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.

Which multiple woodwinds degree programs should I apply to?

"Ariel9" by alika89 is licensed under CC BY-NC

“Which multiple woodwinds degree programs should I apply to?” I get this question a lot, since I write about multiple woodwind degree programs here on the blog, have a couple of those degrees myself, and maintain a list of such programs.

(The list is meant to be comprehensive but probably isn’t. If you know of a program that isn’t listed, please let me know! These days I mostly depend on emails from interested parties to help keep the list up-to-date. I don’t have some secret source where I can find all the current available programs.)

The answer, of course, is that I don’t know which program you should choose. I graduated from two excellent programs, both of which I understand have evolved in the 10+ years since I finished school. Programs frequently change, and so do the faculty and administration that run them.

So, you should narrow down your list of possibilities the best you can, and reach out to schools to find out more. You might try to figure out from the school’s music faculty directory who is the head of the woodwind department, or contact the professor of your “main” instrument (if you have one).

If I were looking for a program today, here are some questions I might like to research on the school’s website, or ask a professor:

  • How many students are currently enrolled in the degree program? Are there any enrolled in multiple-woodwinds programs at other degree levels? Is this enrollment typical, or is it currently at a high or low?
  • How do the woodwind faculty feel about the program? Do they see woodwind doubling as a valuable, marketable skill? Are any of them doublers themselves? Do they try to push students into single-instrument degrees instead?
  • Do multiple-woodwinds students get the same kind of access/time/attention/instructional time from the faculty that single-instrument students get? Is there room for multiple woodwinds majors in, say, the oboe reedmaking class? The clarinet choir?
  • How big and how competitive is the music department in general? Is there any hope of auditioning into serious ensembles on secondary instruments?
  • Are there appropriate/relevant graduate assistantships available, like teaching or assisting with a woodwind methods class, or playing auxiliary woodwinds in the bands or orchestras?
  • How is the degree structured? What courses would I take? Would I have a minor, cognate field, etc?
  • How is individual instrumental study structured? Would I have a “main” instrument and “secondary” instruments? How would that affect the instruction and experience I get on each? Would I be studying multiple instruments each semester? How much total instruction would I get on each instrument? Would I perform on all my instruments in solo recitals and juries?
  • How strong do I need to be on each instrument for entry into the program? What is the audition process like? Do you have lists or guidelines for required audition repertoire?
  • Are there instruments available for my use? Do I need to own all the instruments I intend to study before I start the program?
  • What non-school-related opportunities are available in the area? Are students earning money playing gigs? Is there an active musical theater scene or some other kind of music-making that would value the services of an aspiring woodwind doubler?
  • What have former students in the program accomplished? Have they graduated? How long did it take them? Are they employed? Doing what?

I did one of my multiple woodwinds degrees at a well-known, name-brand music school, and later in academic job interviews hiring committees did notice and comment on it; it’s possible the name opened some doors. My other multiple woodwinds degree is from a smaller (but not small), high-quality but lower-name-recognition school, where I got much better access to the faculty, better opportunities to perform, better financial aid, and lower costs. Both were valuable experiences in different ways.

If you are in the US, there’s a decent chance that there’s a quality program or two within a few hours’ drive. Check with the faculty to find out about the details that are important to you. Give strong consideration to assistantship opportunities, especially if they involve teaching, as this experience has high educational value for you and can set your CV apart in an academic job search. If you’re having a hard time deciding between two similar programs, you probably won’t go wrong with either, so maybe choose the one that costs less and/or is closer to home.

Good luck and happy practicing!

Getting the most out of practicing your scales

"Maths" by me_chris is licensed under CC BY

When you practice scales (or arpeggios or, really, any other technical material) it’s not really about the scales. Nobody wants to buy tickets to hear you play scales.

Scale and technical practice develop the fundamental technique you need for doing more interesting things. You don’t learn multiplication tables or French verb conjugations so you can recite multiplication tables or French verb conjugations. You learn them so you can file your taxes or build a Mars rover, or order pastries or read Proust.

The habits you develop when practicing scales—the building blocks of your technique—will be with you in everything you play. So take them very seriously:

  • Go slowly, and be as precise and controlled as you can. You will work on scales for your whole life as a musician, so there’s no rush to get them up to a certain tempo. Don’t waste time playing them sloppily.
  • Listen deeply to the sound of each note. Scales are a great chance to understand and map the tone, pitch, and response nuances of your instrument. Get in the habit of playing with your most beautiful sound even on technical material.
  • Solidify your best practices. Choose the perfect fingering for each and every note (don’t just fall back on what is already comfortable). Program your fingers to move in the most efficient and precise ways. Stabilize your breath support, voicing, and embouchure.
  • Be expressive. No need to go overboard—just give a subtle crescendo as you ascend and diminuendo as you descend. Add a little vibrato to warm things up. Make it automatic to find and express phrases.

Whatever habits you solidify in your scale practice will be infused into everything else you play. A little carelessness with your multiplication tables or verb conjugations can result in a severe fault with your Mars rover’s circuits or a profound misunderstanding of French literature. Get the little things right.

Favorite blog posts, September 2019

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

Review: D’Addario Evolution clarinet mouthpieces

D’Addario was kind enough to send me a couple of their new(ish) Reserve Evolution clarinet mouthpieces to try out.

The Evolution currently comes in a single opening/facing, but the two Evolution mouthpieces I received are different in appearance: one is the standard black, and the other is what’s called “marble” on D’Addario’s website, or “sandstone marble” on the box. I usually don’t care to have equipment that calls too much attention to itself, but this is pretty cool and subtle enough not to be gaudy on stage.

I can’t definitively say that there is a difference in how the marble/non-marble play or sound. For the two I have in hand, the marble is possibly very (very) slightly more dark/muted, and the non-marble has very slightly more brightness/presence. But this doesn’t match my experience trying the mouthpieces back-to-back at the ICA conference (“ClarinetFest®”) over the summer. In any case, if there’s a difference, it’s trivially small, and I think you can pick the one that you think looks nicest.

As I’ve pointed out in my reviews of D’Addario’s other clarinet and saxophone mouthpieces, these are made with very, very high consistency, which finally brings mouthpieces into the online shopping age: you can just order one from wherever you find the lowest price, and count on it to play just as well as any other. No need to order a bunch of them, put a deposit on your credit card, ship back the ones you don’t want, pay a restocking/sanitation fee, etc. And if you lose or break yours, you can get a replacement quickly and probably not notice any difference. They are great-playing, affordable mouthpieces, but the consistency is the unique, killer feature. I’ve personally adopted each new clarinet and saxophone mouthpiece as it has hit the market.

(I don’t have a formal relationship, endorsement deal, etc. with D’Addario. They do sometimes send me products to try, presumably with the hope that I will review them favorably, but there’s no advance agreement. And I think that the consistent quality is a significant development in the mouthpiece market, and worth comment.)

What I’m looking for in a mouthpiece is a good balance between response and stability. To some extent these may be two sides of the same coin. A very responsive mouthpiece “speaks” immediately, even on resistant notes or at softer volume. But sometimes the tone and/or pitch are too flexible, and keeping them in check takes a lot of work. A very stable mouthpiece has consistent tone and pitch, but may take more work to get notes to respond as desired.

The particular quality of tone is my third consideration. I don’t make this my first priority for a few reasons. One is that a mouthpiece that strikes a good responsive/stable balance is already likely to have an appropriate, middle-of-the-road, versatile tone. (Often, within that middle-of-the-road zone, more “responsive” mouthpieces tend toward “brightness,” “presence,” or “liveliness,” while more “stable” mouthpieces lean toward “darkness,” “warmth,” or a “covered” sound.) Another reason is that tone quality is one of the more malleable aspects of a mouthpiece’s playing characteristics. If it functions well on the response/stability axis, then with a little time I will probably adapt my embouchure in minute ways (even without realizing it) to find the tone I want.

For the last seven years I have been using D’Daddario’s Reserve X5 clarinet mouthpiece, so I’m using that as my frame of reference. The Reserve and Evolution mouthpieces are both good, solid choices, and I can’t really say broadly that one is better than the other. But they have some differences in response, stability, and tone, which I’ll outline here in case it helps you pick one that best suits your preference.

Basically I find the Reserve to lean slightly toward responsiveness, with the expected tinge of brightness/presence, and the Evolution to tend more stable, with the darker/more covered sound. It’s subtle.

(Besides the mouthpieces, D’Addario also makes Reserve and Evolution reeds, which I find to have those same characteristics: Reserve = more responsive, Evolution = more stable. A D’Addario representative tells me the similarly named mouthpieces and reeds are “not meant to be exclusively paired together.”)

The following audio clips are all played using the same reed, a D’Addario Reserve 3.5. It’s just a little softer than I prefer for the X5, which accounts for some of the responsiveness and brightness but not all of it. Using a 3.5+ brings the sound and response just slightly closer to the Evolutions.

Evolution (black)
Evolution (marble)
Reserve X5

These photos are of the packaging for the X5 and Evolution mouthpieces. The measurements, oddly, are mostly in inches. (The X5 packaging is several years old, from when these were still sold as “Rico Reserve;” I don’t know if the box otherwise still looks the same.) The side view diagrams seem to indicate that both have a tip opening of ~.042 inches, which seems like a possible typo. Assuming the openings are precisely 1.05mm and 1.08mm (as also indicated on the packaging), these might be better expressed as .041 and .043.

I like both the Reserve X5 (my current favorite of the Reserve options) and the Evolution, and currently they are both living in my clarinet case. If forced to choose, I think at the moment I would fall back on the X5, because responsiveness feels important to me right now. But I can easily see myself switching to the Evolution at some point, perhaps depending on repertoire and performance situation.

In any case, the Evolution is another strong addition to D’Addario’s line of mouthpieces, and worth checking out.