Should I tighten the screws on my woodwind instrument?

For many household items, screws should be tightened if they seem loose. But for woodwind instruments it’s a little more complicated.

Woodwind instruments (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and saxophones) have many screws on them. They are usually the slotted type, for which you would use a standard (“flat-head”) screwdriver. And some of them need to be tightened when they become loose, but some should be left alone—and it’s not always easy to tell which is which. If you aren’t sure, take it to your teacher or a professional instrument repair shop.

When tightening screws, always use a screwdriver that fits the screw very closely, to reduce the chances of damaging the screw. Mismatched screwdrivers can also slip, causing injury to you or scratches on the instrument’s finish.

Here are some kinds of screws you might find on your instrument:

Some screws simply hold some non-moving pieces together. For example, these screws on a saxophone hold this key guard onto the instrument. It’s not a moving part; the screws are just there so a professional can remove the key guard to do specialized work on the key. If these screws are loose, you can carefully tighten them just until they are snug.

The same is true of these screws that hold the oboe’s thumb rest in place—they are part of a non-moving assembly. If they won’t stay in place, the wood may be damaged (the hole is “stripped”). A good repair shop can fix it for you.

Woodwind instruments have many pivot screws, and also pivot rods that have slotted ends like screws. These allow some of the instrument’s keys to pivot (rotate) a little when you press and release them.

Here is one of the pivot screws on a flute. The threaded part screws into a post that is attached to the instrument, and the pointy tip of the screw fits into a void in the end of the key, holding it in place but allowing it to pivot smoothly. For a well-made and well-maintained instrument, usually you can screw these in all the way until they are snug and the head of the screw fits into the post without protruding. But if that makes the key stick or misbehave, it may be necessary to loosen it just slightly.

Here is a flute pivot rod. When it is screwed in it looks the same as a pivot screw, but when it is removed you can see that it’s long enough to pass all the way through a post and the keys’ hinge tube, and then screw into another post. Like a pivot screw, a pivot rod can usually be screwed in until snug, unless that seems to cause a problem.

Most of the woodwinds also have at least a few adjustment screws. These allow a professional to fine-tune how some of the keys move. They need to be tightened a certain amount, no tighter and no looser, like turning the knob on an oven to get the right temperature. If it’s too loose or too tight, it will make the instrument difficult or impossible to play. Making these adjustments properly requires specialized skills.

Here are some of the many adjustment screws on an oboe:

And here is one of the few on a clarinet:

If you tighten these adjustment screws and don’t know what you are doing, you will probably need to take the instrument to your teacher or a repair shop to undo the damage. This can be time-consuming and expensive.

If you have screws that keep loosening on their own, this may be because they are dirty, damaged, or need lubrication. A good repair shop can clean and repair the screws or rods without damaging them (or replace them if necessary), and can determine and apply the appropriate lubricant. (Most household oils aren’t right for the job.) If the screws continue to loosen after this treatment, take the instrument to the shop again and they may use additional methods to secure the screws in place.

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Review: NewMusicShelf Anthology of New Music: Alto Saxophone, Vol. 1

I don’t typically do reviews of new sheet music publications unless they have a specific woodwind-doubling focus, but I’m making an exception here because I think this is a project that is especially useful and has potential to change the landscape of “classical” saxophone repertoire (and other instruments, too).

I have a repertoire problem. My file cabinet is full of wonderful, important music that is written almost exclusively by dead white men. I would like to change that—to perform and teach music representing a greater diversity of composers, and particularly living composers.

But it’s hard to escape the inertia of the “standard repertoire.” And sorting through mountains of new pieces by composers I haven’t heard of (yet), to find the best ones, the ones at the right difficultly level for my students, and so forth, could cost me thousands of dollars and thousands of hours. It’s daunting, and so I fall back on the same pieces I’ve taught over and over.

NewMusicShelf Anthology of New Music: Alto Saxophone, Vol. 1 is an elegant solution. For the price of a standard-repertoire concerto, it contains 16 works composed (or at least revised) within the last 20 years. The composers (listed on NewMusicShelf’s website) are diverse and distinguished. Many are young.

The collection is curated by Alan Theisen, a composer and saxophonist well-positioned to accomplish this task due to his interests and connections in the world of new music. (One of his own compositions is included in the anthology.)

For me as a performer and educator, this anthology helps solve several problems: the pieces are thoughtfully selected for quality and variety, the publication is very affordable, and its presence in my studio is a strong step toward currency and representation in concert saxophone music. All are for solo alto saxophone or saxophone and piano, so the performance logistics are simple (no large/unusual ensembles, electronics, or other potential barriers). The pieces are playable by undergraduate-level students (but, as Theisen points out in his introduction, “absolutely suitable” for more advanced players as well). It’s an easy, cheap, and practical way to grow my performing and teaching repertoire. (This is an unsolicited review of a copy I purchased myself.)

A couple of small complaints: the saxophone and piano parts are “perfect bound” (like a paperback book) and thus don’t lay flat on a music stand. NewMusicShelf indicates on their website that this is to facilitate library shelving (and points out that, hey, you can disassemble and re-bind it yourself if you want), but I’d rather see a more performer-oriented solution. And the books contain a web link promising composer headshots and program notes, but the link is currently broken and I couldn’t locate the content on the website. Still, a very worthwhile purchase.

The “Volume 1” label is hopefully indicative of more to come. A flute volume appears to be in the works, and calls-for-scores for clarinet, bassoon, and some other instruments are currently open. Collections for voice and for viola are already available. Kudos to NewMusicShelf and Alan Theisen for this extremely valuable aid for teachers and performers.

NewMusicShelf Anthology of New Music: Alto Saxophone, Vol. 1

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Woodwind doubling and saxophone problems

"sax" by paparutzi is licensed under CC BY

It’s very common for woodwind doublers to be saxophonists first, and approach the other woodwinds later, often because of the demands of flute/clarinet doubling in jazz big band music. So advice for woodwind doublers is often really advice for saxophonists playing secondary instruments. But when players of other woodwind instruments pick up the saxophone, there are some challenges that need to be addressed as well.

Tone production problems (pitch, tone, response). Assuming good breath support is in place (the same as with any other woodwind), these problems are probably caused by some combination of embouchure and voicing issues.

As with the other reed instruments, your embouchure should be airtight but not tight—just enough to close around the mouthpiece and reed, with your top teeth on the mouthpiece and your bottom lip in a neutral position (not rolled in or out). A tight embouchure constricts tone and reduces dynamic range.

The mouthpiece should angle up to your embouchure a little, but not at nearly as steep an angle as the clarinet or the oboe. Too steep an angle contributes to an uncharacteristic, slightly clarinet-like tone.

Use the paper trick to ensure you are taking in the right amount of mouthpiece. Taking in too much mouthpiece creates a wild, honky tone, and to little causes a stuffy, labored tone.

Voicing is tricky to get right on the saxophones. Flutists and double reed players are used to playing with a voicing essentially as low as it can go, and clarinetists use an embouchure essentially as high as it can go. Saxophonists need to hit a target somewhere in between. Daily mouthpiece pitch exercises are the best way to train this. Using a too-high voicing causes the thin, pinched sound and poor low-register response that expose you as a doubler coming from the clarinet. A too-low voicing causes a tubby tone, unstable pitch, and unresponsive high notes.

Fingering problems. The saxophone’s fingering system is in some ways the simplest and most intuitive of the modern woodwinds, but it has its share of problems. “Side” and “palm” keys are among them—they are awkward and imprecise to use, and take a great deal of practice to develop fluency. Similarly, movement between the pinky-finger keys using rollers, especially on the left hand, is problematic and requires diligent training. Scales and arpeggios, practiced though the instrument’s full standard range, are essential. Fluency in the saxophone’s middle register is comparatively easy, but the lowest notes (left-hand pinky) and highest notes (palm keys, especially left hand) are a real test of saxophone skill.

Style problems. For doublers approaching the flute, clarinet, or double reeds, a solid classical/orchestral approach to the instrument will cover most musical demands. Not so with the saxophone, which is often used in jazz or popular styles. To play these styles convincingly requires meticulous attention to tone, inflection, articulation, vibrato, and other subtleties. Doublers learning the saxophone would be wise to consider taking lessons both from “classical” and jazz teachers, and to do a great deal of listening and study of many styles of music.

Effective improvisation in various musical styles is a lifetime pursuit, and essential for serious saxophone gigging. Find a good teacher.

Jazz and classical setups. For saxophonists, playing in different styles sometimes requires different equipment. It’s common to have a classical mouthpiece and at least one jazz/pop mouthpiece, plus reeds to suit each. A classical mouthpiece often doesn’t have the volume, brightness, or punchy articulation needed for jazz or rock, and a jazz mouthpiece may not have the warm/dark tone, pitch stability, and subtle/soft dynamics for classical music.

Jaw vibrato. Jaw vibrato is a technique unique to the saxophone among the other woodwinds. (Clarinetists most often don’t use vibrato, and flutists and double reed players use a breath-pulse vibrato sometimes mislabeled as “diaphragm” vibrato.) Mastery of this skill takes good instruction and lots of practice. The saxophone vibrato needs to be fast, narrow, subtle, and fairly constant for most classical applications. Jazz players traditionally tend toward a slower, wider, terminal vibrato.

The saxophone is a valuable and rewarding double, and opens up many gigs that aren’t available to players of just the “orchestral” woodwinds. Give it serious study on its own terms and with an excellent teacher. Practice well!

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The right clarinet or saxophone reed strength “for you”

"Mouthpiece" by APMus is licensed under CC BY-SA

How do you pick the clarinet or saxophone reed that is the right strength “for you?” You mostly don’t, really.

It’s important that the reed be a good match to the mouthpiece. In most cases the primary consideration is the mouthpiece’s facing curve and resultant tip opening. Generally, a shorter curve and/or wider opening require a softer reed, that can flex enough to meet the mouthpiece while vibrating. A longer curve and/or narrower opening need a stiffer reed, which will have enough guts to spring back after flexing to the mouthpiece.

This means that the “right” strength for a player using a particular mouthpiece will be pretty close to the “right” reed for anyone else using that mouthpiece.

Some players and teachers object to this, insisting that the “strength” of the embouchure needs to be accounted for. But the embouchure shouldn’t employ much “strength”—it should close just airtight (but not tight) around the mouthpiece and reed. If you are using your embouchure to muscle the reed around, then you might think you need a stiffer reed, but what you really need is a more open, relaxed embouchure. (If you feel like you will lose control by relaxing your embouchure, make up for it with powerful breath support.)

So, assuming a reed reasonably well-matched to the mouthpiece, and a correctly-formed embouchure, the only thing left to consider is personal preference for how much resistance is in the setup. A slightly more resistant setup is good for things like soft, gentle articulations and stable pitch and tone. A slightly less resistant setup favors crisp, immediate articulations and some pitch and tone flexibility. I find this acceptable range of reed stiffnesses to be small enough that I can usually find some softer and some stiffer specimens within a box of reeds that are nominally the same strength.

Some mouthpiece and reed makers publish information about which reeds match to which mouthpieces. If you find yourself straying far from these recommendations, take a closer look at your embouchure and your stability/flexibility priorities.