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Suggested Reading

1. Rehearsal Rooms

Struggling to improve the acoustics in your band room? Check out how the Medan Band did it.

2. Concerned about playing swing music properly?

Check out my guidelines

3. Ear training exercises for bands

Unlike piano players, ear training is essential for wind band performers. But how many band directors bother to give their bands suitable exercises?

4. Intonation problems

While tuning is simple act of adjusting a length of tubing on a wind instrument (often by reference to a single note), intonation is an ongoing process in which a player strives to match the pitch of others in the ensemble during performance. 

5. “Blowing” a wind instrument

A common misconception among wind players is to believe that the air moves through the instrument in order to produce the sound. This is simply not true. 

6. Conducting – suggestions for home practice

The best way for a conductor to improve is in front of a live ensemble. The unfortunate reality, however, is that this is not always possible. Aspiring conductors therefore have little choice but to find other ways of honing their skills.

 

Design Issues


Tone Holes
Construction Materials
Fingerings 

Despite the wide range of designs, woodwinds do have some lower level similarities.   Unlike the brasses, for example, all woodwinds make extensive use of their fundamental pitches, with the second partial being used for the middle register.  Other design issues are considered below.


 Tone Holes


Like brass instruments, the sounds produced by the woodwinds are the result of a vibrating air column inside the instrument.  Unlike the brasses, however, the length of this column is changed, not by using valves to alter the length of the instrument’s tubing, but through the use of strategically positioned tone holes.  These tone holes are placed at the nodes referred to in the section on music and physics.  Basically, these nodes are the places where the standing waves cancel each other out and the longitudinal motion is reversed.  As the fingers uncover the tone holes, the node moves up the instrument to the highest open hole, shortening the vibrating air column and thus raising the pitch. 

 

 


 Construction Materials

Quality oboes, clarinets and bassoons are made of wood with the straightest grain possible.  Traditionally, the oboe and clarinet have been made of grenadilla wood.  This wood minimizes moisture absorption and is available in large enough quantities to ensure that it does not become too expensive.  Nowadays, however, many student model clarinets are made of resins that do not require the same level of care and maintenance needed to keep wooden instruments in top playing condition. The sound produced by such clarinets, however, is widely believed to be inferior to those made of grenadilla wood. The bassoon, however, is still made of hard maple stained brown (mahogany) or black (ebony).

Scratches inside the bore can affect intonation and tone.
Wood as a construction material has several disadvantages.  Older instruments may dry out excessively, producing cracks that ultimately render the instrument unusable.  Scratches inside the bore, resulting from dropping the metal weight of a swab into an oboe or clarinet, can also affect intonation and tone.  Nor is it a good idea to keep woodwind instruments clean by washing or soaking them as one might in the case of the brass. 

Although originally made of wood, most flutes in common use today are made of metal.  Sterling silver (92.5% pure silver) is the traditional material for top quality flutes.  Most student models, however, are made of nickel silver.  Silver plating is said to produce the best timbre, but is probably not a good choice for secondary schools since it tends to tarnish after a few months.  Nickel plating, on the other hand, is more hardwearing and costs about the same.  As a result, it is more popular. 

Most piccolos have a conical bore, whereas most flutes are cylindrical.  Wooden piccolos (usually best for concert music) are more sonorous than their metal counterparts and are therefore preferred in orchestral playing.  Metal piccolos, on the other hand, are easier to play and have a more brilliant tone quality.  They are therefore more popular in marching bands.


 


Fingerings

Woodwind fingerings have been standardized since the fourteenth century.  Six tone holes, uncovered one at a time, produce a seven-note scale.  All holes covered produce either a C (flutes, oboes and saxophones) or an F (clarinets and bassoons).  Removing the fingers creates a kind of “bell” immediately beneath the last tone hole covered.  Covering holes beneath the open hole tend to make the pitch flat.  Thus, it has become a standard means of lowering pitches that are a little sharp.  Duplicate keys are provided on clarinets and oboes to help players avoid sliding with the same finger from one key to another. Even so, it is sometimes unavoidable. 

The register key is operated with the left thumb.
The point between the first and second registers is called “the break”.  To obtain the notes of the second partial, the fundamental frequency is overblown with the aid of an octave or register key that opens a vent near the mouthpiece.  In every case, this register key is operated with the left thumb.  Other holes assist in the production of the chromatic scale. 

As in the case of the brasses, there are usually a number of alternative fingerings available for any given note.  In general, the preferred fingerings are those which give the best intonation and sound quality.  However, it is also important to take account of other issues, such as comfort and ease of use. In some passages, the standard fingerings may be awkward or even impossible.  It is therefore important to encourage students to think in terms of primary and secondary fingerings. For example, whenever possible, clarinet players should avoid sliding on the low G-sharp, F-sharp, E and F key.  Instead, they should take advantage of the duplicated left-hand keys provided for this purpose.  A similar situation occurs with the oboe in the case of the E-flat, C and F keys.

 


 

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