Should I buy a “step-up” instrument?

"New Instruments" by Phil Roeder is licensed under CC BY

Should you buy a “step-up” or “intermediate model” woodwind instrument? In most cases, I think the answer is no.

For flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, or saxophone, I think the wisest course, if you can afford it, is usually to start with a high-quality, best-in-class student-model instrument. The advantages of this are:

  • Lower price range (though maybe in the upper part of that range)
  • High-quality student instruments are easier to play than low-quality ones, giving beginners an advantage and a positive experience
  • Quality student instruments can, in some cases, be used all the way through high school band
  • Quality student instruments retain their value better, so you may be able to recoup some of your investment if the instrument falls into disuse or you replace it with a more advanced model

At some point, the option may be suggested, by an educator or a salesperson, to “step up” to an intermediate model. My experience with these is generally:

  • The price range is not much lower than professional-quality instruments
  • The quality not much better than good student instruments
  • Sometimes they have some cosmetic differences that make them seem more “professional” or luxurious but which do not give any real advantage to the player

So, in most cases my advice is to skip the step-up instrument. Instead consider investing in some private lessons with a good teacher. These will bring much greater benefits.

And if you intend to audition for college scholarships, participate in competitions, or otherwise play at a high level, the private teacher is a crucial resource when you are ready to buy a professional model. These are instruments suitable for the demands of college music programs and at least semi-professional playing situations. Because they are expensive, it’s worth choosing one very carefully, and a good teacher can help you figure out what you need, connect with a reputable dealer, and get the best price.

Favorite blog posts, July 2020

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

Starting at the right tempo

"Metronome" by Konstantin Lazorkin is licensed under CC BY-NC

For me it’s an ongoing challenge to start a piece of music at the right tempo. Here are a few tricks I have used:

  • Practice, a lot, with a metronome, to internalize and habituate the tempo.
  • If circumstances allow, check a metronome backstage immediately before beginning the piece.
  • If circumstances allow, have a metronome with you on stage. Most have a “silent” function that you can use to discreetly double-check.
  • Maybe your piece has a fast or tricky part, and you’re worried that you will go too fast and that part won’t go well. Sing that part in your mind before you start to play, so you can pick a tempo that will work for that part.
  • Be aware of your tendencies. For example, if the adrenaline of performance makes you tend to rush, you can adjust accordingly.
  • Find a song that you know really well and have thoroughly internalized, that has a tempo very close to the one you wish to play at. Sing a few bars of the song mentally to find your tempo. For example, here’s a list of songs that have a tempo of about 94 beats per minute—I bet you can find at least a few that you know.

Good luck!

Don’t say this to your beginning oboists

"Oboe" by Babazar is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Here is a version of a handout I provided recently to graduate students at the American Band College, a summer program for school band directors.

Band directors, don’t say this to your beginning oboists:

  • “Shh.” As a university oboe teacher, I routinely meet young oboists who play like they are terrified of making a sound. They often report that in their school band experience, every time they play the director gives them “the hand.” Playing softly on the oboe (or any woodwind) is an advanced technique. If you possibly can, encourage your beginning oboists to make big, resonant, confident sounds. Defend them from classmates who compare them unfavorably to waterfowl. It will pay off when you have a rock-star oboe soloist, with a glorious, ringing sound, for your high school wind ensemble.
  • “The oboe is really hard.” There’s a pointless myth that the oboe is at or near the top of the list of “hardest” instruments. Like any instrument, it has its own learning curve. But it’s quite manageable for a motivated student. Don’t give them unnecessary reasons to stress over it.
  • “Take this fingering chart home and figure it out.” Of course ideally all your students would be taking private lessons, right? But the oboe has a few unique quirks, like its fussy and delicate reeds, that really heighten the need for some specialist instruction. If you possibly can, get your beginning oboists in touch with qualified private teachers ASAP.
  • “Lip it up.” “Tighten your embouchure.” This is bad advice for any woodwind instrument. It’s a band-aid solution for flat pitch, buzzy tone, or squeaks. A good oboe embouchure is almost no embouchure at all—the lips remain pretty close to a neutral, non-oboe-playing position. (Do allow the corners of the mouth to come inward, and the lipstick part of the lips to roll in over the reed a bit.) Solve pitch, tone, and response problems with a relaxed, light embouchure, powerful breath support, correct voicing (low, “oh” vowel, warm air), and good reeds (preferably handmade and/or adjusted by the student’s private oboe teacher).
  • “Check out this oboe player on YouTube.” Listening and watching is a good thing, for sure. But be cautious about who you recommend: there are various “schools” of oboe playing in different parts of the world, that value different tone ideals and use differing posture, embouchure, and reeds. Generally the American-school players value a silky-smooth, relatively dark tone, and use a posture that keeps the oboe at around a 45° angle to the body. If you hear a livelier, brighter tone and see a more trumpet-like instrument position, that may not be the model you want for your young American oboists. (All the regional oboe sounds are lovely and valid, but oboe sounds from other locales should be presented with some context.)
  • “You can’t march it.” You’re absolutely right that oboes do not belong on the marching field, and your oboists should find some other way to get involved. But please encourage the oboe as a worthwhile pursuit for young musicians. It has a noble history and repertoire, is sought-after by university music department scholarship committees, and will bring something special to your concert ensembles.

Update: COVID-19 wind playing resources

In a recent blog post I offered a few personal thoughts on wind playing and the COVID-19 crisis, and began listing some articles and resources related to the topic. I have now moved those to a separate and freshly-updated page.

If you are aware of other resources, feel free to bring them to my attention and I will consider including them. I don’t have firm criteria for what to include, but I’m generally leaning toward scientific papers and other primary sources that appear to be written in good faith and with a responsible approach to accuracy.

I am not outright rejecting articles that are funded or otherwise promoted by businesses that might stand to profit from the information presented, but I am noting those potential conflicts of interest. (A well-regarded global company whose products I use recently shared one of the articles I’ve included, with their own headline affixed that I found misleading and reductive.)

My best understanding at this point is that there’s still a lot we don’t know about the safety of playing wind instruments during a highly-contagious outbreak that targets the respiratory system. Please be as smart and safe as you can, so we can all make music together again soon.

Articles on COVID-19 and wind playing

Understanding response and stability

"Beautiful Gas Pedal and Brake" by Ray Sawhill is licensed under CC BY

A few years ago I drove a friend’s car. The accelerator was much more sensitive than I was used to, and it caused a jerky ride: every time I touched the gas, the car lurched forward. It was a different experience was driving a moving van full of heavy furniture. No matter how much I leaned into the accelerator, the speedometer crept upward with painful slowness.

The car I’m used to driving is somewhere in between—it’s acceleration isn’t quite as zippy as my friend’s car’s, and not as sluggish as the truck’s. With woodwind instruments it’s important to have a similar balance.

Response is how readily the system (you + the equipment) produces tone. A very responsive setup/technique will make a sound with the faintest whisper of air.

Stability is, in a way, the opposite of response. Rather than responding to the slightest puff of air, a more stable setup has some “cushion”—you lean into it a little more to produce a tone.

A very responsive setup takes less physical effort to make a sound, but the sound can be harder to control. The pitch and tone are more flexible, which can be a good or bad thing depending on your preference and playing situation.

A more stable setup takes more effort to produce tone, but it tends to have more steady pitch and tone. Again, this is a tradeoff.

For most players and situations, some kind of middle ground is the right choice: enough response to articulate notes at pianissimo, but enough stability that you don’t have to devote all your attention to keeping things in tune.

Assuming your tone production is a well-oiled machine (breath support, voicing, and embouchure all working well), your equipment choices and condition play an important role. That means matching reed/mouthpiece/headjoint to your instrument, and keeping pads and tenons in good non-leaking condition. For example, a saxophone that blows very freely (or, in other words, is very responsive) may need a little resistance in the reed and mouthpiece (to provide stability). A flute that has a lot of resistance built in may need a freer-blowing headjoint (for ready response).

Develop your basic tone-production technique and make smart, reasonable equipment choices to find the response and stability you require.

Wind controllers as “practice” woodwinds

"Yet another view.." by Jon Delorey is licensed under CC BY-NC

Can you use a wind controller, like the Akai EWI, the Yamaha WX, or the Roland Aerophone, as a convenient and/or quiet way to practice a “real” woodwind instrument, like the saxophone or the flute?

No, not really.

You can practice some very limited aspects of woodwind playing. For example, each of those wind controllers has fingering patterns that resemble (but are not identical to) the fingerings of standard woodwinds. If you are in the very early stages of playing a woodwind instrument and still trying to memorize fingerings, I suppose you could use a wind controller to help you with that specific task, to the extent that the fingerings do match.

The Akai instruments have saxophone, flute, and oboe modes, plus the more flexible “EWI” mode that is quite saxophone-like, and even a couple of variations of a valved-brass-inspired mode. The Yamaha WX5 has several saxophone modes and a flute mode. The Roland instruments are set up to map fairly directly to saxophone fingerings, even going so far as to include some of the saxophone’s more problematic features like “palm” keys. However, with that exception, none even have all the keys needed to learn proper saxophone, flute, or oboe technique.

(None of the instruments currently has a clarinet mode, presumably because the real-clarinet phenomenon of overblowing to odd-numbered partials raises some complications for an electronic instrument capable of many octaves of range. And none of the instruments has the physical keys to reasonably approximate bassoon technique.)

Plus, in all cases, including the Rolands, none of them can fully imitate the “feel” of a standard woodwind. Beyond the very basic stage of learning fingering patterns, much of the fingering work that woodwind players practice has to do with nuances of the fingers’ interactions with the keys. Even switching from one flute to a slightly different model of flute can mean having to re-adapt to the keys’ precise locations, spring tensions, etc. Switching between a flute and a wind controller is a much larger leap.

And, of course, no major wind controller currently provides a realistic approach to tone production. None has a reed that functions as such, and none has a flute-like embouchure hole. There are some superficial similarities like breath pressure being mapped to volume, or a bite-able mouthpiece that allows for something like saxophone-style jaw vibrato (or to the ill-advised reed instrument technique of bending pitch with jaw movement).

So, can you practice on it? Not really.

But the good news is that wind controllers (particularly, in my opinion, the Akai EWIs) have lots of potential as instruments in their own right. (If you aren’t familiar, look no farther than Michael Brecker’s playing for an eye-opener.)

Rather than looking at wind controllers as a “practice” instrument or a low-budget stand-in, consider a wind controller to be an additional avenue for expression. Playing it well requires just as much hard work, but also brings worthwhile creative rewards.

Should I tighten the screws on my woodwind instrument?

For many household items, screws should be tightened if they seem loose. But for woodwind instruments it’s a little more complicated.

Woodwind instruments (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and saxophones) have many screws on them. They are usually the slotted type, for which you would use a standard (“flat-head”) screwdriver. And some of them need to be tightened when they become loose, but some should be left alone—and it’s not always easy to tell which is which. If you aren’t sure, take it to your teacher or a professional instrument repair shop.

When tightening screws, always use a screwdriver that fits the screw very closely, to reduce the chances of damaging the screw. Mismatched screwdrivers can also slip, causing injury to you or scratches on the instrument’s finish.

Here are some kinds of screws you might find on your instrument:

Some screws simply hold some non-moving pieces together. For example, these screws on a saxophone hold this key guard onto the instrument. It’s not a moving part; the screws are just there so a professional can remove the key guard to do specialized work on the key. If these screws are loose, you can carefully tighten them just until they are snug.

The same is true of these screws that hold the oboe’s thumb rest in place—they are part of a non-moving assembly. If they won’t stay in place, the wood may be damaged (the hole is “stripped”). A good repair shop can fix it for you.

Woodwind instruments have many pivot screws, and also pivot rods that have slotted ends like screws. These allow some of the instrument’s keys to pivot (rotate) a little when you press and release them.

Here is one of the pivot screws on a flute. The threaded part screws into a post that is attached to the instrument, and the pointy tip of the screw fits into a void in the end of the key, holding it in place but allowing it to pivot smoothly. For a well-made and well-maintained instrument, usually you can screw these in all the way until they are snug and the head of the screw fits into the post without protruding. But if that makes the key stick or misbehave, it may be necessary to loosen it just slightly.

Here is a flute pivot rod. When it is screwed in it looks the same as a pivot screw, but when it is removed you can see that it’s long enough to pass all the way through a post and the keys’ hinge tube, and then screw into another post. Like a pivot screw, a pivot rod can usually be screwed in until snug, unless that seems to cause a problem.

Most of the woodwinds also have at least a few adjustment screws. These allow a professional to fine-tune how some of the keys move. They need to be tightened a certain amount, no tighter and no looser, like turning the knob on an oven to get the right temperature. If it’s too loose or too tight, it will make the instrument difficult or impossible to play. Making these adjustments properly requires specialized skills.

Here are some of the many adjustment screws on an oboe:

And here is one of the few on a clarinet:

If you tighten these adjustment screws and don’t know what you are doing, you will probably need to take the instrument to your teacher or a repair shop to undo the damage. This can be time-consuming and expensive.

If you have screws that keep loosening on their own, this may be because they are dirty, damaged, or need lubrication. A good repair shop can clean and repair the screws or rods without damaging them (or replace them if necessary), and can determine and apply the appropriate lubricant. (Most household oils aren’t right for the job.) If the screws continue to loosen after this treatment, take the instrument to the shop again and they may use additional methods to secure the screws in place.

Favorite blog posts, May 2020

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