Things beginning band directors say to clarinet sections

  • “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 Often they are based on outdated or incomplete information, plus mouthpiece purchases in the beginner stage are often pricey lateral moves.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.

Buying more instruments, or making do with what you have

I get asked every so often whether it’s a good idea for a woodwind doubler to try to have a fairly “complete” set of instruments, or whether it’s better to make do with a few and make substitutions as needed. For example, do you need a B-flat clarinet and an A clarinet, or can you just transpose? Is it worth it to buy an English horn for sporadic use, or can you cover the part on saxophone?

The answers, of course, depend on your goals. It’s hard to predict for sure which instruments will end up being useful or financially worthwhile. And a new instrument isn’t always something you can just hurry and buy when a gig offer demands it. 

If your aim is to maximize your income, and some substitutions are acceptable at your gigs, then you should buy as few instruments as you can get away with. Prioritize the ones that are most likely to pay for themselves in terms of new gigs within the shortest time frame.

If it makes you happy to have a larger collection of instruments, and you can afford to make it happen, then there’s nothing wrong with that, either. For many of us music straddles the line between profession and hobby, and being a woodwind doubler isn’t necessarily any more expensive a hobby than boating or fine woodworking or international travel. If you can count the purchase as a business expense as well, then all the better.

Follow the instrument acquisition strategy that best suits your financial situation and personal goals.

Q&A: Instrument purchases

Here are some of the questions readers sent me in celebration of this blog’s 10-year anniversary. I have edited, combined, and otherwise adapted some of them but hopefully there are answers here for those of you who were kind enough to inquire.

What starting models do you recommend as an entry point for each woodwind?

Hi! What brand of clarinet would you recommend for an intermediate high school clarinetist who plans on majoring in music education?

I suspect that you’re both looking for specific brand recommendations, which I mostly avoid doing on the blog, for reasons I’ve highlighted previously (tl;dr: equipment recommendations tend to outlive their usefulness—people cling to them while the market changes around them). Sorry. What I’ll do instead is offer some general advice that applies to beginners, college music majors, woodwind doublers, everybody.

If you’re buying an instrument on a budget, because you’re a beginner, or because you’re a doubler picking up a secondary instrument: buy the highest-quality student-model instrument you can afford. Get good, current, targeted advice from your private teacher (contact/hire one before you buy your instrument!).

If you’re in, or about to be in, college: consult with your professor. Period. Head off to college with the instrument you already have, and let your professor guide you through the process of buying what you need.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s what most woodwind players need to get through their complete formal musical training: a good beginner instrument, and then an instrument suitable for college-level study. “Step-up” or intermediate instruments generally aren’t worth it—they cost most of what a college-suitable instrument costs, but don’t play much better than a good beginner instrument. If your budget is bigger than necessary for a student-level instrument but not big enough for a college-appropriate one, buy a good student model and save up the rest for the next purchase.

For clarinetists, saxophonists, and oboists, often the college-level instrument is a true professional model, and you won’t ever need anything fancier. Professional level flutists and bassoonists may have more of a need(?) for a nicer instrument beyond their undergraduate degrees, and these can sometimes be in the price range between a new car and a new house.

How do I deal with the cost of buying all of these woodwind instruments for college?

If you’re thinking of studying multiple woodwind instruments as a college undergraduate, firstly I recommend that you think that through carefully, and get in touch with the music faculty at the school(s) you are considering. I think for most undergraduate students (including my past self), it makes sense to major in just one instrument, for reasons I’ve addressed previously, and at many schools high-level undergraduate study of multiple woodwinds is impossible or impractical. I think that for most aspiring doublers, graduate school is a better place to dig deeply into it.

To address your question, though: college-suitable woodwind instruments are expensive, but almost certainly less expensive than tuition or room and board at an American university or maybe even a few semesters’ worth of textbooks. If you’re college-bound in the USA, a pro-level clarinet or oboe is probably the least of your financial woes.

If you’re planning to pay your way through school with scholarships, then that might not be money you’re able to access for things like instrument purchases. Depending on your personal financial values, it may be worthwhile to get student loans to cover the cost of a new instrument, and pay them off at relatively low interest after you graduate.

Depending on the instrument and the school, you may be able to borrow or rent a suitable school-owned instrument while you make arrangements to purchase your own.


Thanks for the questions! Good luck with your instrument purchases.

More 10-year anniversary Q&A

Hercules stand clip modification

I made a small modification to my Hercules instrument stands so I could clip them onto my instrument cases for easier carrying.

The stands all have this same yellow sort of teddy-bear-head piece on the bottom:

Remove the nut from the center of the bear’s forehead:

I bought a handful of these. They are almost the right thing for the job:

…but they don’t quite fit: the holes are too small. The metal seemed fairly soft and not too thick, so I managed to open up the holes a bit with a handheld drill and a 1/4″ wood-drilling bit. It would probably be safer and more precise to use a drill press and a proper metal-drilling bit.

Or, even better, can anyone recommend a premade part with two 1/4″ (65mm) holes about 1″ (3cm) apart, no thicker than about 1/16″ (1mm), preferably without sharp corners?

Anyway, with the holes slightly enlarged, put the part in place and replace the nut.

Add a small carabiner.

Done:

This worked well on all my Hercules stands, with a minor modification for the bassoon/bass clarinet stand. The “forehead” bolt was too short to get the nut back on with the extra piece in place, so I installed it off-center. It works fine.

I’d be curious to hear about your favorite equipment modifications in the comments.

Be suspicious of instrument bling

If you are considering buying the newest, hottest instrument, accessory, gadget, etc., it’s worth asking yourself a few questions:

  • Is this item made out of materials that are usually used for fine jewelry or the dashboards of luxury cars?
  • How likely is it that the most visually-attractive materials also happen to have the ideal acoustical qualities? Is there really a good reason to believe that this particular material sounds better than other materials that happen to be less pretty and less expensive? Is there some reason to believe this couldn’t be made from practical and low-cost materials like steel or aluminum or oak or birch, or any of the incredible and endlessly varied synthetic materials?
  • Does the item come in a variety of materials at a variety of price points, with the most expensive materials being pushed as the best-sounding?
  • Does the marketing pitch sound like it might really be describing how the material looks, rather than sounds? “The brilliance of silver,” “the smooth dark sound of grenadilla,” “the rich sound of our proprietary gold alloy,” “the complex character of our highly-figured maple.”

You should use the instruments that work best for you. If precious metals and fragrant exotic woods make you happy and you can afford them, then you should have them. But be careful not to get caught up in a sales pitch that is more about bling than about real benefits.

Endorsement deals

First, let’s be clear about this: in an endorsement deal, the artist endorses the product or brand. The product or brand doesn’t endorse the artist. If an artist claims to be “endorsed by” a company, that is incorrect word usage.

An endorsement deal means that an artist agrees to be publicly associated with a product or brand, presumably because the company thinks that will encourage more people to purchase their products. In return, the artist generally receives some kind of compensation, which often takes the shape of free or discounted products. The contract might specify some requirements for the artist to fulfill, such as having their name and image used in advertising, appearing at the company’s publicity events, or plugging products on social media.

Read more

Buy intonation, not tone

How exciting to try out new instruments (or mouthpieces or headjoints or barrels or…) and to find one that really has a great sound! It’s a rite of passage for the young woodwind player, trying out a parade of shiny new possibilities, surrounded by parents, a private teacher, friends, and a salesperson with dollar signs in their eyes. “That one has such beautiful tone!” everybody will sigh.

I suggest that you do not buy that one.

photo, themusicgrove

“Good” tone is a fluid, fleeting thing. That clarinet might have better tone than a half-dozen of the same model because its pads currently leak less than the others. That mouthpiece might sound like a winner because the reed you brought with you happens to mate with it better at the moment.

And your tone will shift as you adapt to your purchases. That new piece of gear might make you sound like somebody else right now, but as you get accustomed to it you’ll start to sound like you again. (Don’t like sounding like you? Develop your tone concept.)

Rather than splitting hairs about tone, break out a chromatic tuner, or, better, a drone, and pick out the one that is easiest to play in tune. Bring along a teacher or professional colleague who has high-level proficiency on the instrument, and have them listen and watch the tuner while you play, then play while you listen and watch the tuner. (This is especially crucial if you are a student-level player!)

An instrument or accessory with great tone but poor pitch will be a constant exhausting struggle to play in tune, and its problems are harder to fix in the repair shop. Gear with rock-solid pitch will do a fair amount of the work for you, and “its” tone (your tone) will improve with practice, listening, and some TLC from a good technician. Shop with your priorities in order, and you will get an instrument that will serve you well for many years.

Playing modern vs. “vintage”

Most of the time, an average car shopper should consider buying a recent model. Newer cars (ostensibly) have better safety features, better fuel efficiency, and the latest conveniences. Service and parts are likely available and inexpensive.

Someone in the market for a “classic” car should know what they are getting into. Some older models might be cheaper than newer ones, but a good appraisal requires expertise. Or, some might have prices inflated by cachet, rarity, or “cool” factor. (Those are better suited for collectors or hobbyists than everyday drivers.) Older cars often lack desirable modern features, or need expensive parts.

6079549609_cf01007244_z_mini
photo, DonJinTX

Musicians face similar choices when buying instruments. For most players, there are significant advantages to modern instruments. They have (again: ostensibly) improved ergonomics, intonation, and evenness of tone.

There are “vintage” instruments with outstanding qualities. But often there are tradeoffs with features, condition, and “collector” pricing. That’s not to say that a vintage instrument is necessarily a bad choice, but (like a classic car buyer) you shouldn’t make that choice uninformed. “Cool factor” wears off quickly when you have to stop every few miles to add oil—or when you are wearing yourself out trying to match pitch in the saxophone section.

If you aren’t sure what you’re doing, a recent-model instrument is usually a smarter bet.

Woodwind instrument “care kits” are bad news

Congratulations on your new student-level flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, or saxophone! Your music store’s friendly sales associate (or your online retailer’s auto-suggest software) is probably insisting that you purchase a “care kit” as well. This kit ostensibly contains all the items you need to keep your new instrument working well and looking shiny. I recommend that you do not buy it, because it is, at best, a waste of your money, and, at worst, a hazard to the instrument’s wellbeing.

photo, Greg Williams
photo, Greg Williams

Here are some of the items that frequently appear in these terrible kits:

  • Polishing cloths. Chemicals or polishes (liquid or embedded in cloths) can gum up pads and mechanisms. Students can “polish” their instruments with a soft, dry cloth, like a piece of an old t-shirt. Your repairperson can remove the keys and do a more thorough polishing safely.
  • Swabs. Woodwind instruments should definitely have swabs, but beware the kinds in these kits.
    Silk is preferable for pull-through swabs (oboe, clarinet, bassoon, saxophone) because it is absorbent and compressible, so it’s less likely to get stuck inside the instrument than a cheaper felt swab. Even for a student instrument, it’s worth a few extra dollars to get silk.

    "headjoint swabs"
    “headjoint swabs”

    For flutes, avoid “headjoint swabs” that are little oddly-shaped pieces of chamois (or a synthetic version), unless you want to have to fish them out of the headjoint every time you try to use them. Instead, use the cleaning rod that came with the flute, plus a strip of fabric cut from an old bed sheet.
    The fuzzy “cleaning” brushes that look like giant pipe cleaners, that you insert and leave inside the instrument, do exactly the wrong thing by keeping all the moisture inside the instrument, instead of wiping it out like a good swab does.

  • Cork grease. Yes, for instruments with parts that friction-fit together with cork, such as clarinets, oboes, and saxophones. Flutes don’t have any corked joints (though some piccolos do). Some bassoons have corked fittings, but some have thread wrappings instead. Use cork grease on cork only—never on thread-wrapped or metal-to-metal joints.
  • Screwdrivers. Yikes! Woodwind instruments often have “adjustment” screws. Bored students and well-meaning dads can’t resist just tightening everything up, just to make sure. This leaves the instrument in unplayable condition, and only a professional can put those adjustment screws back just right.
  • Reed guards/cases. Yes! Keeping reeds in one of these generally keeps them intact and in playing condition for longer than the disposable ones that the reeds come in. Those little plastic or cardboard sleeves that clarinet and saxophone reeds come in don’t keep them flat when they dry. And oboe and bassoon reeds often come in tubes that are too flimsy for regular use, or hinged plastic cases that come apart in the instrument’s case, leaving the reeds to bounce around unprotected.
  • Mouthpiece brushes. These are basically little vegetable brushes, with scratchy synthetic bristles and the dreaded twisted-wire core, much too aggressive for cleaning clarinet and saxophone mouthpieces. Instead, try a gentle rinse with room-temperature water and a drop of mild dish detergent. Stephen Howard’s vinegar-and-cotton method is good for occasional deeper cleanings.
  • Neck or bocal brushes. Probably too aggressive for use on these particularly delicate and crucial instrument parts. Plus, a strong risk of getting something stuck.
  • “Tone hole cleaners.” These are usually garden-variety pipe cleaners. Tone hole cleaning isn’t a task for beginners to do. The pipe cleaners’ twisted-wire cores can damage toneholes, the instrument’s bore, or pads.
  • “Pad papers.” It’s really tempting to use a lot of pressure with these, which can distort pads and cause leaks. Some are coated with a powder—these operate on the same principle as getting some gum stuck on your shoe, then stepping in some dirt so the gum won’t keep sticking to the sidewalk when you walk.Pad papers and other powder treatments should be an emergency treatment applied wisely and carefully by a knowledgeable musician, not a daily treatment applied badly by a student.
  • Key-dusting brushes. Gently removing some dust from the instrument’s mechanism isn’t an all-bad idea, but be advised that it’s easy to knock springs and things out of place. The brushes in these kits usually have twisted-wire cores, which can scratch instruments’ finishes. Instead, consider using cheap kids’ watercolor paintbrushes. Or, even better, make sure the instrument gets professional maintenance and cleaning at least once a year.
  • Key oil. No, no, no. This is a job for a professional to do. Besides, the kind in these care kits is usually cheap 3-in-1-type oil. Even if applied properly, it tends to drip back out of the keywork onto fingers, or worse, pads.
  • Bore oil. Absolutely not. Using this at all (only in wooden instruments) is controversial. When you bring it in for its annual maintenance, your repairperson can apply bore oil properly and safely if they deem it necessary. (My opinion: if in doubt, don’t bother.)
  • Care manuals. These are generally provided to justify the other items in the care kit.

Skip the care kit—they are a way for retailers to squeeze a few more dollars out of you at purchase, and then more when you bring the instrument back in to fix the damage you have done with your brushes and oils and screwdrivers.

Repair or buy new?

Should you have your old (woodwind) instrument repaired, or put the money toward a new one? Here are a few things to consider.

First, you should understand the difference between having “playing condition” repairs done and having a full overhaul done. The overhaul is an expensive service, often costing a significant percentage of what you would spend on a new professional instrument. A good overhaul will make your instrument play like brand new, or better. It generally includes any necessary repairs to the instrument’s body, straightening/realigning/refitting of keywork and tenons, replacement of all or most pads/corks/felts/springs, and thorough cleaning and lubrication. The overhaul makes sense about every 5-10 years for a well-made, professional quality instrument that you love and intend to play long-term. It’s generally not worth the money for a student-quality or so-called “intermediate” instrument.

photo, Keith Jenkins
photo, Keith Jenkins

Playing condition repairs are cheaper, à la carte services to get the instrument back into a baseline playable state, maybe replacing a few pads or corks as needed, or fixing anything that is broken enough to make the instrument unplayable. If you are low on cash, a good repair shop can help you prioritize what needs to be done within your budget. Even if you are playing your dream instrument and getting it overhauled on a regular schedule, playing condition maintenance is usually needed on at least an annual basis to keep things working well.

If your instrument is of less-than-professional caliber, or if you want qualities that your current instrument does not possess, you may be better served by having playing-condition work done for now, and saving toward a new instrument. Bear in mind that “professional” is a term applied by makers and retailers to sell instruments; if you’re not sure, it wouldn’t hurt to check in with a real professional (such as your private teacher) to see if what you are playing on is really suited to professional use.

If you are playing on an older professional model, you might want to explore the improvements made to more recent instruments, especially with regard to ergonomics, intonation, and evenness of tone. (Some musicians make these comparisons and decide to stick with what they’ve got, and that’s okay, too.)

A high-quality, well-maintained instrument makes playing easy and a pleasure, and the instrument’s career might even outlast yours.