Buying a new instrument

I went saxophone shopping with a student yesterday. We picked out a nice instrument that suits his playing style and personal tastes, meets my requirements, and ought to serve him well for years to come. Here are a few thoughts on picking out a new horn.

  • Do your research ahead of time. We made phone calls to several music stores in the region, and found out what instruments were available to try. We both familiarized ourselves with the various bells and whistles (so to speak) of the different models, and had some idea of the differences between the instruments the stores had in stock. This became important as we were evaluating a saxophone that seemed to be almost the right fit for the student—luckily we knew that model came from the factory with two different necks. We asked for the other neck, and sure enough, the horn turned out to be a winner.
  • Bring a trusted set of ears. If you are a student, try begging or bribing your teacher to go shopping with you (they want you to have the best instrument you can afford!). Remember that what you hear when you play the horn is different from what a listener hears. When I picked out an oboe a few years ago, I found two specimens of the same model that seemed equally good to me. My oboe teacher listened to me play both, and immediately picked out “the one.” He could hear something out front that was escaping me back behind the reed.
  • Put the instrument through its paces. How does it respond, feel, sound, and tune at fortissimo? At pianissimo? High notes? Low notes? Articulated notes? Check the pitch, stability, response, and tone of every single note, including alternate fingerings. Use your own familiar mouthpiece(s) and reeds. Spend a significant amount of time playing a new horn before you even think about buying it. My student and I each played some of our current classical repertoire and some jazz stuff before making a judgment on the instruments.
  • Prioritize realistically. Remember that your tone will be a little different on an unfamiliar instrument, but that your individual sound will come through more as you gain comfort with the instrument. Intonation, however, is built into the horn for good. Get an instrument that will let you play in tune without unnecessary gymnastics.
  • Don’t forget the old reliable. Bring your old instrument along for periodic reality checks, even if you know it has significant shortcomings. I was impressed enough with one of the instruments I tried yesterday that I briefly considered what would have been a rash and probably unwise purchase. I put the mouthpiece back on my own alto and realized that I am better off with what I’ve got.

Happy shopping!

Not making your own double reeds

I’ve posted a few times over the past year about making double reeds (cf. here, here, and here), and I maintain that this is the truest way to abiding oboe/bassoon satisfaction. If you consider those instruments to be serious parts of what you do as a musician, you need to learn to make—or at least skillfully adjust—reeds.

But, frankly, not everyone is up to the challenge.

The basic reedmaking process can be learned within a few lessons, but developing the skills well enough to make good reeds consistently can take years, and most reedmakers will continue to develop and modify their approach over a lifetime.

Reedmaking is expensive, too. A set of the most basic tools for making reeds from preprocessed (gouged, shaped, and, for bassoon, profiled) cane costs as much as several boxes of clarinet or saxophone reeds, and the cane doesn’t come cheap, either. If you want the control of doing your own gouging, shaping, and so forth, the additional equipment may cost you nearly as much as a pro-line clarinet.

And, of course, reedmaking takes time. I’ve heard the “rule of thumb” that an oboist, for example, should spend an hour making reeds for every hour he or she spends practicing. I don’t know that I agree entirely, but you get the idea of what kind of commitment is involved.

So, if I’ve now talked you out of making your own reeds, what are your options?

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Reed adjustment checklist

Problems with your clarinet or saxophone reeds? If you buy into the myth that there are only two or three “good” reeds in a box of ten, you are buying the wrong reeds. There are many, many options available to you. When I’ve got the right brand, cut, and size of reed for my mouthpiece … Read more

Why I don’t list my equipment

Many musicians are eager to tell you what equipment they use. They list their equipment on their websites, in the signature lines of their forum postings, and so on. I don’t.

I’m rarely impressed with what I see on fellow woodwind players’ lists. Ownership of impressive equipment (assuming the gear is, in fact, paid for?) does not make a fine player. Ownership of unimpressive equipment seems, well, like it’s not worth boasting about.

Some musicians seem to see their equipment listing as a service to the musical community, as though others will benefit from knowing what instruments they play. Buying instruments, mouthpieces, reeds, and so forth just because another player uses them—even a truly fine player—is much like buying the same shoes your favorite basketball player wears. No doubt they are fine shoes, but they might not suit your feet, your ability level, your playing surface, or your personal sense of style. Equipment listings are especially hazardous to younger beginners, who may be easily convinced that owning certain equipment will solve their problems, or who may ill-advisedly buy equipment that isn’t a good fit for them.

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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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