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.

Which multiple woodwinds degree programs should I apply to?

"Ariel9" by alika89 is licensed under CC BY-NC

“Which multiple woodwinds degree programs should I apply to?” I get this question a lot, since I write about multiple woodwind degree programs here on the blog, have a couple of those degrees myself, and maintain a list of such programs.

(The list is meant to be comprehensive but probably isn’t. If you know of a program that isn’t listed, please let me know! These days I mostly depend on emails from interested parties to help keep the list up-to-date. I don’t have some secret source where I can find all the current available programs.)

The answer, of course, is that I don’t know which program you should choose. I graduated from two excellent programs, both of which I understand have evolved in the 10+ years since I finished school. Programs frequently change, and so do the faculty and administration that run them.

So, you should narrow down your list of possibilities the best you can, and reach out to schools to find out more. You might try to figure out from the school’s music faculty directory who is the head of the woodwind department, or contact the professor of your “main” instrument (if you have one).

If I were looking for a program today, here are some questions I might like to research on the school’s website, or ask a professor:

  • How many students are currently enrolled in the degree program? Are there any enrolled in multiple-woodwinds programs at other degree levels? Is this enrollment typical, or is it currently at a high or low?
  • How do the woodwind faculty feel about the program? Do they see woodwind doubling as a valuable, marketable skill? Are any of them doublers themselves? Do they try to push students into single-instrument degrees instead?
  • Do multiple-woodwinds students get the same kind of access/time/attention/instructional time from the faculty that single-instrument students get? Is there room for multiple woodwinds majors in, say, the oboe reedmaking class? The clarinet choir?
  • How big and how competitive is the music department in general? Is there any hope of auditioning into serious ensembles on secondary instruments?
  • Are there appropriate/relevant graduate assistantships available, like teaching or assisting with a woodwind methods class, or playing auxiliary woodwinds in the bands or orchestras?
  • How is the degree structured? What courses would I take? Would I have a minor, cognate field, etc?
  • How is individual instrumental study structured? Would I have a “main” instrument and “secondary” instruments? How would that affect the instruction and experience I get on each? Would I be studying multiple instruments each semester? How much total instruction would I get on each instrument? Would I perform on all my instruments in solo recitals and juries?
  • How strong do I need to be on each instrument for entry into the program? What is the audition process like? Do you have lists or guidelines for required audition repertoire?
  • Are there instruments available for my use? Do I need to own all the instruments I intend to study before I start the program?
  • What non-school-related opportunities are available in the area? Are students earning money playing gigs? Is there an active musical theater scene or some other kind of music-making that would value the services of an aspiring woodwind doubler?
  • What have former students in the program accomplished? Have they graduated? How long did it take them? Are they employed? Doing what?

I did one of my multiple woodwinds degrees at a well-known, name-brand music school, and later in academic job interviews hiring committees did notice and comment on it; it’s possible the name opened some doors. My other multiple woodwinds degree is from a smaller (but not small), high-quality but lower-name-recognition school, where I got much better access to the faculty, better opportunities to perform, better financial aid, and lower costs. Both were valuable experiences in different ways.

If you are in the US, there’s a decent chance that there’s a quality program or two within a few hours’ drive. Check with the faculty to find out about the details that are important to you. Give strong consideration to assistantship opportunities, especially if they involve teaching, as this experience has high educational value for you and can set your CV apart in an academic job search. If you’re having a hard time deciding between two similar programs, you probably won’t go wrong with either, so maybe choose the one that costs less and/or is closer to home.

Good luck and happy practicing!

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.

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!

Does woodwind doubling prevent you from being the “best?”

"20070402 - Clarinet - 005" by C.K.H. is licensed under CC BY-ND

My recent post about woodwind doubling has been cited lately on various social media sites to fuel discussions over whether doubling is a good or acceptable pursuit.

Many of those arguing that woodwind doubling is a bad idea raise the issue that the “best” players of such-and-such instrument don’t double, and you can’t be the “best” at such-and-such instrument if you are doubling. If you think that, I could name a dozen prominent doublers who might change your mind, but that’s not really the important point.

As an undergraduate saxophone major, I daydreamed occasionally about being the “best” saxophonist. For me it probably wouldn’t have been a realistic goal, and the pursuit of it wouldn’t have led me to happiness, nor to success as I would have seen it through that lens.

When I made the decision to commit myself to woodwind doubling as a career path instead, I knew that would mean my progress on the saxophone would slow down. But it has been a very worthwhile choice for me: I get to play interesting music in a variety of settings, I get to spend all day at my university teaching job talking about the music and instruments that fascinate me, and I even have an audience of like-minded folks who stop by to read my blog posts. Now it’s hard for me to imagine myself being content to play just saxophone music all day.

Most of us won’t land a top orchestral job or tour the world as a concert soloist. And, believe it or not, not all of us want that anyway. We should be encouraging aspiring musicians to seek out niches that they enjoy and are motivated by.

Very, very few of us will ever be the “best,” so if that is your goal then I wish you luck. But for many of us, myself included, that’s not the goal at all. Mine is to have a successful and enjoyable career doing what I love, and so far, so good.

Does woodwind doubling ruin your embouchure?

"Oboe reed" by quack.a.duck is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Nope.

We use our embouchure muscles for all kinds of things: facial expressions, speech, eating, kissing. Do any of those things “ruin” your embouchure? Of course not. The embouchure is made up of very flexible, agile muscles that are very capable of carrying out multiple tasks.

When people (almost always non-doublers) express concern about embouchure ruin, most of the time what they seem to be talking about is tension, or sensitivity loss, or buildup of callused tissue, or maybe strengthening the “wrong” muscles. If playing any woodwind instrument is giving you these kinds of problems, you are playing it wrong. Your embouchure for any and every woodwind instrument should be relaxed, balanced, and pain-free. Get some lessons with a qualified teacher, quickly.

Woodwind doubling presents real challenges. No need to invent fictional ones!

Favorite blog posts, January 2019

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

Favorite blog posts, November 2018

  • Stephen Caplan embraces plastic oboes. Related: Elizabeth Brown lists some signs that your wooden oboe has a crack.
  • Clarinetist Miranda Dohrman gives advice on building a freelance career.
  • Jennifer Mackerras provides solutions for recorders slipping and sliding around in your hands.
  • Peter Westbrook shares a 2003 interview with Herbie Mann, covering aspects of jazz flute playing, woodwind doubling, and more.
  • Oboist Jennet Ingle offers some suggestions on a good mindset for solo performance.
  • Clarinetist Jenny Maclay lists some reasons you might not be improving as much as you would like.

Clarifying woodwind doubling goals

photo, Aprilyn Podd

A couple of months ago, I wrote this as part of a sort of tongue-in-cheek FAQ:

Q. Should I be a woodwind doubler?
A. In most cases, no. If you already feel driven to do it, and have the time and resources to devote to it, then maybe.

I got a comment on this by “C Lee”:

I’m a teen who started playing pits last year on flute and piccolo a year ago. Since then, I’ve fallen in love with pit, have played in four more musicals and am actively seeking out other gigs to gain experience. In addition, I’ve also taken up the saxophone and have plans to learn as many woodwinds as I can if not all of them. Do you think I should be a woodwind doubler?

It would be irresponsible to make a recommendation based on so little information, and of course it’s ultimately a very personal choice. I’ve previously suggested some questions worth asking oneself before pursuing woodwind doubling, so I won’t rehash those here.

But I think it’s also worth considering exactly what you mean by being a “woodwind doubler:”

  • Playing as many instruments as possible?
  • Playing a select group of instruments?
  • Playing multiple instruments as a hobby or part-time semi-pro gig?
  • Studying multiple instruments at a university/conservatory level?
  • Playing professionally or semi-professionally as a specialist on one instrument, but adding doubles to increase employability?
  • Competing for the highest-profile doubling gigs in a major market like New York City or Los Angeles?
  • Performing recital repertoire, orchestral music, and/or chamber music on multiple instruments?
  • Using multiple instruments in the creation of a unique personal repertoire (jazz, avant-garde, electronic, etc.)?

Your individual goals might include several of these, or others I haven’t listed. And your goals might be a little fuzzy or might change, which is okay. But just “woodwind doubler” isn’t a very clear path. Having some sense of direction might help you make decisions about education and training, investment in instruments, location, practice strategies, and more.

Recital videos, August 2018

Here are some videos from my recent Delta State University faculty recital. I enjoyed tackling Brett Wery‘s challenging Sonata for multiple woodwinds (flute, clarinet, alto saxophone) and piano, plus some little oboe pieces and the André Previn bassoon sonata. As always, the goal was to challenge myself, so, as always, the performance had some hiccups. But it was a valuable growth experience for me and a chance to perform some new repertoire.