Monday, October 29, 2012

Woodwind Imposter Syndrome

This post was inspired by a reader who wrote in:

“[A]s I've started to build whatever career I have at the moment, I've [been] getting calls for musicals. The one I'm currently doing has a great deal of exposed flute parts, and I have to come to terms with how "sax-player-playing flute" I now sound. I was wondering if you have any thoughts or observations on saxophone/reed players picking up the flute.” - Tim

Over the years there have been many times when I needed to dust off the reeded beasts and find ways to make myself presentable again. Usually I would play them only once a year, so there were always cobwebs to be removed. Of course, every time I pulled the ignored instruments out of the closet I had to face the fact that I sounded exactly like I was: a Woodwind Imposter.

No one wants to be an imposter, so how do we remedy this issue?

What I’ve found that works best for me is to start each instrument completely independent of all others - I try to approach each instrument as if it’s the only instrument I play. When I’m playing sax I’m a saxophone player, not a flute player trying to work on my doubles. If I practice sax as if it’s my only instrument I’m suddenly able to really focus on issues that are sax-specific, and I make much more progress.

I also make sure that when I am practicing more than one instrument a day I give myself a large enough break between instruments so that the lips can recover or reset (this is particularly true when transitioning from reed to flute). As skill level increases (or performance date approaches!), the time between instruments can be reduced. Because of reed-induced lip trauma, I think it’s always best to start the day with flute (of course, I’m a tad biased). The vibrations from the reed cause the lips to swell and tingle, which can make switching to flute very hard at first.

Even though I am a degree-holding flutist, I *still* have to deal with the fact that if I'm playing a lot of sax or clarinet and then switch to flute, my flute tone will suffer in the short term. While simple daily practice makes switching between flute and reeds easier, here are some other tips that I’ve found get me back into flute-mode:

- During breaks between reeds and flute I buzz my lips - but not like a brass player. Instead, use a  “Bbbbbb” or “Ppppppp.” Keep the lips relaxed and floppy (just pretend you're a five-year-old). I’m not sure why this helps, but it does. Be careful not to overdo it, just a couple times for a few seconds each time.
- Playing a couple high notes on the flute can help as well. When the lips have the post-reed tingle, it can feel like you’re forming a small aperture when in reality the aperture is incredibly broad and, frankly, useless. If you have a piccolo available to play some notes on, it can also really help.
- Also, and I realize that this may not be an issue for sax-primary players, I've found that if I'm playing sax improperly, switching to flute will be much harder. I have to remember to support my airstream from my abdomen and also let the larger facial muscles do some of the work on the saxophone. Otherwise, I'll find myself biting the mouthpiece and really straining my lips, which all but eliminates the chance for me to get the focused, resonant sound I want on the flute.
I also like to use a very simple, all-purpose warm-up that I can easily transfer from instrument to instrument:

What I like about this one is that it's not too easy, not so hard I hate myself for even trying, and it covers a good range without being terribly long. I usually start on a fingered G with flute and saxes, and on clarinet I start the same pattern on a fingered middle C. From this starting point I can easily transpose it up or down chromatically, but sometimes I go around the circle of fourths or fifths instead. I also switch up articulations, dynamics, and often play these with a drone for intonation.

Here's one final idea for getting used to switching instruments quickly. After a normal flute warm-up, grab the sax (or any reed) and play for maybe 5 seconds, maybe even just one note. Put the reed down and go back to flute. Take note of any changes to your flute sound, and try to fix them as you continue practicing. Keep doing this, but gradually increase the time spent playing sax (30 seconds, a minute or two, five minutes). You're almost guaranteed to sound different after playing sax than you did before, but by interrupting your flute playing with ever-increasing amounts of reed playing you'll figure out what you need to do to still perform, and isn't that the end goal?

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