Required recordings, spring 2010

As I explained back in August, I’m having my university students purchase a required recording every semester.

The purpose of this, of course, is to help the students develop good aural concepts of tone, phrasing, expression, vibrato, ensemble, and so forth. To try to learn to play an instrument well without a solid aural concept is like trying to learn a foreign language from a textbook. You might pick up a few things, but you’ll be sunk unless you get to really hear—over and over—how the words and phrases sound.

I’m discovering that it’s a challenge to make the recording selections meet all the criteria I’d like. For example, I would like for each one to:

  • Be by a major soloist, preferably living
  • Contain very standard literature that my students should know, without too many repeats from previous selections
  • Contrast with last semester’s selection (for example, if last semester’s recording was music with piano, I tried to pick a concerto recording this time around)
  • If at all possible, contribute to a sense of diversity

The last one has been a challenge. So far my two-semester tally, selecting recordings for four different instruments, is six white men and two white women. I’d like to improve on that in the future, though I do think that, ultimately, what comes through the earphones is more central to this project than the colors or genders represented on the CD covers. I’ve got a few ideas for future selections and welcome additional suggestions.

Here are this semester’s selections:

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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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Woodwind organizations

I recently renewed a few memberships in some of the woodwind-related professional organizations. I like to stay current with as many of these as I can, because I enjoy receiving their publications and attending their conferences whenever possible. Most offer some other benefits like score and book lending libraries, eligibility for a group instrument insurance plan, member directories, and exclusive website content.

Membership is especially useful for woodwind folks in academia—students and professors alike—who are hoping to build their vitae. There are opportunities to publish articles, interviews, reviews, and such in the organizations’ publications, and to perform, present lectures and demonstrations, and participate in competitions and masterclasses at the conferences. Students can usually join the organizations and attend the conferences at significant discounts.

The groups I’m listing below are the major ones that North American woodwind players ought to seriously consider joining. There are others, mainly regional groups, of which I list as many as I’m aware elsewhere on this site (see flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone organizations).

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Required recordings, fall 2009

I’m requiring each of my applied students at Delta State to purchase a recording of their instrument this semester as a sort of textbook. A number of them have confessed to me that this will be the first such recording they will own. I plan to require a different recording for each instrument each semester, so that, over the course of several semesters of study, the students will begin to build their personal libraries of great players playing great literature.

The purpose of this, of course, is to help the students develop good aural concepts of tone, phrasing, expression, vibrato, ensemble, and so forth. To try to learn to play an instrument well without a solid aural concept is like trying to learn a foreign language from a textbook. You might pick up a few things, but you’ll be sunk unless you get to really hear—over and over—how the words and phrases sound.

Here are the recordings I’ve selected for this semester. They are recordings of some of the most admired and relatively current performers (all are actively performing except for the late, great Mr. Mack), performing core solo literature. There’s no flute recording because I’m only teaching reeds, but maybe something like this would have been a good choice.

Oboe: John Mack, Oboe

John Mack, Oboe

Repertoire: Schumann Three Romances, Saint-Saëns Sonata, Hindemith Sonata, Poulenc Sonata, short pieces by Murgier, Berghmans, Planel, and Barraud.

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Thoughts on plastic reeds

I have been following with interest the discussion on the web of the new synthetic clarinet reeds by Forestone. A few days ago, the distinguished Sherman Friedland posted an absolutely glowing review:

The Forestone reeds marks the beginning of a totally new era in the development of reeds, all reeds. It is a new beginning because these reeds are reeds which totally duplicate the feeling and response of cane. It  surpasses any reed currently being sold which is not made from cane which has been grown, harvested and then cut. It does have a tremendous advantage in consistency in that it does not have to  be warmed up and soaked. . . .

What this means is that it is just a matter of time before cane reeds as such, become obsolete.

In the same post, Mr. Friedland discusses the new Légère “Signature” reeds, which he finds to be an improvement over the standard Légère, but still not as good as the Forestone. [Update: see my review of the Légère Signature Series clarinet reeds.]

I have not yet tried the Forestones myself, but have used the standard Légères at times, especially for contrabass clarinets. For the very large clarinets, I had a great deal of trouble keeping cane reeds from warping, even during the course of a two-hour rehearsal; the plastic reeds have a clear advantage in this department.

Forestone, Legere, and a bad-news cheapie
Forestone, Légère, and a bad-news cheapie

In my high school marching band days, I was required to use an inexpensive, brittle plastic saxophone reed. In my opinion, these are not suitable for professional playing. Neither are the plastic oboe or bassoon reeds currently on the market.

I do think it likely that, within my lifetime, I will see plastic single reeds take over in a big way. I expect there will be a few purists who will insist on cane, despite its obvious shortcomings, claiming that nothing sounds like good, old-fashioned cane. I think this blindfold test from Légère shows that plastic definitely can sound very much like cane, and will likely be indistinguishable very soon.

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Oboe reedmaking resources

One of mine.
One of mine.

There’s no way around it—if you’re going to be a serious oboist, you have to learn to make your own reeds. Even fine handmade reeds purchased from an excellent reedmaker can’t compete with reeds made to your own personal specifications, suited to your highly individual combination of embouchure, instrument, playing style, and performance situation. A reed is in a constant state of change, from initial scraping until eventual retirement, and needs the daily ministrations of a skilled reedmaker to keep it playing at its best.

Woodwind doublers who take up the oboe as a secondary instrument will need to learn at least basic reed adjustment techniques in order to have reeds they can count on in professional situations. But if you’re going to learn the mysteries of fine-tuning “finished” reeds, you’re most of the way toward learning the whole process—consider at least learning to tie blanks from cane that you purchase already gouged and shaped. Starting from tube cane gives you even more control over the finished product, but requires the use of gouging and shaping equipment ($1200+, all told).

There’s no real substitute for learning reedmaking at the feet of a skilled oboe teacher, but here are some of my hand-picked favorite guides and tutorials online. These can serve as a good introduction for a beginner, and more experienced reedmakers may like to cull a few new ideas from the wide variety of opinions and approaches represented here.

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Woodwind players on the web

For several years, I’ve maintained what I believe to be a fairly comprehensive list of woodwind doublers’ homepages. I’ve been scouring the web lately for the homepages of woodwind players of all kinds, and have put together several new lists from what I’ve found. Now you can browse lists of:

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Don’t-miss woodwind lessons on YouTube

It’s hard to argue with free lessons from some of the finest players around. Here’s some of my favorite woodwind YouTubeage:

Tom Ridenour’s clarinet videos

Tom Ridenour is, if you ask me, an honest-to-goodness genius: a master teacher, a clarinet maker and mouthpiece maker, an author, and an inventor. His videos are entertaining and very enlightening. Some deal with playing technique, and some deal with mouthpieces, reeds, or instruments. Here’s one to get you started, but check out the whole collection here.

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Review: The Woodwind Anthology

Woodwind Anthology cover

I recently got my own copy of The Woodwind Anthology, a massive two-volume collection of articles from The Instrumentalist and Flute Talk magazines. I’ve used this anthology from various university libraries throughout my  long college education, and found it to be a go-to source for pedagogy classes and comprehensive exam preparation.

Inexplicably, Instrumentalist is selling these right now for $37 for the set. Check it out here. The shockingly low price makes me wonder if this has gone out of print. If you’re interested, I suggest ordering soon.

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Free woodwind sheet music on the IMSLP

IMSLP logoThe Internet Music Score Library Project is an online library of public-domain sheet music. Most of the available music is in PDF format and can be freely downloaded. The files are uploaded by users, mostly scanned from published sheet music that falls into the public domain. This means mostly compositions that are old enough to be public domain, in published editions that are also old enough to be public domain.

This is a fantastic resource for finding older editions of woodwind solo pieces, chamber music, and orchestral parts.

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