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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.

 

Care and Maintenance

General Principles
Reeds
Flutes
Oboes
Oiling
Clarinets
Saxophones
Bassoons


General Principles

The principles involved in the care and maintenance of woodwind instruments differ from brass instruments in several important respects.  The most crucial, however, is that (with the exception of certain components referred to later in the discussion) they should never be immersed in water.  Such washing can seriously damage both the wood and the pads.  Instead, woodwind instruments should be swabbed and dried regularly.  Perspiration can cause rust on hinge rods, springs and screws. 

Check the seal on the pads.
It is important to avoid using force when assembling woodwind instruments.  Bent keys can cause air leaks, which in turn can produce faulty intonation, squeaks and sluggish response. In fact, the intonation and response of almost all woodwind instruments can also be affected quite markedly by how well the pads seal on the tone holes.  The pads can be checked for air leakage by pulling a piece of lens paper gently through each key.

The rules regarding the way the clarinets, oboes and flutes are held when at rest are very similar.  Never lay these instruments down on the keys.  This will encourage water to soak into the pads.  It also risks dented keys and bent rods.
 
Unlike the flute and the saxophone, which do not have corked tenons, oboes, clarinets and bassoons must have cork grease applied to the tenons which connect the individual parts.
 
 

Reeds

After playing, reeds need to be wiped and put in a safe place to dry.  Do not store wet reeds in airtight containers.  They may develop mildew.
 
 
Flutes
 
The flute should be swabbed and dried with a linen or cotton swab cloth.  While swabbing it is important to ensure that the swab stick does not scratch the inside of the instrument.  The head joint of a metal flute can also be washed up to two or three times a year using warm soapy water, followed by a through rising and drying.
 
Do not use silver polish
Silver polish should not be used on the instrument because the polish may remove a layer of finish as well as grime. The pivot screws should also be oiled once every few months.  Sticky pads are usually damp.  They can be dried by closing them lightly over a piece of lens or tissue paper. Prevention, however, is better than cure.  Ask your students to hold the instrument with the pads up when not playing.  This will prevent moisture accumulating around the tone holes.
 
 

Oboes

The lower joint and bell of the oboe may be swabbed after use with a soft cloth attached to a small weight.  Many authorities do not recommend this for the upper joint, however, and suggest the use of a turkey feather instead.  A soft cloth can also be used to wipe the keys and the main body.  Keys and pads should also be wiped with a soft cloth.  Avoid silver cleaning agents.  These tend to clog up the mechanism and destroy the silver plating. 
 
A good rest position for the oboe is to stand it upright on your knee.
When an oboe player is checking his fingering, it is important to turn the instrument at a slight angle away from the body so that the reed is not damaged through contact with the body.  Similarly, a good rest position for the oboe during performance or rehearsal is with the oboe standing upright on one’s knee.  A poor rest position, on the other hand, would involve placing the oboe across the knees with the keys facing down.  In this position, moisture collected in the bore tends to flow into the tone holes.  Resting the oboe with the keys facing upwards is better, but it still leaves open the possibility of the reed being inadvertently damaged by coming into contact with objects on the player’s right or left. 
 
Because the oboe has small tone holes, dirt can be more harmful to this instrument than most other woodwinds.  As in the case of a clarinet, the tone holes should be cleaned out regularly with a pin or cotton ear swab.  Abrasive cleaning materials should be avoided.
 
 

Oiling

The extent to which clarinets and oboes should be oiled is a matter of some controversy.  An instrument that has been properly cured during the manufacturing process may never crack.  Even so, moisture from the player’s breath will eventually penetrate the wood and affect its resonating quality.  Some authorities suggest that new instruments should be oiled with a small amount of olive oil or bore oil every few months.  This is probably more important in temperate climates than in the tropics, however

Too much oil can add to the accumulation of dirt.
In any case, oiling too often risks getting oil in the pads, causing them to rot or harden.  Too much oil in the bore can also add to the accumulation of dirt.  In humid climates it is probably more important to add a small amount of oil to the steel springs in order to prevent rusting.


Clarinets

After each playing session, the inside of the clarinet should be swabbed with a soft, clean cloth attached to a line with a weight on one end. The mouthpiece may also be wiped with a soft cloth in order to remove moisture and dirt particles.  Avoid the use of swab sticks.  They may scratch the interior of the mouthpiece and affect the tone quality. On occasion, both clarinet and saxophone mouthpieces can be cleaned by running lukewarm water through them.  However, hot water should never be used to clear hard rubber mouthpieces. As in the case of other woodwinds, under no circumstances should the instrument itself be soaked in water.   Mouthpieces should not be left lying in the sun or they will warp. Nor should reeds be permitted to dry on mouthpieces.

 

SaxophonesA saxophone may be swabbed with a soft, lint-free cloth. The neckpiece of a saxophone tends to collect dirt faster than the lower section.  In particular, the end that fits into the body should be kept clean by wiping with a moist cloth.  This helps to make the fit easier.  The various posts and pivots on a saxophone should also be oiled every few months.


Bassoons

Swabbing an entire bassoon is not usually necessary, although it can help to reduce the unpleasant smell sometimes associated with unswabbed bassoons.  Bassoons should never be oiled. Oiling would rot the rubber in the tenor and boot joints. It is necessary, however, to clean the tone holes.  Tiny layers of sediment tend to collect around the interior of these holes, decreasing their size and making the instrument play sharper.  Bassoon bocals also need to be cleaned frequently and carefully. 

Use warm, soapy water.
Warm soapy water can be run through them occasionally, followed by a thorough rising.  The bottom cap and tube of the boot joint can be removed from the boot joint and washed with soap and water on occasion as well.  As in the case of other woodwinds, a small amount of cork grease is recommended for cork tenons.  Vaseline can be used for wrapped string. 

Young students should not be permitted to adjust screws or bend keys. They should also be reminded never to leave a bassoon on the floor or standing upright against a chair. Bassoons are also carried in two hands, with one hand under the boot joint.
 
A more detailed discussion identifying common problems specific to each instrument can be found in The Band Director's Handbook. See the home page for ordering details.
 

Embouchures

Introduction
Single Reeds

Double Reeds
Air Reeds (flute) 


Introduction

There are three basic embouchures among the woodwinds, corresponding with the three sound generators employed.  They are: the single reed embouchure, the double reed embouchure and the flute or “air reed” embouchure.  This is not to say, of course, that there are no significant differences within these categories.  The embouchures of clarinet and saxophone players, for example, differ in a number of ways.  Still, the fact that instruments within each group use similar methods of sound production results in enough similarities to justify joint treatment.


Single Reeds

Clarinet players have at least two basic embouchure variants from which to choose. The so-called “single embouchure”, which is similar to that of the saxophone, involves placing the upper teeth directly on the mouthpiece. This can produce a rather thin tone, but it does lead to more flexibility, particularly in the upper register.  The alternative for the clarinetist is the “double” or French embouchure.  Preferred by many professionals, this involves placing the upper lip over the teeth.  Because this lip placement causes the mouth to be more open, it tends to produce a fuller tone.  In both cases, the mouthpiece itself is positioned in the center of the mouth. The upper teeth should not bite into the mouthpiece or push down on it. The bottom lip usually curves back over the teeth to provide a cushion for the embouchure. 

A certain amount of experimentation is involved.  
A smile-type embouchure produces a thin tone and is therefore to be avoided.  Instead, the corners of the lips are held together to produce a firm grip.  Both the clarinet and saxophone embouchures also involve a certain amount of experimentation before the player can determine just how much of the mouthpiece should be taken into the mouth in order to produce a good tone.   Too much mouthpiece will result in a “squawky” sound, while not enough will produce a thin, weak tone. 

One useful check for proper mouthpiece placement and lip tension is to have the student play octaves on the instrument.  If both octaves respond with only the octave key being manipulated, then the embouchure is at least close to being correct.  If only the upper octave sounds, however, then the embouchure is too tight or there is not enough mouthpiece in the mouth.  Similarly, if only the lower octave sounds, then the embouchure is probably too loose or there is too much mouthpiece in the mouth.

The control principles on single reed embouchures are very similar.  Loud dynamics and higher pitches involve increasing jaw pressure, while softer passages and lower pitches involve doing the opposite.  Unlike the double reeds, saxophone and clarinet mouthpieces are not moved in and out when playing in the extreme ranges. 

Saxophone and clarinet embouchures are different.
There are some important differences between clarinet and saxophone embouchures, however, even when both use the “single embouchure”. In the case of the saxophone, the pressure is upward, with the mouthpiece pushing against the upper teeth by the right thumb on the thumb rest.  On a well-developed clarinet embouchure, on the other hand, the lower lip takes most of the support.  Because of the greater angle of the soprano and alto clarinet mouthpiece as it enters the mouth, many authorities argue that clarinet playing requires more pressure.  Some also believe that more of the mouthpiece should also be taken into the mouth in the case of the clarinet than in the case of the saxophone. The difference, if any, is probably minor. Most saxophonists place their top teeth directly on top of the mouthpiece, roughly one quarter to one third of teh way up the slope from the tip.

Partly because they typically use larger mouthpieces, jazz and rock saxophonists also tend to turn the lower lip outwards slightly.  This broadens the sound by enabling the reed to vibrate more freely in the mouth.  More of the lower lip also comes into contact with the reed.  The approach, which seems particularly suited to the tenor saxophone, has even come to be accepted among some classical players.

Many authorities suggest the student begin with the mouthpiece alone.
Most beginners find it fairly easy to produce their first sounds on single reed instruments. As in the case of other woodwind instruments, many authorities recommend that students begin by using the mouthpiece alone.  This enables the student to concentrate on the sound without worrying about the fingering.  Have the student open the mouth as if to say ah and place the mouthpiece in the mouth using the embouchure described above.  Sometimes it is helpful to have the student think of forming the syllable oh or vo when blowing air through the instrument.  Once he or she is able to produce a sound in this manner, the syllable may be changed to tu or du in order to engage the tongue.  

 

Double Reeds

The oboe and bassoon embouchures are very similar.  In both cases, the instrument is played with the upper and the lower lips pulled back over the teeth to form a cushion for the reed.  The more lip cushion available, the easier it is to obtain a full, dark sound.  More of the red, lower lip should be rolled in than the upper lip, particularly on a bassoon. The mouth assumes a pucker rather than a stretched position and the tongue remains at the bottom of the mouth.  Since the lips need to be flexible in the center to allow the reed to vibrate, strength needs to be developed at the sides.   Equal pressure should also be applied to both the upper and lower sides of the reed.  This implies that player with an extreme overbite or underbite may experience problems. 
 
Beginning oboe players tend to put too much reed in the mouth.
Squeezing the reed with the embouchure raises the pitch and tends to make the sound thinner.  Tone quality is influenced by the distance of the lips from the tip of the reed.  Playing too close to the tip tends to produce a dark stuffy sound and makes the instrument less responsive, while playing with too much reed in the mouth can produce a strident sound which is also apt to be sharp.  Even so, higher register playing usually demands that the reed is placed further inside the mouth, while the lower register works best with the reed moved out slightly. A common fault fault among beginning oboe and bassoon players is to put too much reed in the mouth.
 
Apart from requiring different embouchures for different ranges, double reed instruments differ from single reed ones in that it is necessary to make the embouchure firmer during a diminuendo and relax it when playing a crescendo.  This is exactly the opposite of that required of clarinet players. 
 
Beginners should think of forming the syllable ohm.
Get your students to produce their first sounds on the oboe or bassoon by using just the reed.  For this purpose, the reed must be wet.  Soak it in water for a few minutes, then eliminate the excess water by placing the cork end (oboe) or thread end (bassoon) into the mouth and blowing out the water droplets.  Once a good “crow” has been achieved, attach the reed to the instrument.  When blowing through the oboe, have the beginner think of forming the syllable ohm before moving on to syllables such as tu or du.  In the case of the bassoon, vo is probably a more helpful syllable.  It should also be followed by attempts to engage the tongue by using syllables such as tu and du.
 
 

Air Reed (flute)

Edge tones are the result of curls or eddies in the airstream.
The flute produces sound by splitting the airstream as it flows over an embouchure hole.  This makes it an “air reed” instrument similar in principle to the recorder, flue organ and the whistle. Part of the airstream passes over the embouchure plate and part enters the instrument, producing an oscillation in the air column that is defined by the internal bore of the flute.  The faster this splitting occurs, the higher the resulting pitch.  Many believe that “edge tones” form part of the flute tone generator.  Edge tones are the result of eddies or curls in the airstream that form as the air jet breaks up. Research carried out by acoustician Arthur Benade, however, suggests that although the flute meets all the acoustical definitions of an edge tone system, the frequencies generated at the blowing pressures used by flutists are so high as to make them inaudible.

The basic elements of a flute embouchure are as follows: (1) corners of the mouth stretched back and turned down rather than in the smiling position, and (2) the lower lip is drawn back just enough to permit the upper lip to protrude over it slightly.   (3) The inner edge of the embouchure hole usually rests where the red of the lower lip meets the facial skin, with the lower lip covering about one quarter of the embouchure hole.  The exact position of the lower lip, however, will vary depending on whether the player has thick or thin lips.
 
A good deal of experimentation is usually required before the beginning student is able to find the correct spot. If the upper lip is too far forward, the airstream will be directed straight down.  If upper lip is even with the lower one, on the other hand, the airstream will exit the lips horizontally as if one was blowing out a candle.  
 
the size of the lip aperture is important.
Different registers require different adjustments to this basic embouchure setting.  The upper register, for example, requires the player to direct the air towards the outer edge of the embouchure hole and cover more of it with the lower lip.  In the lower register, more air is directed into the flute instead.  The size of the lip aperture is also important.  Low register work demands a fairly wide aperture, while a small aperture is required in the upper register.  In any event, the aperture should be oval-shaped rather than rounded.  This is because the latter shape tends to produce a coarse, breathy sound.  Players who produce such breathy, unfocussed tones can sometimes find it helpful to play in front of a mirror while trying to achieve a more oval-shaped aperture. 
 
Intonation, articulation and dynamic range are also affected by the extent to which the lower lip covers the embouchure hole.  In general, the more the hole is covered, the thinner the tone, the more limited the dynamic range and the less responsive the flute becomes.  Under such conditions, the instrument also tends to play flat.  Moving the flute too high on the lower lip so that less of the embouchure hole is covered, on the other hand, can make the instrument play sharp.
 
Alter the direction and shape of the airstream by moving the jaw in and out.
Controlling the direction of the airstream can be accomplished through the use of small movements of the head or rolling the flute in or out.   However, as Edwin Putnick argues, both of these methods tend to change the relative amount embouchure hole covered by the lip in the opposite way to what is actually needed, thus altering or even stopping the tone.  A far better way to control pitch, range and intensity during performance, he argues, is to alter the direction and shape of the airstream by moving the jaw in and out.
 
Some embouchure problems on the flute can be traced to a misdirected airstream resulting from an imbalance in the thickness of the upper and lower lips.  Such problems, however, can usually be corrected by changing the relative tension of the lips. 
 
Learning to play by blowing across a narrow necked bottle is not necessarily a good idea.
Producing an initial sound on a flute can be a very frustrating experience for beginners.  Traditionally, teachers have asked beginning students to practice blowing across a narrow necked bottle.  The student blows across the neck until he can produce whistle tones and finally a true tone.  This approach has fallen out of favour, however. since it tends to result in a very hollow sound. Instead, encourage the student to create his or her first sounds by using only the flute head joint. The idea here is to eliminate all concern about fingering until the basic embouchure has been formed.
 
Some authorities suggest that the beginner blow air as if to vocalize the syllable pee, while others ask students to imagine that they are spitting out rice, one grain at a time.  While the latter is probably more useful (it helps to keep the aperture small and the corners of the mouth firm) it may also encourage students to adopt the habit of tonguing between the teeth.

Flute Head joint

Various aspects of the head joint design on a flute can have a dramatic influence on the instrument’s sound and response.  Broadly, there are two basic tapers – the German and the French – with numerous variations on offer from different manufacturers.  A French-style taper produces a warm, sweet sound, while a German-style taper offers more a more powerful tone.  Most players prefer the French taper or one of its many variants. 

Other design factors influencing the sound and response of the flute include the shape of the embouchure hole (oval or rounded) and its size.  Small, oval-shaped holes make the upper register more responsive but tend to result in very thin tones in the lower register.  Large, rounded holes make the lower register sound better, but also tend to make the high register difficult to control.  Other factors to consider include the degree of roundness of the ‘chimney’ between the lip plate and the body of the flute head joint.

Physical Requirements of the Player

As in the case of brass instruments, it is often wise to encourage students to take up the instrument that best fits their physical characteristics.  Small and short students would probably be better advised to avoid the bassoon or baritone saxophone, for example.  Clarinet players need to have fingers large enough to cover the tone holes.  Saxophone players do not need to cover tone holes, but they do need hands that are large enough to reach around the larger instrument. 

The teeth are important. 
It is also important to observe the general shape of the teeth.  Crooked teeth can cause the mouthpiece to shift off-centre.  An excessive overbite can also create difficulties, although such problems are probably not as serious as those facing brass players.  The flutist with an excessive overbite may not be able to form a sufficiently small aperture, while the clarinetist with similar physical characteristics may not be able to produce a good tension seal around the mouthpiece. 

It is important not to exaggerate the importance of physiology, however. In most cases, interest should be the most important factor.  Orthodontic treatment may sometimes be required, but most students with a reasonable degree of enthusiasm for their chosen instrument can usually adapt well enough.

Single Reed Mouthpiece

Introduction
Materials
Design
Mouthpiece Faults
Selecting a Mouthpiece


Introduction

Although often neglected, the mouthpiece is just as important as the quality of the reed in determining sound production on single reed instruments.  In fact, unlike the brasses, the intonation and blend of a clarinet or saxophone section will often improve significantly when players use similar mouthpieces.  

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Materials

Clarinet and saxophone mouthpieces are usually made of hard rod rubber.  It plays easily, has strong fundamentals and more overtones than mouthpieces made of plastic or wood.  Metal mouthpieces are also acceptable for the saxophone, particularly since the strength of the material makes it possible to reduce the exterior proportions to the point where very young players do not feel that the mouthpiece is excessively large.  Jazz players (notably tenor saxophonists) often prefer metal mouthpieces, arguing that they aid in creating a brighter, more authentic jazz sound. Classical players, however, hold to the belief that hard rubber mouthpieces produce a superior tone quality.  There is general agreement, however, that mouthpieces made of moulded rubber or plastic should be avoided.  The latter, which often have shiny surfaces, tend to warp easily.  Softer materials produce a darker tone and more flexible response, but also tend to lose their shape more easily. 


Design

Various aspects of mouthpiece design also affect the instrument’s response.  The lay, or curved area at the top of the mouthpiece (sometimes called the facing), determines the size of the opening between the reed and the mouthpiece tip.  A short lay or facing produces a smaller tip opening, while a long lay results in a larger tip opening.  The longer lay requires a firmer embouchure and a softer reed. It produces a dark tone, but can make the instrument difficult to play loudly. 

A short lay requires a stiffer reed, making the instrument difficult to control.
The high register can also be problematic because more embouchure pressure is needed to close the wider tip opening.  This lay is nevertheless attractive for players with strong embouchures since it offers greater pitch flexibility.  A short lay, on the other hand, involves less embouchure pressure but requires a stiffer reed, making the instrument difficult to control. A medium lay is therefore probably best for most students, at least until they are advanced enough to be able to choose for themselves.

Interestingly, differently designed lays - whether the curve is smooth and even or simply straight, for example - can make reed appear soft on one mouthpiece and hard on another.

The placement of the reed on the mouthpiece is also important.  The tip of the reed should be aligned both with the rails and with the tip of the mouthpiece.  Only a hint of the mouthpiece should be visible above the reed.  An incorrectly placed reed can be cause intonation problems (too flat or too sharp), poor tone (too breathy or too thin) and unwanted squeaks.

Other mouthpiece design factors influencing the instrument’s response include the size of the window and throat and the shape of the baffle. In fact, the shape of the baffle and the inner chamber influences the tone quality of a mouthpiece more than the material from which it is made.  A concave baffle gives a softer sound and requires more air, making the sound more difficult to produce.  A convex baffle, on the other hand, gives a louder sound and requires less air, but makes the sound more difficult to control.

The window is the opening at the top of the mouthpiece.  Large openings produce dark tones whereas narrow ones produce brighter and more penetrating ones.  Similarly, the more curved the upper area of the mouthpiece interior and the more open the throat, the darker and (in extreme cases) more unfocussed the tone. 

Jazz mouthpieces generally have smaller, square-shaped chambers.
In general, classical and concert band mouthpieces have large, round chambers which produce a tone quality rich in fundamental and low overtones. These mouthpieces are usually played with moderate tip openings. Jazz type mouthpieces generally have smaller, square-shaped chambers, which encourage production of higher overtones. This design gives more brilliance to the tone. These mouthpieces are usually played with larger tip openings and softer reeds than classical mouthpieces.


Mouthpiece Faults

A number of common playing difficulties can be traced to mouthpiece faults, including squeaks, hard blowing and rough tone. The following are among the most common:

Excessive Squeaks may be due to:

 
  • A thin tip rail.
 
  • An irregular tip rail.
 
  • A baffle convexed near the tip rail.
 
  • A facing that is too short.
 
  • An uneven facing.
 
  • A facing that is too open.
 
  • A vent that is too straight.

Hard blowing may be due to:

 
  • A wide rail tip.
 
  • An excessively curved vent.
 
  • A baffle that is too concave.
 
  • A baffle that is too convex.
 
  • The pivot in the facing too close to the tip.

Rough tone may be due to:

 
  • A facing that is too flat.
 
  • A facing that is too open.
 
  • A facing that is too long.
 
  • An extremely concave curve in the baffle.


Selecting a Mouthpiece

The catalogues of most woodwind mouthpiece manufacturers such as Yamaha and Leblanc distinguish between mouthpiece models in terms of materials used (metal, plastic, hard rod rubber or ebonite), tip opening, and the lay or facing length, the latter measurements being given in millimetres.

Eugene Rousseau ["Saxophone Mouthpieces" in Bandworld vol. 7 No. 4 March/April 1992] gives the following tips for those choosing a saxophone mouthpiece.  Much of the advice, however, can also be applied to selecting a clarinet mouthpiece.

 
  • Use several reeds of slightly different strengths. Your favorite reed is probably comfortable on your current mouthpiece, but may not be suited to a different mouthpiece.
 
  • Be certain that the reed is placed correctly on the mouthpiece, that its tip is even with the mouthpiece tip, and that it is centered from side to side.
 
  • Does the reed seal? Keeping the end covered, draw the air out of it and then take the mouthpiece from your mouth. A popping sound means that the reed is fitting properly on the mouthpiece. A warped reed will not pop because air is escaping between it and the mouthpiece.
 
  • Tune on alto, tenor, or baritone saxophone (on soprano) to its respective concert pitch. This note may be tuned slightly flat, but never sharp. Improper mouthpiece position can cause bad intonation, poor response and inferior tone quality.
 
  • Do some playing in all registers, from lyrical to rapid staccato using various dynamic levels. Repeat the examples several times, then play them using your own reed and mouthpiece. Now try the new mouthpiece and reed again. Many players like to record this test which allows them to "stand back and listen". Some prefer to have one or more musician friends listen as each mouthpiece is played. If you use these "judges", be sure that they cannot see which mouthpiece is being played.

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