Giving feedback in masterclasses and competitions

As a graduate student and younger professional I started to get opportunities to teach in masterclass/workshop settings and to adjudicate competitions. I had taught private lessons for many years. But sometimes I found it challenging to give effective feedback in these newer situations, where I was hearing someone play for the first time and needed to give useful suggestions after just a quick first impression. For example:

  • I would listen to a talented competition entrant who played at a much higher level than my students, and I would find myself at a loss for what to address.
  • I would listen to a struggling masterclass student with deep fundamental flaws in their playing, but it seemed too overwhelming to tackle in fifteen minutes. So instead I would harp on some small detail like an esoteric alternate fingering or the various possible approaches to a certain grace note.

There are plenty of “right” ways to teach in these situations, but here’s the breakthrough that really helped me:

  1. Have a specific list of things in mind to listen for. In terms of the woodwind sounds I’m hearing, I generally focus on tone, response, intonation, execution of volume/dynamics, and finger and tongue fluency. Assuming these are generally in place, I might also consider non-woodwind-specific musical/interpretive factors.
  2. While listening, make a list, mental and/or written, of a very small handful of items I want to address (sometimes just one). I do my best to pick the most bang-for-the-buck ones, or the ones I haven’t already addressed with another student in the same masterclass, but I don’t stress over it too much.
  3. Have some accumulated ideas of techniques and approaches that can be applied to the problem areas. For woodwind fundamentals, which are appropriately addressed at every stage of advancement, I zero in on posture and playing position, breath support, voicing, embouchure, finger and tongue movement, and fingering selection. For interpretive matters, I might address small-scale phrase shaping, and from there work up to interpretation of larger structures like themes, movements, complete pieces, and even full recital programs.

Your lists (what to listen for, and what techniques/approaches to apply) might differ from mine, though you are welcome to adopt them if you need a starting point. The object is to have a methodical approach to listening and problem-solving, so I’m making efficient and effective use of time.

Good luck!

Advice on multiple-woodwinds graduate degrees and teaching careers

"Woodwinds" by AnnieHoney is licensed under CC BY-NC

I often have university students bring up the idea of graduate school and a university teaching career, and I have previously given general advice about that.

Perhaps since my graduate degrees and a teaching career are in multiple woodwinds, my students sometimes wonder if that’s a path they should take. Here are a few thoughts:

I’ve mentioned previously that, even for talented and hardworking folks, a graduate education is far from a guarantee of employment. Does a multiple-woodwinds degree help? I think it helped me, but I also had some significant luck.

The year I was on the job market, I applied for a small handful of multiple-woodwinds jobs and got a small handful of interviews. I landed in the job that was the best match. I kept an eye on job listings in subsequent years, and years went by without a single multiple-woodwinds job being listed. If I had graduated a year later than I did, I may well have been unemployed.

During my job search I also applied for single-instrument teaching jobs, and got zero responses. Having been on the hiring side of things a few times now, I understand why. Faculty jobs get dozens of applicants that need to be narrowed down quickly, and the ones whose qualifications and experience are laser-focused for the job in question rise to the top. Though I felt I had things to offer, my multiple-woodwinds background wasn’t a precise enough fit, and somebody else’s background was.

So is a multiple-woodwinds education better, employability-wise, than focused study of a single instrument? It’s a calculated gamble. When you’re on the job market there might happen to be a windfall of single-instrument jobs, and if you’ve been focused on multiple woodwinds instead, you may be out of luck. However, there are fewer multiple-woodwinds graduates, so if a multiple-woodwinds-geared job opens, your background might prove very valuable.

Multiple-woodwinds teaching jobs tend to be common at smaller schools with smaller music departments, and that may or may not affect your decision. I have a mixed but mostly positive relationship with my small-university job. If your heart is set on teaching at a major university, then most of the jobs won’t be multiple-instrument jobs, and your competition will mostly be highly-specialized, highly-focused single-instrument players.

One other factor to consider is what kind of multiple-woodwinds education you want to get. Do you want to have a “primary” and “secondary” instruments, or study them in an equal way? Do you want to do a masters degree and a doctoral degree both in multiple woodwinds, or one in multiple woodwinds and one in a single instrument? How you focus your studies will affect which theoretical future jobs you will or won’t be a match for. (Each degree program is a little different, so check with the schools you’re interested in to see how their programs are structured.)

Graduate study in multiple woodwinds can be valuable preparation for a career in higher education, but the job opportunities are limited and hard to predict. I suggest pursuing that path if you have additional reasons or motivations for doing so, like a fascination with the woodwind instruments and woodwind doubling.

Fingering Diagram Builder, version 0.82

Here’s a new minor release of the Fingering Diagram Builder with a few small improvements:

  • Bug fixes and other minor tweaks
  • The French bassoon diagram now supports the Ducasse bassoon. Set “Instrument” to “Bassoon (French)” and “Key set” to “Ducasse.” Thanks to Daryn Zubke for assistance with this.

Favorite blog posts, September 2020

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

Stop teaching clarinet and saxophone embouchures like this

As a ten-year-old beginning saxophonist, I was taught to form an embouchure like this:

  • Put your top teeth on the mouthpiece
  • Let your lower lip sort of roll or squish over your lower teeth
  • Close your mouth

That’s how I played for years. As I advanced and started to practice more, I would sometimes hurt the inside of my lower lip, drawing blood or forming blisters or scar tissue. I considered this a badge of honor: I practiced until I bled.

But I don’t play that way anymore, nor do I teach students that way. I made an important change to my embouchure that lets me play for extended periods pain- and blood-free, while sounding better and having more control.

The problem with the lower-lip-over-the-teeth approach is that it sets the lower lip up to serve as a sacrificial cushion, to protect the reed from the lower teeth. Sure, you can just tell your students to “stop biting,” but if you’re teaching them an embouchure that’s based on biting, then good luck.

It’s more useful to think of the embouchure this way:

  • Put your top teeth on the mouthpiece
  • Let your jaw hang open a bit, so your lower teeth stay clear of the reed
  • Keep your jaw open, and allow your lips to close around the mouthpiece and reed.

This approach makes sure the lips are used to form the embouchure, not the jaw. It improves tone, response, dynamic range, and more, and virtually eliminates lower lip pain.

Left: jaw-formed clarinet embouchure. Right: lip-formed clarinet embouchure.

If you are used to a jaw-formed embouchure concept, you might find that switching to the lip-formed embouchure leaves you feeling like you’ve lost some control of pitch and tone. If so, double-check your breath support; with the jaw out of the way you will need to depend on those support muscles more for stability.

Don’t play through pain—use a better approach.

“More air”

"Grace under Pressure" by A.Davey is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

When I use the term “breath support,” students and colleagues often echo back something like “oh, right, more air.” But is breath support the same thing as “more air?”

Measuring quantities of air isn’t completely straightforward—when we say “more air,” we might rightfully wonder whether that means a greater volume filled with air, or a greater number of air molecules, or whether we’re really thinking of something like airflow or air velocity.

For my purposes in teaching, I find a few different measures to be relevant:

First, you must set up breath support with a good inhalation, and I think it’s generally helpful to inhale a large volume of air into the lungs.

Then, you must pressurize the air by engaging the torso muscles, constricting the space in which the air is contained. (The diaphragm’s relaxation alone does create pressure, but not enough for good woodwind playing.)

The increased pressure makes the air escape your embouchure at a higher velocity. You can adjust the size of your embouchure, allowing more or less air to pass through, which is the basic mechanism woodwind players use to change (sound) volume (or “dynamics”).

I’m most directly concerned with air pressure when I talk about breath support, and in some ways in which that does translate to “more” air. But since “more” can be measured in multiple ways, I like to use a more exact term like “breath support.” That also has the concreteness of referring to something that the player actively does, rather than focusing the imagery on air, which is invisible.

Be precise in your pedagogical vocabulary, and consistent in your breath support.

Recital videos, August 2020

I’m pleased to share videos from my recent Delta State University faculty recital. I performed for a very small in-person audience due to COVID-19 precautions.

All the repertoire is unaccompanied. The program begins with multiple-woodwinds repertoire by Samuel Adler, Kyle Tieman-Strauss, and Nicole Chamberlain (a world premiere of a commissioned piece), followed by some odds and ends on recorders, clarinet, and tinwhistles.

Keeping your fingers “close”

"A Love Supreme (B&W)" by Roger Smith is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

There’s a common idea with woodwind players and teachers that it’s important to keep your fingers close to the keys. Keeping the fingers within a certain reasonable distance does have benefits:

  • It’s easier to keep track of where the keys are and not “miss,” especially for beginners
  • Allowing the fingers to rise too far can introduce tension into the hands

But I think finger-closeness is a concept that gets over-taught and over-stressed. It seems to be motivated by a desire for finger speed (or some euphemism like “fluidity”).

Assuming the fingers are within a reasonable range, I think working toward extreme closeness probably doesn’t offer much if any speed increase, but does make tension more likely. It’s a micro-optimization only worth thinking about when you’ve solved every other problem with your technique, and even then your results may differ on whether it’s productive (or even counterproductive). Definitely don’t stress out your beginning students over it.

Try this if you like: bring a finger down onto a key from, say, 1-2mm above the key (about the thickness of a couple of credit or ID cards). Then try from ten times that distance, 1-2 cm (the width of a fingernail or two). What do you notice about speed? How about tension?

Keep the fingers close enough to stay in position and not bend backward, but don’t worry too much about dialing in extreme closeness.

Clarinet vibrato

"Key Change" by jmmcdgll is licensed under CC BY

The question of whether the clarinet should use vibrato has been argued to death, and I won’t pursue the question further here. Suffice it to say that it’s a matter of taste and a matter of tradition.

American and European classical clarinetists usually don’t use it. Why that particular quirk of taste and/or tradition has taken hold probably can’t be pinned down for certain. But there are some weak theories that are worth retiring for good:

  • That the clarinet’s sound is somehow special or has unique properties that make vibrato unnecessary or undesirable.
  • That vibrato cannot be artistically executed on the clarinet.
  • That the orchestra just “needs” a vibrato-less sound, and clarinetists happened to step up to volunteer.

I don’t see any reason to believe that the clarinet is uniquely unsuited to vibrato, or that there’s anything inherently “right” about the clarinet being vibrato-free.

Among proponents of clarinet vibrato, there is disagreement about which body part(s) produce the effect—the lips? the diaphragm? the cheeks? This is essentially a settled matter among clarinetists’ closest cousins, saxophonists, who nearly universally produce vibrato with jaw movement. I find this to be the only really viable option on the clarinet, as well, since it can be manipulated mostly independently of tone, response, intonation, and dynamics (by maintaining stable embouchure and breath support).

As to why vibrato hasn’t become standard in the clarinet world, my best theory is that the clarinet’s unique high voicing is relatively easily disrupted by jaw vibrato. While it’s very possible to do clarinet jaw vibrato well, it does take some care to do it without destabilizing the voicing and causing pitch and tone instability. I suspect that over the centuries clarinetists have found this to be a mild deterrent, and instead have leaned into clear, vibrato-less tone as a virtue.

In any case, some classical clarinetists have used it with great success, but the prevailing tradition is a pure and un-embellished tone, without even a trace of vibrato.