Getting the most out of practicing your scales

"Maths" by me_chris is licensed under CC BY

When you practice scales (or arpeggios or, really, any other technical material) it’s not really about the scales. Nobody wants to buy tickets to hear you play scales.

Scale and technical practice develop the fundamental technique you need for doing more interesting things. You don’t learn multiplication tables or French verb conjugations so you can recite multiplication tables or French verb conjugations. You learn them so you can file your taxes or build a Mars rover, or order pastries or read Proust.

The habits you develop when practicing scales—the building blocks of your technique—will be with you in everything you play. So take them very seriously:

  • Go slowly, and be as precise and controlled as you can. You will work on scales for your whole life as a musician, so there’s no rush to get them up to a certain tempo. Don’t waste time playing them sloppily.
  • Listen deeply to the sound of each note. Scales are a great chance to understand and map the tone, pitch, and response nuances of your instrument. Get in the habit of playing with your most beautiful sound even on technical material.
  • Solidify your best practices. Choose the perfect fingering for each and every note (don’t just fall back on what is already comfortable). Program your fingers to move in the most efficient and precise ways. Stabilize your breath support, voicing, and embouchure.
  • Be expressive. No need to go overboard—just give a subtle crescendo as you ascend and diminuendo as you descend. Add a little vibrato to warm things up. Make it automatic to find and express phrases.

Whatever habits you solidify in your scale practice will be infused into everything else you play. A little carelessness with your multiplication tables or verb conjugations can result in a severe fault with your Mars rover’s circuits or a profound misunderstanding of French literature. Get the little things right.

Favorite blog posts, September 2019

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Review: D’Addario Evolution clarinet mouthpieces

D’Addario was kind enough to send me a couple of their new(ish) Reserve Evolution clarinet mouthpieces to try out.

The Evolution currently comes in a single opening/facing, but the two Evolution mouthpieces I received are different in appearance: one is the standard black, and the other is what’s called “marble” on D’Addario’s website, or “sandstone marble” on the box. I usually don’t care to have equipment that calls too much attention to itself, but this is pretty cool and subtle enough not to be gaudy on stage.

I can’t definitively say that there is a difference in how the marble/non-marble play or sound. For the two I have in hand, the marble is possibly very (very) slightly more dark/muted, and the non-marble has very slightly more brightness/presence. But this doesn’t match my experience trying the mouthpieces back-to-back at the ICA conference (“ClarinetFest®”) over the summer. In any case, if there’s a difference, it’s trivially small, and I think you can pick the one that you think looks nicest.

As I’ve pointed out in my reviews of D’Addario’s other clarinet and saxophone mouthpieces, these are made with very, very high consistency, which finally brings mouthpieces into the online shopping age: you can just order one from wherever you find the lowest price, and count on it to play just as well as any other. No need to order a bunch of them, put a deposit on your credit card, ship back the ones you don’t want, pay a restocking/sanitation fee, etc. And if you lose or break yours, you can get a replacement quickly and probably not notice any difference. They are great-playing, affordable mouthpieces, but the consistency is the unique, killer feature. I’ve personally adopted each new clarinet and saxophone mouthpiece as it has hit the market.

(I don’t have a formal relationship, endorsement deal, etc. with D’Addario. They do sometimes send me products to try, presumably with the hope that I will review them favorably, but there’s no advance agreement. And I think that the consistent quality is a significant development in the mouthpiece market, and worth comment.)

What I’m looking for in a mouthpiece is a good balance between response and stability. To some extent these may be two sides of the same coin. A very responsive mouthpiece “speaks” immediately, even on resistant notes or at softer volume. But sometimes the tone and/or pitch are too flexible, and keeping them in check takes a lot of work. A very stable mouthpiece has consistent tone and pitch, but may take more work to get notes to respond as desired.

The particular quality of tone is my third consideration. I don’t make this my first priority for a few reasons. One is that a mouthpiece that strikes a good responsive/stable balance is already likely to have an appropriate, middle-of-the-road, versatile tone. (Often, within that middle-of-the-road zone, more “responsive” mouthpieces tend toward “brightness,” “presence,” or “liveliness,” while more “stable” mouthpieces lean toward “darkness,” “warmth,” or a “covered” sound.) Another reason is that tone quality is one of the more malleable aspects of a mouthpiece’s playing characteristics. If it functions well on the response/stability axis, then with a little time I will probably adapt my embouchure in minute ways (even without realizing it) to find the tone I want.

For the last seven years I have been using D’Daddario’s Reserve X5 clarinet mouthpiece, so I’m using that as my frame of reference. The Reserve and Evolution mouthpieces are both good, solid choices, and I can’t really say broadly that one is better than the other. But they have some differences in response, stability, and tone, which I’ll outline here in case it helps you pick one that best suits your preference.

Basically I find the Reserve to lean slightly toward responsiveness, with the expected tinge of brightness/presence, and the Evolution to tend more stable, with the darker/more covered sound. It’s subtle.

(Besides the mouthpieces, D’Addario also makes Reserve and Evolution reeds, which I find to have those same characteristics: Reserve = more responsive, Evolution = more stable. A D’Addario representative tells me the similarly named mouthpieces and reeds are “not meant to be exclusively paired together.”)

The following audio clips are all played using the same reed, a D’Addario Reserve 3.5. It’s just a little softer than I prefer for the X5, which accounts for some of the responsiveness and brightness but not all of it. Using a 3.5+ brings the sound and response just slightly closer to the Evolutions.

Evolution (black)
Evolution (marble)
Reserve X5

These photos are of the packaging for the X5 and Evolution mouthpieces. The measurements, oddly, are mostly in inches. (The X5 packaging is several years old, from when these were still sold as “Rico Reserve;” I don’t know if the box otherwise still looks the same.) The side view diagrams seem to indicate that both have a tip opening of ~.042 inches, which seems like a possible typo. Assuming the openings are precisely 1.05mm and 1.08mm (as also indicated on the packaging), these might be better expressed as .041 and .043.

I like both the Reserve X5 (my current favorite of the Reserve options) and the Evolution, and currently they are both living in my clarinet case. If forced to choose, I think at the moment I would fall back on the X5, because responsiveness feels important to me right now. But I can easily see myself switching to the Evolution at some point, perhaps depending on repertoire and performance situation.

In any case, the Evolution is another strong addition to D’Addario’s line of mouthpieces, and worth checking out.

Calculating gig fees

"Calculating savings" by wuestenigel is licensed under CC BY

It took a while in my freelancing career to get a handle on how to respond when people ask what I charge for my services as a performer.

I live in a remote, rural area (where my university day job is located) and there isn’t a musicians’ union presence, so I’m on my own in these negotiations. When a gig call comes in, I have to make the decision whether the offered compensation is enough, or be able to name a fair price on the spot. I’ve developed sort of a mental formula for this calculation, which I have converted into an online spreadsheet with sample numbers so you can see my process:

Gig fee calculator

If you have a Google account the link should prompt you to create a copy of the spreadsheet that you can play around with. Try changing some of the numbers and see how it works.

Basically, I’m thinking in terms of:

  • A base rate, which is the minimum I charge for even the smallest gig.
  • Additional fees if I’m expected to double on multiple instruments. (I’ve written previously about my rationale for that.)
  • Additional fees to cover my travel time and expenses.

This gives me a way to think through what I am charging in a consistent way, and a nice clear breakdown if someone asks why I’m charging what I’m charging, or wants some kind of itemized invoice. If I feel put on the spot, or I just want a little more time to think it through, I have had good success getting the details, then telling the caller I’ll get back to them within a certain time frame. (Maybe five minutes, or an hour, or the next day.)

Depending on the type of gig, what works for you, and what’s common in your area, you might need to adapt my system to include things like preparation/practice time, bringing and setting up PA or other equipment, downtime between sound check and downbeat, and expenses for things like special wardrobe. And of course you should adjust the base rate and other options to suit your financial needs, your clout in the local gig scene, and what’s common/appropriate in your location.

You should also think through what to do when the gig offer doesn’t meet your pay requirements. Turning down low-paying gigs contributes to an attitude that musicians should be treated as professionals and compensated fairly. But often weekend warriors or younger musicians trying to break into the local gig scene are willing to be a little more flexible. (The rights and wrongs of that are a larger topic than I will address here. Do what is best for you and your career.)

Think carefully about what your time and skills are worth, and expect to be paid in a way that is fair to both you and your employers.

Recital videos, August 2019

Here are videos from my recent faculty recital at Delta State University. I performed the Saint-Saëns oboe, bassoon, and clarinet sonatas, plus the flute Romance and “The Swan” from The Carnival of the Animals as a baritone saxophone transcription.

“The Swan” is originally for cello, so I assumed it might work well as a baritone saxophone transcription. It turns out it really fits quite comfortably in the alto saxophone’s range, but I decided to take it on as a baritone piece anyway as a personal challenge.

Favorite blog posts, August 2019

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Focus on fundamentals, not localized fixes

"Flute" by tobyjm is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

As I’ve discussed here previously, when trying to solve woodwind-playing problems there’s a useful distinction between problem-specific solutions and simply shoring up fundamental technique.

Here are some examples of problem-specific solutions:

  • Second-octave G-sharp tends to crack on saxophone, especially tenor? When you get to that note, blow warmer air (in other words, use a lower voicing).
  • Low notes on oboe respond sluggishly? Try dropping your jaw a bit as you descend into that register.
  • Flute pitch sagging at softer dynamics? Increase your breath support as you decrescendo.

Notice that all of these suggestions give you a sort of localized task to perform—make some change to your tone-production technique whenever you play a certain note. This is an exhausting way to play: trying to remember and execute a handful of directives for each note that goes by; discovering that a constantly-changing tone-production technique makes tone, pitch, and response unstable; adding another layer of fixes to try to counteract the instability. It can quickly become too much to process, and higher-order things like musical expression get sacrificed.

Sometimes these localized fixes are necessary, usually as a workaround to some flaw or compromise in the equipment’s design or manufacture. But much more often the “fix” should be an improvement to fundamental technique:

  • If lowering your voicing helps the cracking G-sharp on tenor, what would happen if you used that lower voicing on every note?
  • If taking some jaw pressure off the oboe reed helps the low notes speak, what would happen if you didn’t add that pressure back in the higher registers?
  • If increasing breath support helps buoy up softer notes, would it hurt the louder ones?

My guess is that by making these fixes part of your fundamental technique, instead of applying them here and there like bandages, you would discover:

  • a richer, more in-tune tenor saxophone tone
  • clearer, more immediate oboe articulation, with less fatigue/pain
  • flute playing improved in virtually every aspect

Examine your problem-specific fixes carefully, and try making them your default approaches rather than special-occasion ones.

When dealing with problem spots in your music, it’s okay to remind yourself of relevant and helpful fundamental techniques, but the ultimate goal should be to remove as much as possible of the mental overhead and physical gymnastics from your playing. Develop good basic technique that lets the instrument more or less play itself, so you can focus on the creative aspects.

Using the Fingering Diagram Builder’s advanced keywork controls

The most recent release of the Fingering Diagram Builder introduces some “shortcut” controls that make it easy to turn certain keys on and off. For example, with a quick check/un-check of a box you can turn on clarinet half-holes or some non-standard keys.

Or, as always, there’s a dropdown list of “key sets” (which I referred to as “presets” in previous FDB versions) to turn on and off the right keys for a complete instrument variant.

“Bass clarinet, pro,” for example, turns on (among other things) the right thumb keys down to low C found on many professional bass clarinets. “Standard Boehm” turns them off.

All of these menu controls work by changing the behavior of the keys present in the instrument diagram. The behavior of each key, or group of keys, can be set to “Always,” “Never,” or “As needed.”

If you have a specific set of keys in mind, you can set the behavior of each key directly. Let’s say I have a fancy new oboe with a left-hand “long” C-sharp key and a left thumb low B key, and I want to make a fingering chart to map out some of the new fingering possibilities. (There’s currently an easy check-box for the left C-sharp, but we’ll ignore that for now to explore the hands-on method.)

I’ll start with the thumb B key. If I open the “Keywork details” section of the menu, and then the “More keywork details” section, I see a long list, partially pictured here.

The last key in the picture is the key I want to use in my fingering chart. Before we go on, notice that its name is aligned all the way to the left, meaning that it is a stand-alone key, not part of a group of keys. A little above it you can see the name “Thumb octave keys,” with four keys below it and indented. “Thumb octave keys” is a group, and the keys listed below it (“First octave key,” etc.) are in that group.

Okay. “Left thumb low B” is currently set to “Never,” which is pretty self-explanatory: the key simply never appears in the diagram.

Setting it to “Always” is also clear enough: the key will be visible all the time, pressed or not. If I set it to “Always” and don’t press any of the oboe keys, here’s what the diagram looks like:

Visible in this image are the six “main” keys, with a little horizontal line visually separating the left hand from the right hand, plus the thumb low B key. All of these are now set to “Always.” The other keys—the octave keys, the little finger keys, etc., are not visible. This particular layout is probably not what I want. Some people like every available key (including the octave keys, etc.) to be visible in every image, but I prefer and recommend showing only the most relevant ones for the particular fingering. The left low B will only be relevant for a specific note or two.

So let’s set that key to “as needed” instead. Since this key isn’t part of a larger group, its “as needed” behavior is easy to understand. When it’s pressed, it appears in the image. When it’s not, it doesn’t. I will still be able to see where the key is while I’m using the FDB, because it will appear in gray outline when I hover over the diagram with my mouse or trackpad, or appear constantly if I’m using a touch device, but it won’t be part of the downloaded image.

If I set it to “As needed” and hover my mouse pointer over the diagram in the FDB, I see this, with the left low B present:

And if I download the image, I see this:

Now let’s turn to the left C-sharp key. Since it is part of a group (“Left little finger keys”) its behavior is a little more complex. Here’s what the group’s behavior settings look like for the “Conservatory” key set:

Several of the keys are set to “Always,” and several are set to “Never.” But the group itself is set to “As needed.” Here’s how that works: if none of those keys is pressed, the FDB determines the group is not “needed,” so none of the keys are visible. But if any of the “Always” keys is pressed, the FDB considers the group needed and makes it visible, including all the “Always” keys within it. (The “Never” keys are still not visible.) So, for example, if I press the “Left E-flat,” I get this:

Only the left E-flat is pressed, but the other keys in the group appear too, to give a little visual context.

So, to make the left C-sharp available, I will set it to “Always.” But when an oboe has a left C-sharp, the left F-key usually gets moved over a little and has a little different shape. So I’m also going to set “Left F” to “Never,” and “Left F (with low C-sharp),” a key designed for this situation, to “Always.” Now I have this (low C-sharp in red, altered left F in yellow):

By setting the behavior of individual keys, you can do just about any combination of keys you can think of. And you can use the “Custom key sets” menu to save your settings for future use.

This system also makes it relatively easy for me to add obscure or unusual keys to the diagrams, and keep them hidden except when people need them for specific purposes. So, if there are keys you would like to have in your images, and you didn’t find them in the “More keywork details” list, let me know and I’ll consider adding them in future versions. It’s extra-helpful if you can send good photos.

Enjoy!

Your first lesson with your college instrument teacher

"University" by Faber_32 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Every teacher is different, but here are some ideas of what you might expect when you take your first instrumental lesson with your new college teacher.

Before the semester starts: When you have your login information, check your new university email and LMS (it might be something like “Canvas,” “Blackboard,” or “Moodle”—a site you can log into to see announcements, assignments, etc. for each of your classes). Check in daily to see if there are updates from your new teacher, like a lesson schedule or other instructions. When you arrive on campus, locate their office and check their door or bulletin board for information. If they are inside, they would probably be happy to say hello and answer your questions.

Usually lessons are scheduled on a one-on-one basis. I look over my students’ course schedules, decide when I am going to have each student’s lesson, and post a link to an online calendar on the LMS, plus a copy on my door. Other teachers sometimes have a system for you to sign up for your own lesson time. Do this ASAP so you can get a time that works well with your schedule!

The teacher might have instructions for you to show up with something prepared to play, or not. Usually I personally don’t expect them to have prepared anything for their first-ever lesson, and instead we will spend that time getting oriented and assigning materials to prepare for the next week’s lesson. (Returning students usually know what will be expected, and should show up with some scales, an étude, and the repertoire piece we picked out at the end of the previous semester.)

If you have previously taken lessons or have worked on études or repertoire pieces on your own, make a list of those.

The day of your lesson: If you can possibly squeeze it into your schedule, find a practice room and warm up a little. Pick out a good reed if applicable.

Gather your materials:

  • Your instrument and all accessories
  • Your list of previous repertoire, if you have any, and your copies of the most recent ones you worked on. Your teacher may find this helpful in evaluating your level and deciding which materials to have you work on next.
  • Something to take notes with. I personally don’t mind if you use a digital device for this, but some teachers might prefer that you don’t have your phone out during your lesson. Bring a notepad to the first lesson just to be sure.
  • A pencil. In fact, stock your instrument case, backpack, etc. with pencils. Keep one in your pocket or purse. You will need one for every lesson, practice session, and rehearsal. Pencil, not pen.

Lesson time: Show up at least a few minutes early, with your instrument assembled and ready to play. (You may or may not actually play in this first lesson, but it’s good form to come prepared.) If you feel nervous, take a few deep breaths. Use the restroom. Mute your phone.

Some teachers tend to run a little late, and they might be finishing up the previous lesson when you arrive. Unless they have instructed otherwise, I think the best thing to do is go ahead and knock right at the stroke of your lesson time so they know you are there. Give a real knock that they can hear, not a timid/quiet one they might miss. Then wait patiently if they take a few more minutes to finish up with the previous student.

Call your teacher by their academic title (like “Dr. Pimentel” or maybe “Professor Pimentel” if you’re not sure), unless they tell you to call them something different. You might be able to figure this out by reading their biography on the university website, or by checking to see how they sign emails they send to you.

Don’t try to write down everything they say, but taking a few notes might be appropriate. If you need another moment to write, or you’re afraid it will be rude to look down at your notepad, you could try asking, “Do you mind if I write that down?” Definitely write down what they assign you to work on for next time.

Depending on your teacher’s personality, the teacher might dive right into lesson stuff, or may want to spend some time getting to know you.

After the lesson: Review your notes and edit/clarify if needed while it’s still fresh in your mind. Make a practicing plan for the week to make sure you prepare your assigned materials as best you can for next time.

If your teacher asked you to purchase some repertoire or other materials, do this right away! I usually try to help my students out with a photocopied page or two so they can get started while they wait for their own copies to arrive, but some teachers may expect you to get it on your own and be prepared by the next week. (Tip: if you’re at a large music school, the university library might have copies of some materials, which you can use until you get yours.)

If, during the week, you realize you are unclear or have forgotten something, visit your professor during their office hours (probably posted on the LMS and/or their door) or send an email. Much better to ask for help while there’s still time to practice, than to show up unprepared at your next lesson.

Make friends: You will hopefully be meeting some other students who play your instrument and take lessons from your same teacher. (If you arrived on campus early for marching band camp, that’s a nice advantage.) Those people remember what it was like to be brand new, and if they are nice (they probably are!) they won’t mind answering some questions about the teacher, giving you a few lesson tips, and maybe even loaning you an old étude book while you order your own. Sometimes the students know the processes and procedures (signing up for classes, getting your ID card, logging into the LMS) better than the professors do.

Have a great semester!

Favorite blog posts, July 2019

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