Director’s Survival Guide

Chapter 8, Director’s Survival Guide, contains critical information to help directors and teachers solve some of the most widespread problems encountered when teaching woodwind instruments. Here are the sub-chapter headings:

8A. Top Ten Misconceptions about Woodwind Instruments

8B. Braces and Other Impediments

8C. The Daily Warm-Up and Scales

8D. Recruitment, Retention and Switchovers

8E. Woodwind Playing in Ensembles

8F. Transposition

8G. Evaluating and Purchasing Woodwind Instruments

8H. Guidelines for Healthy Use of Arms and Fingers

8I. Vendors and Organizations

8J. Web Links and Apps

Here is a sample from 8A. Top Ten Misconceptions about Woodwind Instruments. This sample has been abbreviated to include only the top three misconceptions:

1. Top 10 Misconceptions About the Flute

1. The head joint is made to be pushed all the way into the body.
If the head joint is pushed all the way in, the flutist will be very sharp on every single note. Instead, the head joint should be pulled out between 1/8 and 1/4 inch and then adjusted as necessary.

2. It doesn’t matter if the left hand index finger is down for D5 and E-flat 5, it sounds the same anyway.
Wrong, this does matter. There is a distinct difference in the tone quality and the pitch. Insist that your flutists learn and use the correct fingerings with left hand index finger up for these two notes.

3. High notes on the flute are hard. The lips have to be squeezed very tightly.
Producing high notes easily is a matter of coordination and control, not squeezing. The air speed needs to be slightly faster, the size of the lip opening needs to be a little smaller, the air stream needs to be slightly angled up and the entire embouchure (both lips) needs to move closer to the striking wall of the embouchure hole. Tell your students to use fast air and try to blow up their own noses! Yes, it sounds funny but it works.

2. Top 10 misconceptions about the Oboe

1. The oboe is the hardest instrument to play.
There is some truth to this statement, but many students find the oboe no harder to play than any other woodwind instrument when they have a good reed and a properly working instrument. Tuning and soft dynamic control can take a while to develop. It is important that teachers both recognize and support this development, rather than “give the hand” to the young oboists which can cause them to hide so that they can’t be heard. It can be hard, especially at the beginning, to find and identify what a constitutes good reed and a properly working instrument. A few private lessons with an oboist can help.

2. Students should start on soft reeds, and move up to hard ones as they get better.
Not true. There is not necessarily any benefit to a reed that is labeled hard, especially if it requires a lot of air or embouchure control or has trouble with response. Sometimes reeds labeled as soft are so weak that they close down and become hard to play. Reeds labeled by strength are usually found in a local music store and are likely to be machine-made reeds. If reeds must be purchased from a local music store, then the medium strength is the best choice with which to start.

Reeds from a double reed store (either handmade or hand finished) will likely be labeled simply as student or professional. This distinction can have to do with the strength and response of the reed, but also may refer to the quality of tone produced. Student reeds are generally cheaper and may not have the premium tone. Ultimately, the reed should be strong enough that the student can get the volume needed, but not so strong that pitch, response and endurance are a problem. This balance will vary from individual to individual. A balanced reed has a strength that the student can easily play with good response in all registers, good pitch and stability, and good tone with dynamic possibilities.

3. The reed will work the same regardless of how it was soaked.
Not true. The hotter the water and longer the reed is soaked, the harder it will become. The reed will, therefore, work very differently depending on how it is soaked. If the reed is closed and weak, soak it longer in hotter water. If the reed is hard and open, soak it in cooler water for less time or soak it in the mouth only.

3. Top Ten Misconceptions About the Clarinet

1. The best syllable to articulate with is “tah”.
This is the absolute worst syllable to use to articulate on a clarinet. When one says or whispers “tah,” the jaw moves up and down, and interrupts the lower lip/jaw relationship with the reed and mouthpiece. This is the primary cause of squeaking and poor tone on the clarinet. The ideal syllables for clarinet articulation are a whispered “tee” or “tu” against the reed (like whispering “tune”).

2. The right thumbnail should face the player’s body while under the thumb rest.
Many method and band books have pictures that encourage this position. However, it is not a healthy position for the right thumb or fingers. The right hand should appear as it does when giving a handshake – the wrinkly portion of the thumb knuckle should be under the thumb rest. If the thumb rest is an smaller, older style, extend the length with a piece of tubing to make it more comfortable, or replace with a larger, more modern and ergonomic thumb rest.

3.  Going over the break on clarinet is really hard.
When the break between the chalumeau and clarion registers is taught correctly, students can learn it in a week or two. The keys to teaching the break are a using good tone with fast, focused air, having a solid technical foundation in the chalumeau register, understanding ascending 12th’s, developing the ability to roll the left index finger on and off the throat tone A, and then teaching the break downward from B4 to A4 while keeping the right hand down. Using a mirror to watch the fingers is essential.

4. Top Ten Misconceptions About the Bassoon

1. The bassoon is a really difficult instrument and shouldn’t be started in beginning band.
Admittedly, bassoon has challenging fingerings and there are few similarities to other instruments. But, the challenges are no greater for a beginner than they are on any other instrument. In most cases, starting a wind instrument is new to all students. If you introduce the bassoon as you do all other instruments the students will not perceive it to be any different. Your bassoonists may need some extra patience when it comes to building technical facility and private lessons are strongly recommended, but there is no reason a motivated student will not succeed as a beginner.

2. A student needs to have long fingers to play the bassoon.
Not true. All instrument makers have a bassoon available with a key for the third tone hole on the left hand. This is the issue that is most often a problem with small hands. If a student’s hands are too small to reach both the whisper key and cover all of the tone holes with the third finger key in place, then their hands are too small. This is a very unusual situation. If a student is motivated to play bassoon, have him hold the instrument and see if he can reach. If not, then encourage him in another direction. But, 99% of students can make the reach.

3. Bassoonists should sit on the front edge of the chair like everyone else.
Good posture is essential, but bassoonists need to sit with their sit bones at the back of the chair. The seat strap is the main support for the instrument. It should be placed diagonally in the chair with the hook at the front left and the end at the back right (when facing the chair). The seat strap will not be supported correctly if a student is not covering the entire surface area of the seat strap. They should keep their back straight and not lean back, but the hips and sit bones should be all the way back. This also discourages leaning forward and putting too much weight on the left hand.

5. Top Ten Misconceptions About the Saxophone

1. The saxophone is the easiest instrument to learn, so anyone can play it!
To a degree, this is a true statement since all a student has to do is push a key and blow, right? One of the beauties of the saxophone is its ease of use. One might even say it is logical. However, obtaining a pleasing tone and technical fluency is no less challenging on the saxophone than any other instrument.

2. It only takes a mute!
With the musical and commercial popularity of the saxophone, many band programs have little difficulty recruiting large sections of saxophonists. As a result, teachers are left with the challenges associated with balance, blend, and intonation. The perception of controlling the sounds of a large section of saxophones by placing a Nerf ball, towel, carpet padding, or other object in the bell to soften the sound is completely misadvised as the result will be non-resonant sounds that are more out of tune. Continue to reinforce proper breath control, embouchure, and the use of quality reeds and mouthpieces. In the end, simply make your students play softer! Or, slim down your numbers by assigning alto saxophone students to other saxophone voices, harmony clarinets, or take one of your strongest and direct him or her to bassoon.

3. All saxophonists play jazz and improvise.
No other instrumentalist faces this misconception with as much regularity as the saxophonist. Jazz is a genre and style that all musicians should learn to play. Improvisation is so important that our National Standards for Music Education identify “Improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments” immediately after “playing instruments alone and with others.” For some saxophonists, the joy of and attraction to jazz is great, while others are more passionate about classical music.