I’m pleased to present something I’ve been working on, on and off, for a while now. I’m pretty excited about it, and I hope you will check it out and let me know what you think.
This project developed from my own need to quickly and easily create fingering diagrams for the woodwind instruments that I play and teach. Frequently I find myself scribbling saxophone altissimo fingerings onto a scrap of paper during a private lesson, cutting-and-pasting at the photocopier to put together simplified charts for a woodwind methods class, or penciling cryptic markings into musical scores to remind myself which pinky finger to use.
MarkCC recently acquired a new flute of the type used in Irish traditional music, the kind that are most often made of wood. But MarkCC’s is made of polymer, and it sounds like MarkCC has wrestled a little with the issue of whether a plastic flute can really measure up to a wooden one.
I’ve seen several acoustic studies that claim that the material the instrument is made of isn’t that important. In a wooden flute, the physics show that the head joint is the only part of the flute that really has a significant influence on its sound. But the head joint of a wooden flute is actually lined with metal. So the wood isn’t really having too much influence on the sound.
As it turns out, MarkCC is something of a doubler, and also plays the clarinet.
Most people (including me) play on mouthpieces made of hard rubber or plastic – so the primary sound-producing piece of the instrument is plastic. The barrel of a wooden clarinet is (obviously) wood, so according to the physics/acoustics, that’s the only piece of wood that actually has any measurable acoustic effect. And the physics of this isn’t sloppy stuff put together by an instrument company trying to sell their plastic clarinets: to the limits of my ability to understand it, it’s good, solid stuff.
And yet, I’ve played a whole lot of clarinets, and by god, there’s nothing like a grenadilla wood clarinet. Even the best clarinet makers, even when I put my wooden barrel on a polymer body, it doesn’t sound the same. Of course, that’s subjective, and we humans are notorious for hearing what we want to hear in a subjective situation. And, by god, I’m a math geek. I’ve seen the math, and it’s correct.
One of the most-linked articles on my blog makes the same point about our expectations about materials coloring our playing experience. It’s worth pointing out, too, that a different barrel made from the same material will also affect the instrument’s sound.
I do think it’s a grey area to refer to a mouthpiece or barrel (or flute headjoint) as “sound-producing.” The instrument’s parts don’t produce any audible musical sound (unless you hit them with drumsticks)—it’s the column of air contained within them that vibrates in a musically useful way.
The New York Times’s “Lens” blog did a nice piece on Steve Gorn, a woodwind doubler who has turned his primary focus to the bansuri (Indian bamboo flute). Surf on over to see a nice photo and hear audio of an interview/performance. (Both photo and audio feature Gorn’s soprano saxophone playing.)
Steve Gorn on his beginnings as a woodwind player:
I advanced relatively quickly with the clarinet. When I got into eighth or ninth grade I got into a lot of jazz, and I started playing saxophone at that point. Jazz became much more of a focus. I played clarinet in the school orchestra.
Ethnic woodwind guru and composer Pedro Eustache (“ayoo-STAH-chay”) has posted videos on YouTube of most of his recent work Suite Concertante for World Woodwinds and Orchestra, featuring himself as soloist playing a staggering 21 instruments over the course of 12 movements (45 minutes).
The instruments are mostly ethnic flutes and reeds, though a few modern Western instruments appear as well. Since some of the instruments are Eustache’s own unique creations or modifications [link auto-plays music], it would seem he doesn’t intend for anyone beside himself to perform this piece. Certainly few woodwind players would have the ability to do so, nor to obtain or make the unusual and customized instruments required.
Here are the movements currently available on YouTube.
Mvts. 1-2: Three different bansuri (Indian bamboo flutes).
Mvt. 3: “Oryxophone,” neys (Middle Eastern flutes), mezoued (Tunisian reed instrument), and flute fitted with ney headjoint
Here is the handout from today’s presentation at the Mid-South Flute Festival at the University of Memphis campus. The audience was small but enthusiastic, asked good questions, and some of them stayed extra long to try out some instruments from my collection.
For several years, I’ve maintained what I believe to be a fairly comprehensive list of woodwind doublers’ homepages. I’ve been scouring the web lately for the homepages of woodwind players of all kinds, and have put together several new lists from what I’ve found. Now you can browse lists of:
Classes are canceled today due to a freak snowstorm in my little Southern college town. (Typical yearly snowfall: 0 inches. Yesterday’s snowfall: 5 inches.) So instead of teaching a woodwind methods class and rehearsing on contrabassoon with the university’s Wind Ensemble, I thought I would take a few minutes to do something I’ve been seeing some of my favorite bloggers do lately.
I always enjoy Patty Mitchell’s “BQOD” (Blog Quotes Of the Day) over at oboeinsight. I’m in the thick of dissertation writing these days (technically, it’s “doctoral document” writing, since I’m working on a DMA, not a PhD), and this morning I ran across a couple of items that won’t make it into the finished product but are too fun to keep to myself. And so I present my Dissertation/Document Research Quotes Of the Day: Continue reading “DRQOD: Ghandarvas and powdered wigs”→
I’ve got ethnic woodwinds on the brain lately, and no end in sight since they are the topic of my doctoral dissertation research. If you haven’t added any ethnic instruments to your arsenal yet, here’s what I recommend for a relatively easy to play, low-maintenance, inexpensive, and versatile beginning to your collection. Continue reading “Getting started with ethnic woodwinds: your holiday wish list”→