Working less hard

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As a 10-year-old brand-new saxophonist, I learned a bunch of tasks I needed to do to play the instrument: blow in a certain way, form my lips just so, put my fingers into such-and-such positions, and so on. Every time I thought I had learned all of the skills I needed, my teacher would add some more.

In the 30 years since, playing saxophone and other woodwinds, I have mostly worked on doing less—letting my embouchure relax, keeping my jaw still, keeping my breath support consistent, moving my fingers more efficiently. The more I can strip away the excess effort, the more my playing is easy, pleasant, pain-free, fatigue-free, and expressive.

On some level it feels more like teaching if I can tell a student a new thing to do. Assign them an additional task. But the most productive and valuable lessons (or personal practice sessions) are often the ones when I can convince a student (or myself) to do one fewer thing.

Favorite blog posts, January 2020

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

Do I need a college degree for my instrumental music career plans?

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  • Classical or jazz solo artist, chamber/orchestral/theater musician, jazz big band or small group musician, studio musician. None of these “require” a college degree, just very fine playing. But these are lofty goals for making your primary living—very few people, even among the most talented and hardworking, are able to achieve them. But college study can help you develop the skills, the discipline, and the professional network that might get you there. And a college degree that you can fall back on for other employment might be a smart move.
  • Musician in “popular” styles (such as rock, blues, hip-hop, country, and many more). Even if you wish to study these in college, there currently aren’t a lot of options. But some classical or jazz training in a band or orchestral instrument, widely available at universities, will deepen and expand your musical understanding in general, and sometimes present valuable opportunities.
  • Public school music teacher. Yes: in most cases you will need a bachelor’s degree in music education.
  • University music teacher. Yes: in most cases you will need a doctoral degree in something related fairly precisely to the job you are applying for. (Some job listings list a masters degree as a minimum, but even for an adjunct or community-college position, you may well be applying against candidates with doctorates.)
  • Private music teacher, from home or small business. You probably won’t need the degree in order to set up shop, but depending on your local market and your reputation it may be an advantage in attracting students and giving them quality instruction.

While college study may not be the right choice for every instrumentalist, it’s hard to beat for a well-rounded musical education (with performance study, music theory, music history, and more), plus life skills, networking, and enhanced employability in the general job market.

10 ways to strengthen your embouchure right now!

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  1. You don’t need a “strong” embouchure, you need a relaxed embouchure.
  2. Embouchure “strength” is a myth. Stop biting and pinching.
  3. Your embouchure is made up of little facial muscles, which are good at subtle, expressive movements, like for facial expressions and language (or for nuanced variations in woodwind dynamics and tone color). They aren’t good at feats of strength or endurance.
  4. Your abdominal muscles, on the other hand, are very good at strength and endurance. You use them all day long and they probably never feel tired unless you are doing sit-ups or something. Instead of straining with your embouchure, let breath support do the work.
  5. You should probably check on your voicing, too. I mean, you could bite your clarinet up to pitch instead, but it’s painful and causes lots of other problems.
  6. You know that thing where you play a reed instrument and you get a blister or callus from your teeth on your lower lip? Good news, you don’t need a dental appliance or some kind of tape. You just need to relax your embouchure. Try it! Now you can practice for hours without fatigue or blood, and sound better doing it.
  7. Ever try to play in one of the upper registers of the flute, and get an undertone or some dirtiness/growliness in your attacks? The key to clear, beautiful transitions into the upper register is a relaxed and flexible embouchure.
  8. We can argue about whether your jaw is part of your embouchure. Nah, never mind, I have better things to do. But in any case it should be open, creating space for the soft tissues of your lip and facial muscles to make the aperture. Go ahead and unclench. By the way, opening up your jaw is what people really mean when they tell clarinetists (mostly) to do weird things with their chins.
  9. I know, somebody taught you in your formative years about the vital importance of a brutishly muscular embouchure. Take a deep, cleansing breath. Everything is going to be fine.
  10. Go practice.

Woodwind doubling and saxophone problems

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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”

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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.