Woodwind doubling and clarinet problems

"clarinet 1" by steffenz is licensed under CC BY

Here are a few of the common problems woodwind doublers have with the clarinet:

Flabby/saggy/tubby/airy tone and flat pitch. This is a dead giveaway for a self-“taught” clarinet doubler. The clarinet’s voicing is quite high, higher than any of the other woodwinds, and beginning clarinetists sometimes struggle for years to make that proper voicing a consistent habit. Once it settles in, pitch problems mostly evaporate, tone becomes clear and ringing, and notes respond beautifully and easily in every register. If you’re thinking about buying a shorter barrel because your “clarinet” is so flat all the time, don’t. Work on your voicing instead. Voicing is the #1 crucial technique for successful clarinet doubling, and will solve most of your problems.

It may also be worth checking your mouthpiece angle—it should be quite steep compared to saxophone or double reed instruments. Keep your head up straight and eyes forward, and aim in the ballpark of keeping the clarinet around 30° from vertical. You can also use the paper trick to make sure you’re taking in the right amount of mouthpiece.

Reeds can be a contributing factor, too. Often (but not always) saxophonists lean toward a slightly more open mouthpiece and softer reed, while clarinetists lean toward a little more closed mouthpiece and stiffer reed. The strength you prefer on a typical saxophone mouthpiece may not be right strength for a typical clarinet mouthpiece.

Constricted tone. Bafflingly, there’s a common pedagogical idea that clarinetists should tighten their embouchures to fix various problems. This is nonsense. Keep your jaw open to make space for the reed to vibrate, and let your lips (not your jaw/teeth) close around the mouthpiece, not tight but just airtight. Notes will respond more readily, with a fuller, prettier tone, and you can throw away the tape or paper or dental appliance you have been using to cushion your lower lip from your teeth.

Squeaks. 95% of the time this is an issue of fingers failing to properly cover toneholes. (And 95% of the time, struggling clarinet doublers blame it on something having vaguely to do with embouchure, reeds, or the clarinet somehow just being a squeaky instrument.) Use the large, fleshy pads of your fingers (not the tippy-tips) to cover the holes. Sometimes a quick check in the mirror can reveal that your fingers aren’t where you think they are.

Fingering awkwardness. The clarinet’s fingering system and unique overtone series provide tremendous advantages: an expansive range, clean and precise technique, and lots of useful alternate fingerings. (It’s superior to the saxophone’s “easier” system with awkward palm keys and relatively few alternates. Fight me.)

But if you’re coming from another instrument, you might find the 12th between the lower and clarion registers confounding. That’s because you’re still thinking about the fingerings. Practice your scales, arpeggios, and études until your fingers move on autopilot, like they already do on your primary instrument. It can be done.

The clarinet’s dreaded “break” as a technique concern is mostly a myth. Keep your support, voicing, and embouchure well-formed and stable, and just move your fingers. Your left index finger should rock or tilt between its tonehole and the A key, not hop (losing contact with the instrument) or slide (dragging along the key). Work toward a tiny, efficient, relaxed movement.

The clarinet’s clever system of redundant pinky keys enables lightning-fast technique in virtually any key, but it takes real effort to learn to use them well. Remember that for those pinky-finger notes there aren’t really “standard” vs. “alternate” fingerings—you need to know them all well enough to use interchangeably. And if you have beginner habits like using both pinkies for third-line B, you will need to learn to use a single pinky in many cases for the most efficient and flexible approach.

Ledger line catastrophes. Because of the clarinet’s broad tessitura, clarinetists have to be fluent in ledger lines above the staff (maybe more than you’re used to if you’re an oboist) and below the staff (more than you’re used to on any treble-clef woodwind). Hit the Baermann or Kroepsh books for thorough workouts spanning the clarinet’s range.

Remember the best money you can spend on your clarinet playing isn’t another mouthpiece or barrel or book—it’s some lessons with an excellent teacher. Learn the instrument on its own terms, and, whatever you do, try not to sound like a doubler.

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!

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.

How to get 10 good reeds from a box

photo, alyak
  1. If you are getting less than 80% playable clarinet or saxophone reeds from the boxes you are currently buying, buy different ones.
  2. Be realistic about strengths. If you are only getting 2-3 good reeds out of a box, you aren’t just being “choosy.” You are probably playing on reeds that are too resistant, and those 2-3 are the softer ones. Let go of the nonsensical old myth that better players play stiffer reeds. If you are getting less than 80% “good” reeds from a box, try moving down (or, in rarer cases, up) a half strength.
  3. Update your shopping list. There are many, many available reed options! Clarinet and saxophone players used to be stuck with the few brands available at nearby music stores. Now there are more brands, shipped anywhere in the world, probably for cheaper than buying at your local store. Don’t let a misplaced sense of brand loyalty or tradition keep you putting good money into bad reeds.
  4. Skip the sandpaper, mostly. If you are buying reeds that actually work for you, you won’t have to do more than a few minutes’ worth of adjustment over the reed’s useful lifetime. The available variety of cuts and profiles is staggering. And modern reed companies can shape reed vamps with very good consistency and accuracy.

A brand that genuinely makes clarinet or saxophone reeds with less than 80% success doesn’t deserve your repeat business. But there’s a strong chance you have simply mismatched the reeds to your mouthpiece and playing requirements. Keep searching!

Q&A: Reeds

photo, quack.a.duck

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.

How do you (or how do you help a student) select the appropriate hardness of reed?

This is a careful balancing act and involves tradeoffs. In general a too-soft reed causes pitch instability (tending toward flatness), good piano response but limited forte range, improved low-register response but weak upper register, and a thin and/or bright tone. A too-hard reed usually has poor piano response, a more resistant low register, and a stuffy or labored tone.

I find that many reed players use reeds that are too stiff, perhaps due to the strange but pervasive idea of “moving up” in reed strength as a rite of passage or indicator of skill.

Also: with clarinet and saxophone, reed strength is (a) inconsistent between brands and (b) tied very closely to the characteristics of the mouthpiece, so it’s not especially useful to make broad recommendations (“beginners should start on a 2½…”). It’s entirely likely that two clarinetists playing different mouthpieces might need dramatically different reed strengths.

How can I obtain better than mass produced double reeds for my beginning oboe and bassoon students? Do you have any tips on how to learn to improve already made reeds, store bought or otherwise?

Absolutely double reed players should, if at all possible, work with private teachers for this very reason. The ideal scenario is for a private teacher to make and continually adjust reeds for beginning double reed players. An alternative might be to connect with nearby symphony players, professors or graduate students, military musicians, or other nearby double reeders who might be willing to sell reeds (face-to-face, so adjustments can be made) or do occasional reed classes or adjustment sessions.

Improving/adjusting reeds involves some specialized skills, one of which is playing the instrument at a high level. Reed adjustment is an iterative process of making a small change and then testing, small change and test, small change and test. If you can’t play the instrument well, then reed adjustment is shooting in the dark.

One possible exception is that minor changes to bassoon reed wires are basically reversible, so there may be some room to experiment with that. I won’t get specific here as wire adjustments have been dealt with in detail by many previous authors, but careful, small adjustments can potentially improve response in various registers, pitch, and tone.


Thanks for your questions, and good luck with your reeds!

More 10-year anniversary Q&A

Beginners, parents, and making double reeds

I am in touch fairly often with parents (and school band directors) about their young oboists and bassoonists. Obtaining suitable reeds at an affordable price is of course an Ongoing Problem for beginning double reed players and their adjacent adults. Invariably my advice is that they connect with a private teacher who can supply and adjust reeds. But there aren’t many of those in the area, and, of course, they cost money, so sometimes the conversation turns toward reedmaking, which they may have read about on the internet and which seems to them like a promising solution.

If you are a parent or band director, here is what you need to know about reedmaking:

photo, Javier
photo, Javier

  • Making oboe or bassoon reeds is an art that takes many years to master.
  • While there are some fine books, videos, etc. that teach reedmaking concepts, there is no substitute for studying reedmaking with an oboe or bassoon teacher.
  • Reedmaking ability is very dependent on playing ability. Most of reedmaking is an iterative process of testing the reed, making a tiny adjustment, testing again, adjusting again, and so forth. A beginner’s playing level isn’t enough for reedmaking, even if they somehow manage to master the physical reedmaking techniques. (At youngest, I might start reedmaking with a very dedicated and talented high school junior.) This is also why it won’t work to learn to make reeds yourself for your child or student, unless you already happen to be a fine oboist or bassoonist.
  • Reedmaking is expensive! Someone studying the art of reedmaking will make many, many, many reeds before it starts to be a good deal financially. A minimal set of tools can be had for maybe the cost of a couple of car tires, but will require the purchase of cane that is already partially prepared. Each piece of prepared cane costs about as much as a large order of French fries, and a beginning reedmaker may ruin dozens or hundreds of them before making their first somewhat usable reed, and hundreds or thousands more before they can make reeds as good as ones from an excellent private teacher. (Cane purchased in its raw tube form is cheaper, but requires additional equipment costing as much as a transatlantic flight, plus extra hours of work.)
  • It may be worth pointing out, too, that reedmaking involves razor-sharp tools. These can of course be handled safely with proper training, but it’s still a concern where small hands are involved. Pieces of cane can be dangerous, too—I’ve cut myself more times with sharp or jagged pieces of cane than I have with knives or razor blades.

The best thing you can do for your beginning oboists or bassoonists is to pair him or her with excellent teachers who can help them improve their skills on their instruments, make and adjust reeds for them, and lay the groundwork for future instruction in reedmaking.

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.

Review: ReedGeek “Universal” reed tool

reedgeek-1_mini

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.

Misconceptions about saxophone-to-clarinet doubling

I saw a blog post recently by a saxophonist who had been called upon to play some clarinet for a big band jazz gig. The post was full of common frustrations that saxophonists who are casual clarinet doublers face in that situation. I want to respond to some of the ideas in that post, but since it’s not my object to embarrass anyone I’m not going to name the saxophonist or link to the blog post. Also, the “quotes” I’m using here are actually paraphrases, but I believe they capture the saxophonist’s intended meaning.

The clarinet is evil! And it sounds like a dying animal.

I understand this is said in jest, but fear and/or contempt are not good starting points for approaching woodwind doubles. Either focus your energies on instruments you are motivated to play, or have an open mind. As with most things, you probably hate and fear the clarinet because you haven’t taken the time and effort to get to know it.

photo, APMus
photo, APMus

I’m actually pretty good at the bass clarinet, though.

I doubt it! There are plenty of saxophonists who claim they can play the bass clarinet but not the B-flat clarinet. In many, many of those cases, what the saxophonists mean is that they can use a very saxophoney approach to playing the bass clarinet—a too-low voicing, a too-horizontal mouthpiece angle, etc.—and make some kind of sound, whereas the smaller B-flat simply won’t cooperate at all with these bad techniques. Truly good bass clarinetists, however, produce a more characteristic sound because they play the instrument like what it is: a member of the clarinet family.

I dug up a fingering chart so I could do some practicing for my gig. Those pinky fingerings just don’t make any sense, plus you have to read a bunch of ledger lines.

Saxophonists are spoiled by the instrument’s relatively small “standard” range and relatively simplistic fingering scheme. But I think a reasonable argument could be made that the clarinet’s system of alternate “pinky” fingerings is tidier and more flexible than the saxophone’s clunky rollers. Break out the Klosé book and learn to do it right. Continue reading “Misconceptions about saxophone-to-clarinet doubling”

Play reeds that fit

Photo, °Florian

During a rare visit to a music store this week, I overheard a very young clarinetist asking a salesperson to help him locate some unusually stiff reeds. The salesperson was as surprised as was I that the young man was interested in such an extreme equipment choice—but apparently for different reasons.

“You must be very talented to have moved up to such stiff reeds already,” the salesperson told the beaming prodigy. “How impressive!”

To me, this is a little like congratulating someone on moving up to a larger hat size. “Oh, it’s nothing, really. I started out in a 7¼, but I worked really hard and now I’m ready for the 7½. But the real greats all wear at least an 8, so that’s where I want to end up.” Bigger isn’t better—you should wear whatever fits your head.

A clarinet or saxophone reed should be an appropriate fit to the mouthpiece. There are a number of factors that determine what strength of reed is right for a mouthpiece, but, in general terms, most mouthpieces with wider tip openings require softer reeds to get good response, and most mouthpieces with narrower openings need a stiffer reed for stability and dynamic range.

While each player is of course different, I think sometimes the factor of the individual embouchure is actually over-emphasized. The embouchure doesn’t and shouldn’t need unusual muscular strength to do its job—it requires delicacy and control. If you’re biting and straining against a too-stiff reed, you’re sacrificing both, and both you and your audience are suffering for it. For most mouthpieces, there is a narrow range of reed strengths that is about right, no matter how “strong” you are (or think you are).

There’s no such thing as “moving up” to a stiffer reed, just “moving” to a different strength to suit a new mouthpiece or to correct an error in your previous reed choice.