Favorite blog posts, February 2019

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

Switching between saxophones

"saxophone" by gudka is licensed under CC BY

If you are an alto saxophone player and pick up a tenor or baritone for the first time, it’s pretty common to have a thin, weak tone, to be on the sharp side, to struggle with low note response, and to have issues like the top-of-the-staff G and G-sharp squeaking.

If you are a tenor player having your first alto experience, or an alto or tenor player newly picking up soprano, you might find that your tone is tubby, your pitch unstable and tending toward flatness, and your palm key notes unreliable.

There are a couple of key things to check as you make the switch from one saxophone to another:

  1. How much mouthpiece you are taking in. I like this trick as a starting point for finding the correct position: gently insert a piece of paper between the mouthpiece and reed. The point where the paper stops is approximately the place where your lip should contact the reed.
  2. Voicing. The best way to check this on saxophones is by playing a note on the mouthpiece alone. These are the concert pitches you should produce: If you aren’t producing these pitches, adjust by blowing warmer air to lower the pitch, or cooler air to raise it. Don’t adjust by biting or by shifting the mouthpiece in your embouchure. (It takes some practice.)

Getting mouthpiece position and voicing right for each saxophone helps you achieve good tone, pitch, and response no matter which you are playing. If you are actively playing multiple saxophones, check both of these things on each instrument as part of your daily warmup, and then follow up with overtone exercises and full-range scales and arpeggios. On a gig, I find it helpful to be conscious of mouthpiece position and voicing as I put one saxophone down and pick up another.

Happy practicing!

FAQ: Ligatures

"My New Ligature" by Jordan Hoskins is licensed under CC BY-ND

These are questions I am often asked about clarinet or saxophone ligatures, by blog readers or by my students.

  • Is there a ligature that can accomplish _____ for me? If you are looking for something to hold the reed onto the mouthpiece, then yes. If you are hoping to achieve something loftier, then probably not.
  • Should I get one of the rigid (usually metal) kinds, or one of the soft (usually some leather-ish synthetic) kinds? The very cheapest options are usually metal, and they generally work fine. If they are of especially low quality, they might break quickly, or scratch your mouthpiece or dig into your reed. The soft ones are a little more expensive, but have the advantages of (a) better gripping an oddly-shaped mouthpiece or reed and (b) surviving being stepped on.
  • What about a fancy one, with jewelry metals or cryogenic treatment or inset “tone jewels” or some other expensive gimmick? Won’t those make me sound better? This is extremely doubtful. There’s a possibility that you will sound a little different inside your own head, and that might make you play a little differently. Or that platinum plating (or just having spent a lot of money) will increase your confidence. But it’s very  questionable that the ligature has some inherent sound quality that your audience can hear, unless you plan to hit it with a drumstick. Remember that in some parts of the world, top orchestral clarinetists use shoelaces. (I heard a story of one of these clarinetists being asked what kind of shoelace he used. His response: “Black.”) If you are deeply invested in the idea that a ligature needs to be fancy or expensive, Michael Lowenstern has a video you might find enlightening.
  • But doesn’t a ligature affect the reed’s vibrations? The vibrate-y part of the reed is the thinner part, away from the ligature.
  • Should I use the kind with one or two screws? What about those ones with no screws? Any number of screws is fine, as long as it holds the reed on the mouthpiece.
  • Should I get the kind where the screws go on top of the mouthpiece or underneath? I really cannot emphasize enough the unimportance of the screw situation.
  • How tight should my ligature be? Tight enough to hold the reed securely in place.
  • How far back or forward should I put the ligature? You could try some different positions and see if one feels better to you. Some mouthpieces have a line on them to suggest where the ligature should go. You are not obligated to follow this guideline, but if you are having difficulty deciding where your ligature should go then I suggest using this as a starting point.

If you would like to purchase something that will improve your tone quality or your articulation or whatever, I recommend getting some recordings of very fine clarinetists and some lessons with an excellent teacher. Enjoy!

How to get 10 good reeds from a box

photo, alyak
  1. If you are getting less than 80% playable clarinet or saxophone reeds from the boxes you are currently buying, buy different ones.
  2. Be realistic about strengths. If you are only getting 2-3 good reeds out of a box, you aren’t just being “choosy.” You are probably playing on reeds that are too resistant, and those 2-3 are the softer ones. Let go of the nonsensical old myth that better players play stiffer reeds. If you are getting less than 80% “good” reeds from a box, try moving down (or, in rarer cases, up) a half strength.
  3. Update your shopping list. There are many, many available reed options! Clarinet and saxophone players used to be stuck with the few brands available at nearby music stores. Now there are more brands, shipped anywhere in the world, probably for cheaper than buying at your local store. Don’t let a misplaced sense of brand loyalty or tradition keep you putting good money into bad reeds.
  4. Skip the sandpaper, mostly. If you are buying reeds that actually work for you, you won’t have to do more than a few minutes’ worth of adjustment over the reed’s useful lifetime. The available variety of cuts and profiles is staggering. And modern reed companies can shape reed vamps with very good consistency and accuracy.

A brand that genuinely makes clarinet or saxophone reeds with less than 80% success doesn’t deserve your repeat business. But there’s a strong chance you have simply mismatched the reeds to your mouthpiece and playing requirements. Keep searching!

Favorite blog posts, September 2018

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.

Recording: Claude T. Smith Suite with Delta State Wind Ensemble

A few months ago I got to perform Claude T. Smith’s Suite for Solo Flute, Clarinet, and Alto Saxophone with the Delta State University Wind Ensemble, conducted by Dr. Erik Richards. It’s a fun showpiece for a woodwind doubler with band, which I’ve had a few opportunities to perform over the last 10 years.

The Suite requires more-than-casual doubling on flute, clarinet, and saxophone. (Some of the altissimo in my performance isn’t in the original part.) Like most of Smith’s music, the Suite is light and appealing, with some rhythm/meter hijinks and a hint of jazz influence. Worth tackling if you’re a serious flute-clarinet-saxophone doubler and get a chance to work with a good wind ensemble.

Here’s a YouTube video (audio only) of the April 11 performance:

Favorite blog posts, June 2018

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