Favorite blog posts, November 2022

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What kind of ligature should I get?

I’m on record as believing that clarinet and saxophone ligatures make little if any actual difference in how you sound. You’re welcome to disagree, but you might want to watch Michael Lowenstern’s video about it first.

So, assuming the ligature has little direct influence on sound, what is the best kind to buy?

Consider the humble fabric-type ligature:

Fabric-type clarinet and saxophone ligatures

They can be made of fabric or various other flexible materials. Fake-leather materials are popular.

Here are their advantages over most other ligatures:

  • Generally inexpensive, although there are pricier versions available if paying more makes you feel better
  • Relatively easy to fit to even unusual mouthpieces and reeds, since they are flexible
  • Durable: I still have and use one I bought in high school
  • Not easily damaged: can be dropped, stepped on, or otherwise battered with little if any ill effect
  • Won’t dig into or otherwise damage reeds or mouthpieces
  • More expensive than an actual shoelace, but quicker and easier to install
  • Ambidextrous: many of the popular inexpensive ones can be switched for left- or right-handed screw tightening
  • Usually just one screw to tighten, so 50% less tightening/loosening time than the many other kinds of ligatures that have two screws
  • Available: no waiting lists or custom-building, easily purchaseable from just about any brick-and-mortar or online band-instrument retailer

I have a number of fancy and expensive ligatures that various teachers required I buy over the years of my education, including some plated in actual gold. They don’t outperform my fabric-type ones in any meaningful way. You may still see them in my performance videos, etc., as I am still trying to get my money’s worth out of them. When they break or wear out, I’ll replace them cheaply and easily with good reliable fabric ones.

Get a good, reliable, no-nonsense ligature to hold your reed in place, and happy practicing!

Why doesn’t my new mouthpiece work?

a person s hand holding saxophone mouthpiece

So you bought a new mouthpiece! How exciting. But wait—it’s not playing as well as you hoped. Maybe it squeaks, or some (or all) notes don’t come out very well, or the tuning is weird. Let’s consider some possible reasons why:

  • First, it’s always a good idea to review the fundamentals of tone production: breath support, voicing, and embouchure. Those things probably didn’t really change when you got a new mouthpiece, but maybe the old one was more forgiving of some weaknesses in your technique, and the new one is revealing those issues.
  • A new mouthpiece is likely to require a different reed than the old mouthpiece. Try some harder or softer reeds and see if your results change. In general, a mouthpiece with a larger tip opening tends to like a softer reed, and a smaller opening works better with a harder reed. But it’s more complicated than that, and the only way to really know which strength, cut, brand, etc. will work best is to try them out. (Some mouthpiece makers do suggest reeds that go well with their mouthpieces, but your results may vary.)
  • Also: even if your new mouthpiece is compatible with the reeds you have been buying, ones that you previously used on the old mouthpiece may have kind of molded to the old mouthpiece. Try some fresh ones.
  • Not all mouthpieces are created equal, even mouthpieces of the same brand and model. This can be due to hand-finishing or other manufacturing variables. It’s possible that the one you got isn’t as good as the one that your friend or teacher or favorite professional player uses. If possible, it’s worth trying several before you pick one. And especially with older or used mouthpieces, they can warp or otherwise change shape in small ways, and that can change their playing characteristics and ability to mate well with a reed.
  • Let’s consider one more hard truth: if you bought a mouthpiece never having played on it (or at least one like it) before, you may have picked something that just isn’t going a good match for you. It’s easy to get caught up in the promises in advertising copy or on product websites, or to assume that your favorite player’s mouthpiece will be suited to your equipment and playing style. Some mouthpieces are made for extreme or unusual reed choices, embouchures, or playing situations, but most players benefit from a relatively middle-of-the-road mouthpiece. And, of course, some mouthpieces just aren’t as good as advertised at all. Your best bet might be to return or sell the new mouthpiece, and invest instead in lessons with a good teacher who can either guide you in a better-informed purchase, or help you get the results you want out of a mouthpiece you already have.

A good rule of thumb is that a mouthpiece can’t give you skills, talent, or creativity. It can only remove, or add, obstacles to tone production. Pick a mouthpiece that makes it easier for you to do what you do, and get some help from a qualified teacher if needed. Good luck!

Recital videos, August 2022

I’m pleased to share videos from my recent Delta State University faculty recital, featuring the compositions of Yusef Lateef. A few are my own adaptations for altered instrumentation.

Favorite blog posts, August 2022

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Favorite blog posts, July 2022

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Favorite blog posts, June 2022

I usually try to avoid sharing multiple posts from the same blog in the same month, but here are a couple of woodwind blogs that produced multiple high-quality articles in June:

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

What to listen for (or ignore) in cane vs. synthetic reed comparisons

selective focus photography of gray stainless steel condenser microphone

With the recent release of the second-generation Venn clarinet and saxophone reeds from D’Addario Woodwinds, there’s a new rush of YouTube videos and social media posts comparing them to cane reeds (and/or to other synthetics). Here are a few questions raised by those kinds of comparisons that you should be cautious of:

  • “Do synthetic reeds sound as good as cane?” You could decide whether one of the specific reeds in question sounds better to you, but if it’s the cane one, does that mean that all cane reeds are better-sounding than all synthetics? You could almost certainly find a cane reed that would sound much worse than either of the ones tested. Plus, if you’re hearing a comparison to a seasoned player’s favorite reeds, it’s likely that those are the reeds the player used to select their mouthpiece, and that they have been practicing and performing on for years. You may be hearing the new reed being played on a mouthpiece or embouchure to which it’s not well-matched.
  • “Can you tell the difference between cane and synthetic?” Would you be able to tell the difference between two different cane reeds? In many cases the difference between two high-quality, similarly-purposed reeds is audible (if subtle). Being able to hear a difference between this specific cane reed and that specific synthetic reed isn’t particularly remarkable or important. I’m not aware of any manufacturer claiming their synthetic reeds sound identical to any specific cane reed (even in the case of D’Addario, who is making both; they consider the Venn to be a new “cut” of reed, not a clone of one of their cane products).
  • “Is this synthetic reed the best-sounding of all reeds?” Tone is important, but remember to consider other factors. Sure, that includes response/articulation, pitch, etc., but it should also include some of the potential upsides of synthetics, like longevity, stability, and consistency. If a synthetic only “sounds” 98% as good as your cane reeds, but it lasts for months, isn’t affected by weather, and plays identically to others of the same model, is it worth it to you to switch? Is it likely that the 2% gap will narrow or even disappear with some practice and tweaks to your setup?

Here is a better question to ask yourself as you consume the reviews, videos, comments, etc.:

  • Do I hear evidence that this is a viable reed? In other words, is it possible to sound good on it, in a way that’s competitive with my current favorites? (A comparison to a player’s old standby reeds can be useful here.) If the answer is yes, then you can decide whether you wish to pursue the possibility further. If the answer is no, that only tells you that you weren’t impressed by that specific demonstration; the reeds might work quite well for another player, another mouthpiece, etc.

New products are exciting! But keep a level head.

(Full disclosure: I have in the past made exactly the kind of comparison I’m criticizing here, but no longer think it’s that useful of a format.)

Doubling up pinky fingers on the clarinet

There are two basic fingerings a clarinetist can use for B4:

option 1option 2

But there are some other possibilities, such as adding either of the pinky C keys. Doing this doesn’t open or close any additional toneholes, so the note isn’t affected at all:

option 3option 4

While the extra pinky finger is technically unnecessary, it is sometimes convenient and conducive to smoother technique. For example, option 4 is frequently taught as a “standard” B fingering in beginning band method books. That is probably because it works well in a C major scale:

When moving from A to B, this only adds one extra finger, the right hand pinky, to the B. Since there are already several fingers of the right hand moving in the same direction (down onto keys), this is only a minimal issue. And the movement from B to C is very simple: just release the left pinky.

The same sequence can be played without the extra key:

This is very slightly advantageous for A to B, since there is one fewer finger to move. But it introduces a more significant complication for B to C, since there is a “flip-flop:” the left pinky is lifting up as the right pinky is pressing down. A good clarinetist can execute this successfully, but it’s a little risky, since fingers on different hands are moving in different directions. There’s a possibility of finger mistiming that can result in an audible blip—a moment when both fingers are up together, producing a brief D5.

So there are advantages to using “extra” pinky fingers in some cases, but it doesn’t make sense in others. Some of my students stumble over sequences like this:

The right-hand pinky isn’t needed for the B, but some of my students use it out of habit whenever they see that note. Then they run into trouble when they have to slide the pinky to a different key for the E-flat. Advancing clarinetists should be aware of the fingerings they are using, and make each choice purposeful. Careful, consistent scale and arpeggio practice can help reinforce and habituate good fingering choices.

By the way, for the sake of completeness, you can add the opposite-hand C/F key for any of these written notes on the clarinet:

Adding pinky keys to any other pinky note will affect pitch.

To make your own fingering and note images like the ones in this post, try the Fingering Diagram Builder and the Note Image Generator.

Favorite blog posts, February 2022

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