Woodwind doubling and oboe problems

"Reeds, ready" by vincentfuh is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

There’s an increasing expectation that woodwind doublers be competent and confident oboists. It can be a challenging double, but a worthwhile one. Many of my doubling gigs have come to me because of my ability and/or willingness to play the oboe. And even though it’s not my strongest instrument, there are considerable spans of my career during which I’ve made more money playing the oboe than any other instrument.

Here are some of the common problems woodwind doublers, often coming from background in the single reed instruments, have with the oboe:

Fingering awkwardness. Dedicated, conscientious practice of scales/arpeggios and technical material goes a long way here, but there are some additional considerations specific to the oboe.

First, the oboe’s toneholes are rather widely spaced, maybe surprisingly so for clarinet and saxophone players. (This has to do with the oboe’s very narrow bore—the toneholes have to be quite small so as not to catastrophically weaken the instrument’s body, which means they have to be spaced widely to produce a scale.) This can be a cause of tension. Work diligently at keeping your hands relaxed. If it helps, use a neckstrap to further reduce hand strain.

Second, the oboe, more than the other woodwinds, tends to have more keys the more you pay for it. It’s very worthwhile to save up for an oboe with a left F key, and to learn to use it fluently. The left F key should be seen as part of the instrument’s core fingering technique. Many of the other keys available on professional or semi-professional instruments are less-used, but valuable in specific situations.

Uneven tone and intonation. The oboe requires a very low voicing, lower than a saxophonist is used to and much lower than a clarinetist is used to. It also offers little forgiveness for weak or inconsistent breath support. Learn to balance low voicing against steady support to even out the instrument’s sound and stabilize its pitch. (Like fellow conical-bore instruments the saxophone and the bassoon, the oboe’s response suffers particularly in the lowest register when your voicing is too high.)

Similarly, embouchure should remain open, not pinched, regardless of register. Remember that the embouchure’s function is to be a mostly-passive gasket between your air system and the instrument. Resist the urge to bite when moving into the highest register—rely on good breath support instead.

Overall response sluggishness/unreliability. My experience is that many, many intermediate (and especially self-taught) oboists are playing on reeds that are far too stiff. If your notes won’t respond reliably and delicately at a soft dynamic, and you’re sure your breath support, voicing, and embouchure are working well, you should consider a more responsive reed.

Because oboe reeds are so susceptible to change, the best way to sound like a pro reed-wise is to spend a few years’ worth of lessons learning to make (or at least adjust) them yourself. Failing that, it’s worth it to buy reeds face-to-face from a good reedmaker, rather than from a music store or a distant internet reedmaker, so that they can adjust them for you on the spot. Reeds from a local reedmaker are also adapted to your altitude and climate.

Another important and ongoing concern is adjustment of the instrument itself. The oboe has many adjustment screws that need occasional tweaking. It’s best of course to learn this art under the supervision of a good teacher. But if you’re mechanically-inclined and have a good oboe technician standing by to bail you out, there are a number of books and resources that explain the method in a clear and methodical way. A small tweak here and there can transform a stuffy, stubborn oboe into a responsive, cooperative instrument that is a joy to play.

Approach the oboe on its own terms, equipped with good reeds and a good grasp of tone-production fundamentals, and enjoy!

Decrescendo to zero

"Volume" by Jenn Durfey is licensed under CC BY

Woodwind players often struggle with decrescendos that quit too soon. (“Decrescendi” if you prefer.) It’s pretty disappointing to play a graceful phrase and have the last note end abruptly instead of fading down smoothly to zero.

There’s not a special technique to deploy in order to make successful decrescendos to niente. This delicate dynamic effect just exposes a common shortfall in the fundamentals of tone production. Correcting this makes good decrescendos possible.

Softer dynamics are produced on the woodwinds by shrinking the aperture (opening) in the embouchure. The flute has an independent aperture, which can be made smaller or larger at will. The aperture on reed instruments is built around the opening of the double reed, or the opening between the single reed and the mouthpiece. Reducing the aperture of the lips on reed instruments applies a slight pressure that squishes the reed closed a little, reducing its opening. (This is a lip movement, not a jaw movement).

As the opening is reduced, airflow into the instrument decreases. At a certain point there is no longer enough power to keep the reed or flute air jet vibrating, so it stops. Hopefully, this occurs at such a soft volume that it seems like the note faded away completely.

When the note ends too abruptly, check to make sure breath support isn’t decreasing with the decrescendo. Steady, powerful breath support as the aperture decreases equals an increase in air pressure. This keeps the reed vibrating as the opening and the volume decrease toward zero.

Consistent, strong breath support and a flexible, well-formed embouchure are the keys to successful decrescendos.

Saxophone low notes

The saxophone’s lowest notes can be notoriously unresponsive. This is partly due to the instrument’s acoustics, particularly its fairly extreme conical bore. (For technical details, see for example Acoustics of Musical Instruments by Chaigne and Kergomard, section The oboe and bassoon, whose bores are conical but not to such an extreme, have this problem to a lesser extent, and the tips that follow apply to those instruments as well.

For the best chance at successful low notes you need:

  • A well-adjusted, high-quality instrument. Even a small leak anywhere on the saxophone makes the lowest notes more difficult. And the best-designed and most meticulously-made instruments help to minimize the difficulties of the low range.
  • A good mouthpiece and reed combination. This may involve tradeoffs: a mouthpiece/reed combination that really improves the low register may, for example, make the highest notes more difficult. Since mouthpieces and reeds vary in so many ways it’s hard to make reliable generalizations, but often I find that a wider tip opening with a softer reed tend to favor the low register more (and the high register less).
  • Good, stable fundamentals of saxophone technique. Breath support, voicing, articulation, and embouchure (let’s include jaw position in embouchure here) should be properly set, and shouldn’t change for the low register. If you find that you need to increase breath support, lower your voicing, change your embouchure or tonguing, or open your jaw to make the low notes succeed, then you should probably already be doing those things, in every register. Don’t make the low notes even harder by creating a moving target.

To expand on that last point a little, if you find that your low notes need a little extra help, then a small alteration to your voicing is the right way to provide it. But know the tradeoffs: lowering your voicing as you approach the low register affects pitch and tone, besides creating instability in your tone production technique. Manage these concerns by aiming for the smallest possible change.

Practice smart. No shortcuts!

Endurance and breath support

Physical endurance can be an issue for woodwind players, most often manifesting as fatigue in the muscles of the embouchure. But I think in most cases tired facial muscles are a symptom of a more fundamental problem.

The muscles used for forming woodwind embouchures are small and finely-tuned for precise movements, such as in speech and in facial expressions. This also makes them well-suited to the fine control needed for woodwind playing. But those muscles are not really adapted to feats of strength or endurance.

photo, Denise Coronel
photo, Denise Coronel

Tired and sore embouchure muscles lead to additional problems, such as compensation by clamping down with the larger, stronger jaw muscles, which sacrifices control and causes woodwind players (especially reed players) to bite into their own lips. (As a less-experienced player, I thought of those raw, swollen, and eventually calloused spots in my lips as signs of dedication to practicing. I don’t have those spots any more. In many cases, the need for some kind of cushion or dental appliance over the teeth when playing is a sign of unnecessary biting.)

Woodwind players should be doing most of their physical “work” with muscles that have strength and stamina. The “core” muscles of the torso have both: they are an integral part of posture, balance, and virtually all gross motor activities (walking, jumping, lifting, sitting, standing, and many more). The core muscles are also the muscles of breath support, which is arguably the most crucial, foundational aspect of woodwind playing.

Powerful breath support takes a huge burden off the facial muscles. For example, it stabilizes pitch, reducing the need to “lip” notes up or down (which is a less-effective technique anyway); it strengthens and solidifies tone, reducing the tendency to “control” the tone (poorly) by biting or squeezing with the lips; and it eases response, reducing tension. Weak breath support leads to biting and pinching with the embouchure, and that tension spreads throughout the body.

When you start to feel your embouchure muscles start to tire, allow your face to relax, and focus instead on powerful abdominal breath support.

Confidence and air

Working with some woodwind students recently on their upcoming performances, I have been asking them to play with more confidence. Often they have practiced well enough, but play timidly in lessons or rehearsals, and I worry that the same will happen on stage.

When I ask them to play more confidently, they don’t always seem ready to rise to the challenge. But I’ve worked out a useful equation that helps them get on the right track:

confidence = air

Confidence can seem difficult to muster, but air is free. When I point out the equivalence and ask them to just play with more air, they play better and discover the confidence they need.

When you are playing and feel your confidence start to waver, don’t worry—you have a whole room full of confidence ready for you to breathe it in.

Breath support, register breaks, and resistance

A few months ago I wrote this about the clarinet:

If breath support, embouchure, and voicing are correctly established, then Crossing the Dreaded Break ceases to be a Thing. It’s just another note: a moment ago you were playing B-flat, and now you are playing B-natural. As long as your fingers get where they are supposed to go, then that’s all there is to it. Personally, I don’t even use the word “break” with a beginning student—there’s no need to get them all uptight about what really is a non-event.

My point was that crossing a register break is merely a fingering issue, and shouldn’t be turned into a big to-do about embouchures and equipment purchases and so forth. And I stand by that, but there is something I glossed over a bit that perhaps ought to be revisited in more detail, and that applies to register break crossings on all woodwind instruments.

The point that I want to return to is that of breath support. If it, and some other basic tone-production matters, are “correctly established,” then break-crossing is indeed nothing more than a new fingering or two. But assuming that breath support is 100% correct with a student just reaching the break-crossing stage is often a mistake.

Each note on the clarinet (and on any woodwind) has a certain level of resistance—that is to say, it requires a certain amount of air pressure to get the air column vibrating. Some notes are more resistant, and some are less resistant. As a sort of general oversimplification, we might assume that a long-tube note (with more toneholes closed) is more resistant than a short-tube note (with more toneholes open). Other factors do apply, of course: the size of the toneholes, whether the fingering is a “forked” fingering, and more, but let’s isolate tube length for the moment. So for the clarinet, having a break between A-sharp and B, we would expect to see this kind of resistance change while crossing the break:

Taller grey bar = higher resistance
Taller grey bar = higher resistance

(Note that the bar graphs here are strictly illustrative and not based on any real measurements.)

A beginner who is accustomed to the lower resistance of a few chalumeau-register notes might have intuitively developed just enough breath support to make those notes respond. When he or she attempts to cross the break, the breath support isn’t enough to overcome the increased resistance: Continue reading “Breath support, register breaks, and resistance”

The magical properties of air

Often, when I discuss with my students issues in their playing technique, I follow up by asking them, “How can you solve this problem?” They learn quickly that “breath support” (or a rough synonym like “more air”) is generally a safe answer.

And with good reason. Breath support is absolutely key to tone production—it is crucial to reliable response, consistent tone quality, and stable intonation. If I can get a student to improve their breath support, I can generally count on each of those things improving immediately and noticeably.

But I think there are other things that are improved, perhaps indirectly, with air:

  • Finger and tongue movement. I am lumping these together because I have a theory that air helps them in the same couple of ways. The first is that focusing on breathing—a movement so natural that we literally do it for our whole lives and barely think about it—diverts attention away from the finger and tongue movements that woodwind players get so stressed and tense about. This lets the autopilot (or Gallwey’s “Self 2”) take over and execute in a relaxed, natural way. The second way air helps here is that good breath support requires good breathing, and good breathing gets more oxygen to the finger and tongue muscles.
  • Expression. Expressive playing often involves things like dynamic contrasts, vibrato, and nuances of tone color (to name only a few). Each of those things functions better when well-supported: dynamic range expands, and vibrato is smoother and more controlled (again a result of better-oxygenated muscles?). Tone color, I think, actually gets less flexible, in the sense that it becomes more consistent note-to-note despite quirks of the instrument; this means that tone color changes may be applied in a more deliberate way.
  • Confidence and relaxation. Deep breaths are a common and effective insecticide for pre-recital butterflies. The breathing should remain centered and Zen even after the music starts.

Pictured: air. Photo, Matt Peoples
Pictured: air. Photo, Matt Peoples

Clarinet/saxophone doubling and “loose” and “tight” embouchures

I have been watching with dismay some recent online message board conversations about clarinetists picking up the saxophone and saxophonists picking up the clarinet. I am of course a big supporter of doubling, but much of the discussion seems to center around embouchure, and the language used is not only misleading but also vaguely pejorative. Clarinetists seem to regard the saxophone embouchure as “loose,” a term I think most saxophonists would take exception to, and saxophonists consider the clarinet embouchure to be “tight,” a concept I would expect clarinetists to shy away from.

Photo, Adrian Midgley
Photo, Adrian Midgley

I am not aware of any difference in looseness/tightness between the embouchures of the two instrument families, and can’t think of a reason why there should be one. In both cases, the embouchure—the lips and surrounding facial muscles—need to be “tight” enough to form a non-leaking seal around the mouthpiece and reed, and “loose” enough to allow the reed to vibrate at the desired amplitude (volume). The most common looseness/tightness problem I see in teaching both instruments is excessive tightness, often used in an attempt to compensate for pitch stability problems caused by poor breath support, and resulting in sluggish response, restricted dynamic range, and stuffy tone. Continue reading “Clarinet/saxophone doubling and “loose” and “tight” embouchures”

Changing octaves on the flute: a survey of published opinions

On the flute, there are several notes that have identical fingerings: each note from bottom-line E through third-space C-sharp has exactly the same fingering as the note an octave higher. Obviously, some factor other than fingerings must account for the octaves, but flutists as a group seem to be unclear on what it is.

I got curious and dug through some pedagogical sources to see what flutists have published about it. I have compiled my findings into a chart:

To achieve the upper octaves on the flute

I have started from the baseline of the lowest octave’s tone production methods, and framed the authors’ ideas in terms of what has to be done to move into higher octaves. And I’ve grouped the answers together as best I can, hopefully with reasonable accuracy as to the authors’ intended meanings. For example, “move jaw” and “move jaw forward” obviously overlap, but I separated them to try to maintain the authors’ original levels of specificity. And “jaw” and “chin” may really be the same thing for most flute-playing purposes, but I’ve separated in them in a case where the author seemed to see them as distinct.

Some of the authors address the issue specifically and in detail, while others just mention something in passing, so the chart does not necessarily represent their complete and definitive views. I have provided a bibliography with page numbers so you can read the authors’ words in context, and I highly recommend doing this if you’re interested in the topic. I’ve color-coded things so you can see at a glance which ideas are most popular, though I don’t think this is an issue to be settled by popular vote.

There are some surprising outliers. Most authors who mentioned the size of the aperture indicated that it should get smaller in the upper octaves, but a couple insisted that it should not change. Several authors indicated that the distance from the aperture to the blowing edge decreases for upper registers, but one said it actually increases. There’s significant disagreement on whether blowing harder is part of achieving the higher octaves.

I think some of the differences of opinion shown in the chart may be due to flutists actually doing the same things but describing them differently. It’s also possible that the techniques listed can be combined in different ways to create different tone production “recipes” that produce similar results.

I’m interested in continuing to expand this in the future. If you can point me toward a published source, then send it along (I’m not really interested in anecdotes or private opinions), or let me know if you think I have misread or misinterpreted someone’s views (especially if you’re the author!). Continue reading “Changing octaves on the flute: a survey of published opinions”

Balancing voicing and breath support

My oboe students frequently have this problem:

These notes don’t respond well These notes are sharp and thin-sounding

(Okay, sometimes I also have this problem.)

The solution, in most cases, is quite simple.

Step 1: Use the correct voicing. For oboe it should be low and open, like blowing very warm air. This is usually the result:

These notes respond beautifully These notes are flat and tubby-sounding

Step 2: Use powerful abdominal breath support. Voilà:

These notes respond beautifully These notes are in tune and full-sounding

I find that once voicing and breath support are balanced against each other, a good oboe with a good reed is one of the easiest woodwinds to play in tune, and responds easily in all registers.

This is, generally speaking, true of all of the woodwinds: solid breath support plus a stable voicing appropriate to the instrument are the recipe for reliable, in-tune notes from low to high.