My doubling bag

Today I found myself in the embarrassing situation of arriving at a rehearsal, contrabassoon in tow, without a single contrabassoon reed. Luckily the problem was easily solved—the reeds were literally just a few moments away, and I didn’t miss a note of rehearsal.

The problem, of course, is that the contra is a university-owned instrument, used by several student bassoonists, and so I don’t like to leave my reeds in the case. I just keep them in my bassoon case, with my bassoon reeds, and usually this works out fine since it’s rare that I go anywhere with the contra unless I have my bassoon along, too. But on the rare occasion that it happens, like today, I can easily forget to bring the reeds with me.

A number of years ago, when I started to get really serious about the doubling thing, I decided I needed a bag in which to keep my non-instrument-specific stuff. For example, in prior years as a dedicated alto saxophonist, I kept my accessories in my saxophone case: a metronome, a tube of cork grease, and so forth. When my instrument cases began to multiply, I found myself sometimes without an accessory that I needed. Buying more tubes of cork grease isn’t a big deal, but multiple metronomes can turn into real money for a college student. So I invested in a cheap messenger-type bag.

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Why I don’t loan out instruments

I am slowly building a good collection of high-quality instruments. It’s not easy to do that on a graduate student’s budget; I accomplish it by living frugally, saving carefully, shopping around, and generally putting a great deal of thought and planning into each purchase. I don’t buy instruments on credit. I protect my investments with conscientious care and maintenance, as well as an excellent insurance policy by a company that specializes in musical instrument coverage. (Incidentally, this policy quickly paid for itself, several times over, when there was an “incident” with my flute a couple of years ago. Seriously consider getting one if you don’t have one already!)

Every now and then someone asks to borrow an instrument from me. Often it will be a saxophonist who needs a flute or clarinet for a gig they have already agreed to play. My policy, which I have upheld almost perfectly for several years now, is simple: I don’t loan instruments to anybody, for anything, period.

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Playing in tune

I’ve been working on improving my pitch this summer. Why is it so difficult to play a woodwind instrument in tune? I believe there are three reasons:

  1. The instruments are, of necessity, built in a hopelessly compromised manner. A flute or bassoon or whatever that plays perfectly “in tune” doesn’t exist. (“In tune” is in quotation marks because of #3, below.)
  2. The human element is full of variables that affect pitch: a little change in embouchure, a little variation in breath support, and the intonation suffers.
  3. Woodwind players (like string players, vocalists, and others) have to meet the sometimes-confusing standard of just intonation, meaning that the “right” pitch for a given note depends very much on the context. This, of course, has to be tempered somewhat when playing with equal-tempered instruments such as the piano. We’ll call all of this intonation, referring to the precise pitch relationships of one note to another.

To play in tune, I’m working on addressing each of these problems. Some notes-to-self:

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Buying woodwind instruments

General advice

The information on this page is intended for beginning and intermediate players, including woodwind doublers who already play another instrument. Here are some rules of thumb:

  • Get the advice of a good teacher, preferably one that doesn’t get a sales commission from a music store. It’s okay to ask advice before starting lessons. A good teacher wants you to have a good, working instrument.
  • In fact, be very skeptical of anything you are told by music store salespeople. My students frequently begin lessons with poor, non-working woodwind instruments that were highly recommended by the guitar player working behind the counter. Ask the salesperson to demonstrate the instrument. If they can’t do it, there’s little reason to take their recommendations.
  • The most important consideration for a beginner’s instrument is its condition. Woodwind instruments use pads made of leather, skin, or cork that MUST seal properly. Poorly adjusted instruments are one of the top causes of frustration in beginning players. Don’t waste your time fighting with a leaking instrument. Cosmetic flaws like worn or scratched finish or small dents (except in vital spots such as a flute’s headjoint or saxophone’s neck) do not necessarily affect an instrument’s playability, but may be warning signs of larger problems. It is possible to buy a non-working instrument and have a good technician restore it to playable condition, but it would be a good idea to get their appraisal of the instrument before you buy it.
  • Don’t buy musical instruments from department stores, megastores, or warehouse stores. These temptingly cheap instruments are made from inferior materials and are almost always in poor adjustment. Good repair shops won’t even work on them because they tend to break under the normal strains of routine maintenance.

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