The problem with “ethnic” woodwinds

I mentioned in a recent post that I am trying to get away from using the term “ethnic” woodwinds, one that I have used frequently in the past as a catch-all for the instruments I play that aren’t modern Western flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, or saxophones. The term was problematic from the beginning, since, for example, I was using it to include instruments like recorders, which fall squarely under the umbrella of Western music traditions, but are arguably period or historical instruments.

Additionally, I find that the term “ethnic” increasingly grates on my ear as too ethnocentric and limited a view, and incompatible with my real attitudes concerning music from cultures and traditions other than my native ones. For example, it’s clearly not politically correct to lump non-white people or non-Americans together under the label “ethnic,” so it doesn’t seem to make sense for me to use similarly divisive and condescending language to refer to musical traditions, either.

photo, Vernon Hyde
photo, Vernon Hyde

I currently favor the term “major modern woodwinds” as an acceptable (though flawed) shorthand for all the Western orchestral woodwinds plus saxophones. But there isn’t a really accurate and culturally-sensitive way to lump together the woodwinds that don’t fall into that category. I frequently need to express verbally or in writing what instruments I play. If I am speaking to someone musically savvy, I can say that I play “woodwinds” and they will assume that I play most or all of the major modern woodwinds. They are unlikely to just assume, though, that I can also play recorders and dizi and Lakota flutes and a bunch of others, and that might be information that I want them to have.

Recently I expressed this concern on social media, and got a few interesting suggestions. “World” woodwinds came up, and is what I have adopted for now on this website, though I think ultimately it has some of the same issues as “ethnic:” aren’t my clarinets “world” instruments (and, for that matter, don’t they have ethnicity, too)? Someone else suggested “woodwinds of various cultural origins,” which I think is pretty good but too wordy to be practical. Someone else suggested that I simply list the instruments individually rather than trying to affix a single label; I think this idea has clear merit in terms of cultural sensitivity, but it does fail the practicality test.

It’s tempting to consider something clever like Pedro Eustache’s term “multidirectional flute soloist,” but, though charming, it doesn’t communicate the concept with any clarity. I have also experimented with materials-based terminology as in “wooden and bamboo flutes,” but this isn’t inclusive enough and ultimately has the same problem as the word “woodwinds” itself—wood construction isn’t what makes a woodwind a woodwind.

So for now it’s “world” woodwinds, or perhaps “woodwinds of various cultural origins” when that kind of wordiness is practicable. I welcome additional suggestions in the comments section.

Dissertation: Woodwind doubling on folk, ethnic, and period instruments in film and theater music

My doctoral dissertation is now available online through the University of Georgia library:

Woodwind doubling on folk, ethnic, and period instruments in film and theater music: Case studies and a practical manual

It was completed in 2009 so some things are already out of date. Also, lately I’m trying to steer away from the term “ethnic” instruments (“world” instruments seems slightly less problematic until I can find a better solution).

Enjoy(?).

ABSTRACT

Woodwind doubling is the practice of playing instruments from more than one woodwind family. In musical theater and film music, woodwind doublers are valuable for their ability to produce the sounds of a varied woodwind section for a fraction of the cost of hiring a specialist musician to play each instrument.

Since the 1990’s, composers and orchestrators in musical theater and film scoring have shown increased interest in instrumental sounds from outside the traditional symphony orchestra. Many have featured folk, ethnic, or period instruments as solo instruments, bringing authentic sounds to scenes set in faraway locations or historical periods, giving an exotic flair to fictional locales, or simply adding new colors to the usual palette of instrumental sounds.

Composers of film and theater scores have used ethnic woodwinds, in particular, in their scoring. To meet the demand for ethnic woodwind sounds, many prominent woodwind doublers on Broadway and in Hollywood have adopted these instruments, in addition to their usual arrays of modern Western instruments.

Eight folk, ethnic, and period woodwinds recently employed in film and theater scoring have been selected for study in this document: bamboo flutes (especially the Indian bansuri and flutes used by some flutists in Irish traditional music), the Chinese dizi, the Armenian duduk, the Native American flute, the panflutes of Romania and South America, the pennywhistle, the recorder, and the Japanese shakuhachi.

For each instrument, a representative example of use in theater or film music has been selected and transcribed from a commercial audio recording. Each transcription is discussed with emphasis on demands placed upon the ethnic woodwind musician. Additional discussion of each instrument includes suggestions for purchasing instruments, fingering charts, description of playing technique, description of instrument-specific performance practices, discussion of various sizes and/or keys of each instrument, discussion of instrument-specific notation practices, annotated bibliographies of available pedagogical materials, lists of representative recordings (including authentic ethnic music and other music), and information on relevant organizations and associations of professional or amateur musicians.

Read the full text at the UGA library website

The amazing shrinking woodwind section: increasing demands on woodwind doublers

There is a long tradition of using small orchestras in musical theater as a money- and space-saving consideration. Presumably, if budgets and orchestra pit square footages were unlimited, full symphonic orchestras would be used for theater like they are for movies, with an 8-12(+)-piece orchestral woodwind section, plus perhaps a 5-piece saxophone section. But let’s go back a few decades and examine the compromises. Here are a couple of examples:

Flower Drum Song

(from original 1958 orchestration)

  1. Piccolo, flute, alto flute
  2. Piccolo, flute
  3. Oboe, English horn
  4. Clarinet, alto saxophone
  5. Clarinet, alto saxophone
  6. Bass clarinet, tenor saxophone

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

(from original 1966 orchestration)

  1. Piccolo, flute
  2. Flute
  3. Clarinet
  4. Clarinet
  5. Bass clarinet, tenor saxophone

The Flower Drum Song orchestration uses a 6-piece woodwind section. The bassoons, sadly, are the first thing to go. The principal flutist has to double on both piccolo and alto flute, an uncommon compromise in the orchestral repertoire, where the doubling is often relegated to an auxiliary flute part to allow the principal to be at his or her soloistic best on a single instrument. (The second flutist also doubles piccolo, which is a bit more common.) Similarly, the oboist pulls double-duty as soloist on both oboe and English horn. The full clarinet section is expected to double not on auxiliary clarinets, but on saxophones.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is not quite as demanding on individual woodwind players; the first flute part does include piccolo (again, this is not typical symphonic-orchestral thinking), and the bass clarinetist doubles on saxophone. The double reed section is eliminated completely.

photo, NK Eide

Now let’s look at how these shows’ orchestrations have been revised in more recent revivals:

Flower Drum Song

(from 2002 revival orchestration)

  1. Piccolo, flute, alto flute, dizi in C, D, E-flat, F, and B, bamboo flutes in E, F, and G
  2. Flute, clarinet, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone
  3. Flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone
  4. Clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, tenor saxophone

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

(from 1999 revival orchestration)

  1. Piccolo, flute, clarinet, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, soprano recorder, kazoo

44 years later, Flower Drum Song’s woodwind section has shrunken from six musicians to four, but the number of instruments has boomed from 13 to 25. The first flutist is expected to play some “world” woodwinds in addition to an array of orchestral flutes, and the other three woodwind players each cover instruments from three or four woodwind families, with multiple members from at least one of those families.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown’s revival after 33 years drops the woodwind section from five musicians down to one. The lone woodwind player covers seven instruments from (arguably) five families: two flutes, a clarinet, two saxophones, a recorder, and a kazoo (which, despite being vaguely woodwind-like in form, is not one). As the only player of each of these instruments, this musician should expect to be prepared to sound like a convincing soloist on each.

Based on these examples and others, two trends seem to be emerging in theater orchestrations:

  1. Fewer woodwind players.
  2. More colorful orchestrations. In the case of both of these shows, the new orchestrations are not simply a slimming-down of a too-expensive woodwind section—new sounds are being introduced. In some cases these might be meant to rebalance the orchestra due to cuts in other sections, but it also seems that recent orchestrations involve creative choices tending toward a broader aural palette.

Both of these mean greater demands upon woodwind players. 21st-century woodwind players need to be able to play a greater number of instruments, from a pool no longer limited to the orchestral woodwinds and saxophones, at a soloist level on each instrument. The common 20th-century clarinet/saxophone or flute/clarinet/saxophone doubler may find him- or herself less employable than in previous years, and less able to hide in the section on a weaker double. Double reeds are a must, and so are auxiliary instruments (piccolo, larger flutes, English horn, clarinets and saxophones of any size) and world or historical woodwinds.

As the number of woodwind chairs shrinks and the standards of musicianship and versatility rise, the specialist and the jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none will both be out of a job, and the rare jack-of-all-trades-master-of-each will become an increasingly hot property.

Irish flute/whistle ornamentation symbols à la Grey Larsen, in Lilypond

If you are nerdy/awesome enough to be into (1) the pedagogy of Irish traditional woodwind playing and (2) open-source text-based music notation software, then you may want to check out my set of symbols for Lilypond, based on the excellent ornamentation system by Grey Larsen. You can get the .ily file on GitHub (and submit your pull requests to make improvements to my code).

Cuts, strikes, rolls, cranns, etc.
Cuts, strikes, slides, rolls, cranns, etc.

If you are unfamiliar with Mr. Larsen’s system and you play pennywhistles or wooden flutes, then really I must insist that you buy a copy of his The Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle immediately—his ornamentation system is clear and logical and should be regarded as the standard for teaching and learning Irish-traditional ornamentation for wind instruments.

If you are unfamiliar with Lilypond, chances are good that you won’t like it even though it’s free and produces much better notation than the software you already spent several hundred dollars on.

Also, it’s worth noting that Chris Throup already had a similar idea a few years ago. Mine is a bit more complete, but his is really simple.

Sláinte!

Report: NNFA Conference, Southeastern Region, 2014

I’m back from the outstanding NNFA regional conference, where I spent the week rubbing shoulders (or should I say noses?) with over 700 very fine musicians from the Southeastern US.

I gave a brief presentation on my Fingering Diagram Builder and its potential applications to the instrument’s pedagogy. I think that’s an interesting problem, considering, well, you know, and I fielded some questions on the topic and got some excellent input.

Photo, Pierre-Alain Dorange
Photo, Pierre-Alain Dorange

But mostly I was there to learn, and learn I did. I attended workshops on vibrato, Baroque ornamentation, nasal hygiene, and building a private studio. I also audited several masterclasses, and, of course, attended fabulous evening concerts. Thursday was “jazz night” at a downtown club, and I worked up the nerve to take a few choruses on “Donna Lee” during the open jam portion. Of course, I usually play jazz on saxophone, so this was definitely outside my comfort zone!

The vendor exhibits were a conference hotspot, as usual, and I must have tried several dozen instruments. The usual makers and retailers were there, but I was also very surprised to see Conn-Selmer; they are apparently entering the market in a big way, and held a fancy reception to celebrate their new line. I tried a few and I think they have a solid intermediate-level “horn” which should do pretty well if they price it reasonably.

I hadn’t planned to buy an instrument, but I fell in love with this model from Trophy and ended up bringing it home. The one pictured has a red finish, but as I am fairly conservative about my instruments’ appearance I picked out a classy purple. I find that the purple has an appealing depth of tone but doesn’t lose anything in terms of response.

I hope to see some of you at the national conference next year in Des Moines. Last year’s national had attendance of almost 4,000 and some really incredible concert headliners. Join the National Nose Flute Association

Favorite blog posts, March 2014

Recommended reading from the woodwind blogs in March:

Favorite blog posts, December 2013

Here are the woodwind-related blog posts that made my “nice” list for December. (One from late November seems to have slipped in here, too.)

Enjoy!

Farewell: Yusef Lateef

Earlier this week jazz musician Yusef Lateef passed away at age 93. Lateef was known for his adventurous woodwind doubling, playing saxophone and flute, plus the oboe and a number of woodwinds from non-Western cultures. Here he is playing some tasty flute:

I’ve seen oboists look a bit uncomfortable when the topic of Yusef Lateef comes up, no doubt because his sound on that instrument was so different from the preferred American-school classical oboe sound. If you have been too quick to dismiss Lateef’s contributions as a jazz oboist in the past, I suggest you listen again with fresh ears, bearing in mind that his music was informed by jazz as well as the music of many other cultures, and that the “classical” oboe tradition was not necessarily relevant to his goals. Here’s some bluesy oboe playing:

Check out Yusef Lateef’s official website for more information about his life and music and about his passing.

Anatomy of a bad bamboo flute

Bamboo flutes and other “world”-type woodwinds of true musician quality can be difficult to find, and if you’re not experienced with them it can be nearly impossible to tell if an online seller’s wares are genuinely playable or more like souvenir items. I’m going to share an experience of mine in which I gambled and got burned, in case it is instructive to anyone out there.

Recently I needed a bamboo flute in a specific and unusual key (high B-flat) on very short notice for a gig (a performance of the Duke Ellington Nutcracker Suite). My favorite trusted flutemakers don’t currently make flutes in that key, so I placed an order with a flutemaker that I hadn’t bought from before. (I won’t identify the flutemaker here, but I will say that he and his staff were very nice to me. When there was a totally-understandable wrinkle in getting the flute shipped on time, they even overnighted it plus threw in a very nice flute bag at no extra charge.)

Ability to ship quickly was certainly a factor in my choice of vendors, but I was also reassured by the fact that the maker sells flutes in three grades: student, intermediate, and professional. I ponied up the money for a professional flute, and expressed to the flutemaker my need for excellent intonation and a strong high register.

Here is what I received:

cute, right?
cute, right?

Now, the proof of a flute is in the playing, and there’s no way to know for sure if it’s any good without giving it a try. But here are some immediate visual warning signs:

  • Uh-oh
    uh-oh

    The embouchure hole is strangely shaped. I don’t know for sure what the flutemaker intended, but round-ish is pretty standard. Since bamboo is an irregular material, a certain amount of air noise (vibrational inefficiency) is to be expected, but this flute is very airy, and I suspect the oddly-shaped and roughly-finished embouchure hole is a contributor to this.

  • This is an extremely wide-bored flute. Often for flute-like instruments we see a length-to-diameter ratio of something around 30:1, but this one is closer to 15:1. To oversimplify the ramifications of this a bit, a wider-bore flute (a smaller ratio) will generally tend to be stronger in the low register and weaker in the high register. For this gig, I needed a flute that could play just to the second octave above the fundamental note—not an unreasonable demand for any common variety of bamboo transverse flute. I couldn’t get this flute to do it. A smaller-diameter bamboo would improve this flute’s upper range.
  • The finger holes are fairly large, and about the same size. Generally, similarly-sized holes leads to more even tone across the instrument’s scale, but also means that the right hand index and middle finger holes are placed very close together for a simple-system major-scale flute, and on this one the holes are uncomfortably close for me. Larger holes decrease the likelihood of finding usable cross-fingerings; I needed one good cross-fingering for this gig, and couldn’t find one that worked—couldn’t even “lip” the chromatic note into tune. A well-designed flute strikes a balance between large and small holes, and similarly- and differently-sized holes.
  • The second octave is quite noticeably flat. This is a common problem of bamboo flutes (or any cylindrical-bore flutes), but this one is particularly difficult to wrangle into tune. Really excellent bamboo flutes are sometimes made from bamboo carefully selected to have just a bit of taper in the embouchure-hole end, like a concert flute’s headjoint, or have some bore work done to create an internal taper; this helps to bring the upper register into tune with the lower.

When I realized that the flute wasn’t going to be usable, I packed my piccolo and a B-flat pennywhistle as possible alternatives. As it turned out, we didn’t end up playing the movement in question, so I was off the hook.

Shop smart!

Review: Butch Hall Native-American-style flutes

For years now I’ve told anyone who will listen how much I love my Butch Hall Native-American-style flute in F-sharp minor. I recently bought it a little friend in G minor, and realized it is high time I did a proper review of these lovely instruments.

Hello, beautiful.
Hello, beautiful.

The modern instrument commonly referred to as the “Native American Flute” is related to a certain flute tradition associated with the Lakota people; of course labeling anything as “Native American” mistakenly implies that it is common to all the groups lumped together as “Native American.” As an additional complication name-wise, there are certain legal requirements regarding who can sell products under the designation “Native American,” so some flutemakers, for example, must sell their wares as “Native-American-style.” In general, flutes of this type, regardless of seller, are a contemporary take on a traditional instrument, often made with modern tools and processes and tweaked to suit contemporary Western-world pitch standards. This suits me just fine—I’m interested in the instrument’s history, but as a working musician I like an instrument that I can buy affordably and play in a variety of situations.

If you are in the market for an instrument of this kind, be very careful about souvenir-type flutes, including some popular makes sold on the internet and in souvenir shops as “professional” instruments. If you want an instrument that plays beautifully, easily, and in tune, and is genuinely suited to professional playing situations, I strongly recommend that you send money to Butch Hall immediately. These are real-deal musician-quality flutes, and the amount of money involved is shockingly small. Continue reading “Review: Butch Hall Native-American-style flutes”