Monday, January 15, 2018

The Middle School Woodwind Section
Three Suggestions That Will Improve Tone, Tuning, & Balance
by Cindy Lansford
Bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, and baritone saxophone will add resonance and color to your overall ensemble sound, and your band will sound more mature.

Click to view the issueThe middle school band woodwind section can either make the entire ensemble sound really mature OR produce sounds that are uncharacteristic (translation: unrecognizable), tuning that is frightening, and cause serious balance problems. The suggestions below are the result of 30+ years of teaching, listening to, and working with middle school woodwind sections. Hopefully one or more of these suggestions will help your woodwind section be the one that adds maturity and resonance to your ensemble!

Find a clarinet and saxophone mouthpiece that you like, and stick with it!

It is really difficult to ask students to "sound alike" and "match pitch" (or other key phrases that we use), when they are playing on several different types/brands of mouthpieces that have different concepts of facings, chambers, and tip openings. If you can decide on a mouthpiece that you like, and insist that your students use it, you will have a far greater chance of achieving a more even and matched woodwind sound. If you are unsure of what mouthpiece to use, consult a reliable colleague -- someone that you like the way his/her woodwind section sounds, or a woodwind colleague that is familiar with equipment brands and models -- and follow his/her advice.

In addition to mouthpiece recommendations, you must also be involved in the reed selection that your students make. Work with your local music stores to make sure that the equipment that you are recommending is available. Make online music supply information available to your students if that is the route that you need to take. The point is that you MUST be involved in the equipment and supply recommendations, the follow-through, and the follow-up!

Work hard to stick with your mouthpiece selection for several years. If you change your equipment recommendations every year, you will end up with a band full of mismatched tones! Remember that this will affect the high school band as well, so coordination between the middle school and high school directors is beneficial for everyone.

Try to include ALL of the woodwind instruments in your middle school band!

Top priority is filling out your low reed section. Bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, and baritone saxophone will add resonance and color to your overall ensemble sound, and your band will sound more mature. You will find it easier to achieve proper ensemble balance when you include these instruments in your woodwind section (rather than relying on the tuba section to carry the weight of the bass line by themselves).

When changing students to the low reed instruments, chose students that are rhythmically stable and can play independently. Too often, the low clarinet and saxophones become a place to "hide" students who are technically and rhythmically less proficient. These instruments may be the perfect matches for a clarinetist who has a slightly looser embouchure or a saxophonist who doesn't quite have the dark sound you would like. However, the low reed instruments are not where you should place students that can't keep a steady beat! Remember that you are expecting students to play one or two on a part, and the players need to be strong and confident.

If your student numbers support an even more complete instrumentation, include oboe and bassoon in your middle school band program. Some beginner band programs are set up so that double reeds can be started from the very beginning. If the student/teacher ratio does not permit this, consider switching students after a semester or after the beginning year. Double reeds, properly taught, add a wonderful tonal color to your middle school band, and the presence of these instruments in your ensemble allow you to explore more mature literature that includes "solo" and "soli" scoring for these instruments.

Learn how to properly balance your woodwind section!

You know how it goes -- those first clarinets are your strongest, and sometimes LOUDEST, players! Add that to your flutes -- and you have SO MANY of them -- and you have a major balance and tuning problem that is next to impossible to fix!

Below are some recommendations for keeping your woodwind section properly balanced and able to fit in the total ensemble sound:

  • Keep your clarinet section balanced with first clarinet being the smallest of the two or three sections. This is the same for all split parts (flute, alto saxophone), but it is the most critical for clarinet.
  • If flute tuning is an on-going problem, seek help to teach proper flute embouchure. Students learning to play with improper fundamental skills create most flute tuning problems.
  • Balance unison lines to the proper instrument or octave:
    • Flute/clarinet playing a tutti passage in the SAME octave -- flute should be stronger
    • Flute/clarinet playing a tutti passage with clarinet an octave lower -- clarinet should be stronger
    • Clarinet section playing in octaves -- make sure the lower octave is the stronger part
    • Clarinet/saxophone playing a tutti line -- balance to clarinet sound
    • Keep low saxophones in check when balancing to the trombone/euphonium line
    • Low reeds SHOULD NOT play louder than tuba

By keeping your woodwind section balanced properly, you will find that those nightmare-tuning problems are often solved or at least manageable and more easily fixed! Maintaining proper balance, along with utilizing the low reeds and insisting on quality and matching equipment, will put you well on your way to a woodwind section that is an asset to your middle school band!

Cindy Lansford is a 1976 graduate of Texas Tech University with a Bachelor of Music Education degree with a master degree in Educational Administration from East Texas State University. She taught both at the middle and high school level in Birdville ISD, Plano ISD, and Goose Creek Consolidated ISD. Ms. Lansford was named “Teacher of the Year” both at Carpenter Middle School and North Ridge Middle School. She served on the Texas UIL Prescribed Music List selection committee and frequently served her regions in leadership positions. Bands under her direction have received recognition at the local, state, and national levels. North Ridge Middle School (BISD) was the first band recognized by TBA as an Exemplary Program. They performed at the 2005 Midwest International Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago. In 2008 Ms. Lansford received the Meritorious Achievement Award from the Texas Bandmasters Association. Ms. Lansford retired from public school teaching in 2007; she is currently doing freelance work as a band consultant/clinician, mentor to young teachers, and adjudicator/clinician for contests and festivals throughout the United States. Ms. Lansford is currently serving as Past President of Alpha Chapter of Phi Beta Mu.

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