Back in 2013, I blogged about how I modified a Protec Slimline double clarinet case so it would fit my Bb and A “full Boehm” clarinets. But the pictures on that blog post are really hard to see, so I decided if a picture is worth a thousand words, a video must be worth a million!

So here is my second vlog. Hope you enjoy it. I apologize for the audio quality. I figured out what I did wrong with the audio, so it will be MUCH better next time!

Welcome to the new SmartDoublers.com web site! This is my first video log (from now on, “vlog”). It’s basically just a chance for you to get to know me a little bit, understand my background, and hopefully, get you interested in coming back to the site on a regular basis. 

This video is longer than most – about 35 minutes – but most of these will be MUCH more concentrated, probably dealing with just one concept or issue in woodwind doubling.

At the end of the video I ask for comments and suggestions. I meant it! I want to know what you’d like to see on this site. Please leave a comment and let’s talk about it. Thanks!

I recently moved to Denton, Texas. The process of packing, loading, moving, unloading and unpacking was pretty rough on my body, and I ended up with tennis elbow in both arms – especially my right arm. Both still hurt, but I couldn’t wait any longer to get back to playing, so as I began to play my flute yesterday for the first time in a while (I won’t say how long because it’s embarrassing) I really appreciated the work I’d done on my flute in the past to make it more ergonomic. I guess I had come to take it for granted, but I’m occasionally reminded how easily my flute handles whenever someone asks me to play their flute, and when try to do that all of a sudden I’m thinking “Wow, I forgot how badly designed a standard flute is for the human body!” Anyway, it occurred to me yesterday that it might be worth showing everyone the simple ergonomic changes I’ve made to my flute over the years that have helped me so much.

Before we go any further though, let me just say that everyone’s body is different, and some of these things may not work for you. If you spend your money on these items and don’t like them, don’t come to me and ask for a refund!

First, let me show you the Thumbport II.

Basically this thing clamps onto the flute (gently) and gives you a secure, comfortable place to place the right thumb. The thumb goes underneath the tab as shown in the picture above.

Now in this next picture, the flute is upside down, and you can see how the Thumport wraps around the body of the flute, and then it has a little flange that points back toward you. When holding the flute, the little flange points down at about a 45 degree angle, and you put the tip of your thumb in the corner of the angle. (In the picture below, that is right where the black part gets narrow.) You can install it rotated to different angles, but I’m just showing you the way I like to use it.

There are a number of benefits to the Thumbport:​

  • It helps you put the thumb in the same place every time.
  • It is covered with a nice soft rubbery material that is comfortable under the thumb.
  • The little flange helps prevent the flute from rolling back toward your face so much, so overall the flute feels more secure in the hands, and you can then relax the fingers of the right and left hands for quicker, more reliable technical demands.
  • For some people it can help you hold the flute with a more natural curve to the fingers.

Let me just clarify that last point. I believe that the best hand position for any/all woodwinds is as natural as possible. I remember my clarinet teacher showing me a great technique for getting the hands into a natural position for holding/playing the instrument: First, hang both arms down at your sides in a completely relaxed way, with no tension in the hands. Now without an instrument, just raise your hands to where the instrument should be. Rotate your wrists as necessary, but keep the hands and fingers completely relaxed. Memorize what that looks like. The shapes your hands and fingers are making at this point are the ideal shapes they should then make when playing the instrument. IMHO. So now just move your arms and forearms until you slide your fingers into place around the horn. (When I did this with my teacher, my unnatural hand shape was so ingrained in me that he had to hold the clarinet up for me while I slowly brought my hands up to it from the completely relaxed dangling position.) They may not fit precisely on the keys, but at least you now know if you are using your hands with unnecessary tension or bending/flexing of the fingers. 

So back to the Thumbport and how it looks when I use it.

The picture above shows me holding the middle section of my flute (with Thumbport) with my right hand. This is exactly what my right hand looks like if I just let my right arm dangle at my side. In my case, my fingers are mildly curved, but not a lot. Notice also that with my hands in this shape, my thumb does not go up under the flute very far at all. (If I tried to hold the flute this way without the Thumbport, then it would fall out of my right hand because the thumb doesn’t go underneath far enough to hold up the flute.) It really helps create a hand position for me that is natural and comfortable, and this is why I really love my Thumbport! They are currently about $22 at Flute Specialists. 

The Bo-Pep Finger Saddle

Okay, so how about the left hand? I’ve done a couple things here to make my life easier and more comfortable. First let’s talk about how the flute rests against the left hand index finger.  ​

Here is what I’ve mounted to my flute. Against the body of the flute I have the BoPep saddle. It’s made of hard black plastic, and it might scratch your flute. It’s cheap – around $10 or $11. It helps by:

  • Giving you a concave shaped place where the flute meets your left index finger/knuckle.
  • Pushing the palm of your hand ever so slightly further away from the flute, so you don’t have to curl the index finger inward so tightly.​

Here’s a picture of how it looks when holding the flute:

Notice that I don’t have to curl my index finger like I’m having a spasm – nice relaxed curve to the finger (albeit a little bit more curved than “at rest”).

The Flute Gels

Did you notice the grey blob on top of the BoPep? It’s not a tiny alien. It’s a REALLY comfortable rubbery “gel” cushion that is also very tacky (in the “sticky” sense, that is). It’s been on my flute for several years now and is still just as tacky as the day I bought it. One side of it has a super sticky coating, and that side goes against the BoPep or your flute. At first I tried stacking a couple of these gels directly onto the flute without the BoPep, but they don’t like to stick to each other very well. Besides, it puts the finger farther away from the flute if you just put it on top of the BoPep instead. Anyway, I really love this cushion. It’s soft, comfortable, and does a fantastic job of keeping the flute from slipping around or digging into my finger/knuckle flesh. I got mine from Flute Specialists, and he sells them for about $18 for a pack of 2 at the time of this writing. Indispensable!

Raised Left-Hand Index Pearl

Lastly, I did one other thing to reduce the amount I have to curl my left index finger. I raised the button underneath the left hand index finger. Here’s what it looks like mounted to my flute (with a good view of the BoPep and the gel as well).

This is nothing but a saxophone pearl that my technician friend in Meridian, Mississippi (Nichol Kadler) found for me. She got some super sticky double sided foam tape (very thin type) and just stuck it right onto the key. Here’s a picture that shows the sticky part, so you can get a better view of how it’s mounted.

Notice I have raised my index finger tip quite a bit with this button. At first it felt a little odd under my fingers, because with all the left hand keys closed, my index finger is higher than the next two fingers. But I quickly got used to it, and now it feel strange (and somewhat stressful) to play a flute that doesn’t have this. I got lucky and the very first button Nichol mounted for me ended up being great, but you might have to experiment with this until you get it right. (Caution: it will always feel weird at first, so give it some time before you give up on it.)

Now there are plenty of fancier versions of this kind of thing already out there for sale, silver plated, and they clamp onto the key, or can be soldered on. I have not used those, so I can’t comment on them, but I suspect if I did, I would still prefer this one because: 

  • It’s (a) cheaper.
  • It sticks up higher.
  • This is certainly lighter weight than a metal riser. 
  • It can be easily removed for adjustments, or resale of the flute. 

Wrap-up, and a little bit of Philosophy

Now I know some of you are curling up your noses and sneering at me for not toughing it out with the unaltered flute, or maybe you just think these changes are ugly. So in my defense, I just want to explain my philosophy of when I should/should not make alterations to my instruments. It goes something like this: If it helps me play easier, better, quicker, longer, and it doesn’t compromise good form, technique, or ruin the tone or tuning of my instrument (and I can afford it), then I’m doing it. I don’t care if it’s ugly. I don’t care that Rampal and Taffanel would never have used such contraptions. Folks, I play every woodwind out there, and I am all about the practicality of it. Anything to make it better for me. I have never had even a single person come up to me and say “Hey, what’s all that stuff hanging off your flute?” And as far as I know, I’ve never lost a gig due to these alterations either (although I might have gained a few!).

I hope you enjoyed this blog post. If you have any musical connections in the Denton area, please let me know. I am actively looking for work – hoping to teach woodwinds at the middle school and high school levels in the northern DFW area. And of course, I’m always up for a gig, any style, any woodwind! 

As always, your comments and suggestions are always welcome here. Happy fluting!

I’ve been working on getting better tuning out of my inexpensive Amati C clarinet. As I mentioned in a previous post , the clarinet is supposedly designed to use a regular Bb mouthpiece, but when used that way it is overall quite flat, especially in the throat tones. Through some experimentation, I also figured out that the real problem was essentially too much volume inside the Bb mouthpiece. 

The first thing I did was try to shrink the interior dimensions of one of my Bb mouthpieces, but I found this basically too difficult to do without creating other out-of-tune areas on the horn. Then I tried a mouthpiece that is supposed to help with flat throat tones on C clarinets – but I found literally no difference in the tuning. (I found out after the fact that it’s made from a Bb clarinet blank anyway.)

So not finding a mouthpiece that would solve my problem directly, I recently decided to sacrifice one of my Bb mouthpieces to the experimentation process and simply shorten it. I’ve been working a wonderful tech in Meridian, Mississippi named Nichol Kadler. She works at the Mississippi Music store there, and has graciously done anything I asked her to do to my horns, regardless of how crazy it sounded! 

Before we get to the pictures, let me first tell you about the mouthpiece we’ve been using. This mouthpiece is from Ben Redwine at RJ Music Group  and it’s his most inexpensive mouthpiece (literally only $32!). It’s called the “Mezzo”. He says it’s designed for beginners, but it plays like a much more expensive mouthpiece – it’s almost a dead ringer for my preferred D’Addario Reserve mouthpiece. I was comfortable that if the experiment went badly, at least I’d only lost $32 in the process! And it’s made of plastic, so I figured it would be easy to work with.

Just taking a total WAG (Wild A** Guess) I decided to have Nichol remove the lowest black section of the shank, right up to the cork. It turned out this was about 7 millimeters. Of course the real trick to this was not removing the lower part of the shank – it was removing 7mm of the collar as well. This was an essential part of the process, because the mouthpiece won’t go any further into the barrel until you remove a part of the collar equal to the amount of shank that’s been removed. Nichol had to do this with a file. Here is a picture with the lower part of the shank removed, just up to the cork …

 

Picture

 

And here’s a picture after Nichol has filed away the excess collar of the mouthpiece …

 

As you can see, it was really difficult for her to keep the shank completely round. But surprisingly, the mouthpiece is rock solid in the barrel and does not wobble. 

So what about the results? Magic! Overall the entire horn is much better in tune with itself, and seems have pitch tendencies that are much more like a regular Bb clarinet now. I still have to voice somewhat higher than the Bb – but then I sort of expected that anyway. It’s a smaller instrument. When I play Eb, the voicing is significantly higher overall compared to Bb, so it makes sense that the C clarinet requires voicing somewhere in between the Eb and the Bb. 

Is it perfect? Well, if I had one complaint, I think it sounds a little bit tubby still. My guess is this is because we still have a baffle and chamber designed for a Bb instrument. I have an idea that the ideal solution would be to create a mouthpiece that is essentially a Bb that is shrunken proportionately in all dimensions, including the baffle and chamber. But I don’t know of anyone who makes a mouthpiece blank of this type, and hey, I don’t really want to become a mouthpiece manufacturer anyway! 

But am I happy with this solution? You better believe it! Prior to this work, the horn was simply a $600 toy, but now I can actually use this clarinet on gigs whenever I have to play a concert pitch part. (I know, all you real clarinet players are saying “why don’t you just transpose?” – but I’m just not good enough to play clarinet and transpose at the same time.)

So overall I am thrilled with the results of this project, and the low expense of it as well. As always, I hope this post was helpful and interesting to you, and I’m always interested in your comments, suggestions, and insights. Let me know what you think!

I just got started reading Keith Johnson’s “Brass Performance and Pedagogy.” I’m only on page 2 and have already read this:

   “The most successful teachers are those dedicated to the highest musical and academic standards in their own professional lives as well as in their expectations for their students. They settle for nothing less than the students’ best efforts. They are uncompromising in what they expect from their students, and they are willing to do battle with inferior teachers, parents, and administrators rather than lower standards for the purpose of ease, personal advancement, or the convenience of serving a mindless bureaucratic system. A well-known newspaper columnist once remarked that he was deeply suspicious of any teacher who had not been fired at least once. In an age of indifference, physical comfort, and instant gratification, a demanding teacher is virtually a subversive. So be it. Teaching is about change, and the dedicated teacher’s values are predicated on the importance of the subject matter and its value to the life of the student and society. It seems as good a place as any to take a stand.”

I think I’m really going to like this book!

​So I’ve mentioned on my page about my gear  that I was having some tuning issues with my C clarinet. In a nutshell, this thing has been really flat ever since I got it. I’ve tried a lot of different mouthpieces, hoping something would help, but nothing has brought the pitch up. It wasn’t localized to one specific part of the horn – it was really the entire axe that was sharp. 

So today I finally had some time to start working on this problem. Thanks to spending time with Curt Altarac at the Sax Pro Shop   , I had an idea that using some liners in the throat of the mouthpiece, or maybe the barrel, would bring the pitch up. Today’s experiments showed that basically I was on the right track with that line of thought.

I’ve been using a D’Addario Reserve X5 mouthpiece  on this up til now (designed for Bb) so today I tried a bunch of liners at different points within the mouthpiece, and this helped nicely in raising the pitch, except there were a few little pockets of flatness on the horn I still could not resolve. Moving the liner up and down in the throat kept changing the areas that remained flat and which areas were getting relief from the flatness. And lining the entire throat of the mouthpiece still left some pockets of flatness (and also introduced some roughness in the tone).

Then I had the idea of putting my Eb mouthpiece (Fobes “San Francisco”) on it. It was way too small to fit in the barrel, so to make it fit I put a big pad around the tenon (Valentino quick fix fake neck cork) and this brought the pitch up over the entire horn. In fact, it brought the pitch up too much! The entire horn was playing way too sharp, especially the throat tones. So I started pulling the barrel and found that right at 3.5 mm of barrel pull finally gave me a clarinet that played nicely in tune, and importantly, in tune with itself.

I’m not exactly sure what to think about this. My conclusions so far are that both my mouthpieces are wrong for this horn – the Bb is too big, and the Eb is too small.  

I’m not sure this is confirmation, but my observations about tone would seem to agree with this conclusion. With the Bb mouthpiece, the tone seems kind of spread and dull, while the Eb mouthpiece is really too much on the cheeky side. So not only would a compromise size mouthpiece be somewhere in the middle on pitch, but hopefully it would also be somewhere in the middle for tone production. 

So now I begin looking to see if I can find a mouthpiece that is somewhere between the size of my Bb and my Eb. I’m not sure that such a mouthpiece is even made. I’m aware of a Grabner piece that is designed to help C clarinets fix flatness in the throat tones, and maybe that’s where I’ll go next. If you know of something or have any other ideas, I’d LOVE to hear about them. 

Please note that I continued to work on this project, and the update post is located here.

In the current edition of The Clarinet, there is a wonderful interview with Ted Johnson, who was a member of the Cleveland Symphony for 36 years, many of which were under the great conductor George Szell. This is probably my favorite orchestra and my favorite conductor, and these remarks of Ted’s really hit home with me …

“… he was very demanding. You may have heard the statement that ‘the Cleveland Orchestra plays seven concerts a week, but only two of them for the general public.’ This was so true; when it came to the Monday morning rehearsal, you had to be totally prepared.”

My favorite conductors to play for have always been the ones who demanded the most from me. These conductors have always gotten the most out of their band members, and have always had the best sounding groups – and this is part of the joy of playing for me – knowing that I sound good and the entire ensemble sounds good. 

For my students: if you are annoyed with me for demanding hard work and concentration from you, I hope you will always understand that I do these things not to make myself look good, but because I want you to have the same experiences that I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy over the years. 

I want to continue the series about Fear today, and as usual, I apologize for the delay in finishing this series. Life sometimes intervenes, and these deeper, more complicated posts take some dedicated thinking that is just not possible in a hectic environment. I’m happy to say things have slowed down for me somewhat lately, and I hope I can finish this series in the next 6-8 weeks. In this installment, we’re looking at fear – specifically, fear that can affect your performance – and talking about how to identify it. But before we go on, let me do a quick recap:

First, it’s easy to think you’ve overcome your fears because you already play really well, even in public. But I contend that it’s easy to fool yourself about this, because you can learn to compensate for fear with coping mechanisms. It’s even possible that you usually don’t fear playing badly, because you’ve simply practiced so much that it’s extremely unlikely that you would screw things up. But in this case, I think the fear is still present, beneath the surface, and if the right set of circumstances were to arise, those fears can come to the surface very quickly. For instance, let’s say you’ve got your Carnegie Hall debut tonight, and a few hours before the performance, you get a call saying that someone very important to you has suddenly, unexpectedly passed away. Now, realizing that you are having trouble concentrating, your fears could come roaring back. The better solution is to find and identify your fears, and eliminate them entirely. (If none of this makes any sense to you, you may want to go back and read the previous entries in this series, located here, here, and here. [Steve’s Note: these 3 links coming back soon]

Identifying fears is perhaps a little more complicated than one thinks. It’s pretty easy to say “yeah, I get scared every time I stand up to play in front of people.” But I think we have to get more specific than that if we’re ever going to be able to truly eliminate our fear. It’s easy to think of fear as something general – often called “anxiety” – but I believe anxiety is simply the result of many fears, and that we can, with thoughtful, dedicated work, identify and eliminate them. You may have noticed I don’t use the term “performance anxiety”. Why? Because using this term generalizes something specific (our fears) into a medical condition. Frequently this “anxiety” is then treated with drugs (beta blockers anybody?) but this just treats the symptoms and in fact encourages us to ignore the often difficult, unpleasant, gut-wrenching work required for us to identify and eliminate our fears. Knowing that you feel “anxious” when playing in public is not enough. What exactly are you afraid of?

Well this can be completely different for everyone, so I can only tell you about my own experience, and maybe this will help you see the kinds of fears I face, and the kinds of processes that have helped me identify them. I say this is a process because I am not done with this by any stretch of the imagination. As I said at the beginning of this series, I still have a lot of fears, and I don’t expect to get rid of them overnight! But let me go back in time again and tell you about my high school days…

I was actually very socially awkward and insecure for as far back as I can remember. I never felt like I knew the right things to say to people, and I never was able to “read between the lines” like most people. I was a very literal person, so half the time I never understood jokes. If I had an important conversation planned with someone, I would rehearse it over and over in my head, trying to think of all the ways the conversation might turn and what responses I might have. If I had to make a presentation in a school class or recite a poem, I would get so nervous that I would completely forget what I had to say, and would shake and sweat profusely. If something caught me off guard and I felt like I said something embarrassing or dumb, I would go back over it in my mind, over and over, trying to figure out what I should have done differently. In short, I was pretty miserable in social settings. The funny thing was, I never thought about why I was so miserable. I just thought I had to work harder so I wouldn’t embarrass myself. And although I did slowly get better at fitting into social situations as I got older, I was still a pretty uptight person. All the old fears and frantic mental processes were still there – I was just learning more about how to behave. 

It was only around my early 20’s before I realized what was going on. First, I realized (with the help of some great authors) my life was all about me. Almost all my thinking (other than studying/school work) was spent worrying about me and how I was going to accomplish all my goals. In terms of social settings, I was literally afraid of how others would perceive me. I was afraid. It was nothing more than plain, simple fear. It was embarrassing and difficult to own up to the fact that I was still cowering in fear from something that actually posed no threat to me whatsoever. It was a tough pill to swallow – to know that my misery and social discomfort up to that point was caused by none other than myself. 

But it was also quite liberating. At this point, I knew I had something tangible I could work on. I thought about this in depth, because at first, it can seem like a fear of this nature is really huge and multifaceted. I’m afraid I might wear clothes that are out of style. I’m afraid of being the skinniest guy in the room. I’m afraid of going to this party with a zit on my face. I’m afraid I might say a joke that no one finds funny or that offends someone. But actually, it all comes back to a fear of what other people think about me. To be completely truthful, all those previous worries are actually: 

  • “I’m afraid of what people will think of me if I wear clothes that are out of style.” 
  • “I’m afraid of what people will think of me if I’m the skinniest guy in the room.” 
  • “I’m afraid of what people will think of me if I go to this party with a zit on my face.” 
  • “I’m afraid of what people will think of me if I say a joke that no one finds funny.”

So this realization was the clincher for me. It really was, at its core, a simple problem. I immediately began a journey of trying to eliminate this fear, and it continues to this day. Am I better? Yes. A lot. And vastly happier too. 

But I can hear you thinking – “what does all this have to do with music performance?” Well the answer is that my experience with music was exactly analogous to my personal life. No – that’s not correct. It was exactly the same problem! Ultimately, I discovered that this fear of how others perceive me was also the same barrier to my really performing music well.  (There is more on this in my first post from this series.) [Steve’s Note: Gotta fix that link.]

So that’s my story on how I identified my own internal obstacle to playing really well. Yours may be different. I don’t know what keeps you from playing up to your potential. Maybe it’s fear of what some specific people think of you? (I had one student whose parents were especially demanding of him – he feared their disapproval so much that he was afraid of it even when they weren’t present at the performance.) I don’t know what fears you have about performing, but I would encourage you to be really honest with yourself, and ask yourself what your percentage usually is while performing. Are you happy with 30/50/60 percent of your playing ability? If not, what are the things that hold you back? What about the times you played your best – what were they like? How did you feel, what were you thinking about, and what was different compared to the times you didn’t play so well? 

While working on these questions, it’s easy to get distracted by smaller things which are really not the main problem. Take this theoretical example. Let’s say you show up to the gig and some of the band members are late and you’re pissed off about that. Your anger stays with you the whole gig, and you play poorly later that night. This is the kind of thing where you have to dig deeper. Why did you get angry in the first place? You have to be relentless, like the little kid who won’t stop asking “Why?” again and again. The “conversation” might go something like this: 

Kid: “Why are you mad about this?”

Mad Self: “Because the bass player was late and I hate people being late.”

K: “Why do you hate people being late?”

MS: “Because we don’t get to start on time.”

K: “Why do you hate not starting on time.”

MS: “Because I’m never late. I work hard to be on time and so should everybody else.”

K: “But that’s not a reason why you’re angry. I want to hear why you hate starting late.”

MS: “Well, look at all those people in the audience, wondering why we haven’t started?”

K: “Oh, so you’re worried they won’t come to your show next time because of the late start?”

MS: “Maybe.”

K: “Well there’s nothing you can do about this one starting late, so maybe the best way to get them to come to your next show is to get over this anger so you can play a great show once the show finally does get started?”

MS: “Yeah I suppose you’re right about that.”

K: “Yes I am. But you still haven’t told me why you hate being late.”

MS: “Okay fine. My Dad always hounded me about being late, and he really drilled that into me.”

K: “But your Dad’s not here tonight, is he?” 

MS: “No, but – I guess I can see where you’re going with this.”

K: “Good. But you still haven’t told me why you hate being late.” 

MS: “Well … I can’t stand seeing all those people looking at us while we set up. I know they’re angry at me and think I’m a slacker for not starting on time.” 

K: “Oh I see. So the real reason you’re angry is because you’re afraid of what all those people think of you.”

MS: “You know, you’re starting to get a little bit annoying, kid – but I guess you’re right.”  

There are reasons deep down why we do what we do and feel the way we feel – and this makes it really easy to be distracted by the surface/shallow answers. Be persistent, dig deep, and really ask yourself “why” until you’ve found the “final answer.” You might be surprised how often the answer lies within yourself (and not with all the external factors we so often blame). 

Thanks for joining me for another installment in this series about Fear. I hope this helps you identify some of your fears and see how deep down some of them can be. In future posts, we’ll get into some specific techniques for eliminating (not just compensating for) our fears. As always, I welcome your comments and insights.

Working with band directors recently, the topic came up about how to find a decent mouthpiece for beginning saxophone students that won’t break the bank. Well, I have to confess, I was somewhat at a loss to answer those folks. If you’ve read my Gear lists, then you already know my mouthpiece preferences for classical use (large chamber and small tip opening), but you might also be surprised that I have essentially the same criterion for beginner use. (I’ll cover the reasons why in a future blog post, but suffice it to say, I want the larger chamber to help generate resistance, and I want a closed tip to discourage them from manipulating the reed in order to achieve pitch and tone changes.) But it’s hard enough to find these large chamber/small tip mouthpieces in the first place, much less one that a beginning band parent would consider “inexpensive.” 

So I began looking in earnest for such a mouthpiece, and quite frankly, I haven’t been able to find anything under $100 that has what I consider to be a true “large” chamber. When I say “large,” I’m thinking something as large as an old Buescher or Martin, or also like the chambers currently found on the Sigurd Rascher mouthpieces. Yes, you can find the old Bueschers on ebay for under $100, but I know from experience that they have generally been refaced to be more open than originally manufactured, and quite frequently this has been done rather inexpertly, so in almost every instance, you will need to have that mouthpiece refaced – meaning your “fantastic $50 deal” just turned into a $125+ investment that’s still only worth $50 on the open market. Now for me personally, this is the way I like to proceed, because I get my mouthpieces tuned to my liking during the refacing process, but for Mom and Dad who just need something for their 10 year old to play on, this is WAY too much detail, and WAY too much time investment. 

Yamaha 3C Alto Sax Mouthpiece

So what can you buy off the shelf? As I began asking friends and colleagues this question, basically they all agreed with me that there’s nothing out there that fits the bill for under $100. Some told me they have settled for the Yamaha 4C because it’s easy to find one, and they seem “good enough.” Well I’ve played the 4C’s in the past, and while they seem well made, they also seemed too open, which leads to a pretty rough sound, and encourages the student to manipulate the reed (instead of using voicing) to alter tone or pitch. With a little more research I found that Yamaha also makes a slightly-more-closed variant called the 3C. I wondered if maybe it would be a little more well-behaved, so I bought one and gave it a try. Here’s what I found…

The Yamaha 3C, according to the Yamaha web site, is just slightly more closed than the 4C, coming in at 1.5 mm instead of 1.6. (FWIW, a Selmer C* is 1.7mm, a C is 1.6, and a B* is about 1.5.) Everything else about it appears to be the same as the 4C – chamber size and design, shape of the beak, baffle, etc. It’s made of the same plastic material as the 4C, which is not my preference, because this stuff seems to wear down more quickly over time – but hey, it’s a beginner mouthpiece and hopefully it will get your student through a few years until he/she is ready to quit or pony up the $$ for something a little sturdier. The build quality seems good overall, and the table appears to be very flat. I did notice some rough edges where the squarish chamber transitions into the throat. These appear to be left over from the molding process. I would have liked to have seen them filed down, but I don’t suppose that’s gonna happen in a mouthpiece that lists for about $45. Maybe one of these days I’ll get out my files and see if taking them off improves the playability. The rails appear to be well-finished and of even widths. However, I also found them to be somewhat wider than I usually prefer. Generally this will make the tone a little dead and stuffy – but I suppose that just might be a desirable quality for a beginner mouthpiece! 

“Squarish” chamber, view from the front
“Squarish” chamber, view from the rear

 

Anyway, I tried the mouthpiece with the same ligature I use on my old Buescher – a Rovner Dark. At first I tried my Vandoren blue box 5’s – WAY too hard. Then I tried some 4’s. Still way too hard. I didn’t have any blue box reeds that were softer, so I grabbed an old 3.5 Rico brown box and that was what finally worked. I imagine a number 3 would probably be better for a beginner, but the 3.5 worked great for me. It didn’t take long to figure out that I was really sharp – a natural condition of the chamber being smaller than my Buescher. So I backed the tuner neck out a little over a half inch and that really helped. Overall, I could still hear the affects of the smaller chamber – a tone that is somewhat more strident, focused, and generally more “intense” than I like. The more I played, the easier it was to temper those tone qualities though. Overall there was a good resistance that I hadn’t felt from the 4C’s I’d played in the past, and overall the tone was smoother and cleaner as well. Altissimo was comfortable as well (although you probably won’t be teaching your beginners that right away), and I also found no issues getting the reed to respond, and no squeakiness (often a sign that the rails are not well matched to each other). In general it was easy to play with no glaring problems to disqualify it.

Now I actually want the mouthpiece to behave badly if I bite down on the reed, so I tried doing some biting in order to affect decrescendos, mute the tone, and also to get up into the altissimo. (Again, I want the mouthpiece to close down so the student will learn to control these things with air and voicing instead.) Unfortunately, the mouthpiece did keep playing during all this abuse, but I suppose that a certain amount of “forgiveness” is okay in a student mouthpiece. I think when the tip is this open, it will always allow for a certain amount of biting before it shuts down completely and refuses to cooperate. 

Notice the even, somewhat wide rails.

So to sum up, this Yamaha 3C is my new favorite beginner alto sax mouthpiece. There are a few things to complain about – I wish it were more closed at the tip, and I wish the chamber were larger – but it is really inexpensive, and should be relatively easy to find. How to get one? Well, I tried getting one on Amazon and waited about a week and the thing still had not shipped. So I cancelled that order and got one at that big auction site. I have noticed the 3C is available at Weiner Music for a GREAT price, and I would venture to say your local music store would be happy to order one for you as well. 

I would love to hear your thoughts about beginner mouthpieces, so please comment and let me know what you use with beginners and why. 

For the budding bassoonists out there, I thought you should know about a great iPhone app I can highly recommend. It’s called Tenor Tutor, and it’s a great way to start learning tenor clef. It allows you to set the range of notes you want to use. (Why waste time learning notes you’re never going to play?) You can choose to have key signatures showing (which it will randomize) and you can specify the maximum number of flats/sharps to show. There are more options which I won’t cover here – but once you have the options all set, you just go back to the main page and the app will start putting notes on screen for you to identify – basically like flash cards. You tap the note name (or on one of the accidentals) and the app will tell you if you got it right. It plays the correct pitch if you get it right using a piano sound that plays back in the correct octave.  

This app quit working when iOS 8.x came out, but I’ve been beta testing for the developer since then, and all the finishing touches are done on the newest version, which now runs correctly on all the iPhones regardless of model or iOS.  It costs $1.99 which seems like a bargain to me for something that’s so convenient to have on your phone. Here are a few screen shots from my iPhone 4S: 

Tenor Tutor

Main Screen

Tenor Tutor

Set the Scoring Method. (Notice you can also set it for Alto Clef.)

Tenor Tutor

Setting the Pitch Range

Tenor Tutor

Setting Up Key Signatures