Favorite blog posts, October 2019

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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.

Favorite blog posts, September 2019

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Review: D’Addario Evolution clarinet mouthpieces

D’Addario was kind enough to send me a couple of their new(ish) Reserve Evolution clarinet mouthpieces to try out.

The Evolution currently comes in a single opening/facing, but the two Evolution mouthpieces I received are different in appearance: one is the standard black, and the other is what’s called “marble” on D’Addario’s website, or “sandstone marble” on the box. I usually don’t care to have equipment that calls too much attention to itself, but this is pretty cool and subtle enough not to be gaudy on stage.

I can’t definitively say that there is a difference in how the marble/non-marble play or sound. For the two I have in hand, the marble is possibly very (very) slightly more dark/muted, and the non-marble has very slightly more brightness/presence. But this doesn’t match my experience trying the mouthpieces back-to-back at the ICA conference (“ClarinetFest®”) over the summer. In any case, if there’s a difference, it’s trivially small, and I think you can pick the one that you think looks nicest.

As I’ve pointed out in my reviews of D’Addario’s other clarinet and saxophone mouthpieces, these are made with very, very high consistency, which finally brings mouthpieces into the online shopping age: you can just order one from wherever you find the lowest price, and count on it to play just as well as any other. No need to order a bunch of them, put a deposit on your credit card, ship back the ones you don’t want, pay a restocking/sanitation fee, etc. And if you lose or break yours, you can get a replacement quickly and probably not notice any difference. They are great-playing, affordable mouthpieces, but the consistency is the unique, killer feature. I’ve personally adopted each new clarinet and saxophone mouthpiece as it has hit the market.

(I don’t have a formal relationship, endorsement deal, etc. with D’Addario. They do sometimes send me products to try, presumably with the hope that I will review them favorably, but there’s no advance agreement. And I think that the consistent quality is a significant development in the mouthpiece market, and worth comment.)

What I’m looking for in a mouthpiece is a good balance between response and stability. To some extent these may be two sides of the same coin. A very responsive mouthpiece “speaks” immediately, even on resistant notes or at softer volume. But sometimes the tone and/or pitch are too flexible, and keeping them in check takes a lot of work. A very stable mouthpiece has consistent tone and pitch, but may take more work to get notes to respond as desired.

The particular quality of tone is my third consideration. I don’t make this my first priority for a few reasons. One is that a mouthpiece that strikes a good responsive/stable balance is already likely to have an appropriate, middle-of-the-road, versatile tone. (Often, within that middle-of-the-road zone, more “responsive” mouthpieces tend toward “brightness,” “presence,” or “liveliness,” while more “stable” mouthpieces lean toward “darkness,” “warmth,” or a “covered” sound.) Another reason is that tone quality is one of the more malleable aspects of a mouthpiece’s playing characteristics. If it functions well on the response/stability axis, then with a little time I will probably adapt my embouchure in minute ways (even without realizing it) to find the tone I want.

For the last seven years I have been using D’Daddario’s Reserve X5 clarinet mouthpiece, so I’m using that as my frame of reference. The Reserve and Evolution mouthpieces are both good, solid choices, and I can’t really say broadly that one is better than the other. But they have some differences in response, stability, and tone, which I’ll outline here in case it helps you pick one that best suits your preference.

Basically I find the Reserve to lean slightly toward responsiveness, with the expected tinge of brightness/presence, and the Evolution to tend more stable, with the darker/more covered sound. It’s subtle.

(Besides the mouthpieces, D’Addario also makes Reserve and Evolution reeds, which I find to have those same characteristics: Reserve = more responsive, Evolution = more stable. A D’Addario representative tells me the similarly named mouthpieces and reeds are “not meant to be exclusively paired together.”)

The following audio clips are all played using the same reed, a D’Addario Reserve 3.5. It’s just a little softer than I prefer for the X5, which accounts for some of the responsiveness and brightness but not all of it. Using a 3.5+ brings the sound and response just slightly closer to the Evolutions.

Evolution (black)
Evolution (marble)
Reserve X5

These photos are of the packaging for the X5 and Evolution mouthpieces. The measurements, oddly, are mostly in inches. (The X5 packaging is several years old, from when these were still sold as “Rico Reserve;” I don’t know if the box otherwise still looks the same.) The side view diagrams seem to indicate that both have a tip opening of ~.042 inches, which seems like a possible typo. Assuming the openings are precisely 1.05mm and 1.08mm (as also indicated on the packaging), these might be better expressed as .041 and .043.

I like both the Reserve X5 (my current favorite of the Reserve options) and the Evolution, and currently they are both living in my clarinet case. If forced to choose, I think at the moment I would fall back on the X5, because responsiveness feels important to me right now. But I can easily see myself switching to the Evolution at some point, perhaps depending on repertoire and performance situation.

In any case, the Evolution is another strong addition to D’Addario’s line of mouthpieces, and worth checking out.

Recital videos, August 2019

Here are videos from my recent faculty recital at Delta State University. I performed the Saint-Saëns oboe, bassoon, and clarinet sonatas, plus the flute Romance and “The Swan” from The Carnival of the Animals as a baritone saxophone transcription.

“The Swan” is originally for cello, so I assumed it might work well as a baritone saxophone transcription. It turns out it really fits quite comfortably in the alto saxophone’s range, but I decided to take it on as a baritone piece anyway as a personal challenge.

Favorite blog posts, August 2019

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Favorite blog posts, April 2019

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