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.

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.

Review: ReedGeek “Universal” reed tool


I’m a little late to the party on this, as the ReedGeek has been around for a number of years now and has been widely reviewed, but I finally picked one up (at ClarinetFest) after a long conversation/demonstration with inventor Mauro Di Gioia.  I have been using mine for a few months now and wanted to add a few points to the conversation. Here is my take.

The ReedGeek isn’t completely replacing my traditional reed tools, but, I am using it for some of the tasks that I used to do with those tools:

  • Flattening the backs of single reeds. This seems to be what the ReedGeek does best, and it is now my go-to tool for this procedure (by far the most frequent adjustment I make to my clarinet and saxophone reeds). I used to do this with wet-dry sandpaper on a piece of glass, and with flat files prior to that. Using the ReedGeek is faster and neater, doesn’t remove as much cane unnecessarily, and leaves a nice smooth non-shredded finish even on wet cane. I had also experimented in previous years with using knives for flattening, which is fast and leaves a nice finish but is risky because it’s so easy to gouge out chunks of cane by accident. The ReedGeek is much safer.reedgeek-2_mini
  • Smoothing out oboe reed windows. I still like my double-hollow-ground knives for carving out oboe reed windows, but I do have a tendency to leave the windows a bit rough and craggy (like from knife chatter). That’s fussy and time-consuming to fix with a knife, and if not handled delicately a knife can actually exacerbate the problem. But the ReedGeek cleans up my windows pretty quickly and easily, with much less risk of making the gouges worse. I mostly use the squared-off end for this.reedgeek-5_mini
  • Scraping bassoon reed channels. The concave parts of a bassoon reed blade are all but impossible to get at with a straight knife, and I find round files or sandpaper to be only a little less clumsy. The ReedGeek’s slightly curved tip works very well for this. Mr. Di Gioia describes this as being similar to using a pencil eraser—you just “erase” the cane you don’t want.reedgeek-4_mini

I’m not currently using the ReedGeek for:

  • Balancing the corners of the tips of single reeds, though it certainly can be used for this. I’m still used to sandpaper and glass, which at this point feels more controlled to me. If I have both tools available I still grab the sandpaper but if I’m away from my reed desk and traveling light, the ReedGeek will do the job. The ReedGeek can, I think, be used effectively to target specific spots on a reed’s profile (using either the square or the curved end), but I personally do very little of that.
  • Double reed making. (It’s fair to point out that the ReedGeek isn’t exactly being marketed as a tool for this anyway, though the company does publish a document on its website that provides some instruction for double reed players.) For one thing, the ReedGeek is quite small, and for reedmaking I like big, chunky, comfortable knife handles. A handle would also get my hand out of the way, which was a problem for me when I tried to use the ReedGeek for some fine tip work on oboe reeds—it was hard to get everything angled so I had control and could see what I was doing. I spoke to Mr. Di Gioia on the phone while preparing this review, and he hinted at a soon-to-be-revealed, more double-reed-oriented version of the ReedGeek, with some kind of extension for increased leverage (though he shied away from calling it a “handle”), and with scraping surfaces tailored more for double-reed applications. Because of the ReedGeek’s extremely hard alloy, it may be tougher on reed plaques than a traditional knife, but if you’re planning to use the ReedGeek in that way, the price difference between the ReedGeek and a good knife will buy you dozens of plaques.

The ReedGeek is very portable, won’t be confiscated at an airport security checkpoint, and doesn’t need sharpening like a knife or replacing like sandpaper. (When I spoke with Mr. Di Gioia he joked that he has to hope that people lose them so they will have to buy more.)

The ReedGeek has a hole drilled though one end (visible in the oboe reed picture), which I thought might be a way to attach some kind of handle, or perhaps to put it on a lanyard or keyring. In my follow-up call with Mr. Di Gioia, he explained that the hole has to do with the ReedGeek manufacturing process, and that keeping the ReedGeek on your keyring would likely damage your keys as it is much harder than the metals keys are made from. Also, the ReedGeek’s edges feel sharp to me, but not really in such a way that I would cut myself on them; Mr. Di Gioia recommends handling it with care but isn’t aware of people injuring themselves with it. He has an idea for a sleeve or sheath that may become available at some future date, and that could make carrying the ReedGeek in your pocket more feasible.

The verdict: for me, it’s useful and I will easily get my money’s worth out of it as long as I don’t lose it. For a single-reed player, I think it can realistically replace most or all of your tools. For a double-reed player, it’s currently a supplementary tool at best, but stay tuned for a possible new product.

At the time of this writing the ReedGeek goes for right about $50 from the ReedGeek store; some retailers also carry it.

Answering equipment questions

I attended a small jazz festival a number of years ago, which included student workshops with some of the festival’s headline artists. Unsurprisingly, some of the first questions asked in these workshops were about the artists’ equipment choices.

The responses varied widely. A few of the artists were excited to talk about their instruments, mouthpieces, and so forth, and to offer glowing testimonials.

Others responded less enthusiastically. One of the festival’s biggest-name artists mocked a student for even asking the question. The student slumped down into his seat as one of his idols berated him in front of everyone.

But I was especially impressed by one artist in particular, whose equipment choices are well-known and widely-imitated. “Well, I use _____, _____, and _____,” he explained, “but there are a lot of really good options out there, and what works for me doesn’t work for everybody. Plus, you should know that lots of music stores sell equipment with this brand name, but it’s not really the same product anymore as the one I bought decades ago.” Then he moved onto another question.

Photo, Laurie Samet
Photo, Laurie Samet

I thought this was a very effective, responsible, and respectful way to answer the question: he didn’t make the student feel bad for asking, and he didn’t encourage the student to buy something specific that might not really be a fit. I also admired the brevity and matter-of-factness of his answer—it cast the question as what it ought to be: a curiosity, rather than something of great importance.

Buying a new instrument for college-level study

If you are preparing to start a college music degree, you may need or want a new instrument. I strongly suggest that you contact your professor before making this purchase. Every professor is of course different, but here are some things that you are likely to discover in most cases:

Photo, Andrew Shieh
Photo, Andrew Shieh
  • The professor will be happy and relieved that you are seeking their advice before making a purchase, and will be anxious to work with you on finding the right instrument. They have seen previous tragedies involving students arriving on campus with new, expensive, and totally unsuitable instruments.
  • The professor will likely encourage you to start the semester with your current instrument, even if it’s not really college-worthy, so that you can take the necessary time to pick out a new instrument together. The professor will in many cases want to try out instruments with you to help you pick out the very best one.
  • The professor in many or most cases will have a variety of suitable makes and models in mind, including some (relatively) budget-friendly options. They are likely to have a favorite—probably the model they play on themselves—but will likely concede that the same instrument is not suitable for every single musician. Still, some may require a specific model.
  • Serious college study will require a professional-grade instrument. If you are window-shopping at a music store or online retailer, you can likely assume that anything marked “student” or “intermediate” will not be adequate for the rigors of college study. On the other hand, be aware that not everything labeled “professional” by the seller is high-quality enough for true professional use, even if it’s that maker’s top-of-the-line model. Additionally, instruments that were genuine professional models several decades ago might not be considered such anymore.
  • You may need to prepare yourself for some sticker shock. Depending on your personal financial values, it may be appropriate to use student loan funds to cover this educational expense.
  • The professor’s opinions may not jive with your opinions, the opinions of your old private teacher or band director, or opinions you read on the internet. Be prepared to learn your professor’s way for now, and make better-informed decisions on your own after graduation.

The same advice holds true for mouthpieces and other paraphernalia. Have a great semester!

Follow-up: Hercules woodwind stands

A few months ago I did a review of the Hercules DS538B dual-saxophone stand with flute/clarinet and soprano saxophone pegs.

I had some concerns about the stability of my flute on the flute/clarinet pegs, but got some advice in the comments section that the DS602B peg (sold separately) might be better. In the meantime, I’ve gotten to like other aspects of the stand well enough that I decided I needed a smaller version for one-saxophone gigs, so I recently picked up the DS530BB stand, which holds one alto or tenor saxophone and includes no pegs (though it has sockets to accept up to two). Most of my comments in the previous review apply to the DS530BB, so I’ll just provide a couple of photos:

Despite my poor photography, you can gather that it folds up to just over a foot long.
Despite my poor photography, you can gather that it folds up to just over a foot long.

It also includes a bright yellow drawstring bag, and the string makes it a little easier to carry if you’ve already got your arms full of instruments.

The DS602B “Deluxe” peg, which Hercules indicates is for “French/German Clarinets and Flutes,” is quite good. It works for my clarinets and oboe as well as the standard combination pegs that come with the DS538B, and works much, much better for my flute.

I tried to demonstrate the stability difference between the standard peg and the deluxe peg. You can see it a bit in the photos below, but I think I failed to really capture the improvement in the deluxe peg. Continue reading “Follow-up: Hercules woodwind stands”

On purple violins

Photo, Glamhag

I’m a little late commenting on this, but I still think it’s an issue worth addressing. Last month there was a minor scandal over an incident in a Farmington, New Mexico school orchestra program, where a beginning violinist was informed that she would not be allowed to use her own, um, unique instrument. Most of the reporting on the story took a similar tone to that employed by the Los Angeles Times:

The gift violin was a surprise from her grandmother. The color was purple, the girl’s favorite.

Lopez encouraged her daughter to stand up for what she believed in. “I told her, ‘Camille, you’re not like everyone else. We’re all different.'”

“She’s done with the orchestra class,” Lopez said. “She switched out. She no longer plays.”

Lopez said she’ll never know whether the decision ended the career of a budding Yo-Yo Ma. “I’d pay for private lessons if I could afford them,” Lopez said. “But it doesn’t matter now, I guess. Camille is taking choir now.”

The Times story sets up the uninformed reader for outrage: an underprivileged but spunky girl, a gift from a grandmother, stifled individuality, personal “beliefs” under attack, abandoned dreams, and a stodgy, stuffy establishment.

But a more careful reading of the Times story reveals some details that won’t escape the attention of music educators.

Continue reading “On purple violins”

Review: Hercules DS538B woodwind stand

After my recent glorious victory in the Saxquest trivia contest, I had a gift certificate burning a hole in my pocket and I decided to get a new stand to hold my saxophones and perhaps some other woodwinds in my office and on gigs.

I had been tempted previously by SaxRax stands, which I continue to hear good things about but haven’t been able to try out seriously in person. I find it difficult on SaxRax’s website to find out exactly what products they are currently making; I had to use their contact form and wait for a response to determine that their single alto and tenor stands can no longer be joined with a special connector, and the double flute-clarinet peg is no longer made (though some old stock are apparently still available). I had hoped to buy a single saxophone stand and eventually build onto it with a second, but now you have to buy a combo alto-tenor stand, and that is currently out of my price range.

Click for larger.

Next on my list were the stands by Hercules, which are more expensive than the various cheap stands but considerably less costly than the SaxRax. Hercules’s website is very clear about what products they make. I settled on the DS538B, which holds alto and tenor saxophones, and includes a soprano saxophone peg and two flute-or-clarinet pegs. Saxquest currently sells them for USD $69.95, plus a fairly steep shipping charge (the stand is a little heavy, I guess).

Many moons ago, I did some mini-reviews of various stands, including the Hercules DS543B flute-piccolo-clarinet stand. I had a complaint about it, that holds true for the DS538B as well:

It has yellow trim. Not on the pegs, which might be useful in the dark, but on the base, where its only function is to call attention to itself (and perhaps provide a little free advertising).

I got in touch with a Hercules representative, who pointed out a functional reason for the bright trim on the base:

The reason we make the yellow trim eye-catching is to prevent stumbling over the stand or instrument on the dark stage.

The DS538B appears as though I could disassemble it with an adjustable wrench; it’s tempting to attempt this and spray-paint the yellow parts black. (I can only assume that attempting something like this voids applicable warranties.) Continue reading “Review: Hercules DS538B woodwind stand”

The value of a musical instrument

Photo, Fabrice ROSE

My instruments are valuable. Here’s why:

  1. Most of them cost a lot of money. Replacing any of them would be expensive, possibly even prohibitively so. (If you haven’t already, get a good insurance policy from a company that specializes in musical instruments!)
  2. I worked hard at choosing them. When I bought my oboe, I went to the IDRS conference and tried over 50, maybe 100 of them. Finding a replacement oboe that I’m really happy with could mean trying another 50 or 100. Even if you’ve got the time, opportunities to do something like that are rare.
  3. I have invested a lot of time developing personal relationships with my instruments—getting to know their intonation and response tendencies, getting comfortable with the feel of the keywork, finding out how to coax “my” sound from them. Even replacing one with another of the same make and model means starting fresh with a stranger.