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!

Does woodwind doubling ruin your embouchure?

"Oboe reed" by quack.a.duck is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Nope.

We use our embouchure muscles for all kinds of things: facial expressions, speech, eating, kissing. Do any of those things “ruin” your embouchure? Of course not. The embouchure is made up of very flexible, agile muscles that are very capable of carrying out multiple tasks.

When people (almost always non-doublers) express concern about embouchure ruin, most of the time what they seem to be talking about is tension, or sensitivity loss, or buildup of callused tissue, or maybe strengthening the “wrong” muscles. If playing any woodwind instrument is giving you these kinds of problems, you are playing it wrong. Your embouchure for any and every woodwind instrument should be relaxed, balanced, and pain-free. Get some lessons with a qualified teacher, quickly.

Woodwind doubling presents real challenges. No need to invent fictional ones!

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.

Things beginning band directors say to clarinet sections

photo, byronv2
  • “Firm up those embouchures!” An efficient embouchure is relaxed, not tight (nor “firm” nor any other euphemism) and allows the reed to vibrate easily for a beautiful, seemingly effortless sound.
  • “You’re flat!” This is very, very often a voicing issue. It’s not helpful in the long run try to fix it with biting (or “lipping up”), overly resistant reeds, or needless equipment purchases.
  • “Next year, I’m making you all move up a reed strength.” Stiffer reeds won’t make you play better any more than larger shoes make you better at basketball. Use what fits
  • “You all need to switch to a ________ mouthpiece.” Sweeping gear recommendations aren’t useful. Often they are based on outdated or incomplete information, plus mouthpiece purchases in the beginner stage are often pricey lateral moves. Mouthpieces aren’t always made consistently, either, and having a student switch blindly to a bad specimen (even of a highly-regarded model) may actually make things worse. Generally, stock mouthpieces are fine for beginners, and advancing players would be wise to consult with a private teacher who can work with them individually on upgrades. And the finest professional clarinet sections in the world play on non-homogenous equipment and blend beautifully—having everybody play the same thing isn’t the key to matching tone or pitch.
  • “Get ready, because next month you’re going to learn how to cross the break, and it’s going to be hard.” Crossing the break is only as hard as you make it. If you are teaching good tone production and finger technique, crossing the break is a non-event, not even worth mentioning.
  • “Keep those chins flat and pointed.” “Wow, your chin sounds amazing,” said nobody. Focus on the real issue: forming a relaxed embouchure within the space of an open jaw, backed up with good voicing and breath support. You will know it’s working because of good response, characteristic tone, and stable intonation, not because everybody’s chins look a certain way.

Focus on the important and too-often-overlooked fundamentals for success in your clarinet section.

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.

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 7.4.6.1.) 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!

Quick flute switches and embouchure problems for woodwind doublers

photo, Sheri

Lots of woodwind doubler horror stories have to do with quick switches to flute or piccolo. (“Twenty minutes of hard-driving R&B tenor saxophone, then two bars to switch to flute and enter pianissimo in the third octave…”) Doublers in this situation often beat themselves up about perceived deficiencies in their flute embouchures, and commit to even more hours of Trevor Wye, but never quite seem to solve the problem.

While daily work on the flute embouchure is crucial, as is a good warmup, I think often the real problem is the reed embouchures. If playing clarinet, saxophone, or double reeds is leaving your embouchure too tired, tense, or numb to play the flute at your best, then consider improving your reed playing. Adjust your tone production to be less tense, adjust your setup to be freer-blowing, and adjust your mindset to be focused on efficiency rather than muscular effort. Keep up the flute lessons, but touch base with good reed teachers, too.

Please stop telling your clarinet students to tighten their embouchures

“Tighten your embouchure” is bad advice for young clarinetists.

That goes for young saxophonists, too, and really for any young woodwind players. But young clarinetists hear it often because their pitch is flat and their tone lacks focus. “Tighten your embouchure” gets thrown around as a fix-all, except it doesn’t fix all. It doesn’t fix anything. Unless your students are actually leaking air around the mouthpiece from utter slack-jawedness. In that case, they should tighten, but only a little.

The real issue isn’t embouchure, it’s voicing. Good clarinet playing requires a high voicing. (The opposite of almost every other instrument in the beginning band.) That’s why your clarinet section is flat and tubby-sounding. Tell them to blow ice-cold air, which fixes the voicing problem. Train them to back it up with powerful breath support. Let them relax their embouchures—not tight, just airtight. And enjoy the clear, full, ringing, and in-tune sounds!

photo, Melody Joy Kramer
photo, Melody Joy Kramer

The double reeds and “uneven” embouchures

Oboists trained in the “American school” of oboe playing, like myself, tend to hold the instrument at around a 45° angle from the body. Oboists in many other parts of the world hold the instrument at a higher angle, a few degrees closer to horizontal. This is one factor (of several) that accounts for the difference in tone between American oboists (often described as having a “darker” sound) and, say, some European oboists (having a “brighter” sound).

The reason the angle is important is because it affects the embouchure. Holding the oboe in a genuinely horizontal position situates the lips on the reed’s blades in an even way:
oboe-bad

This allows the reed to vibrate in a balanced, efficient way, with lots of vibrance and color. But holding the instrument at an angle makes the lips contact the blades of the reed in an uneven way:

oboe-good

Note that the upper lip is nearer the reed’s tip, and the lower lip is a few millimeters nearer the thread. This uneven contact reduces the reed’s efficiency, muting some of the overtones for a sound that is less colorful but also less strident—in other words, characteristic of the American oboe sound.

A bassoon’s bocal brings the reed to the bassoonist’s mouth at a nearly horizontal angle, and a poorly-formed embouchure will create roughly equal contact with the upper and lower lips, causing a buzzy sound. But the bassoonist’s “overbite” technique makes the contact uneven, darkening and containing the sound (as well as improving response). This is actually upside down compared to the oboe, since the lower lip is nearer the reed’s tip and the upper lip is nearer the first wire.

bassoon-good
poorly-formed bassoon embouchure

bassoon-good
well-formed bassoon embouchure

Well-formed oboe and bassoon embouchures require attention to angle and overbite (respectively) to produce the best sounds with the least effort.

Woodwind dynamics and the embouchure

There’s a lot of confusion about how different dynamic levels are produced on woodwind instruments. How do you think it’s done?

If you said something like “use more or less air,” you are on the right track, kind of. But how do you put more or less air into the instrument?

If you said something like “blow harder or softer,” you are asking for trouble. Adjusting volume by increasing and decreasing breath support causes all kinds of nasty problems, especially sluggish response, unfocused tone, and saggy pitch at softer dynamic levels.

dynamics

So what method is left to adjust the volume of air entering the instrument, and the corresponding loudness or softness (weirdly, also called “volume”)? Surprise, it’s your embouchure. Take a look in the mirror at your flute aperture, or look at the opening in your oboe or bassoon reed, or the opening between the tip of your clarinet or saxophone reed and the tip of the mouthpiece. By manipulating the size of this opening, you can control the volume of air passing into the instrument, while keeping your breath support powerful and steady.

The opening isn’t large to begin with, so bear in mind that the adjustments needed are incredibly small. But your lip muscles are well-suited to very small, subtle, expressive movements—certainly more so than your larger breath support muscles.

If you are an advanced player, you are probably doing this already, maybe without realizing it. But if you are struggling with dynamics-related problems, like unstable pitch during crescendos and diminuendos, or the inability to maintain tone at pianissimo, you might want to reexamine your technique.

Try this: play a note in a comfortable range at an easy mezzo-forte, with powerful breath support. Without letting up on the breath support, apply just the slightest squeeze with your embouchure. (For me, the sensation is that my lips don’t really even move, they just firm up a little.) Gradually increase the squeeze—don’t forget to keep the support strong—and see what happens.

Try it again, this time starting with the lips squeezing, and see what happens as you allow the embouchure to become more and more relaxed. This maxes out when the reed is almost completely free to vibrate at its widest amplitude, or when the flute aperture gets too large to maintain focus in the tone. (At this point you may be able to get more volume by straining harder with your breath support muscles, but notice what happens to your pitch and/or tone!)

Like so much of woodwind playing, the real key here is breath support. If you remember to keep it steady, then creating dynamic changes from the embouchure is really quite intuitive and produces much better results.

Incidentally, this is why recorders, pennywhistles, and other “fipple” flutes really have only one dynamic level; the opening can’t be manipulated effectively because it is rigid. Blowing harder or softer does change the volume but at unacceptable cost to intonation. (This is probably a major reason the transverse flute essentially replaced the recorder in Western music—it could play with dynamic contrast.)