- International Clarinet Association (Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr and Jean Raines): Reprints from the Early Years: Music for Clarinet by Women
- HeaneyMusings – Joshua Heaney (saxophone): More than a Rough Draft: Debussy’s Rapsodie Pour Orchestre et Saxophone
- The Babel Flute (Lea Pearson): Myth-Conceptions about Breathing
- Nadina Mackie (bassoon): Talent Drills for Orchestral Excerpts
- Julie A. Linder (clarinet): Clarinet basics: pinkies
- The Flute View (Lindsey McChord): Making a Headjoint – A Fusion of Science and Art
- oboealli (Alli Gessner): Do you know the 3 elements of fast articulation?
Experiments with electric woodwinds
I’ve been having fun with woodwinds enhanced with pickups or microphones. (If you’re interested in natively-electronic instruments like wind controllers, I’ve written about those elsewhere.)
I still have a lot to learn about working with electronics. But here are a few observations in case anyone finds them helpful.
Which instrument(s) to use? I find lower-pitched instruments to be more fun, since they can provide convincing bass lines. Electronics can pitch a high instrument down, of course, but I haven’t had the success I would like making this sound good. So far I’ve installed pickups into a bassoon bocal, a bass clarinet neck, and an English horn bocal. I’ve used microphones for other instruments.
Which gadgets to use? I’m personally using the Little-Jake pickups, a looper, and a multi-effects unit. When I started getting into effects pedals, I found it alarmingly easy to accumulate quite a few. This was a good and inexpensive way to get started. But I quickly discovered that it was becoming unwieldy to try use use more than a few in performance (I literally had to walk back and forth across the stage to get to them all). A multi-effects unit turned out to be much more practical, with a few foot switches I can configure to operate a large number of effects. (I’m currently using one by Boss.) It takes a little more advance setup than individual pedals, but greatly simplifies the onstage footwork. And I was pretty easily able to sell off the individual pedals to fund the purchase.
Which effects to use? I think the best-known guitar-type effects are distortion, delay/echo, and reverb. Those are fun to play with, but I’ve become more interested in ones I can use to give my instruments new capabilities, rather than just give their sounds a little grittiness or echo. For example, smart harmonizers (which add harmony lines based on a selected key) and pitch shifters (which add harmony lines based on selected intervals) make my instruments polyphonic, a significant upgrade for a woodwind player. And a looper, or even a cleverly-used delay, can create counterpoint.
Here are a few examples of my experiments:
Favorite blog posts, January 2023
- bassoon blog (Betsy Sturdevant): Guidance for High School Orchestral Bassoon (and Woodwind) Playing
- Best. Saxophone. Website. Ever. (Zach Sollitto): The Art of Mouthpiece Refacing with Thomas Occhiuto
- Dudukhouse Blog: Mastering the Duduk: Understanding Key and Pitch Options for the Traditional Armenian Instrument [note: commercial site, but good info]
- Jennifer Cluff (flute): A very quiet whistle
- Everything Saxophone (Ben Britton): Achieving Your Best Sound from Low B♭ Through Altissimo
- The Flute View (Morgan Pappas): How To Be Your Own Agent: 5 Tips for Booking Your Own Concerts
Favorite blog posts, December 2022
- International Clarinet Association: Clarinet Chronicles: Repertoire as Representation (Hailey Cornell, Eric Schultz); Reprints from Early Years of The Clarinet: Bass Clarinet (Edward S. Palanker, Josef Horák, Norman Heim, Harry Sparnaay, et al)
- DoctorFlute (Angela McBrearty): Evening Out Your Registers
- Khara Wolf: Getting back in shape on the oboe; Synthetic Oboe Reed Review
- Best. Saxophone. Website. Ever. (Doron Orenstein): How to Use Breath Support to Fatten Your Sound and Fix Intonation
- Cornelius Boots – Bamboo Shakuhachi Master & Composer – Zen, New Music and Bold Creativity.: Grandmaster Boots: Shakuhachi Renegade or Champion? Dai Shihan Certification
- Joffe Woodwinds (Ed Joffe): Tribute to Gene Cipriano
- Jenny Maclay (clarinet): Clarinetists’ New Year Refresh
- The Bis Key Chronicles (Jim Glass): Wood or Metal Clarinet Prediction – 1920
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:
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?
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!
Favorite blog posts, September 2022
- DoctorFlute (Angela McBrearty): How Not to Crack on Your Middle Register Notes
- Joffe Woodwinds: Orchestral Saxophone Recordings
- The Flute View (Chelsea Tanner): A Mindset Coach’s Perspective on Performance Anxiety
Recital videos, August 2022
Favorite blog posts, July 2022
- International Clarinet Association (Aleah Fitzwater): The Rise and Fall of the Metal Clarinet: A Brief History
- Joan Martí-Frasquier (saxophone): 15 More Works for Baritone Saxophone
- Just Flutes Blog (Chris Hankin): Top Five Books on Extended Technique
- Jenny Maclay (clarinet): How to achieve delicate attacks on clarinet
What to listen for (or ignore) in cane vs. synthetic reed comparisons
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.)