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!

Let audiences applaud at your classical music concerts. Or don’t.

"audience" by push 1 is licensed under CC BY

The question of when to permit applause at a classical music performance has already been discussed to death. In summary, some people believe that you should encourage applause only after a complete work is finished, because:

  • It allows the piece to be heard as a unified whole
  • It’s respectful to the musicians and/or audience
  • It’s current accepted concert etiquette
  • The performance might be recorded, streamed, etc. and the applause interferes

But others believe it’s acceptable to let audiences clap between movements, or even during them, because:

  • Some classical composers would have expected and even encouraged it
  • Holding applause until the end is a relatively recent thing
  • Shaming concertgoers for expressing enthusiasm is rude, paints classical music audiences as elitist, and drives potential new attendees away
  • You’re allowed to clap, chat, sing along, eat/drink, or whatever at lots of other kinds of concerts

I think neither stance can be fully the “right” one. Perhaps an analogy is helpful:

I could eat dinner at a hamburger joint, or at an innovative Michelin-starred restaurant. These are potentially equally enjoyable and valid dining experiences. At the first place nobody would think it strange if I picked the onions out of my burger, or dipped my fries in some ketchup. At the other restaurant, a waiter might bring me unfamiliar dishes that require some explanation and even instructions in order to experience them as the chef intended.

If I ask the waiter at the casual burger place for instructions on how to eat, I will probably get a strange look. And if I request some ketchup for my avant-garde cuisine, I’ll probably get the same.

Rather than argue over the “correct” way to handle applause at concerts, we should consider what kind of experience we want our audiences (and musicians) to have, and communicate that. It’s okay to encourage people to applaud when they hear something they like. And it’s okay to ask them to remain silent until the end of the program. It’s even okay to ask for silence during one piece, and applause during another.

Audience members may arrive with differing expectations, and nobody wants to feel awkward or annoyed. Help them out. Trust longtime classical music enthusiasts to be open to experiencing music in a less-rigid atmosphere when given permission, and trust your newcomers to be respectful when you explain your expectations in a non-condescending way.

I suggest being clear about your preferred modes of audience feedback, and including these expectations in the printed program and announcing them from the stage at each and every performance. Let’s not put the burden on audiences to somehow know the “correct” way to behave. Let’s use our musical taste and expertise to interpret individual performance situations for them, the same way we select and interpret the repertoire.

[Applause/boos here. Thank you.]

Interpreting wind articulation markings

It’s easy to think of articulation markings as being black and white (and not just literally). But sometimes the instructions aren’t completely clear.

For example, I think most people would see this marking…

…and understand it to mean that the D gets some extra length, perhaps so much that there’s no silence between the D and the following C. And there’s an implication that the other notes shouldn’t be that way, so perhaps they should have a bit more space by comparison.

But how about this? (I ran into this marking in a piece I am working on this week, by an experienced composer.)

The slur seems to preclude any space between the notes, so how does the tenuto work? You can’t reduce the space if it’s already zero, right?

I think most experienced musicians would say that in this case the tenuto gets some other kind of stress, like a little extra volume, or a slight stretching of the beat, or maybe more intensity in the vibrato. But those are substantially different from the first interpretation. And if I do interpret the tenuto as some kind of stress, how is it different from, say, this:

To interpret the markings, you have to take them in context. Musical notation is an expressive language, not a set of precise instructions for note-playing robots.

And sometimes the markings are bad. There might simply be mistakes, or maybe the composer or editor isn’t entirely familiar with how wind players interpret articulations. How about this one?

Wind players tend to think in terms of slurred or not slurred, and map this directly to a technique. When the slurs are doubled up like this, it doesn’t quite compute—I’m already slurring, I can’t make it any more slurred.

So often the go-to explanation is that the larger slur is some kind of phrase marking, to show that those notes belong together, and the smaller one is an actual slur. Or, I guess, maybe another smaller phrase marking? And why do I need a phrase marking anyway—shouldn’t I already be playing phrases? And, if I decide to take out the smaller slur, then does the larger one still remain a “phrase marking,” or does it transform back into a slur?

Here are some things I try to keep in mind as I try to interpret articulation markings:

  • If the composer put it on the page, she or he wants to hear it. How can I make the marking audible? What is the composer’s likely intention?
  • Why did the composer pick that particular marking? If there is ambiguity, is it intentional, or at least knowing?
  • Do similar markings appear elsewhere in the piece, or even in the composer’s other works? Does that shed any light? For example, if the composer uses both tenuto marks under slurs and accents under slurs, the composer probably wants them to sound different from each other.
  • Is there a tradition surrounding this piece? Sometimes frequently-performed pieces begin to develop a sort of standard practice for how certain markings are interpreted. Sometimes these are reasonably reliable, such as if a recording was made with the composer’s input, but sometimes they are just popular guesses. If you have a better guess, you can use it, but it would be wise at least to know what the tradition suggests.

We are used to thinking of music itself as an expressive thing, that hopefully causes our audience to respond in some way. But the art of music notation is also expressive—the composer/editor/copyist is trying to get some kind of response from the musician. (Which in turn gets the response from the audience.)

If you have been reading articulations like a robot—or ignoring them—return to the score again and listen to what the composer is telling you.

Do I have to practice over the summer?

"IMG_1803" by quack.a.duck is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

As I send my students off to their summer plans, I know many of them are asking themselves the same question I used to ask: Do I have to practice?

Your teacher might give you a summer assignment. I feel like I really can’t give my students official, enforceable assignments when they aren’t enrolled in my courses. I could possibly guilt them into summer practicing. Or I could threaten them with high fall-semester expectations.

On the other hand, some of my students need full-time summer jobs so they can afford to continue their education in the fall. Some have responsibilities to their families. Some may genuinely need a little downtime for their mental health. (Any mental health concerns should be discussed with a qualified professional.)

So, do you have to practice over the summer? I guess the answer is no for my students, since they won’t get grades, and since I prefer not to teach by guilt or threats. But it probably isn’t the right question. I think the questions to ask are:

What kind of student and musician do I want to be? If you’re planning on a career in music, or otherwise have your sights set on being the best musician you can be, then maybe you already know how you should spend your “vacation.”

What’s possible in my circumstances? You should move toward your goals each day if you can. But if bill-paying or illness or family life or other high-priority obligations get in the way, that’s not a personal failure. It’s life. It’s not a reason to feel guilty or incapable.

Ask yourself what kind of student and musician you want to be, balance that against what your circumstances will permit, and make your best use of your summer months.

Favorite blog posts, April 2020

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

Wind playing and contagious diseases

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I’m not a (medical) doctor or disease expert of any kind, but I’ve been thinking a bit about the instruments I play and the risks of catching or spreading disease. (At the time of this writing, Covid-19 is foremost in many people’s minds.) I’m presenting a few thoughts here in hopes that people with real expertise will be able to address them in an authoritative way, and I’ll update this post as appropriate with links to additional information if/when it becomes available. Update: I have created a separate page with links to research/resources.

As a player of reed instruments, I am of course concerned about reeds and mouthpieces (and related items like mouthpiece caps and reed cases, tools, and workspaces), and would like to implement some more structured, methodical ways of keeping them clean.

But the thing that worries me more is what is in the air when I am playing wind instruments, or near people who are. Some research/modeling (the accuracy/relevance of which I am unqualified to judge) seems to suggest that “aerosol particles” from a cough can travel far and remain in the air for a long time:

I can only speculate on how this relates to playing wind instruments, but it does leave me feeling uneasy. Some concerns that spring to mind:

  • If I am teaching lessons, even in my relatively spacious university studio, are my students and I both filling the air with potentially infectious particles, by blowing large amounts of well-supported air over sustained periods of time?
  • What surfaces in my studio are receiving these particles, and how long can germs survive there? Should I be altering my routine of teaching lessons all morning, then eating lunch at my desk? Do I need a routine for cleaning music stands, metronomes, and other items that are in the line of “fire?” Should I be concerned about what is settling on the bassoon reeds drying on pegs in a corner of the office?
  • When I or my students perform (especially in ensembles), how close are we to other people? I’ve certainly played orchestral gigs where there’s hardly enough elbow room to swab out a clarinet. What is being put into the air or onto surfaces when the entire wind section starts to play?

Contagious diseases certainly aren’t new, and I think some basic courtesies and hygiene will continue to be adequate to keep ordinary disease risks in check. But at the time of this writing we find ourselves in an age when we are more attuned to physical (“social”) distancing, handwashing, and mask-wearing, and when we receive somber daily tallies of those affected by a public health crisis we don’t yet fully understand.

Let’s all be listening to experts and thinking about how we can continue to share music with our students, teachers, collaborators, and audiences, safely and in good health. Stay well.