Speaking the language of woodwinds

There are some terms I sometimes hear woodwind players use that make me think that they don’t know what they’re talking about. I could be wrong. But that’s the impression I get.

I think as woodwind doublers, when talking to players of single instruments, we sometimes give the same impression that obnoxious foreign tourists give—that we have read a few paragraphs out of the guidebook and now consider ourselves experts on the local culture. If you’re a woodwind doubler hoping to function as an honest-to-goodness oboist or clarinetist or whatever, I think it’s worthwhile to speak the language like a native.

A few examples:

  • “Sax.” I almost never hear a serious saxophonist use the word “sax,” at least not without a little irony. “Saxophone” is much more dignified.
  • “Soprano clarinet.” It’s just “clarinet.” If you need to be really specific, try “B-flat clarinet” or “A clarinet” (or “clarinet in B-flat…”). “Soprano flute” seems perhaps even more obnoxious. “C flute”or “concert flute” if you really must specify.
  • “Flautist.” Admittedly, there are probably some people who hear me say “flutist” instead and think that I don’t know what I’m talking about. Those people, in my humble opinion, are wrong.
  • “Octave key.” You can use this correctly referring to saxophone or oboe (oboes, of course, have two or even three octave keys, at least in the United States). But it’s just plain wrong to refer to a clarinet’s register key as an octave key, since it doesn’t raise the pitch by an octave.
  • “Improv.” This of course comes from the verb “to improvise,” which, in a musical context, can mean to compose music as it is being performed. I’ve heard the abbreviation “improv” used as both a noun and a verb (“Was that an improv?” “Did you improv that?”), but never from people who know how to do it.
  • “Jazzer.” Used by only by someone who doesn’t play jazz, referring to someone who does.

As a side note, I always think this one sounds foolish, but it’s common enough argot among musicians:

  • “Bari.” Pronounced “berry,” short for baritone saxophone. However, “bari sax” still marks you as a likely non-saxophonist in my book.

1 thought on “Speaking the language of woodwinds”

  1. I wonder what circles you run in where referring to the baritone saxophone as a “bari” is looked down upon. I’m a college student who has worked with and studied under reed players who have sat in the sections of groups including Lionel Hampton’s band, Woody Herman’s band, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, and others, as well as countless Broadway productions. Every one of them has said “bari” without an ounce of irony or derision. Is it perhaps more kosher in jazz circles but frowned upon in the classical or commercial lexicon?


Leave a Comment

Comments that take a negative or confrontational tone are subject to email and name verification before being approved. In other words: no anonymous trolls allowed—take responsibility for your words.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.