Favorite blog posts, May 2018

  • Flutist Jolene Madewell improves her articulation with understanding of how the tongue moves.
  • Patty Mitchell discusses the oboe and getting into college.
  • David Pierce gives brief summaries of some books on bassoon reedmaking.
  • Saxophonist James Barger explains a method of vibrato development using a mobile app.
  • Clarinetist Jenny Maclay is organizing a Kroepsch studies boot camp for June.
  • Nicole Riner gives piccolo advice.

Q&A: Reeds

photo, quack.a.duck

Here are some of the questions readers sent me in celebration of this blog’s 10-year anniversary. I have edited, combined, and otherwise adapted some of them but hopefully there are answers here for those of you who were kind enough to inquire.

How do you (or how do you help a student) select the appropriate hardness of reed?

This is a careful balancing act and involves tradeoffs. In general a too-soft reed causes pitch instability (tending toward flatness), good piano response but limited forte range, improved low-register response but weak upper register, and a thin and/or bright tone. A too-hard reed usually has poor piano response, a more resistant low register, and a stuffy or labored tone.

I find that many reed players use reeds that are too stiff, perhaps due to the strange but pervasive idea of “moving up” in reed strength as a rite of passage or indicator of skill.

Also: with clarinet and saxophone, reed strength is (a) inconsistent between brands and (b) tied very closely to the characteristics of the mouthpiece, so it’s not especially useful to make broad recommendations (“beginners should start on a 2½…”). It’s entirely likely that two clarinetists playing different mouthpieces might need dramatically different reed strengths.

How can I obtain better than mass produced double reeds for my beginning oboe and bassoon students? Do you have any tips on how to learn to improve already made reeds, store bought or otherwise?

Absolutely double reed players should, if at all possible, work with private teachers for this very reason. The ideal scenario is for a private teacher to make and continually adjust reeds for beginning double reed players. An alternative might be to connect with nearby symphony players, professors or graduate students, military musicians, or other nearby double reeders who might be willing to sell reeds (face-to-face, so adjustments can be made) or do occasional reed classes or adjustment sessions.

Improving/adjusting reeds involves some specialized skills, one of which is playing the instrument at a high level. Reed adjustment is an iterative process of making a small change and then testing, small change and test, small change and test. If you can’t play the instrument well, then reed adjustment is shooting in the dark.

One possible exception is that minor changes to bassoon reed wires are basically reversible, so there may be some room to experiment with that. I won’t get specific here as wire adjustments have been dealt with in detail by many previous authors, but careful, small adjustments can potentially improve response in various registers, pitch, and tone.

Thanks for your questions, and good luck with your reeds!

More 10-year anniversary Q&A

Saxophone low notes

The saxophone’s lowest notes can be notoriously unresponsive. This is partly due to the instrument’s acoustics, particularly its fairly extreme conical bore. (For technical details, see for example Acoustics of Musical Instruments by Chaigne and Kergomard, section The oboe and bassoon, whose bores are conical but not to such an extreme, have this problem to a lesser extent, and the tips that follow apply to those instruments as well.

For the best chance at successful low notes you need:

  • A well-adjusted, high-quality instrument. Even a small leak anywhere on the saxophone makes the lowest notes more difficult. And the best-designed and most meticulously-made instruments help to minimize the difficulties of the low range.
  • A good mouthpiece and reed combination. This may involve tradeoffs: a mouthpiece/reed combination that really improves the low register may, for example, make the highest notes more difficult. Since mouthpieces and reeds vary in so many ways it’s hard to make reliable generalizations, but often I find that a wider tip opening with a softer reed tend to favor the low register more (and the high register less).
  • Good, stable fundamentals of saxophone technique. Breath support, voicing, articulation, and embouchure (let’s include jaw position in embouchure here) should be properly set, and shouldn’t change for the low register. If you find that you need to increase breath support, lower your voicing, change your embouchure or tonguing, or open your jaw to make the low notes succeed, then you should probably already be doing those things, in every register. Don’t make the low notes even harder by creating a moving target.

To expand on that last point a little, if you find that your low notes need a little extra help, then a small alteration to your voicing is the right way to provide it. But know the tradeoffs: lowering your voicing as you approach the low register affects pitch and tone, besides creating instability in your tone production technique. Manage these concerns by aiming for the smallest possible change.

Practice smart. No shortcuts!

Review: D’Addario Reserve alto saxophone mouthpieces

If you have read my reviews of the D’Addario clarinet and jazz alto and tenor saxophone mouthpieces, you won’t be surprised to learn that I’m a big fan of their new classical alto saxophone mouthpiece, too. (As with the last several reviews, D’Addario sent me some mouthpieces at no cost, with the possibility but not the promise of a review.)

I’ve been hammering on one point with all the D’Addario mouthpieces, but it’s worth bringing up again because it’s an important innovation in how mouthpieces are made and bought. D’Addario’s manufacturing process (precisely milling mouthpieces from solid rod rubber) produces mouthpieces that are extremely consistent, much more so than other mass-produced professional mouthpieces, which are generally finished a little by hand. The old system is that you try out a bunch of mouthpieces that are the same make and model (by going into a store or putting a big deposit on your credit card), and pick out the one that plays best. The new system is that you order a D’Addario mouthpiece from your favorite retailer, and know that it plays just like all the others. This is a game-changing development in the sub-$200 mouthpiece market.

And, of course, like the other mouthpieces in D’Addario’s lineup, the new Reserve alto mouthpiece plays great.

I’ve been playing on a Vandoren Optimum AL3 for the last 8 or 9 years (and used an AL4 for a few years before that). What I like about the Optimum is that it’s very easy to play, with good response in all registers, good dynamic range, a lot of stability (so pitch and tone are very consistent, without much effort from the player), and tone that tends toward a warm, almost muted quality (in a good way). It’s a mouthpiece for a 21st-century classical saxophone player.

The D’Addario mouthpiece has these same qualities, with some subtle but important improvements. When I started playing on the AL4 I liked its richness of tone, but ultimately decided I needed to sacrifice that a little to embrace the AL3’s superior high register. The D’Addario Reserve does an impressive job of blending those qualities, and even improving upon both.

In particular, I have been impressed with scalar movement in the altissimo register, which on my Vandoren mouthpieces could be just a little lumpy as I crossed from one partial to another. The D’Addario mouthpieces make this feel really smooth, effortless, and secure.

I have been using mostly D’Addario Reserve reeds for classical saxophone playing, and with my Vandoren mouthpieces I sometimes wished I could get a reed strength between 2.5 and 3.0. I did hope that switching to the D’Addario mouthpiece would eliminate that need, but after trying them I still feel like a 2.5+ would be a useful option. (D’Addario does make some “plus” reeds, such as the Reserve alto saxophone 3.0+.) If I have one complaint about the Reserve mouthpiece, it’s that I don’t get quite the ease of low-register response I would like with the 3.0 reed. A 2.5 helps that but plays a little brighter than I want.

The Reserve mouthpiece comes in three flavors at the moment: D145 (1.45mm tip/medium facing), D150 (1.50mm tip/medium-long facing), and D155 (1.50mm tip/medium facing—yes, it is the same tip opening as the D150). The mouthpiece has what D’Addario touts as a “unique oval inner chamber.”

I’m really quite impressed with all three of the Reserve options, and not 100% settled yet on which will be my go-to. But I recently used the D150 (with a Reserve 3.0 reed) for a concerto performance with band that involved some double tonguing and plenty of altissimo. The D150/3.0 setup worked well for that situation—just the right amount of resistance to make the double-tonguing comfortable and easy, good security in the altissimo, and enough guts to be heard over the band without getting spread or edgy.

Here’s a quick comparison between the D’Addario Reserve D150 and the Vandoren Optimum AL3. I’m using the same ligature and reed in both clips.

D’Addario Reserve D150:

Vandoren Optimum AL3:

To my ear, the D’Addario has a richer, fuller, and more even sound, and also responds better to dynamic changes.

So far D’Addario is scoring 100% with me on their mouthpieces: each new mouthpiece they have released has replaced my former setups (clarinet, jazz alto, jazz tenor, and now classical alto). I look forward to whatever is next.

ReedCast™ scientific reed forecasts on Alexa

I was hoping to announce this a week ago, on the anniversary of the ReedCast™’s debut, April 1, 2015,but things got a little delayed. Anyway, you can now get your guaranteed-accurate, highly scientific ReedCast™ on your Alexa device. Check it out!

You can, of course, still get your classic ReedCast™ on the web.

Favorite blog posts, February 2018

Favorite blog posts, January 2018

Just a few to share this month:

Review: “Double Troubles” by Paul Saunders

A few months ago I wrote a review of So You Want to Play in Shows…?, a book of woodwind doubling etudes by Paul Saunders. Recently Paul sent me Double Troublesa new collection of etudes. Like So You Want, the new volume includes a piano part plus access to downloadable backing tracks. As I said in the previous review:

This is an elegant solution to one of the problems of woodwind doubling etudes: how do you enforce quick instrument switches? … Saunders’s book, used with the recordings, provides a simple way to work out quick switches alone in a practice room.

Like in the previous book, these etudes are musically interesting and in styles typical of contemporary musical theater. Double Troubles is overall somewhat more challenging, including some saxophone altissimo and flute third octave up to C (though most of the extreme high register playing on both instruments is marked as optional—Paul clarified to me that the upper register is preferable, and the optional 8vbs are to make the etudes more approachable if needed). The book also incorporates soprano and tenor saxophones on some etudes, in addition to the flute/clarinet/alto used in the first book.

Two of the etudes are by guest composers, Darren Lord and Jennifer Whyte. Here’s a quick-and-dirty demo of the tune “Disco Nap,” which is Darren Lord’s contribution:

I had fun playing through these, and recommend Paul’s doubling etude books as one of the best sources of practice material for the flute/clarinet/saxophone doubler.

Favorite blog posts, December 2017

Favorite blog posts, November 2017