How to get 10 good reeds from a box

photo, alyak
  1. If you are getting less than 80% playable clarinet or saxophone reeds from the boxes you are currently buying, buy different ones.
  2. Be realistic about strengths. If you are only getting 2-3 good reeds out of a box, you aren’t just being “choosy.” You are probably playing on reeds that are too resistant, and those 2-3 are the softer ones. Let go of the nonsensical old myth that better players play stiffer reeds. If you are getting less than 80% “good” reeds from a box, try moving down (or, in rarer cases, up) a half strength.
  3. Update your shopping list. There are many, many available reed options! Clarinet and saxophone players used to be stuck with the few brands available at nearby music stores. Now there are more brands, shipped anywhere in the world, probably for cheaper than buying at your local store. Don’t let a misplaced sense of brand loyalty or tradition keep you putting good money into bad reeds.
  4. Skip the sandpaper, mostly. If you are buying reeds that actually work for you, you won’t have to do more than a few minutes’ worth of adjustment over the reed’s useful lifetime. The available variety of cuts and profiles is staggering. And modern reed companies can shape reed vamps with very good consistency and accuracy.

A brand that genuinely makes clarinet or saxophone reeds with less than 80% success doesn’t deserve your repeat business. But there’s a strong chance you have simply mismatched the reeds to your mouthpiece and playing requirements. Keep searching!

Discount on book and new t-shirts

I’ll keep this short: there are new bretpimentel.com t-shirts available, and everything in the store (shirts and the PDF of my book, Woodwind Basics) is priced at 1/3 off through Christmas Eve 2018 if you use coupon code reeds2018. Your purchases help pay for hosting and other site costs, and otherwise support what I’m doing on the site.

Happy holidays!

Planning breaths

When learning a new étude or repertoire piece, it’s common to practice at first with focus on the notes, often playing them at a slow tempo and/or divided into chunks. This is a good approach for mastering the needed finger technique, but it may neglect one of the crucial parts of a performance: breathing.

In some music, it’s obvious where to breathe. But in a page of nonstop sixteenth notes, it’s harder to find the right places, and to execute them gracefully. Adding to the problem, I find that when I am nervous or playing under pressure, my breathing is one of the first things that falls apart: I start breathing in unaccustomed places, or skipping breaths that I know I really need.

I recommend establishing a breathing plan early in the process of learning new music. That way you can practice the breaths just like you practice the notes—they become a part of your muscle memory, and will happen automatically even under pressure.

The first step for a wind player should be to mark in the musical breaths, the ones that demarcate phrases. These are breaths that you will take (or possibly fake) regardless of your need for oxygen, because they serve the music. How exactly to do that is beyond the scope of this post, but here are a few quick tips:

  • Beware breathing at bar lines. They look like nice stopping points, but often don’t make musical sense. (They are there only for your convenience in counting.)
  • Background in music theory helps a lot, but you can also use your ears to help you figure out intuitively where a phrase comes to rest, or steal ideas from a good recording.
  • To go deeper, consider studying phrasing, perhaps from a book like David McGill’s. (Put that one on your wish list if you haven’t read it already!)

Once the breaths required by the music are in place, you may decide you need more, perhaps because you haven’t worked the piece up to its full tempo yet (or because the piece isn’t written with sensitivity to your desire to survive). Mark in-between “survival” breaths as needed, perhaps in parentheses so you remember which ones they are. Put them in the best places you can find, and execute them as musically as you can, but as your tempo increases you may be able to skip them. If so, be sure to erase them so your marked-in plan stays up to date.

Choosing places for survival breaths is a trial-and-error process. Mark some in and give them a try, then adjust as needed. If you feel uncomfortable while playing, this can lead to panicked decisions on stage, so choose breaths for your comfort.

Particularly for the oboe, you may find you need some “breaths” where you can actually exhale stale air. Mark these clearly, too.

Always update your pencil marks if you decide to change the plan at all, so that your plan is 100% clear and you can practice it in a consistent way. You can change your mind later, as long as you change your marks.

To summarize:

  • Start early in the process of learning a new piece.
  • Mark in musical breaths, which you will observe even if you’re capable of playing longer without stopping.
  • Mark in survival breaths, if necessary. Use trial and error to get them right.
  • Practice the breaths just as diligently as you practice the notes.
  • As you get closer to the performance, you might alter the breathing plan as your interpretation evolves, or as you no longer need some of the survival breaths.
  • Be strict about keeping the markings current, and about playing just what is marked.

Well-planned, thoroughly-practiced breaths contribute to a relaxed, musical performance.

Using sticky notes to focus my performance thinking

photo, George Lawrie

I might put in weeks or months preparing for a high-pressure performance. The groundwork is done—I have made the technical and interpretive decisions, drilled the difficult spots, and otherwise planned and prepared every aspect of my playing.

But all of that can fall apart pretty quickly if my head isn’t in the right place. Nerves, stress, and distractions can make one small error snowball into an unfocused, sloppy performance.

One of my favorite tricks to help avoid this is to plan my thinking. As I do the final preparations for my performance, I often pick out two or three things I would like to focus on as I begin each piece or movement. These might be important technical details (“make sure embouchure is stable before playing the first note”), more general advice (“keep breath support strong through the ends of phrases”), or interpretive thoughts (“light and playful”).

I write these two or three things (no more) on a sticky note, and place it at the beginning of the piece or movement. If the reminders seem especially crucial, I might put the sticky note over the first few measures of music, so I can’t start playing until I have physically moved it out of the way.

This small preparation helps ensure that as I begin to play, I’m thinking about the things that are most important to the success of the performance, rather than reacting to distractions.

Favorite blog posts, October 2018

Bassoon jaw movement: survey of published opinions

photo, Indiana Public Media

I mentioned in a previous post that I wanted to examine a “controversial” aspect of bassoon playing: the movement of the jaw during articulation.

I was already aware of Terry Ewell’s well-reasoned article from The Double Reed journal, which concludes that jaw movement is unnecessary and inefficient. But I was also under the impression that there were advocates of jaw movement. A skimming of some pedagogical materials at hand seems to debunk this—I couldn’t find a single author strongly and clearly in favor of jaw movement.

The Ewell article should be the go-to for anyone interested in the topic. In a different article, Ewell summarizes:

Chewing motions with the jaw should not be used during the tonguing because the tongue should function independently of the jaw.

Terry Ewell: “Basic Bassoon Articulations,” in Woodwind Anthology, Volume II, 1999 edition. Northfield, Illinois: The Instrumentalist, 1999, p. 951. Article originally printed in The Instrumentalist

Here are the other anti-jaw-movement examples I could find:

One of the worst possible habits is to tongue in a “chewing” fashion. The movement of the jaw and lips not only distorts the tone each time they move, but actually slows down the action of the tongue.

William Spencer, rev. Frederick A Mueller: The Art of Bassoon Playing. Princeton, New Jersey: Summy-Birchard Music, 1958, p. 54.

In staccato passages, the collapse of pressure can produce a ‘gobbling’ reaction in the jaw. As a result the quality of tone and attack may suffer. … As we tongue more rapidly, we must try to involve only the tongue and not allow the jaw and throat to become involved… The momentary opening and closing of our lower jaw may be in response to the change of pressure inside the mouth once the support is switched off; however it is more likely to betray and involuntary ‘gobbling’ with the jaw in sympathy with the activity of the tongue.

William Waterhouse, BassoonYehudi Menuhin Music Guides. London: Kahn & Averill, 2003, p. 116-123.

Needless to say, there should be minimum outward movement of the lip or jaw, as this will hinder the tongue’s freedom of motion.

Homer Pence, Teacher’s Guide to the Bassoon. Elkhart, Indiana: H. & A. Selmer, Inc., 1963, p. 2-3.

The following refers to the woodwinds in general:

Jaw should not move during articulation

H. Gene Griswold: Teaching Woodwinds. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2008, p. 31.

Movement of the jaw in tonguing. This is the result of too large or too violent movement of the tongue, frequently accompanied by changes in pitch of the tone. … Jaw movements can occur with all methods of correct tongue placement, as well as with incorrect tongue placement, and these prevent the development of speed in articulation.

Frederick W. Westphal, Guide to Teaching Woodwinds, Fifth Edition. Boston: McGraw Hill, 1990, p. 227.

This may include the jaw:

The goal on all wind instruments, and particularly the bassoon, is to maintain an open mouth and throat position while playing. The bassoon tone is very sensitive to this positioning.

William Dietz: Teaching Woodwinds: A method and resource handbook for music educators. Belmont, California: Schirmer, 1998, p. 14.

Here is the closest I could find to advocacy for jaw movement, though it’s not 100% clear that that is what the author intends:

On both double reeds, embouchure pressure on the reed will vary to control the ends of notes. Increasing pressure on the reed will keep the pitch from dropping. For this reason, you will see embouchure movement while articulating, which will be more pronounced with bassoonists…

Charles West: Woodwind Methods: An essential resource for educators, conductors, and students. Delray Beach, Florida: Meredith Music, 2015, p. 68.

I also turned to Christopher Weait’s Bassoon Strategies for the Next Level and Arthur Weisberg’s The Art of Wind Playingboth of which seemed like likely sources on information, but could not locate passages in either that directly addressed the issue.

In summary, there seems to be little support for the idea of jaw movement in bassoon articulation. If you are aware of sources that encourage this technique, I would be curious to hear about them.

Hi, come on in, you’re right on time for your lesson.

photo, Jeremy Tenenbaum

I have lots on things on my list for you today: we should double-check your rhythms on that etude, review those melodic minor scales that were giving you trouble last week, and discuss some finer points of vibrato.

But something about your sunken eyes when I met you at the door, the way you slouched into the room, the slept-in fashion statement, says that today you are Struggling. Not because you are lazy or undedicated. But because college life is fraught with deadlines for research papers and rent payments, and scheduled to the brim with marching band rehearsals and late shifts waiting tables, and fueled by store-brand Pop Tarts and never enough sleep.

And because of the heavy secrets that you carry. A friend spiraling into addiction. A boyfriend or girlfriend who tells you you’re not enough. A medical worry that you can’t afford to acknowledge. Sexual assault. Depression.

We can try to fight through your repertoire piece, but today Saint-Saëns isn’t breaking the top twenty things on your mind.

And while sometimes the biggest obstacle between you and your senior recital is sluggish articulation, sometimes it’s crippling anxiety about something else. And my calling is to get you from here to that recital, whatever is standing in the way. 

So for now let’s put off talking about how many practice hours you have logged. Instead I want to know whether you have eaten anything in the last 24 hours. How much you slept last night, and the night before. Whether you have gotten any sunshine this week. Sometimes, I think, the best thing I can do to improve your playing isn’t to harangue you about intonation, but to offer you a protein bar from my desk drawer, send you home for a nap before you have to clock in at the restaurant, or make you walk a few laps around the quad and take some breaths of fresh air.

Or sometimes to ask how you’re doing, ignore the reflexive “fine,” and wait for the real answer to come tumbling out.

I’m no therapist. And I’m not your parent or your doctor or a social worker. I might not always be the right person for you to talk to—luckily you have friends, family, clergy who are also ready to listen. And there’s the campus counseling center, for when you need to talk to someone who isn’t invested in your life, or someone who can offer a professional opinion when medications or other therapies are needed. But if I seem like the right person to open up to, then I want you to feel safe and unjudged doing it.

One thing, though: mentioning suicidal thoughts, even in passing, is a showstopper. Before we move on, I need you to tell me, emphatically, that you’re not in danger of harming yourself. If you can’t convince me, then I’m going to use this circa-1982 office phone to call one of the counseling staff for some help.

Your musical pursuits are important, but not more important than your life and health and happiness. So let’s make sure the real problems are at a manageable level first, and then I’ll resume hassling you about tension in your embouchure.

See you next week. Hang in there!

Thanks for reading! You’re awesome. If you found this post helpful, let me know with a donation or an email.

Clarifying woodwind doubling goals

photo, Aprilyn Podd

A couple of months ago, I wrote this as part of a sort of tongue-in-cheek FAQ:

Q. Should I be a woodwind doubler?
A. In most cases, no. If you already feel driven to do it, and have the time and resources to devote to it, then maybe.

I got a comment on this by “C Lee”:

I’m a teen who started playing pits last year on flute and piccolo a year ago. Since then, I’ve fallen in love with pit, have played in four more musicals and am actively seeking out other gigs to gain experience. In addition, I’ve also taken up the saxophone and have plans to learn as many woodwinds as I can if not all of them. Do you think I should be a woodwind doubler?

It would be irresponsible to make a recommendation based on so little information, and of course it’s ultimately a very personal choice. I’ve previously suggested some questions worth asking oneself before pursuing woodwind doubling, so I won’t rehash those here.

But I think it’s also worth considering exactly what you mean by being a “woodwind doubler:”

  • Playing as many instruments as possible?
  • Playing a select group of instruments?
  • Playing multiple instruments as a hobby or part-time semi-pro gig?
  • Studying multiple instruments at a university/conservatory level?
  • Playing professionally or semi-professionally as a specialist on one instrument, but adding doubles to increase employability?
  • Competing for the highest-profile doubling gigs in a major market like New York City or Los Angeles?
  • Performing recital repertoire, orchestral music, and/or chamber music on multiple instruments?
  • Using multiple instruments in the creation of a unique personal repertoire (jazz, avant-garde, electronic, etc.)?

Your individual goals might include several of these, or others I haven’t listed. And your goals might be a little fuzzy or might change, which is okay. But just “woodwind doubler” isn’t a very clear path. Having some sense of direction might help you make decisions about education and training, investment in instruments, location, practice strategies, and more.

Favorite blog posts, September 2018

Recital videos, August 2018

Here are some videos from my recent Delta State University faculty recital. I enjoyed tackling Brett Wery‘s challenging Sonata for multiple woodwinds (flute, clarinet, alto saxophone) and piano, plus some little oboe pieces and the André Previn bassoon sonata. As always, the goal was to challenge myself, so, as always, the performance had some hiccups. But it was a valuable growth experience for me and a chance to perform some new repertoire.