6 advantages of adult students

Now and then, non-musician friends express to me their regrets about their own supposed inability to play music. My usual response to this is meant to be encouraging: “It’s not too late to learn!” This is most often met with a doubtful look and a lament about wasted youth.

I find that there is a prevailing attitude that learning a musical instrument is a new trick of the sort that old dogs simply can’t learn, and that if you didn’t start young you’ve missed your chance. I don’t think that’s true.

Do children naturally learn more quickly or easily than adults? Possibly. But if it’s true that children have some sort of built-in edge at learning musical instruments, I would say it’s also true that adults have at least enough advantages of their own to level the “playing” field.

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Review and blindfold test: Légère Signature Series clarinet reeds

A few months ago, I posted about plastic reeds, and reported some of what I had read on another woodwind blog about the Légère Signature Series and Forestone clarinet reeds.

For reasons unknown to me, the post from which I originally quoted has been removed, but there are similar thoughts expressed in a more recent post.

Anyway, I got a kind offer from someone at Légère to send me a few samples.* They asked about my current cane reed preference, and sent three reeds in different strengths close to what I currently use.

Goodies via Canadian mail

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Doubling-specific skills vs. instrument-specific skills

I don’t think a woodwind player really learns the skill of “doubling” so much as he or she learns the skill of flute playing, plus the skill of saxophone playing, and so forth. 99% of being a good doubler is being a good flutist and a good saxophonist and whatever.

There are only a few aspects of woodwind doubling that are unique to multi-instrumentalists. These are:

  • The physical act of switching instruments. This becomes an issue in Broadway-type situations when instrument changes sometimes need to happen very quickly. It’s worth practicing these little bits of choreography until they can be done as quickly, quietly, and safely as possible. Tips: own good, sturdy stands, and keep your instruments laid out in a consistent way.
  • The mental effort of switching instruments. Years of developing a fine clarinet embouchure can go right out the window when making a quick change from tenor saxophone. The problem isn’t with your lips, it’s with your focus. As you switch instruments, shift gears mentally, too. Tips: warm up thoroughly on each instrument before the rehearsal or gig, and take a brief (sometimes very brief) moment of meditation as you physically change instruments, so that you are 100% in clarinetist mode by the time the reed hits your lip.
  • The guts to play an instrument that isn’t your best one. Even if your secondary instruments are quite strong, it can be unnerving to perform on one instrument when you know you can do better on a different one. Courage! You’ll be that much more experienced when the next gig rolls around. Tips: be aware of your body—is your nervousness affecting your posture? Breath support? Hand relaxation? If so, simply recognizing the physical symptoms can be enough to relieve them. Focus on musical things that you may be able to bring to the table despite technical deficiencies, like blend or phrasing.

Practice hard!

Dear 2000

I’ve been reading the “Dear 1999” blogging project started by the guys over at MusicianWages.com. The project, which launched last month, was to have musician-bloggers answer this question:

If you could go back to 1999 and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?

I enjoyed the responses, including one from clarinetist Marion Harrington.

Although I was (*ahem*) not invited to participate, I’ve been thinking about the last ten years of my life and what brought me to where I am now. Over the last few weeks I’ve gotten a number of emails from musicians who are about the age I was ten years ago, who are interested in pursuing graduate school in multiple woodwinds, and so I’ve been in advice-giving mode already.

Since I missed posting at the end of 2009 anyway, I figure I can go ahead and change the format a little, as I think I’ve got more than one piece of advice for 2000 me.

Most of the “Dear 1999” bloggers are pursuing careers as performers, which I consider to be an important part of what I do, but my newly-begun main gig is as a university music professor. I am fortunate to be doing pretty much exactly what I love and what I’ve been aiming for for the past ten years, although sometimes it was hard to tell if I was headed in the right direction.

So here’s my advice, 2000 Bret:

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Required recordings, spring 2010

As I explained back in August, I’m having my university students purchase a required recording every semester.

The purpose of this, of course, is to help the students develop good aural concepts of tone, phrasing, expression, vibrato, ensemble, and so forth. To try to learn to play an instrument well without a solid aural concept is like trying to learn a foreign language from a textbook. You might pick up a few things, but you’ll be sunk unless you get to really hear—over and over—how the words and phrases sound.

I’m discovering that it’s a challenge to make the recording selections meet all the criteria I’d like. For example, I would like for each one to:

  • Be by a major soloist, preferably living
  • Contain very standard literature that my students should know, without too many repeats from previous selections
  • Contrast with last semester’s selection (for example, if last semester’s recording was music with piano, I tried to pick a concerto recording this time around)
  • If at all possible, contribute to a sense of diversity

The last one has been a challenge. So far my two-semester tally, selecting recordings for four different instruments, is six white men and two white women. I’d like to improve on that in the future, though I do think that, ultimately, what comes through the earphones is more central to this project than the colors or genders represented on the CD covers. I’ve got a few ideas for future selections and welcome additional suggestions.

Here are this semester’s selections:

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David Summer: Flute/trumpet doubling

I enjoyed reading some interesting thoughts from multi-instrumentalist and music educator David Summer, who doubles quite effectively on flute and trumpet (and a few other instruments). I’m quoting a few highlights below, but definitely read the whole thing here.

I have seen no ill effects on either the trumpet embouchure or flute embouchure from playing both the flute and trumpet. I have no trouble going from one instrument to the other. In performance, I sometimes switch instruments, going from trumpet to flute or flute to trumpet, in the middle of a piece. This presents no problem at all.

As a multi-instrumentalist you will likely find more opportunities for performance… often people are glad to find that I can play both flute and trumpet and are happy to have me utilize that ability.

Certain fundamental musical concepts apply when playing any wind instrument. These include, embouchure development, breathing, pitch, articulation (tonguing), ear training, range, tone, technique (digital dexterity) and flexibility.

I believe that you should play the instruments that interest you and not be concerned about how one wind instrument embouchure might affect another. If you select instruments on the basis of those that you truly enjoy playing you will be more likely to keep playing and enjoying the enormous satisfaction that comes from making music.

Well said.

Quick quote: woodwind doubling in the 17th and 18th centuries

From Bruce Haynes’s The Eloquent Oboe: A History of the Hautboy, Oxford University Press, 2001:

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a wind player was an hautboist who might by circumstance be led into a concentration on some other type of instrument. The modern idea of a musician who would limit himself to one instrument, and become a virtuoso on it, took hold at the Dresden court at about the beginning of the eighteenth century, perhaps as a result of the numerous Italian musicians who worked there, and who tended to specialize. But it remained unusual in Germany for some time.

More insight from the footnotes:

Based on archival evidence, Oleskiewicz (1998: 49) believes woodwind doubling ‘completely disappeared sometime between 1717 and 1719.’


There is evidence that hautboy players in bands in the early 18th c. could not necessarily switch to bassoon.

Using autotune in your practice sessions

Autotune has been getting a lot of attention lately. Whether you use it in recording or in performance is between you and your sound guy, but I think it also has useful application in the practice room. Here’s how to use it to shed some light on your own intonation. (I’m using all free Windows software: Audacity and the GSnap plugin. You can also do it with Garage Band if you’re a Mac person.)

  1. Record yourself playing something you would like to get better in tune. Slow scales and arpeggios work great for general intonation practice, but you can also use a repertoire piece.

    Record yourself

  2. Make a duplicate copy of the track.

    Duplicate the track

  3. Dial up some fairly rigorous autotune settings. The simplest way to do this is to use equal temperament settings, but depending on your software and your practicing goals, you can also adapt this to other tuning systems. This is just for practice, so don’t worry about making things sound unnatural. Go a little T-Pain on it.

    Autotune settings

  4. Apply autotune to one of the tracks.

    Autotune one track

  5. Play both tracks back together. The notes that make you wince the most are the ones that are most out of tune. Are there certain notes, registers, or dynamic levels that are consistently a problem?

  6. Try muting the original track and playing along with the tuned one.

I like this method because it’s aural rather than visual (unlike using a chromatic tuner) and because it’s very results-focused. Try it over a few days or weeks and see how quickly you correct the pitch issues in your playing.

Kenneth Fischer, saxophonist, teacher, and friend

One of my former teachers, Dr. Kenneth Fischer, passed away yesterday, after a brief illness.

Dr. Fischer was a protégé of Eugene Rousseau, and, over the past 30 years at the University of Georgia, established himself as a major force in classical saxophone performance and teaching. His close associations with composers like the late Jindřich Feld fueled an influx of new compositions for the instrument. He was active and involved with the World Saxophone Congress and the North American Saxophone Alliance, and was making plans to host the latter’s 2010 conference.

Read the UGA Hugh Hodgson School of Music announcement here.

Here are a few things that I learned from Dr. Fischer.

Some things about saxophone playing:

  • You shouldn’t have to strain for the altissimo notes. Relax and let them come.
  • Every note is part of a larger musical gesture. Every note.
  • There’s something to be said for keeping the fingers close to the keys and closing them with a feather touch, but it’s also worth exploring larger, more aggressive movements for fingering. Saxophone keys aren’t flute keys.
  • Every sound is interesting and beautiful and musical. If the composer calls for key pops or multiphonics or flutter tonguing, commit to making those sounds really work musically. Practice them like you mean it.
  • Sometimes, what you really need is to struggle with a piece that’s way over your head. Other times, what you really need is to play a piece that you can absolutely nail. Do some of each.
  • A pleasing tone doesn’t mean much without good pitch and rhythm. Don’t just work on fundamentals, work on all the fundamentals.
  • One of Dr. Fischer’s favorite things to say to a student after a recital was, “That was terrific! But next time, use a reed.” It was a joke. Or was it?

Some things not about saxophone playing:

  • Relationships with other people are more important than anything, even music.
  • Take time to talk to people. Hear their stories, and share yours. Everything else can wait.
  • Every birthday deserves a celebration, complete with singing and cake.

Dr. Kenneth Fischer

10 jazz albums that should be in every music lover’s collection

Hello, music fans!

Miles Davis: Kind of Blue
You need this.

I’ve picked out, for your listening pleasure, ten essential jazz albums, as an easy introduction to the wide world of jazz. You’re welcome.

I’ll assume that you already love music. But maybe you’re a lifelong rocker. Or a connossieur of the great classical composers. Or maybe you like both kinds of music: country and western. No matter your taste, the jazz section of the record store can be a little bewildering.

Let’s face it, the jazz world is a members-only club. We jazz fans love to lord our superior musical tastes over the uninitiated masses. You listen to whom? Kenny G?! I think I need to lie down.

Plus, if you’re like me, your budget doesn’t quite allow for the latest comprehensive 40-disc boxed set from Verve or Columbia Records. Same thing goes for rare and valuable vinyl collector’s items.

So, these ten albums have been carefully chosen to do a few things:

  • Introduce you to key jazz artists, styles, albums, and songs.
  • Keep the cost reasonable. These albums are all readily available and reasonably priced single compact discs (no expensive multidisc sets) or iTunes albums.
  • Preserve the dignity of the jazz tradition, by giving you the music in complete album format whenever possible. No samplers or compilations, except in a couple of cases where compilations are the only logical choice.
  • And, most importantly, add the pleasure and richness of the jazz world to your life!

Let’s get going! We’ll do this in a sort of rough chronological order.

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