t call these duets easy, exactly, but they aren’t overwhelming for doublers with a little background in each instrument. All the instruments stay mostly in their lower and middle registers. The oboe rarely ventures outside the staff, and the bassoon stays squarely in bass-clef range. There are some fast switches (catch me trying to play bassoon with the tenor in my lap in the demo video), some tricky navigation of the clarinet’s throat-to-clarion break, some articulated low notes in the saxophones, and other real but not unusual challenges.

These duets are a fun an interesting challenge if you have a doubler friend to practice with. Head over to Gene’s website to get your copy.

Sharp, flat, and natural symbols on Android and iOS devices

There are lots of ways to handle music symbols like sharps (♯), flats (♭), and naturals (♮) on iPhone/iPad and Android devices:

  • Not recommended: Use a pound/hash/number sign for sharp, and a lower-case b for flat. It’s ugly and unprofessional, and in some cases unclear, plus there’s not an obvious solution for natural.
  • Spell it out. Use forms like F-sharp, B-flat, or C-natural. Use a capital letter for the note name, then a hyphen (no spaces), then the name of the accidental in lowercase. For appropriate situations, this version is easy, clear, professional, and doesn’t require any special tools or setup.
  • Copy and paste. You can copy and paste symbols from a place you know them to exist, like a web page or your favorite notes app, using your device’s copy/paste method.
  • Use the built-in clipboard. My Android phone has a clipboard history, so if I have cut/copied/pasted the symbols recently, I can use them again. (Not all Android devices have this feature.) I tap and hold where I want the symbol to appear, and then choose the Clipboard popup. Then I can scroll through recent clipboard items and find the symbol I want. I can tap the symbol to paste it, or tap and hold to get the option of locking it to the clipboard so it will always be there.
    As far as I can tell iOS does not currently have this feature.
  • Use a clipboard app. For example, Clipper – Clipboard Manager on Android will let me create “snippets” that I can access from a persistent notification, and copy to my clipboard for pasting into text. Copied on iOS also provides ways of saving clipboard items for future use.
  • Use autocorrect. On my Android phone, I can add words to the “personal dictionary” to incorporate them into the autocorrect feature. (On my device it’s in Settings → General management → Language and input → Personal dictionary, but on yours it might be different.) My preferred method is to add -sharp or -flat or -natural as the shortcut, and paste in the symbol as the “word.” Then, when I type A -flat, my phone offers the symbol as a correction. Notice there’s a space after the A. That’s because my phone won’t offer an autocorrection for a partial “word,” like the -flat in A-flat, so I have to trick it by putting in a space, which I can delete after accepting the autocorrect. I could get around this by adding a separate personal dictionary entry for each note, like A-flat, B-flat, C-flat, and so on.
    On iOS, use Settings → General → Keyboard → Text Replacement, and tap + to add -sharp etc. as the shortcut and the symbol as the phrase. As with Android, this requires typing the note name and then a space before the -sharp.
  • Use a text replacement app. On Android I like Texpand. I can create a phrase with, for example, -flat as the abbreviation, and as the phrase (paste it in), then enable that phrase’s “Expands immediately” and “Expands within words” options. Then typing E-flat immediately corrects to E♭ in any phone app. (This is my current favorite Android solution.)
    On iOS TextExpander + Keyboard offers similar functionality but requires using a special keyboard and does not appear to have an “Expands within words” option, so you must type the note name, then a space, then -sharp.
  • Use a special characters app. Something like Character Pad – Symbols works well on Android. Use the search function to find the symbol you want, then tap the heart to add it to your favorites, or tap COPY and it will automatically be added to your “Recents.”
    iOS has similar apps available, such as Unicode Map and Code Table. Use its search function to find the symbol you want, and it is automatically added to your “Frequently Used” list.
  • Use a custom keyboard. Some keyboard apps (such as CustomKey Keyboard on Android) will let you customize the key layout, so you can add any special characters you want.
    On iOS, Keyboard Characters & Symbols provides access to lots of symbols, including musical ones, and it’s easy to switch between it and your other favorite keyboards. (This is my current favorite iOS solution.)

Using the correct symbols is the right choice for clear, professional communication about music. Do you have another solution for using these symbols on mobile devices? If so, please share in the comments.

MS Word music hack: Automatic sharps, flats, and naturals (Updated 2019)

Ten years ago in 2009 I wrote a blog post about how to set up auto-complete sharp, flat, and natural symbols in Microsoft Word 2007 running on Windows Vista. Here’s an update for Word 2016 on Windows 10.

Thanks to Ariel Detwiler for calling my attention to the need for an update.

How it will work

Type this (plus space bar)Get this
F-sharpF
B-flatB
C-naturalC

Will it work on Office 365?

No, the web version of Office doesn’t currently (2019) support this feature.

How to set it up

  1. Open up a new Microsoft Word 2016 document.
  2. Type the following:
    266d
    Then press Alt-X. The “266d” should turn into a flat symbol.
  3. Highlight the flat. Click the “File” tab, then “Options.” A dialog box appears; click “Proofing” at its left-hand side. Click the “AutoCorrect Options…” button. On the “AutoCorrect” tab, make sure “Replace text as you type” is checked. In the “Replace:” box, type:
    -flat
    Next to “With:,” make sure “Plain text” is selected. Your flat should be in the “With:” box. Click “Add,” then click “OK” twice.
  4. Repeat steps 2-3 for the sharp and natural signs. In step 2, use “266f” for sharp and “266e” for natural, and in step 4 use “-sharp” and “-natural.”

If you are in the habit of using the pound sign (#) and lowercase b for sharp and flat signs, shame on you for your unprofessional documents. You might be tempted to set up your AutoCorrect to correct those. The problem with doing it that way is that you will have to create a separate AutoCorrect entry for each note (Ab, Bb, Cb, etc.). Plus, it’s a good idea to just get in the habit of typing “F-sharp” so if you’re using a system that doesn’t have your special AutoCorrect set up, you will be left with that more correct version instead of a pound sign or letter b.

If you have set up the AutoCorrect but you actually want to type “-flat,” “-sharp,” or “-natural” and override the automatic change, type what you want and then press Ctrl-Z (Undo) to change the symbol back into text.

Favorite blog posts, October 2019

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

Woodwind doubling and clarinet problems

"clarinet 1" by steffenz is licensed under CC BY

Here are a few of the common problems woodwind doublers have with the clarinet:

Flabby/saggy/tubby/airy tone and flat pitch. This is a dead giveaway for a self-“taught” clarinet doubler. The clarinet’s voicing is quite high, higher than any of the other woodwinds, and beginning clarinetists sometimes struggle for years to make that proper voicing a consistent habit. Once it settles in, pitch problems mostly evaporate, tone becomes clear and ringing, and notes respond beautifully and easily in every register. If you’re thinking about buying a shorter barrel because your “clarinet” is so flat all the time, don’t. Work on your voicing instead. Voicing is the #1 crucial technique for successful clarinet doubling, and will solve most of your problems.

It may also be worth checking your mouthpiece angle—it should be quite steep compared to saxophone or double reed instruments. Keep your head up straight and eyes forward, and aim in the ballpark of keeping the clarinet around 30° from vertical. You can also use the paper trick to make sure you’re taking in the right amount of mouthpiece.

Reeds can be a contributing factor, too. Often (but not always) saxophonists lean toward a slightly more open mouthpiece and softer reed, while clarinetists lean toward a little more closed mouthpiece and stiffer reed. The strength you prefer on a typical saxophone mouthpiece may not be right strength for a typical clarinet mouthpiece.

Constricted tone. Bafflingly, there’s a common pedagogical idea that clarinetists should tighten their embouchures to fix various problems. This is nonsense. Keep your jaw open to make space for the reed to vibrate, and let your lips (not your jaw/teeth) close around the mouthpiece, not tight but just airtight. Notes will respond more readily, with a fuller, prettier tone, and you can throw away the tape or paper or dental appliance you have been using to cushion your lower lip from your teeth.

Squeaks. 95% of the time this is an issue of fingers failing to properly cover toneholes. (And 95% of the time, struggling clarinet doublers blame it on something having vaguely to do with embouchure, reeds, or the clarinet somehow just being a squeaky instrument.) Use the large, fleshy pads of your fingers (not the tippy-tips) to cover the holes. Sometimes a quick check in the mirror can reveal that your fingers aren’t where you think they are.

Fingering awkwardness. The clarinet’s fingering system and unique overtone series provide tremendous advantages: an expansive range, clean and precise technique, and lots of useful alternate fingerings. (It’s superior to the saxophone’s “easier” system with awkward palm keys and relatively few alternates. Fight me.)

But if you’re coming from another instrument, you might find the 12th between the lower and clarion registers confounding. That’s because you’re still thinking about the fingerings. Practice your scales, arpeggios, and études until your fingers move on autopilot, like they already do on your primary instrument. It can be done.

The clarinet’s dreaded “break” as a technique concern is mostly a myth. Keep your support, voicing, and embouchure well-formed and stable, and just move your fingers. Your left index finger should rock or tilt between its tonehole and the A key, not hop (losing contact with the instrument) or slide (dragging along the key). Work toward a tiny, efficient, relaxed movement.

The clarinet’s clever system of redundant pinky keys enables lightning-fast technique in virtually any key, but it takes real effort to learn to use them well. Remember that for those pinky-finger notes there aren’t really “standard” vs. “alternate” fingerings—you need to know them all well enough to use interchangeably. And if you have beginner habits like using both pinkies for third-line B, you will need to learn to use a single pinky in many cases for the most efficient and flexible approach.

Ledger line catastrophes. Because of the clarinet’s broad tessitura, clarinetists have to be fluent in ledger lines above the staff (maybe more than you’re used to if you’re an oboist) and below the staff (more than you’re used to on any treble-clef woodwind). Hit the Baermann or Kroepsh books for thorough workouts spanning the clarinet’s range.

Remember the best money you can spend on your clarinet playing isn’t another mouthpiece or barrel or book—it’s some lessons with an excellent teacher. Learn the instrument on its own terms, and, whatever you do, try not to sound like a doubler.