- Steve Neff Music Blog: The Best Saxophone Embouchure: Where’s that Bottom Lip?
- Jazz-Sax.Com: Pedalboard 4.0
- ProneOboe (Jennet Ingle): When to Cheat
- Jenny Maclay (clarinet): Should you take a practice break? and 21 Clarinet Compositions from the 21st Century
Can you use a wind controller, like the Akai EWI, the Yamaha WX, or the Roland Aerophone, as a convenient and/or quiet way to practice a “real” woodwind instrument, like the saxophone or the flute?
No, not really.
You can practice some very limited aspects of woodwind playing. For example, each of those wind controllers has fingering patterns that resemble (but are not identical to) the fingerings of standard woodwinds. If you are in the very early stages of playing a woodwind instrument and still trying to memorize fingerings, I suppose you could use a wind controller to help you with that specific task, to the extent that the fingerings do match.
The Akai instruments have saxophone, flute, and oboe modes, plus the more flexible “EWI” mode that is quite saxophone-like, and even a couple of variations of a valved-brass-inspired mode. The Yamaha WX5 has several saxophone modes and a flute mode. The Roland instruments are set up to map fairly directly to saxophone fingerings, even going so far as to include some of the saxophone’s more problematic features like “palm” keys. However, with that exception, none even have all the keys needed to learn proper saxophone, flute, or oboe technique.
(None of the instruments currently has a clarinet mode, presumably because the real-clarinet phenomenon of overblowing to odd-numbered partials raises some complications for an electronic instrument capable of many octaves of range. And none of the instruments has the physical keys to reasonably approximate bassoon technique.)
Plus, in all cases, including the Rolands, none of them can fully imitate the “feel” of a standard woodwind. Beyond the very basic stage of learning fingering patterns, much of the fingering work that woodwind players practice has to do with nuances of the fingers’ interactions with the keys. Even switching from one flute to a slightly different model of flute can mean having to re-adapt to the keys’ precise locations, spring tensions, etc. Switching between a flute and a wind controller is a much larger leap.
And, of course, no major wind controller currently provides a realistic approach to tone production. None has a reed that functions as such, and none has a flute-like embouchure hole. There are some superficial similarities like breath pressure being mapped to volume, or a bite-able mouthpiece that allows for something like saxophone-style jaw vibrato (or to the ill-advised reed instrument technique of bending pitch with jaw movement).
So, can you practice on it? Not really.
But the good news is that wind controllers (particularly, in my opinion, the Akai EWIs) have lots of potential as instruments in their own right. (If you aren’t familiar, look no farther than Michael Brecker’s playing for an eye-opener.)
Rather than looking at wind controllers as a “practice” instrument or a low-budget stand-in, consider a wind controller to be an additional avenue for expression. Playing it well requires just as much hard work, but also brings worthwhile creative rewards.
- International Clarinet Association (Nora-Louise Müller): The Bohlen-Pierce Clarinet: Exploring a New Tonality
The Flute View (Leighann Daihl Ragusa): Developing Your Ornamental Toolbox
- Jenny Maclay: The Musician’s Guide to Studying Abroad: How to Turn Your Dreams Into Reality
- Recorder Jen (Jennifer Mackerras): How you breathe in is vital to a good recorder tone
- Dr. Pierce’s Bassoon Studio: A stand for an EWI
- Nicole Riner, flutist: A graded list of flute etude books available on Petrucci: college level
This year I played all jazz at my Delta State University faculty recital. Program and some selected videos are below.
I’m very much a part-time jazz player, so it was fun to spend the summer trying to get my chops in shape to play tunes in a variety of styles on a variety of instruments. This was my new record for number of instruments on a recital: flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon (electric bassoon), soprano/alto/tenor saxophones, and EWI, 9 in all. I’ve written previously about the challenges of improvising on multiple instruments, which I suspect might be surprising to non-doublers or non-improvisers.
An additional challenge is that I live in a small town in an isolated area, so I had to bring in some rhythm section players from out of town and rehearsal time was extremely limited. Enjoy the videos warts and all.
I have previously done some things with bassoon and electronics, but I took that to a new level this time around with a Little Jake pickup and a few new effects pedals. This was lots of fun and I’m already brainstorming how I can use the Little Jake with some other instruments.
- Saxophonist Steve Neff explores the “holy grail” mindset with regard to mouthpieces.
- Flutist Nicole Riner offers tips on making a living as a freelancer.
- John Isley discusses finding a personal voice on wind controller.
- Oboist Jennet Ingle discusses integrity in musical interpretation. (Note: also some political content.) Jennet’s new video series on reedmaking is also worth checking out.
- Clarinetist Jenny Maclay shares a method for transitioning back into serious practicing after summer vacation.
- Kristopher King shares an interesting bassoon museum piece.
- Erin Nichols shows off acoustic paneling made especially for flute playing.
There are a few stands commercially available for the Akai EWI, and lots of folks have made their own or repurposed other items. I wanted one that was inexpensive and compatible with the Hercules stands I mostly use these days, and decided to try the DIY route. I came up with something workable but not perfect, so I’m sharing my finished project in case anyone is inspired to improve upon my design (please share!).
I built mine mostly from 3″ (~7.5cm) plumbing pipe and fittings. (I’m including some product links in case they are helpful, but mostly I was able to buy these things locally for much cheaper.)
It’s more stable than it looks, even on this small Hercules base, because its center of gravity is so low. The end cap and elbow are heavier PVC while the taller part is made of lighter foam core pipe. As always, don’t leave instruments on stands any farther than you can sprint to catch them falling over.
Things I like about the stand:
- It was cheap and not hard to make. The worst of it was cutting and shaping the foam core pipe, and someone with cooler tools than I have could probably make quick and accurate work of it.
- Does work with the Hercules stands I already have. If you can figure out what bolt thread to use, you could easily adapt this to other commercial stand bases.
- The instrument just rests in the stand, no clips or straps to unhook. Plus the whole upper key “stack” is exposed 360°, so the EWI is easy to grab even during a quick instrument switch.
- No interference with any of the power/line/MIDI jacks.
Things that I don’t especially like:
- On the 3-peg Hercules base shown, the stand has to be oriented as shown to stand up properly, which puts the EWI a little bit in the way of using other pegs on the stand. It works better on one of the larger Hercules stands, like the saxophone or bass clarinet stands.
- Since the stand isn’t symmetrical like a typical flute/clarinet peg (because it leans 22.5°), it doesn’t always work to just screw it all the way into the base—it may end up leaning in an inconvenient or unstable direction. The nut helps lock it in place when it’s leaning the right way, but it’s fussy and not as secure as I would like (the stand tends to rotate a little if I bump it wrong).
- It’s pretty chunky. I made a previous attempt to build this from 2″ pipe, which would work okay except that the EWI’s side keys protrude too much. (I did consider sticking with the 2″ pipe and making little cutaways for the keys, which could still be a possibility.)
- The plastic-specific spray paint I used didn’t turn out well. I had trouble getting an attractive finish, and the paint tends to scratch off without too much effort. I’m not sure if the paint just isn’t well suited to these specific plastics, or if maybe it’s because I applied it in the extreme humidity of a Mississippi summer.
Anyway, this is a usable though imperfect design, and may be a jumping-off point for future versions by me or you.
To be fair, I haven’t tried out the new electronic wind instrument from Roland, and probably won’t bother. (Unless you’re out there, Roland, and want to send me a review unit to change my mind?)
Don’t get me wrong: it’s great to see another company get into this space, and I hope they will seek to innovate further in wind controllers and push other companies (Akai, Yamaha) to do the same. But Roland’s new Aerophone AE-10 seems like a misstep.
Much of the promotional material gushes about how “innovative” the instrument is, but there doesn’t seem to be much to support this claim—it is essentially a very similar instrument to the Akai EWI series or Yamaha WX series, both of which have been around for decades. In implementation and marketing, it really reminds me more of the Casio DH—a novelty for casual playing, not a serious instrument in its own right.
Roland brags about the familiarity of the AE-10’s fingering system: “most digital horns make you master a new fingering system, which can be a major setback…” This positions the instrument as a toy: something saxophonists can pick up and play immediately without having to pay any additional dues. This unfortunately seems to be embedded in the philosophy of the AE-10’s fingering system: fully embracing the limitations of a real saxophone, while missing an opportunity to solidify wind controllers as viable instruments in their own right.
The AE-10’s faithfulness to “real” saxophone fingerings extends to, for example, palm keys. Why do saxophones have palm keys? Certainly not for agility or comfort—palm keys are a significant technical issue for saxophonists. They are Sax’s 1840s solution to the problem of needing to locate tone holes at certain places on the instrument’s body. An electronic instrument has no such constraints: the keys can be literally anywhere on the instrument. (The Akai EWI series does a better job of balancing familiarity with innovation.)
Additionally, the keys appear to move, and to do so in a rather noisy, clicky way. I don’t expect the noise is enough to really be a problem in an amplified situation, but it seems cheap and sloppy—not up to the standards a professional woodwind player demands. (And it strikes me as a very fixable problem on Roland’s end.) Beyond that, I’m not sure that moving keys really make much sense on this kind of instrument. I find the Akai EWI’s motionless keys to be very comfortable and intuitive, similar in touch to playing a recorder or simple-system flute. It’s a very free, agile feeling compared to the relatively clunky mechanisms of a keyed instrument. Why unnecessarily introduce moving parts?
Also from Roland’s website: “There’s nothing worse than a studio session grinding to a halt because you need an instrument that you haven’t brought along. That won’t happen with the Roland Aerophone AE-10, which gives you a variety of additional acoustic instrument sounds like clarinet, flute, oboe, trumpet, violin, and more…” I suppose the AE-10 is being marketed here toward unprofessional studio musicians, who happen to be working on low-quality projects that will tolerate substitution of a synthesized sound when the musician fails to bring the needed instruments?
Speaking of which, most of Roland’s promotional materials surrounding the AE-10 seem to focus on its sounds that imitate “real” instruments (“Choose from alto, tenor, soprano, and baritone sax types that all respond just like their acoustic counterparts…”). But the videos are unconvincing. The saxophone sounds, as usual for an electronic instrument, seem especially unsatisfying—a poor choice for a product that seems to be aimed at the saxophonist market. (My preference is to use wind controllers for “synthy” sounds rather than imitative ones, and the AE-10 does seem to include some.)
The AE-10 does boast some nice but ultimately minor features that I wouldn’t mind having on my Akai:
- Fingerings are, to some extent, user-programmable (though still not as flexible as the Akai’s EWI fingering mode).
- An onboard speaker, which seems convenient for practicing. (Roland doesn’t pretend it is usable in a performance situation.)
- A line-in jack, again probably useful mostly for practicing.
- A number of handy user-customization settings.
- It comes with a case.
- The “Brass section” setting makes it easy to layer sounds.
- The “Full range” setting automatically switches to different saxophone sounds depending on tessitura. I was unable to determine whether this setting is specific to the saxophone sounds, or whether it is programmable. Could be handy to have several sounds on tap depending on the octave.
The AE-10 seems to be priced in roughly the same ballpark as the Akai 4000S/5000 and Yamaha WX5. (Bear in mind that the Yamaha requires an external sound module at extra cost, while the Akai and Roland have some sounds on board.) My take: spend your money elsewhere.
Lately I have been enjoying Sal Lozano‘s recent CD, Everything’s Gonna Be Great (available from CD Baby and iTunes). The album is 13 charts by Tom Kubis for 5-piece saxophone section with rhythm section, and Sal plays all five of the saxophone parts. It’s a lot of fun, Sal sounds great, and there’s an all-star lineup of guest soloists.
Even if you don’t know Sal Lozano’s name, you have almost certainly heard him play saxophone and woodwinds. He has recorded with artists ranging from Paul McCartney to Stevie Wonder to Christina Aguilera to Mel Tormé, played on movie scores for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and National Treasure, and performed in TV orchestras for the Academy Awards, the Emmy Awards, the Grammy Awards, American Idol, and Dancing with the Stars, among many, many other projects. He plays in Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, which just picked up another four Grammy nominations to add to an already-impressive list. (Also check out my interview with Big Phat Band saxophonist Jay Mason.) Sal also teaches at California State University, Long Beach, is a clinician for Disneyland music education programs, and is available for masterclasses and clinics.
Sal is very generous with his time and expertise, and was kind enough to answer some questions about his work and his new album. (He also asked me to let my readers know that they are welcome to contact him.)
What you do for a living?
“I’m a sax player.” That’s what I say to anyone who asks. I also teach saxophone at the university level. Just private students, about six, which has paid for my daughters’ education.
What education (formal or otherwise) and experience prepared you for the work you do?
I studied at California State University, Long Beach as a performance major on saxophone. Four years of private lessons with Leo Potts. Prior to that I studied with Greg Adams at a music education studio owned by Gary Foster. After college I studied flute with John Barcelona and Jim Walker (he kicked my butt). Then clarinet with Jim Kanter. I also have enjoyed playing in ensembles for many many years which is just as much a learning experience as any teaching I’ve had. I also started playing at Disneyland when I was 19 and that was a great learning experience. Too much to talk about now.
If you could do it over, is there anything you would have done differently to prepare for your current career?
Interesting. (This is my third rewrite of this question.) I’m not sure I knew of a plan then. I just wanted to play. Having said that, I wish I could have learned a little more theory and harmony, but maybe things happen for a reason.
What is a typical work week like for you?
Long tones. Oh… work? It’s all “maybe…” Maybe a recording or two (motion picture, TV show, CD recording, etc.), or if I’m doing theater my nights are busy with that (usually six nights a week if I happen to have a theater run). Teach on Friday. Perhaps a concert with the Phat Band, which is mostly out of town. That band is a lot of fun and travels well. Sometimes weeks can be very busy and some are sporadic. However, I try to do something musical every day.
What projects are you excited about right now?
I have the new CD out and have been getting great response. I am hoping to put out a playalong book based on the tunes on the CD. In April I will be on a solo tour in Japan playing with several local big bands. I’m also in the orchestra for the Oscars so things are great right now.
What instruments do you consider part of your current professional toolbox?
I play all the saxes, flutes, clarinets, whistles, ethnic flutes, and the EWI.
Are there others you are working on or would like to add at some point?
I was asked to play the ocarina last year on a Robbie Williams CD so I learned that. This year I’m on a project where I’m playing a bamboo sax from Argentina. Another calls for the shakuhachi flute so I may learn that.
Do you self-identify as a “doubler?” A saxophonist who doubles? Something else? Is it your intention to play all your instruments equally well, or are there one or more that you would prefer to focus on?
I’ll answer these in order: no, no, yes, and all equally well. To explain, I consider myself a woodwind player (I know, I don’t play double reeds, I tried and said “no”). When I pick up the sax, I’m a sax player; flute? a flute player, etc. That’s the attitude I’ve taken when approaching these instruments. I dive into the deep end when playing these because most of the time I’m sitting next to great players who only play flute, clarinet, oboe, etc. Many remarkable players.
What kinds of teaching/educational activities are you involved with?
I teach at California State University, Long Beach, which is a four-year university, teaching private saxophone lessons. For about 23 years I also have been a clinician for a program at Disneyland called Disney Performing Arts where we take students through a 1½ hour recording session, reading music written for that level and recording a soundtrack of a short clip of a Disney animated motion picture. We use a click track and everything that is involved with recording. Great program because the students react quickly when they hear themselves on the soundtrack. It turns out that they fix problems quickly. I also enjoy very much going across the country and playing with music schools of any type. Clinics, masterclasses, etc. I really get a kick out of that and would like to do more.
What is the best part of your job? What is the worst part?
The best part is playing music. Doing something I love to do. Hanging and playing with great players and writers and the joy of watching a student excel and succeed. Not sure if there is a worst part because I really enjoy it.
Do you have time for other interests, hobbies, etc.?
Oh yes. MLB baseball. College hoops.
Your new album is in sort of a Supersax vein, with a big-band-style saxophone section playing with rhythm section and guest soloists, but you recorded all the saxophone section parts yourself. How does that process compare to recording section parts with other saxophonists?
Well, first of all, I didn’t have to tell anyone in the section where to breathe and how to phrase. No one shows up late or has to leave early. I don’t have to tell the second alto he’s playing too loud. Tom Kubis told me he had written these charts and wanted to record them with the guys in the big band. I told him that I would record all the parts, and that was it. It is really fun to play in a section, or play chamber music where you have to listen and react.
Marshal is one of my idols and heroes. I had the honor of sitting next to him with the Ray Anthony big band and he still commanded a lead alto presence in his mid- to late 70’s. He was the first guy I heard way back in junior high school and I was hooked. I’m a huge Basie fan and collect bootleg recordings from the 50’s of that band with Marshal playing lead. Great sound, great time. Jerome was a great influence while he was with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band, especially on soprano. There is a huge list of lead alto players I love. The list is quite extensive and it wouldn’t be right to start to list because I can’t think of all of them. They all have this confidence in their sound, the way they go from one note to the next, in many, many styles, not just traditional big band.
Some of the charts on the album use the “standard” alto/alto/tenor/tenor/baritone saxophone section, but some use the less-common soprano lead. Any thoughts on soprano vs. alto as lead instruments? Other than paying dues on the horn, are there any other special considerations when you play lead soprano?
To me? Soprano saxophone requires a hard reed and a slightly open mouthpiece. Mine is an old S80 Selmer E with #3 traditional Vandoren reeds. I need to have the resistance to help me get from one note to the next and hold the pitch and sound I want. I’m not going to change this setup, only the reed. This goes for any playing situation. I most certainly put more air into lead alto playing than I do soprano.
Although the album seems to feature you primarily as a section player, you do take some nice solos, including one on flute. Are you as comfortable improvising on your doubles as you are on saxophone? I think a lot of doublers (myself included) really learn to improvise on the saxophone, and then discover that the vocabulary and fluency don’t automatically transfer.
I would suggest learning technical patterns on the other instruments as you would with saxophone. However, my overall objective is to play flute and clarinet with more of a “classical” approach, so I have had to catch up when improvising on those instruments. Listening to great jazz flute and clarinet players as much as I have listened to “classical” players is quite helpful. I have to remember that each of these instruments requires its own discipline, which is why I don’t consider them “doubles.” It just doesn’t work that way for me.
Any other behind-the-scenes information about the album that you would like to share?
For this project we started with bass and drums and a scratch lead alto/soprano part. Then, the following week, I sat down and played the parts, which took two six-hour days to play 13 charts playing all five parts on each. Eventually we added soloists, guitar, percussion, and piano.
What advice would you give to aspiring musicians who want to do the kind of work you do?
Practice everything, learn to write, arrange, play the piano, enjoy what you do, get into teaching once you feel comfortable in your playing. With the computer age, ProTools or other recording software makes it very easy to record anywhere.
So, with that comes a responsibility to music. Practicing scales with a metronome, playing long tones with a tuner. The reason is that these recording techniques require us to play along with instruments that are fixed pitched. Record yourself using GarageBand on a Mac or the PC equivalent and it will become apparent. [Ed. note: Audacity is one free, basic recording program for Windows or Linux computers.]
Play in every situation you possibly can, listen to music. A lot. To anything.
Do you have any favorite woodwind doubling (or general woodwind-playing) tips?
One thing I began to realize when studying was that the approach to putting air into these instruments grew to be similar. How I phrased and how I went from one note to the next and playing everything between the notes sort of became the same to me. Obviously embouchure is different but the air thing became the same.
Get a great mouthpiece/reed combination as soon as you can. Look for a decent flute or maybe a head-joint. Ask around, try out everything.
As you play keep in mind four things:
- When you read music, the second time you see it you are no longer sightreading.
- Always look for beat one.
Thanks, Sal, for the music and for taking some time to share a bit of your experience and expertise!
I gave a presentation at the International Clarinet Association conference (“ClarinetFest”) last week on woodwind doubling, with a particular focus on the rising expectations on woodwind doublers to play more instruments at a higher level (including “world” and even electronic woodwinds). Here is the blurb from the program:
The typical working woodwind doubler in the 20th century was a strong player on one or two instruments, with a lesser level of achievement on one or two more. Woodwind doubling continues to be a marketable skill in live performance and studio work, but the expectations of woodwind doublers have changed with the music industry; 21st century “doublers” may be expected to play a much larger group of instruments (sometimes including “world” woodwinds and electronic instruments), and to play each of those at a more virtuosic level and in a variety of styles. This places increasingly high demands on woodwind players, but also offers a variety of rewards. This presentation profiles the modern woodwind doubler, and includes practical information for developing valuable doubling skills.
Here is the handout: The 21st century woodwind doubler
Victor Chavez from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville did a brief write-up on the ClarinetFest blog.
The crowd, as usual, was small but enthusiastic. I got to reconnect with some old doubler friends and meet some new ones. I was gratified to have many of them mention that they follow this blog (hello!) or make use of other resources on this site.
I understand there are several doubling-related events going on at the International Double Reed Society conference this week, as well!
- David Wells has updated his excellent bassoon fingering charts.
- Oboist Cooper Wright discusses shaper tip widths.
- Clarinetist Victoria Soames Samek suggests there are better options than just circling problem notes in your sheet music.
- Bassoonist Kristopher King explains the usage of the little finger whisper key. (Warning: auto-plays music. If you have a website, don’t do that.)
- John Witt reports on the Carolyn Hove English Horn Masterclasses, days 1 and 2 and days 3 and 4.
- Bassoonist Betsy Sturdevant warns about carrying musical instruments onto airplanes.
- Jennifer Cluff offers tips for cleaning a flute (spoiler alert: she suggests letting a professional do it).
- On the WindWorks Design blog, J. D. Smith shares a do-it-yourself modification for the Yamaha WX5 wind controller.
- Christa Garvey does some facial stretches for a tired oboe embouchure.
- Bassoon professor Christin Schillinger offers advice for musicians choosing a college.
- Saxophonist Anton Schwartz recommends “back-chaining” as a practice technique.
- Oboist Patty Mitchell muses on her choice to be a musician.