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Wednesday
Jul182012

Equipment selection

I'm not very dogmatic in what equipment students use.  I'm a bit of a "Whatever works best"  believer.  All too often,  teachers get in the habit of saying "everyone should be playing X mouthpiece on Y brand/make instrument.  In many cases, it's band directors who  believe that having everyone playing the same model mouthpiece and instrument will result in a more homogenous sound.  Or, perhaps, they take the opinion of whomever teaches that instrument for them and apply that to everyone.  In a beginning band situation, Having each student on the same model of mouthpiece and instrument can have the benefit of making it easier to  figure out what might be going wrong if a student is having trouble with something. The fewer the variables the better.  However, once a student is at a level that a new/upgraded mouthpiece or instrument is warranted, I don't have any strict rules of "you must play this brand/model."  The student's experience, level of seriousness, amount of care they take in their equipment, and the budget  available have to be considered.  Far too often have I been in situations where a student who would still be served perfectly well by the horn they started on has been pushed by a director into getting a instrument far "more horn" than they really needed.  Usually at considerable financial strain on the parents.  Only a couple of times have I had junior high students that would really benefit from having a Selmer Super Action 80.  And even in both situations, I tried to  offer less expensive alternatives that would still provide them many of the improvements and room to grow. 

 

 In the realm of mouthpieces, I'm even more open to variation.  I have a short list of models I tend to avoid due to consistent dissatisfaction with the results I saw from students using them.   but I have a longer list of mouthpieces I like just as well, if not better than, the Selmer S80 C*, which is the defacto standard among many school band programs.  Every student is different and a mouthpiece is a very personal item.  It needs to be chosen based on which one allows the player to make the best tone, have the best pitch to their ability, and provides the most ease in performing certain tasks.

I also, personally tend to prefer vintage mouthpieces that have been refaced by an expert refacer.  I have many reasons for this.

1: mass produced mouthpieces usually have facings applied by machine and, depending on the brand, quality can be highly inconsistent from one piece to the next.

1a: A good facing applied by an expert refacer will will be more symetric and be optimized for the best response across a range of reeds.  Most stock, mass produced mouthpieces I have found to not be very forgiving in reed variance.

2: In my experience, vintage mouthpieces seem to have been better quality blanks to start off with.  The internal dimensions lend themselves to better tone and response, moreso than many modern mouthpieces. 

3: buying a decent vintage mouthpiece like a "soloist style"  scroll shank Selmer  mouthpiece and having it refaced  should run around the same cost as a brand new S80 C* and, in my opinion, usually yield better results.

Monday
Jun182012

Légère Signature reeds

With the amount of practice time I anticipated for learning my way around the new saxophone and maintaining technique, I didn't want to deal with waterlogging and killing cane reeds left and right;let alone the hassles of going through a box or two just to find one or two good reeds to play on.

 Also, with my handicap, the hassle to taking the reed off and, resoaking it and putting it back on any time I stopped playing for a few minutes(such as in a lesson situation) was going to be too great.  So I decided during the two year wait time for my conversion that the best option was a synthetic reed.  I had the good fortune to attend the Clarinetfest convention the year Légère was just being introduced to the woodwind world.  I knew they were the best option out there as far as sounding and responding the most like cane reeds.

 

At the time I was deciding to go Légère, I had the other good fortune that they were just releasing their Signature line of reeds  for saxophones.  I waited a few months to start seeing testimonials from players on forums and such before taking the plunge and buying three reeds ( in strengths of 2.75, 3.0 and 3.25) I was only able to play on a mouthpiece and neck for about a year, but knowing the response I liked from that combination, I was able to tell that the 3.0 was the strength best suited for my mouthpieces and embouchure.  I still couldn't quite pass a judgement on the sound, not having the full horn to hear the total tone.  I can safely say that these Sigbature reeds really are the best analogue to cane reeds out there.  That one 3.0 that I had made it through a year of periodic tooting on the mouthpiece and neck plus three months of regular fairly heavy practicing after I got my horn.  Yes, one reed costs as much as a box of Vandorens, but it lasts far longer than you could get the one or two playable reeds.  

 I'm a convert to the Légère Signature reeds, and don't think I'll ever be able to be convinced to go back to cane.  There's jut too much uncertainty with them.  It may not play the same from morning to afternoon, much less day to day.  And if you travel from one climate region to another, you can bet with  near absolute certainty, that none of your cane reeds will play the same as you're used to, no matter how much time you've spent adjusting them with sandpaper and a reed knife.  There's also something to be said of the convenience of being able to pick up the horn after it's been sitting and play it right off.  no more fussing with a dry, warped reed.

 

 While I call myself a Legere disciple.  I have taken the position that I won't recommend them for students until they've "done their time" with cane reeds.  I feel it is still important for students to learn the qualities of good versus bad reeds and learn what works as far as the response and tone.  A good cane reed is hard to find but it's also hard to beat.

 

Update:1/30/13

I recently bought a box of cane reeds to give them a chance.  But I just couldn't do it.  Not one of them in the box was "good"; and most were unplayable (or very near it).  I'm not giving up entirely.  I will buy another box or two in time and try to  get into a pattern of rotation finding reeds while I have a usable reed or two.

 

Update 8/15/14

 

I take back that last update.  Having played for various groups, and doing a full recital in March, I've found that no one can  tell I'm playing a synthetic reed.  The only thing that could make me go back to cane reeds now would be if Légère flat out went out of business and the reeds were no longer available. My position regarding students "doing their time" with cane reeds does still hold.

Thursday
Mar152012

Perfect imperfections

Perfection is unatainable. No one is, has ever been, or can ever be perfect. In my early college days, I used to fret over every tiny thing that didn't go the way I thought it should in a performance. With each detail that wasn't "perfect" i would get hung up on it and distracted and more things would go "wrong". It wasn't until I learned to embrace imperfections as being part of life that I began to stop looking at my performances as abominations . Once that happened, my performances took on a much more relaxed and expressive nature. My technique blossomed and I wasn't afraid to take more chances and push my own boundaries a little further.

 

for me, the phrase "perfect imperfections" is exactly right. If a composer wants a technically perfect performance of their work, they're best off using software like Digital Performer to enter their score and record the computer playback. Even then, due to technical issues such as processor lag and digital jitter, The result is likely to be imperfect, still.

 

The advent of modern digital recording has resulted in artficially "perfect" recordings. It is all too easy for a skilled editor to take a dozen different recordings of a passage and splice a measure here or a note there to replace a slightly out of tune note or a small blip between two notes. Even recordings billed as "live" recordings are often edited in this way-taking the best bits of multiple performances and correcting the "mistakes". They may be all bits of live performances, but not one complete performance.

 

When I do audio recording, I take the early 20th century approach of recording in entire takes, and selecting the best overall performance with imperfections and all. After all, until the advent of magnetic tape, editing at all was not possible. In the days of records, it was all at once and move on. The final product may have been take number five. But it was all in one go. No correcting. No "fix it in post."

 

I don't use this philosphy as an excuse for a sloppy unprepared performance. It simply releives some of the self-imposed pressure to get everything right every time. After all, if people *only* performed music or showed artwork, once it was "perfect" We would have no art or music. and what a frightfully drab world it would be.

 

 

Saturday
Mar102012

Best neck strap evarr!

returning to playing with my modified sax, I wasn't happy with how my long-time favorite neckstrap was working with positioning the instrument and the geometry between my neck and the relocated neck strap hook. After some help from a friend letting me borrow a few alternatives, I found the Gel strap manufactured by Just Joe's Music of Bend Oregon.

The strap itself is leather with gel cushion inserts ergonomically placed to reduce pressure on critical vertibrae to prevent long term damage or strain issues. The adjustment slider is wonderfully smooth moving and easy to make minor length adjustments. This thing really is the most comfortable strap I have ever played, I end up forgetting I even have it on in most cases. Half an hour or so after I'm finished practicing, I'll realize I still have it around my neck. Joe makes these ro order, and can make pretty much any length required. The quality of construction is top notch. The metal spring loaded clip style hook is plated in what looks like black nickel and feels far more secure than any plastic hook I've ever tried.

No this isn't the least expensive neckstrap on the market, But I totally believe it is worth the money for the stress releif and comfort it provides.

Friday
Mar092012

mouthpiece refacers

With my handicap, there is a greater risk of me having a slip up and damaging my mouthpiece. Also, With the amount of time I plan on practicing to gain and maintain technique on my toggle-key sax, I was fearful of wearing out my main mouthpiece that already had qute a many number of hours of playing time before my stroke. I decided to have a few mouthpieces similar to my old piece refaced as backups. If they turned out to be better than my old mouthpiece, Then I'd keep them and sell the old one. If I ended up still preferring my old mouthpiece, then I'd sell the refaced pieces. I also wanted to do this to get an idea of who I would trust for having students send mouthpieces to for refacing if they needed such services. I have sent three vintage Selmer scroll shank pieces out to various people. Brian Powell, of mouthpieceguys.com, Phil Engleman of Phil-tone.com, and C. Robert Scott who is best known among the clarinet world for his custom made synthetic barrels which are in common usage by clarinet students in the studios at UNT and several high school band programs in Texas.The refacing work done by Phil and Brian is of the highest quality I have seen in a long time. I,quite honestly, did not hold out much hope for liking these mouthpieces better than my old mouthpiece. But I was totally wrong. They opened my eyes to just how stuffy and unresponsive my old Selmer was. And all this time I thought I just preferred resistance coming from a clarinet world.

 

Both mouthpieces are so close that after several hours of comparison playing,  I seriously couldn't tell one that I preferred over the other. It just depends on the moment, the alignment of the planets, phase of the moon, prominence of solar flares, and other metaphysical hooplah. :-) After a few weeks, I finaly narrowed it down to Phil's mouthpiece, on the basis is of high tones being ever so slightly more responsive and playing for extended sessions being slightly less fatiguing.  I sent my real Soloist to Phil and it came back being the best mouthpiece I ever had the pleasure of playing.  Even though I chose to send my primary mouthpiece to Phil, I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending Brian Powell to anyone looking for a reface job.  Mouthpieces are such personal and individualized items that I would have been perfectly happy with having Brian reface my Soloist.  The curve that Phil used just happened to be a better match for my playing/embouchure.

 

I would have absolutely no hesitation in recommending either of these guys to anyone for refacing work.

I am still awaiting the mouthpiece from Mr. Scott as I sent it out to him considerably later than the other two.

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