What to listen for (or ignore) in cane vs. synthetic reed comparisons

selective focus photography of gray stainless steel condenser microphone

With the recent release of the second-generation Venn clarinet and saxophone reeds from D’Addario Woodwinds, there’s a new rush of YouTube videos and social media posts comparing them to cane reeds (and/or to other synthetics). Here are a few questions raised by those kinds of comparisons that you should be cautious of:

  • “Do synthetic reeds sound as good as cane?” You could decide whether one of the specific reeds in question sounds better to you, but if it’s the cane one, does that mean that all cane reeds are better-sounding than all synthetics? You could almost certainly find a cane reed that would sound much worse than either of the ones tested. Plus, if you’re hearing a comparison to a seasoned player’s favorite reeds, it’s likely that those are the reeds the player used to select their mouthpiece, and that they have been practicing and performing on for years. You may be hearing the new reed being played on a mouthpiece or embouchure to which it’s not well-matched.
  • “Can you tell the difference between cane and synthetic?” Would you be able to tell the difference between two different cane reeds? In many cases the difference between two high-quality, similarly-purposed reeds is audible (if subtle). Being able to hear a difference between this specific cane reed and that specific synthetic reed isn’t particularly remarkable or important. I’m not aware of any manufacturer claiming their synthetic reeds sound identical to any specific cane reed (even in the case of D’Addario, who is making both; they consider the Venn to be a new “cut” of reed, not a clone of one of their cane products).
  • “Is this synthetic reed the best-sounding of all reeds?” Tone is important, but remember to consider other factors. Sure, that includes response/articulation, pitch, etc., but it should also include some of the potential upsides of synthetics, like longevity, stability, and consistency. If a synthetic only “sounds” 98% as good as your cane reeds, but it lasts for months, isn’t affected by weather, and plays identically to others of the same model, is it worth it to you to switch? Is it likely that the 2% gap will narrow or even disappear with some practice and tweaks to your setup?

Here is a better question to ask yourself as you consume the reviews, videos, comments, etc.:

  • Do I hear evidence that this is a viable reed? In other words, is it possible to sound good on it, in a way that’s competitive with my current favorites? (A comparison to a player’s old standby reeds can be useful here.) If the answer is yes, then you can decide whether you wish to pursue the possibility further. If the answer is no, that only tells you that you weren’t impressed by that specific demonstration; the reeds might work quite well for another player, another mouthpiece, etc.

New products are exciting! But keep a level head.

(Full disclosure: I have in the past made exactly the kind of comparison I’m criticizing here, but no longer think it’s that useful of a format.)

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What to expect in your first semester studying music in college

books file on shelf
  • Jumping in the deep end. In some college majors, you will spend your first couple of years doing “general education” courses (like writing, math, history, and science), and not take many “major” classes until later on. But with music, you usually start on day one with a lot of music classes.
  • A thorough and varied education. During your years in college you will probably study music theory and music history, play the piano (even if you’re not a pianist), sing (even if you’re not a singer), perform as a soloist and ensemble member, conduct, compose, and more. There’s a good chance you will dislike or think you are bad at some of those things, but they are part of your complete career preparation.
  • New teacher-student interactions. In high school you may have gotten used to a band or choir director being your go-to person for all things musical. But in college you may also work very closely with a teacher of your instrument or voice, plus teachers of other musical topics. Your teachers may expect you to meet differing expectations (such as different writing styles or vocabulary or attendance policies). You may find that your teachers put demands on your time that you will have to navigate carefully to avoid conflicts.
  • A dose of adulthood. Expect to take more individual responsibility for most aspects of your education (and life). Your college teachers are more likely to expect you to locate and obtain needed books, sheet music, supplies, instrument repairs, etc. on your own. (They may be willing to suggest some good companies to purchase from.) And if you’re used to a grown-up making sure you get up on time, do your homework, and eat reasonably nutritious meals, you are now that grown-up.
  • Choices with consequences. You may find yourself pulled in multiple directions by school, family, friends, and other activities. Understand that sometimes it may be the best choice for you to attend a family event and miss some classes, but that’s not the same thing as being “excused.” Your grade will probably suffer. And for music students, missing certain rehearsals or performances might have particularly dire consequences, since your absence affects the group.

Studying music in college is fun and rewarding, but also a challenge. Good luck!

Doubling up pinky fingers on the clarinet

There are two basic fingerings a clarinetist can use for B4:

option 1option 2


But there are some other possibilities, such as adding either of the pinky C keys. Doing this doesn’t open or close any additional toneholes, so the note isn’t affected at all:

option 3option 4

While the extra pinky finger is technically unnecessary, it is sometimes convenient and conducive to smoother technique. For example, option 4 is frequently taught as a “standard” B fingering in beginning band method books. That is probably because it works well in a C major scale:

When moving from A to B, this only adds one extra finger, the right hand pinky, to the B. Since there are already several fingers of the right hand moving in the same direction (down onto keys), this is only a minimal issue. And the movement from B to C is very simple: just release the left pinky.

The same sequence can be played without the extra key:

This is very slightly advantageous for A to B, since there is one fewer finger to move. But it introduces a more significant complication for B to C, since there is a “flip-flop:” the left pinky is lifting up as the right pinky is pressing down. A good clarinetist can execute this successfully, but it’s a little risky, since fingers on different hands are moving in different directions. There’s a possibility of finger mistiming that can result in an audible blip—a moment when both fingers are up together, producing a brief D5.

So there are advantages to using “extra” pinky fingers in some cases, but it doesn’t make sense in others. Some of my students stumble over sequences like this:

The right-hand pinky isn’t needed for the B, but some of my students use it out of habit whenever they see that note. Then they run into trouble when they have to slide the pinky to a different key for the E-flat. Advancing clarinetists should be aware of the fingerings they are using, and make each choice purposeful. Careful, consistent scale and arpeggio practice can help reinforce and habituate good fingering choices.

By the way, for the sake of completeness, you can add the opposite-hand C/F key for any of these written notes on the clarinet:

Adding pinky keys to any other pinky note will affect pitch.

To make your own fingering and note images like the ones in this post, try the Fingering Diagram Builder and the Note Image Generator.

Why you should use a scale sheet

My university students take a scale exam covering all the major and 3-forms-of-minor scales, plus arpeggios, in all 12 keys, memorized. In preparation, I provide them with a scale “sheet,” with all of the scales and arpeggios written out note by note.

There’s a part of my brain that objects to this, since I don’t really want scale playing to be a reading exercise. My students should be able to work out the notes for each scale from several different angles, by using (for example) interval patterns, transposition, and/or playing by ear. And the true goal is muscle memory—the ability to play all these scales on auto-pilot, without relying on any particular thought process.

The scale sheet shouldn’t be a crutch, but can it be helpful? I think it can. Here’s why:

If I’m working on a complicated repertoire piece or étude, I will certainly work from a piece of printed music, even if I intend to memorize it. Besides the printed musical information, the paper (or digital) copy also gives me a place to annotate the music with hints to improve my performance.

A scale sheet can work the same way. It’s not merely for laying out all the notes, but also for marking in:

  • preferred fingerings, articulations, etc.
  • current playable metronome markings
  • unresolved problem spots
  • some tracking/tally of which scales I’ve practiced lately (I find that if I let myself choose scales “randomly” to work on, I end up choosing the same ones repeatedly, and completely neglecting others)
  • indications (stars? check marks? smiley faces?) of progress and successes, that might help me feel motivated to continue

If you’re not using a scale sheet of some kind, I suppose you could figure out an organized way to write this information in some other document, but it’s hard to beat the convenience of the scale sheet.

As a teacher, I provide scale sheets with the ranges, rhythms, articulations, fingerings, and so forth that I want my students to use. You should produce your own, by hand or with the commercial or free music notation software of your choice. (Hint: use the transpose function to turn one key in to twelve, and minimize the chance of errors.)

Happy practicing!

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Creating “lightness”

a white feather pen

Composers (or a performer’s interpretation) often call for “lightness” in music. How do you play a wind instrument “lightly?”

When I discuss this with my students, they often suggest that the way to play lightly is to be lighter with their tongue. When I turn that around on them—”is there a situation where you should use a heavier tongue?—they are quick to say no, the tongue should never be heavy. Sometimes instead they suggest using “lighter” air, but upon further interrogation they aren’t able to explain that without stumbling into no-nos like “less air” or “less powerful support.”

Creating musical lightness is easy, if not completely intuitive. The key is to forget about trying to make the tone light, and focusing instead on making the texture light. That means creating some contrast.

For example, consider the second movement of the Bernstein clarinet sonata. After an Andantino introduction, the musicians are instructed by the composer to play “Vivace e leggiero” (lively and lightly). Here are clarinetist Wonkak Kim and pianist Eunhye Grace Choi:

Notice the subtle but important contrasts Dr. Kim creates in the clarinet line. Many of the notes have a small accent at their beginnings, then quickly taper to a softer volume. Some notes get more emphasis from higher volume or from sustaining the note with less taper. The lightness comes from stringing softer notes between the more emphasized ones, or even from individual notes having louder and softer moments within them.

The volume in the Bernstein clip is soft, but this approach is very effective at louder dynamics, too. I stress this when rehearsing my university’s jazz big band, since things can easily get heavy- or angry-sounding at fortissimo. To bring some lightness back into a loud, thickly-orchestrated passage, I ask the band to look for the marked or implied accents and let those set the fortissimo ceiling. The in-between notes can be brought back down perhaps to a comfortable mezzo-forte, giving the musical line some texture and headroom without losing the excitement of the louder dynamic.

Creating lightness in music means giving some notes some gravity, so the others can float weightlessly.

What really went wrong? Leaning into problem spots

photo of man touching his head

I have a recurring teaching challenge with my saxophone students who are tackling the altissimo register for the first time. They play a passage, and when they get to the altissimo note, if it doesn’t respond perfectly, they immediately stop playing. When I ask why, they look puzzled. “The note didn’t come out.”

“Well, what did come out?” I might ask.

More puzzlement. Sometimes I have to prompt them to play it again, and remind them to play it long enough to really hear it.

“A weird honk,” they might finally conclude. Or “a terrible squeak.”

“That’s a note,” I point out. It might be too low (honk) or too high (squeak). But it has a pitch, right? It isn’t the note we wanted, but it was something. And understanding what something it is helps us know what to try next. If it was a honk, the instrument responded at a too-low partial, and if it was a squeak, it responded at a too-high partial. There’s work to do to fix it, but we’re much farther along than we were the diagnosis was only as specific as “failure.”

This approach is helpful with a variety of woodwind-playing problems. Don’t bail and declare failure at the first appearance of a problem. Try leaning into it. What does the problem really sound like? Can you make the problem happen again, on purpose? If you change something about your approach, does the sound change (even if it just changes to a different problem)? All of this information is potentially useful in finding a reliable, repeatable solution.

Additionally, this approach encourages an attitude of curiosity and exploration, rather than self-judgment. That’s a much more fun and productive way to practice. It lets you finish your practice session eager to try again tomorrow, rather than dreading more failure.

Run toward your problem spots, not away from them, and see what they can teach you.

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Woodwind trill technique

Ideally, a trill is done with one finger, and preferably a finger that is nimble and independent, like an index or middle finger:

flutebassoonclarinet

In many cases that isn’t possible. When two fingers (or more!) are needed, it’s best if they can be fingers of the same hand, moving in the same direction (moving down onto keys/holes simultaneously).

fluteclarinetsaxophone

If the most obvious trill fingering involves more than one finger, try moving them each individually and see if you can produce something that works. If the pitch of the trilled note isn’t quite right, many woodwind players lean toward a sharper upper note rather than a flatter one.

There are good fingering charts available online and in print that offer possible trill fingerings for when common/standard/obvious fingerings don’t work. If you find you need to invent a fingering, a good starting point is to finger the lower note on your instrument, and see what holes there are that you could open with a finger or two to possibly produce the upper note. Try each of them, and some combinations, until hopefully you find one that produces the right pitch. If you have a good understanding of your instrument’s registers, you may also find that you can borrow fingerings for one or both notes from other registers.

Sometimes the tone, pitch, or response of the trill fingering isn’t good when you sustain it as an individual note, but will work acceptably in the context of a trill.

The two notes of the trill should be about equally balanced, so that if you were to record it and slow it down you would hear that the individual notes of the trill are equal in duration and volume. Trills should also fit volume-wise into the context of the musical phrase; use strong and consistent breath support, as though you were playing a single long note.

Trill speed is an artistic decision. Generally trills should be fast enough to give the impression of an effect applied to a single note, rather than a sequence of separate notes. They usually shouldn’t be so fast as to sound jarring or unnatural. The speed of the trill can change for musical effect, and when it does it usually starts slower and accelerates. The best way to learn appropriate trill speeds is by listening to great performances and recordings.