Favorite blog posts, June 2019

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

What are registers?

"Flute practice" by fsteele770 is licensed under CC BY-ND

“Registers” are a tricky concept in woodwind playing. Here’s how they work.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s say I am playing a flute with a C footjoint. If I finger a low C, that closes all the instrument’s toneholes and produces a C4:

Make your own woodwind fingering diagrams: fingering.bretpimentel.com

As I work my way up the chromatic scale, I gradually open more and more of the flute’s holes. When I reach C-sharp 5, I run out of holes to open. (Using standard fingerings, that is.) To continue upward, the fingerings sort of restart—I close a bunch of toneholes again, fingering D5 in almost the same way I played D4. By the time I get to E5 I am using fingerings identical to the ones from an octave lower.

I can play higher notes using the same fingerings I used for lower ones because I have moved into a higher register, which in this case is an octave above the lower register. On flute, I do this by changing something about my tone production; on reed instruments I get extra help from octave/register/”whisper” keys.

If I continue my scale up to C-sharp 6, I run out of toneholes again, and move up to the third register, which is a fifth higher than the second. To play D6, I use a fingering that looks similar to G5, but sounds a fifth higher.

So, for typical flute playing situations, we can consider the second register to begin at D5, and the third to begin at D6.

But this doesn’t paint a complete picture in terms of the instrument’s acoustical properties. When the fingerings “start over” at D5, that’s not really starting over—I have left out the low C and C-sharp fingerings. And it turns out I can in fact play C5 and C-sharp 5 using those fingerings. The reason that flutists typically don’t is that the “standard” fingerings (with most of the toneholes opened) happen to work better for most situations, with regard to pitch, tone, and/or response. Likewise, when I reach C-sharp 5 and C-sharp 6, I haven’t completely run out of toneholes to open. If I open everything I have left (both trill keys, plus maybe the G-sharp key) I can get up to about D-sharp in either octave. But I usually don’t do that unless I have a special reason, because the standard fingerings are more usable.

And starting the third register on D6 with an adapted “G” fingering raises this question again, but with an even larger gap. What about third-register notes using the fingerings from “low C” up to “F-sharp?” The answer is that those fingerings work, too (producing G up to C-sharp, an octave plus a fifth above the corresponding low-register fingerings). But, again, they aren’t as useful because of their pitch, tone, and response characteristics.

So from an acoustical standpoint the first and second registers overlap in the C5-D-sharp 5 range, and the second and third overlap in the G5-D-sharp 6 range.

When there’s overlap, there are fingering options available. The “standard” fingerings are the ones that have been chosen over the centuries by flutists as the ones best suited to most situations, but the others (sometimes called “overtone” fingerings or “harmonic” fingerings) can be used to good musical effect at times.

The flute and most of the reed instruments follow the same pattern of registers: the second register is an octave above the first, and the third is a fifth above that. Additional registers above those are also used sometimes, spaced with increasingly small intervals. This series of intervals is a naturally-occurring phenomenon known as the harmonic series.

The clarinet is an exception; due to its acoustical characteristics it uses only every other harmonic. This is why the clarinet doesn’t have an “octave” key, it has a “register” key that skips the octave register and goes straight to an octave plus a fifth.

Understanding registers is helpful in navigating between them and in finding alternate fingerings for special situations. Happy practicing!

So you want to hire a horn section

"The Shrines' horn section" by Jon Southcoasting is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

So, you want to hire a “horn” section for an upcoming gig or recording. Great! Horns can add a special touch to your rock, pop, blues, etc. performance.

If you haven’t hired horns before, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • A small thing: the word “horn” as it’s used in this kind of music usually means trumpet, trombone, and/or saxophone. In classical music it means one specific instrument, probably not the one you want for this situation. Just something to remember if you ask someone to recommend some “horn” players.
  • If you’re planning to play some covers and there are horns on the original, depending on the mix it can be hard to tell exactly which horns. A horn section might range in size from two to a half dozen players or more, with some combination of trumpets, trombones, and saxophones in various sizes. There’s no single, standard setup.
  • Good working horn players can learn their cover-song parts by ear from a recording, just like your guitar/bass/keys/drum set players probably do. But it can be tricky to get the chord voicings right, just like if you’re trying to get a group of backup singers to imitate the harmonies from a favorite recording. It takes some coordination to make sure all the notes are covered, nobody is playing/singing somebody else’s part, and it sounds like a cohesive unit.
  • One thing that makes a great horn section great is precision in executing the details. This includes things like the coordinating the exact moment that notes begin and end, their shapes (do the notes swell? taper? etc.), and the gentleness or aggressiveness of the notes’ beginnings. Plus, horns don’t automatically play exactly in tune or in balance, so each chord may require the players to adjust to each other. That kind of precision doesn’t come quickly or easily (or cheaply).

Here are some tips to make it all work:

  • Most working horn players read music well. (They often have some kind of formal training.) If you can get some professionally-prepared horn “charts” (sheet music) for the combination of horns you intend to use, and hire top-notch players, they will likely be able to nail the parts on stage with little or no rehearsal. Well-written charts don’t just tell each horn player which notes to play, but also have detailed markings that help a good section play together with precision and style. Good charts cost money, but once you’ve got them you can reuse them with another horn section next time, or even hire local horn players at each tour stop.
  • To put together a really polished, professional horn section without charts requires some rehearsal time to get all the notes sorted out and establish a unified style. This also costs money, because good horn players usually won’t rehearse for free.
  • Depending on the market you are working in, it may be possible to hire a pre-existing horn section. There can be advantages to this, like that they have already put in many hours learning to play together as a coordinated section. Some horn-sections-for-hire might have a set instrumentation, or they might revolve around a single player who provides services like contracting the rest of the section from a roster of top-notch players, and maybe composing or transcribing horn section charts.
  • One budget-friendly option to consider is a single horn player. It’s not the same as a tight, well-coordinated section, but it’s flexible and easy. (I think a single saxophone works especially well for this, but I may be biased.) If you hire the right person you can go without charts or rehearsal time. A good player will learn the most important horn lines from a recording, or even make up something convincing on the spot. I do a fair amount of playing that way—a band hires me to join them on a gig, and either I already know most of the cover songs well enough, or I can play something off-the-cuff that works. If the gig pays well enough, I can afford to do some extra homework in advance and learn the cover parts cold.
  • Horns are loud, but not loud enough to compete with amplified instruments. They will need mics and monitors. Basic vocal/general-purpose mics like SM57s or SM58s are a solid starting point, or your sound engineer may have some other options available. Include the horn section in your sound check so they can get monitor levels. (Generally they will need to hear fair amount of themselves in the monitor, like singers.) If you are providing charts they will also need music stands and maybe stand lights, but can probably bring their own if given advance notice.
  • Horn-playing freelancers are often accustomed to jazz gigs and maybe performances in a local symphony, so they should be ready on a moment’s notice to wear coat and tie (or equivalent female attire), “gig black” (all black, somewhat dressy), or “concert black” (tuxedo or similar dressiness). Decide whether you have any dress code expectations and communicate them.

A horn section brings some extra class and professionalism to your performance. Knowing what to expect helps things go smoothly. Enjoy!

Woodwind doubling and oboe problems

"Reeds, ready" by vincentfuh is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

There’s an increasing expectation that woodwind doublers be competent and confident oboists. It can be a challenging double, but a worthwhile one. Many of my doubling gigs have come to me because of my ability and/or willingness to play the oboe. And even though it’s not my strongest instrument, there are considerable spans of my career during which I’ve made more money playing the oboe than any other instrument.

Here are some of the common problems woodwind doublers, often coming from background in the single reed instruments, have with the oboe:

Fingering awkwardness. Dedicated, conscientious practice of scales/arpeggios and technical material goes a long way here, but there are some additional considerations specific to the oboe.

First, the oboe’s toneholes are rather widely spaced, maybe surprisingly so for clarinet and saxophone players. (This has to do with the oboe’s very narrow bore—the toneholes have to be quite small so as not to catastrophically weaken the instrument’s body, which means they have to be spaced widely to produce a scale.) This can be a cause of tension. Work diligently at keeping your hands relaxed. If it helps, use a neckstrap to further reduce hand strain.

Second, the oboe, more than the other woodwinds, tends to have more keys the more you pay for it. It’s very worthwhile to save up for an oboe with a left F key, and to learn to use it fluently. The left F key should be seen as part of the instrument’s core fingering technique. Many of the other keys available on professional or semi-professional instruments are less-used, but valuable in specific situations.

Uneven tone and intonation. The oboe requires a very low voicing, lower than a saxophonist is used to and much lower than a clarinetist is used to. It also offers little forgiveness for weak or inconsistent breath support. Learn to balance low voicing against steady support to even out the instrument’s sound and stabilize its pitch. (Like fellow conical-bore instruments the saxophone and the bassoon, the oboe’s response suffers particularly in the lowest register when your voicing is too high.)

Similarly, embouchure should remain open, not pinched, regardless of register. Remember that the embouchure’s function is to be a mostly-passive gasket between your air system and the instrument. Resist the urge to bite when moving into the highest register—rely on good breath support instead.

Overall response sluggishness/unreliability. My experience is that many, many intermediate (and especially self-taught) oboists are playing on reeds that are far too stiff. If your notes won’t respond reliably and delicately at a soft dynamic, and you’re sure your breath support, voicing, and embouchure are working well, you should consider a more responsive reed.

Because oboe reeds are so susceptible to change, the best way to sound like a pro reed-wise is to spend a few years’ worth of lessons learning to make (or at least adjust) them yourself. Failing that, it’s worth it to buy reeds face-to-face from a good reedmaker, rather than from a music store or a distant internet reedmaker, so that they can adjust them for you on the spot. Reeds from a local reedmaker are also adapted to your altitude and climate.

Another important and ongoing concern is adjustment of the instrument itself. The oboe has many adjustment screws that need occasional tweaking. It’s best of course to learn this art under the supervision of a good teacher. But if you’re mechanically-inclined and have a good oboe technician standing by to bail you out, there are a number of books and resources that explain the method in a clear and methodical way. A small tweak here and there can transform a stuffy, stubborn oboe into a responsive, cooperative instrument that is a joy to play.

Approach the oboe on its own terms, equipped with good reeds and a good grasp of tone-production fundamentals, and enjoy!

Favorite blog posts, May 2019

And, as always, this is an excellent way to get your blog post selected as a favorite:

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

Time-crunch vs. long-term practicing

"Calendar*" by DafneCholet is licensed under CC BY

My approach to practicing has to adapt to deadlines. Sometimes the deadlines come up fast, and there isn’t time to make everything as perfect as I would like. Other times I have plenty of preparation time and want to make the best use of it.

Suppose the music I’m working on has one or two especially challenging spots, and I know I could put many hours into trying to perfect them. If I get bogged down trying to make those couple of spots perfect on a tight deadline, I might fail to adequately prepare the rest. It’s a better strategy to make sure I’m ready to play 98% of the music at tempo, make a reasonable effort with the remaining 2%, and hope for the best.

But if I have plenty of time to prepare, that approach can backfire. Getting the 2% “good enough” early in the process may mean compromises that I have to undo later. I’ll have a better final result if I’m not in a hurry to bring the tough spots up to standard. Instead, I give them time to settle deeply into muscle memory before pushing the tempo. I practice difficult spots for a few minutes every day, instead of cramming.

Think carefully about your practice approach, and adapt as needed. Good luck!

Local vs. big-picture dynamics

"Musican" by davekellam is licensed under CC BY-NC

An important part of interpreting music is figuring out how to use dynamic markings. They aren’t as simple as just playing louder or softer.

It helps a lot to understand the difference between what I call local dynamics and big-picture dynamics. Unfortunately, they are marked in sheet music using the same symbols, so it’s not always immediately obvious which they are. When you study a new repertoire piece, ask yourself why the composer or editor has provided each dynamic marking:

Is it there to call attention to a major event in the music, like a new theme, a return to an old theme, or some other kind of climactic moment? If so, it’s a big-picture dynamic. In many cases there is some other evidence that this is an important moment: a double-bar, a fermata, a key or tempo change, an entrance after some rests, etc. (If you have studied musical form, you probably have some more ideas of what to look for.)

Or, is the dynamic marking there just to provide some shape and direction to a phrase? There’s no major musical event, just a hint about the momentary musical gesture. If so, it’s a local dynamic.

When you think in terms of local vs. big-picture dynamics, it’s clear that not all fortes or mezzo-pianos or crescendos are equal. If the composer uses dynamics to contrast two themes or sections, for example with one being soft and the other being loud, that probably calls for a dramatic change. (It may also hint that some other unwritten contrasts are appropriate, like nuances of tempo, articulation, or tone color.) But a one-measure decrescendo from forte to piano in the middle of a theme might be more of a suggestion from the composer about what direction that phrase should take, and should be handled with more subtlety.

Beware of the limitations of dynamic markings in music notation, and of careless editing, and use your best-informed musical judgment to interpret the meanings of those symbols.

Playing issues vs. reading issues

"[233] If you could see it through my eyes." by Linh H. Nguyen is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Sometimes when I struggle with a musical passage it’s because I can’t quite play it—maybe my fingers or tongue won’t move quite fast enough yet, or there’s a difficult slur or interval leap that I’m still mastering. The solution is methodical practice, which of course takes significant time and effort.

But there’s an additional set of issues that can be solved more efficiently: reading issues. These are caused by a variety of things: unclear printing, bad editing, poor eyesight, or something just not quite clicking in my brain for some reason. On flute I sometimes get a little lost in the ledger lines, and on bassoon my switches between bass and tenor clefs aren’t always as agile as I’d like. Plus I still sometimes stumble over a double-sharp or some other less-familiar symbol.

Reading issues aren’t shortfalls in my ability to physically operate the instrument—they are a disconnect somewhere in my eyes-to-brain-to-execution connection. And they often don’t need hours of drilling to solve.

Keep in mind that reading from your score is 100% optional. Would it solve the problem if you just memorized those few notes? Made some nice clear pencil marks? Rewrote that measure in a clearer way? Scanned the whole thing and reprinted it at a larger size?

Taking reading out of the picture when necessary can save many hours of frustration and tedium. Try it!

Favorite blog posts, April 2019

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

Why my college band chair placements ended up not mattering a bit

"6. Falling Flat" by epospisil is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Over 20 years ago, I was a brand-new music performance major. This is a story about that first year of college that I’ve told many times to my own college students.

I arrived at college with the confidence granted me by a freshly-minted high school diploma and a track record of first-chair saxophone school band placements. I eagerly auditioned for the university concert bands and jazz bands, and was gutted to find myself placed not only in the lowest groups (the #3 band in both cases), but doubling up parts with other players. Devastatingly, a fellow freshman saxophonist landed spots in both the #1 groups.

It was one of the best things that could have happened to me. I hit the practice rooms hard, gradually worked my way up, and in my senior year finally got spots in both top bands. By that time I had gotten serious about woodwind doubling, and earned a fun and important spot in the top concert band outside the saxophone section. And I got the lead alto chair in the top jazz band (and couldn’t help but enjoy a little that the classmate I had envied so much was sitting second).

Had I gotten the seats I wanted right away, maybe I would have coasted through college. And it’s possible I never would have developed an interest woodwind doubling, which now is central to the career that I enjoy so much. Looking back now, having those particular chairs in those particular semesters seems very unimportant, but my growth during those years laid the groundwork for two graduate degrees and a life in playing and teaching music.

Whatever your current stage in your musical development, there are bigger and better things to come. How you measure up to others matters much less than what you’re doing to get to your own next level.