Favorite blog posts, August 2019

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

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.


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!

Fingering Diagram Builder, version 0.8

I’m pleased to announce a new release of the Fingering Diagram Builder.

One thing I wanted to do in this release is give something back to the very generous and sexy people who have been kind enough to use the PayPal donation link to show their support over the years, so I’ve added some special exclusive features for donors. Most of those features are geared toward those doing large or involved projects, such as for publication.

To be clear, none of the old features have been put behind a paywall, and with this release and future releases I’ll keep working on improvements for the free users, too. And you can get the donors-only features with a one-time donation of literally any amount of your choice. (If you’ve donated before, you can try the “Are you a previous donor?” link to activate your special features, but you might have to email me so I can fix it for you manually, especially if your donation was a few years ago.)

Anyway, here’s what’s new:

  • Some weird/cool new key sets like Kingma-system flutes, the Redgate oboe, and the Contraforte. I’m flying a little blind on those since I don’t exactly have those instruments laying around, so if you’re an expert let me know what tweaks are needed.
  • Downloads in .gif format (in addition to the previously-available .png and .tif). For some purposes .gifs won’t look as nice as .pngs, but the file sizes are very compact, which is useful in some situations. And for donors, you can also download in .svg format, which gives you basically unlimited scalability with no loss of image quality. .Png and .svg downloads also now get lossless compression, which you can turn off if for some reason you want to.
  • Diagrams can be rotated 90° in either direction. Donors can also mirror them, which I think is a strange idea but lots of people have requested it.
  • Image backgrounds can be white (like before), or now also transparent.
  • Some more flexibility for donors: finer control of image size and line thickness, and an editable color palette. Donors also have some new options for how images are cropped.
  • You can still, as before, let the FDB automatically provide unique filenames for your downloaded images or name each one manually. But now you can also type placeholders: %i to auto-insert the name of the current instrument, %k for the key set, and %c for an auto-incrementing counter. It’s hard to explain, but try it out and I think you’ll see it’s pretty easy and useful.
  • In addition to downloading images to your device or uploading to Dropbox, you can also post them to Imgur. That gives you quick-and-easy shareability of images on all the social media sites, and you don’t need to create an account or anything.
  • People have been rightfully baffled for years by the powerful but undocumented “Keywork details” thing. That hasn’t gone away, but many of the instruments now have a more user-friendly interface for turning certain keys on or off. I hope to add to and refine these interfaces in response to the continuing frustrated emails. It has also become abundantly clear that, while I’ve tried to make everything as intuitive as possible, it’s time for a help page.
  • The FDB can, if you like, remember the fingering you were working on in a previous session. (This feature is turned off by default.) I don’t expect that many people need multiple visits to the FDB to complete one fingering diagram, but it’s handy if, say, you accidentally navigate away.
  • Once again, a thorough visual refresh and lots of little interface tweaks.
  • This one is boring but important: basically a ground-up rebuild of the FDB’s guts, using smarter coding than I knew how to do nearly nine years ago when I first released it. (For the code-savvy, I’ve replaced my spaghetti jQuery code with slightly-less-pasta-like Vue.js code.) That will hopefully help keep it running reliably and maintainably on modern web browsers for the better part of another decade.

Please do check it out, and send me your bug reports and other feedback.

Where to buy your child’s new school band instrument

"SP 15/365 "Lisa Simpson"" by ::pascal:: is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

There are pros and cons to the places you might shop for a band instrument. Here’s what you need to know, bad news first:

  • Big-box stores (Walmart, Costco, etc.): these may already be your favorite places for one-stop back-to-school shopping, but a musical instrument probably shouldn’t be on your list here. The “instruments” they sell are generally of such low quality that in-the-know musicians joke that they are “instrument-shaped objects.” They are unlikely to play well (and maybe won’t play at all!) as purchased. And many instrument repair shops will refuse to fix them, since they are made with such inferior materials that they will break under the normal strains of routine repair and maintenance. One piece of good news: these stores usually have robust return policies.
  • Online megastores (Amazon, etc.): these can be a mixed bag quality-wise. There are some good instruments being sold by third-party music retailers, but mostly “instrument-shaped objects.” Even if you have some idea of what brand and model you want, it’s difficult for megastores to adequately screen out knockoffs. And even genuine, reputable instruments that have lots of positive reviews are a risk: if it gets jostled too much in shipping, it may need a few hundred dollars’ worth of repair. Your best case scenario at that point is paying what it costs (a lot!) to ship a saxophone back for a refund.
  • Online garage sales or auction sites (eBay, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace): here you can sometimes find low prices on used instruments of reputable brand, but condition is a major concern. An instrument in poor condition is very frustrating to play, and can make a beginner feel like a failure (and want to quit). Even if you are mechanically-minded, there can be serious playability issues that can’t be identified visually. By the time the school band director or private teacher points out that the instrument has serious flaws, the sale is usually final.
  • Local music stores: there is some good news here, but you should still be cautious. The sales staff are likely to have some idea what the band director will and won’t find acceptable, and may accept returns or exchanges within a reasonable window. They may also be able (and anxious) to sell you a maintenance plan, which will cover routine repairs. (These plans can sometimes be a decent deal for a beginner-level instrument. But be aware of the store’s incentives: the less time they spend servicing your instrument, the more profitable the repair plan is for them.) Be aware of upselling, too: I have had particular problems with things like accessory kits. Some stores may also want to convince you that, say, a wooden clarinet will sound better than a plastic one. This really isn’t worth it at the beginner level, and is sometimes a step down, like buying a car with engine problems and expensive leather seats, instead of a reliable one with vinyl.

For the best results, consult closely with the school band director, or, even better, with a reputable private teacher who is going to give your child lessons. (Band directors are good at lots of things, but yours may not be a specialist on that particular instrument.) They will have a good sense of what brands and models to look for, and where to buy them for good condition, quality, and price. A private teacher may be able to play-test the instrument for you, to make sure it’s a good one and already in playable shape.

Having taught private lessons for several decades, it’s always a relief when the parent of a prospective student reaches out to me before buying an instrument. It’s not an intuitive way of doing things, but it can save a lot of disappointment and extra expense. The teacher won’t think it’s strange.

As with most worthwhile pursuits, you do usually get what you pay for. But if you’re able to provide your child with a quality musical instrument in good condition, it can be a hobby or even a career that brings a great deal of satisfaction and growth. (But for now, maybe stop by the big-box store and get some bulk earplugs for you!)

What if I don’t love to practice?

"Misty" by Unhindered by Talent is licensed under CC BY-SA

Musicians are supposed to wake up every day filled with a burning desire to practice for hours, right? If you don’t feel that way, you must not really have what it takes, right? And even if you don’t feel like practicing, you should be able to will yourself to do it anyway, right?

It’s normal and okay not to love practicing, or for your love of practicing to vary. And it’s normal and okay to have less-than-perfect willpower.

Some self-awareness about your practicing (or lack thereof) can help a lot. What keeps you from practicing, or from practicing at your best? Can you embrace it? Incorporate it? Work around it?

Here’s an example: I’ve discovered that my mind wanders a lot while I practice. I might be doing some slow repetition of a tricky passage, but my brain is working on something else. So now I practice with a small notepad nearby. I find that if I can pause practicing for a moment and jot down a few thoughts, it quiets my mind.

At first I resisted this idea, because it seemed like I was planning to multitask and be distracted. But for me, permission to get the idea out of my head and onto paper makes my practicing much more productive overall.

Do you fail to practice, or fail to practice well, because:

  • …you get too bored working on one thing for such a long time? Can you rearrange your practicing so you change tasks every few minutes? Or spread your practicing out throughout the day?
  • …you hate missing out on what your friends are up to, IRL or online? Would it help if you gave yourself permission to spend a few minutes now and then, within established limits, to catch up on what’s happening? Or what if you practiced first thing in the morning, before your social circle gets interesting?
  • …you’re engrossed in an interesting book or show? What if you got to read or watch for ten minutes as soon as you finish your scale routine, or put in a solid half-hour on your étude? Or if you get your practicing done before dinner, you get to binge in the evening, guilt-free?
  • …you get hangry or tired? Could you schedule yourself some breaks to snack or nap or stretch? Or move your practicing to after a meal, instead of just before?

Instead of beating yourself up about motivation or willpower, ask yourself how you can harness your natural inclinations and use them for productive practice.

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!