Mastering multiple embouchures on wind and brass instruments

Hola a todos. This article is specifically about the Classical Music genre since that is my area of training and experience, but a musician mastering more than one wind or brass instrument with different embouchures applies to the jazz and rock genres as well. I mean, why wouldn’t it be if one has truly mastered other wind and brass instruments and their corresponding embouchures? Embouchure (or lipping) is the use of the lips, facial muscles, tongue, and teeth in playing a wind instrument. This includes shaping the lips to the mouthpiece of a woodwind instrument or the mouthpiece of a brass instrument. Many musicians who perform in other genres originally trained in the Classical Music tradition. I was listening to jazz artist, Steve Slagle, being interviewed on Jazz 91-KCSM and their Latin Jazz programme on 17 March 2019. Steve talked about how he dropped out of the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He dropped out while on scholarship there, which not too many people were pleased with. He said he had become restless of going to school since he had been going to school since he was 5 years old. He felt he needed a break — I remember feeling like that at one point when at the Conservatory of Music where I trained — and he wanted to get out there and play gigs rather than sitting in school. Then, after he got that out of his system, he later went back to school and got his Master’s Degree at the Manhattan School of Music and taught there for 21 years. Then, in one of the pieces they played of his performances immediately afterwards he said: In this piece I start out playing alto saxophone and end up on flute. He didn’t say a word about the two very different embouchures required for those instruments — saxophone and flute — used in the same piece. Steve is especially known for playing the alto saxophone but also mastered the flute. He mentioned another musician who plays the flute and trumpet (two different embouchures) and he was asked by that trumpet player, “How is it that you play that saxophone and flute?” He laughed and responded, “How is it that you play that trumpet and flute?” They both laughed. For his flute sound, Steve very much admires the late Eric Dolfy. Eric Dolphy, Jr. was a jazz alto saxophonist, bass clarinetist and flautist. And on a few occasions, he also played the clarinet and piccolo. Quite a versatile musician.

I’ve become more and more curious about orchestral instruments from watching the stellar musicians of my favourite Orchestra, the hr-Sinfonieorchester/Frankfurt Radio Symphony.

I read that the hr-Sinfonieorchester is especially known for their wind section. Among all of their highly-skilled wind and brass players, they have two superb principal flautists, Sebastian Wittiber and Clara Andrada de la Calle. They both look like lovely people, and play beautifully. You can hear them both in these performances. And I think they have a third principal but I’m sorry I don’t know her name. They all rotate as principal flautists. Clara Andrada is also a flautist with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

As for playing the flute and other wind instruments, a wind musician online wrote that he learned all the woodwind instruments in high school and is going to do his DMA (or already has his DMA by now) in multiple woodwind instruments. He wrote this:

“If you have a basic idea of being a musician and know your theory pretty well, you will be fine. It’s going to be mainly learning embouchure and fingerings. The fingerings are similar…but you will need to think of it as a completely new instrument, rather than think about how much they are the same. I treat each instrument as an individual, carrying over only my musicality to each. I started my serious musical life as a violinist in middle school, and still play it now, but learned all the woodwinds in High School after being bored with my high school orchestra. I now have a bachelor’s and master’s in oboe/English horn performance [ed. they are two very different embouchures], and am going to do my DMA [ed. for those who don't know, that means the Doctor of Musical Arts degree] in multiple woodwinds.” (See source below).

In comments, some musicians make a big deal about embouchure whereas others don’t. Oh they mention it, but they don’t make it sound like that big of a deal for them.

One of my commenters — a flautist or flutist, whichever she prefers — recently touched on the mastery and artistry involved in playing the flute, in particular embouchure. She pointed out that the embouchure for the flute is very different from the embouchure for the clarinet, which, if one has closely watched a flautist or clarinetist play their instrument one should be able to see that.

So I was wondering: Are the embouchure differences between the clarinet and flute as drastic as the differences between playing the piano and pipe organ, for example? Or can that comparison be made? I ask that question because many keyboard musicians have mastered both piano and pipe organ. And I would say that the pipe organ is probably the most difficult instrument to master, which I’ll explain in a moment. It’s considered “The King of Instruments.”

I trained in the keyboard instruments: Piano, harpsichord and pipe organ. It is often said that one should have a good piano technique before studying the pipe organ. I agree with that because they are two very different instruments, perhaps as different as flute and clarinet, if not more so?

The piano with its 88-keys — or a Bösendorfer made in Austria with its 97-keys with the extra 9 keys being at the bass end and painted black and the piano costing between US$256,000.00 and $560,000.00 — extend the length of the piano keyboard. The keyboards on the organ are called manuals. They are shorter and contain five octaves (61 notes) each and are stacked in stair-step rows with all the rows matching. One might be asking: So what happened to the bass notes that are on the piano since the manuals on the organ are much shorter? How are the bass notes played on the organ? The bass notes on the organ are played by the feet on a two-and-a-half octave (32-note) pedal board. When playing the pedals, well-trained organists use their heel and toe appropriately for legato playing and depending upon the situation: toes for “black key” and heels for “white key” combinations when there’s a white and black key in consecutive sequence. The toes generally play the “white keys” when there is no “black key” note to play, although one can use toe-heel on consecutive “white keys” especially when the right foot is busy changing volume dynamics and the expression boxes/pedals (not to be confused with the bass pedals). It depends upon the situation and per the score and good organ pedal technique. Those who are not well-trained in pedal technique use the toes for every pedal regardless, or they don’t play the pedals at all because they’re scared of them. I grew up knowing one or two untrained church organists like that. “Those menacing pedals down there; I’m scared of them!” I was the opposite. I was eager to learn the pedals, in part, because of the deep, low bass sound they added to the sound of the manuals. The right foot when it’s not busy playing the bass pedals is busy controlling the multiple expression boxes/volume-level pedals of the organ.

A keyboard musician who has mastered piano, harpsichord and pipe organ could play all three instruments in the same concert, even though their playing styles are different between them. Think of a concert featuring a varied programmed of works with the featured keyboard artist playing the harpsichord for Händel’s Dixit Dominus and other Baroque works. Then the same keyboard artist as piano soloist for a segment of Russian piano works by Sergei Rachmaninov and later ending with the keyboardist being the featured artist on the Concert Hall’s pipe organ for Jehan Alain’s Litanies and other French organ works, ending with the Widor Toccata. That’s just a programme I came up with off the top of my head. It sounds good to me and it’s a varied programme, and make sure to invite the superb Chorus in the performance above from the hr-Sinfonieorchester performance. We want choral excellence here.

I have played organ and piano in the same performance (although not in the same piece) and it requires a brief adjustment period when going back to either instrument. That’s because each instrument has a different feel and playing style from the other. The playing technique is different including the keyboard action being different than on the organ, as well as the playing style with using the damper pedal on the piano, and positioning oneself on the piano bench. Even though I love playing the pipe organ — and I won’t attempt to speak for other musicians — but for me, the organ requires more of an adjustment period because of its difficulty, and I rarely have the opportunity to play an organ. And it’s a much more complicated instrument. If one hasn’t played an organ in years, one’s pedal work — which is mostly played by feel — will likely be rusty giving one incorrect bass notes and “bumps” in the sound. Although one is free to look down and watch the pedal board if one needs to. Also, each organ is different in how its designed. The registration stops are not in the same place on each organ so there’s sort of a new learning curve with each organ and where things are. The keyboard action is very different between the piano and pipe organ. Then there are the thumb and toe pistons for registration changes, and expression boxes/pedals depending upon the size of the organ of course. But it only takes a short time to re-adjust to each instrument if one has mastered both piano and pipe organ to begin with and has played both instruments recently to be at the top of one’s skill level. In my case, not having access to an organ for practise purposes nor the space for a organ at home or the money for one, if I were to have the opportunity to play an organ again it would probably take me awhile to properly re-adjust to the instrument per my training. Oh I could easily wing it and get by right after sitting down on the organ bench and the average person listening to me play wouldn’t know the difference, unless I were playing something like the Widor Toccata. One can’t easily “wing” that piece! You may have the manuals part mastered from practising those on the piano, but the pedal work will be a problem. But if I were to play the organ the way it’s supposed to be played per my training, that would be different and more difficult and take me longer to get my skills back up. But I’m specifically speaking here about musicians who play both instruments on a regular basis. Even concert organist Diane Bish looks at her feet on occasion as experienced as she is and having played French organ works for decades. Also, what’s known as the “natural hand position” on the piano is the same on the organ, but the seating position is different on the organ than on the piano, even though they pretty much look the same. What I mean by that is that on the organ one has to sort of balance oneself on the bench. One cannot brace oneself with one’s left foot as one can do at the piano because then the bass pedals will sound, unless you have them turned off of course. The piano bench is moveable of course but the organ bench is less so, generally speaking. Well, I never moved it and never saw anyone else who did either, that’s why I say that. I assumed the organ bench was in the place it needed to be for easy access to the pedals and expression boxes. On the organ, both feet are busy playing the pedal board or dealing with the expression boxes (right foot usually for that), along with changing the toe pistons (which also change the registration) which are located above the pedal board, and the hands are busy playing the manuals and hopefully fluently moving the hands between the manuals for specific registration effects already set on each manual per the score, or one’s improvisation creativity. The hands can be rapidly jumping or slowly “finger-crawling” (that’s what I call it) from one manual to another depending upon the piece (a French toccata, for example), and changing registration either manually or through thumb pistons (the white buttons under the keys), assuming one does not have a registrant. A registrant is another musician (hopefully) who reads music standing by the organ changing the registration for the organist, and also turning pages. It’s considered acceptable for organists to use their scores in performance, whereas the same is not true for pianists, another glaring hypocrisy and something I disagree with in the classical music tradition. (Related: Pianists: Use your scores. Screw these outdated traditions.) Then there are the improvisational skills required of the Organist in Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran Liturgies, especially Anglican. Some of the finest organists train in and specialise in improvisation.

Also, I have found that organists and churches are — well, don’t let me get started on church organists! — not at all welcoming to having a Conservatory-trained organist practise on or use their organ even when offering to pay them for practise time. Does the church organist think that someone is trying to steal his/her job? And you have to tell a church organist of your training otherwise s/he thinks you’re just someone walking in off the street who wants to play an organ and could “break it.” But, if you tell them you’re “Conservatory-trained” they seem to be intimidated by that and think that even with such training that one will “break” their organ. Even if you manage to get in the door (highly unlikely) you’ll hear, “Don’t change my presets.” So I started writing in introductory letters to organists that I wouldn’t change their presets. But after many futile efforts on my part, I gave up on trying to practise in churches and dealing with difficult church organists. Most of my experience with musicians has been good; very favourable, but not with church organists. They are a different breed entirely, and I don’t know why. It really was a no-win situation and I had to deal with so many church organists with “issues.” And most church organists seem to think they personally own the church’s organ. Most church organists from my experience are quite a piece of work. Can’t stand them. I have little positive to say about most of them. A few of the church organists in my childhood were dear friends and didn’t act like these people. So I can imagine the stories that Concert Organist Diane Bish has to tell from her decades of recording in parish and cathedral churches in the US and in Europe. I remember her saying that church organists can be “touchy.” Oh Diane dear, that doesn’t even begin to cover it! Why don’t you tell us what you really think about them, or could that not be printed?! And Diane produced some splendid programmes during her long career with The Joy of Music.

But that’s not all. Add to all that the location of the organ console in parish and cathedral churches of the Anglican Communion, Catholic and Lutheran churches is often out of sight. It can be in a pit in the Quire area, or up on the second or third story of the cathedral in a “gallery” or it’s in the back of the Quire area because the High Altar — and not the organ console — is the centre of attention in Anglican, Catholic and Lutheran parishes and cathedral churches. At St Paul’s Cathedral in London (Anglican), the organ console is up on the second story above the Quire area on the right side facing the High Altar. Then there’s the un-moveable organ console at Washington National Cathedral (WNC) in the District of Columbia. The console is in the very back of the Quire area (over on the right side) out of sight if you’re standing in the Nave. At WNC, the Cathedral Organist has to use a monitor above the music rack (the monitor is connected to cameras) allowing the Organist to see part of the Nave and the Sanctuary area. The Sanctuary area is where the free-standing altar is located. He uses the monitor to watch the Liturgy — from the hidden organ console — to know when to play and how much. During his organ improvisations he watches the procession and the priests and vergers and what they’re doing. When improvising during a hymn, he must determine when to start the next verse of a hymn following an improvisation based on what the priests are doing in the Sanctuary area around the free-stand altar, or how far along the procession is. He also has to watch in his monitor to see the Choirmaster who’s conducting — at WNC the Cathedral Choir sits in the Sanctuary area for some odd reason rather than in the Quire stalls — as well as the priests around the free-standing altar to determine the appropriate time to play in the Liturgy. He’s also watching for the acolytes to see where they are and that gives the Cathedral Organist a guide of how much improvisation he needs to do at that point in the Liturgy. He also has to watch the thurifer when incense is used at WNC before the Consecration to extend the music (the hymn or an improvisation) accordingly. Or, if an Organist is at a parish church where the organ is up in the back gallery with the Organist’s back to the High Altar, the Organist has to use a large mirror or a monitor for when to play at various places in the Liturgy. No other instrument that I can think of needs this additional expertise and skill level that some church musicians are required to do.

As one can see, the piano and pipe organ are drastically different, yet they can be played by the same musician in a concert, and this is the specialty area of training I’m very familiar with. So I have to ask:

Does playing the pipe organ — especially in a cathedral setting as I explained — sound more difficult than mastering one of the wind or brass instruments and their corresponding embouchure, by comparison? I should think so. Yet well-trained keyboardists in both piano and organ can go back and forth between the two instruments relatively easily.

As I said earlier, my commenter pointed out that the embouchure between the flute and clarinet is very different, and if I understood her correctly — she’s free to correct me if I misunderstood her — one would not see a wind player play both the flute and clarinet in the same concert. Therefore, based on what she said, I came away with the impression that the embouchure between the flute and clarinet is so drastically different that it would be impossible to play another wind instrument.

But from my research, other wind and brass musicians do mention the embouchure differences, but they don’t make that big of a deal about it, as if they have a different opinion about this and it would not prevent them from learning/playing another wind (or brass) instrument and playing both instruments in the same concert. Jazz artist Steve Slagle comes to mind who I mentioned at the beginning where he played two different instruments with two different embouchures in the same piece. This is not meant to minimise the skill level/artistry of embouchure required for any instrument, or the talent required.

Or is Steve Slagle an exception? (Spoiler: No, he’s not an exception).

Can a wind or brass musician not master two or more very different embouchures? Other musicians seem to be saying: “Yes, we can, and we do” to that question.

Is is not possible for a wind musician to go back and forth between clarinet and flute or other wind instruments just as a keyboardist goes back and forth between piano and organ, for example? It seems to me that if a musician has mastered the embouchure for one or more instruments, why couldn’t one play multiple instruments well/superbly, even in orchestras? Again, not in the same piece of course, although Steve Slagle does that. As an analogy, different types of guitars can be played by the same musician, even though the guitars — such as going from an electric to an acoustic guitar — are very different.

Each musician is different with different training, talents and skill levels. So what some musicians can’t do or find difficult to do, or have no interest in doing, other musicians can do and do exceptionally well, including playing multiple wind and or brass instruments with different embouchures in the same performance.

Some examples: From my research, I learned that there are musicians who play or are studying both flute and clarinet or various wind and/or brass instruments. I found it quite interesting.

The first commenter below (it’s the same quote that I have at the top of the page in case someone missed it up there) from the site “From Moving From Flute to other wind instruments” learned all the woodwinds in High School and is getting his DMA in multiple woodwinds:

He wrote this in response to the question about moving from flute to other wind instruments:

“If you have a basic idea of being a musician and know your theory pretty well, you will be fine. It’s going to be mainly learning embouchure and fingerings. The fingerings are similar…but you will need to think of it as a completely new instrument, rather than think about how much they are the same. I treat each instrument as an individual, carrying over only my musicality to each. I started my serious musical life as a violinist in middle school, and still play it now, but learned all the woodwinds in High School after being bored with my high school orchestra. I now have a bachelor’s and master’s in oboe/English horn performance, and am going to do my DMA [ed. for those who don't know, that means the Doctor of Musical Arts degree] in multiple woodwinds.”

Another commenter wrote:

There are similarities and differences. Fingerings of the oboe and saxophone are similar to the flute (but not identical). The basic fingerings (D, E, F, G, A, B) are essentially the same in the lowest octave (if the flute LH thumb key is closed). Flute, oboe, and saxophone are all octave based instruments. The second octave fingerings are mostly the same as the lowest octave. The big difference from the flute however, is that the oboe and sax use an octave key to jump to the second octave, whereas on the flute the second octave is achieved by overblowing to the next harmonic. In the third octave, the fingerings are different on all three instruments. The clarinet is not octave based. Instead it overblows a twelfth. The lowest octave is called the chalumeau register and the fingerings are offset by a twelfth from the flute fingerings. For example, on the flute, oboe, and sax, with the first two fingers of the left hand down, they all play a written A. On the clarinet in the lowest octave, the first two left fingers play a written D below the staff. With the same fingering, but adding the register key, the clarinet jumps up a twelfth to the A one ledger line above the staff. The flute has little resistance when blowing. Flutists are always trying to conserve air to keep from running out. The oboe has great resistance, so it’s exactly the opposite of the flute. Oboists sometimes have to exhale excess air before taking another breath. In terms of resistance, the order (from least to greatest) would be flute, saxophone, clarinet, and then oboe. So, for a flutist, from the perspective of fingerings only, it would probably be initially easier to learn oboe or sax. IMO, the saxophone would be the easier instrument for a flutist to learn. The fingerings are closer in the first two octaves and the embouchure is looser on the sax than on the clarinet or oboe so there’s less likelyhood of interfering with your flute embouchure.

Another commenter wrote:

“Personally, it feels like the clarinet is much more physically demanding. It has quite a bit of resistance and fingering takes more effort. I actually get fatigued after an hour of playing the clarinet but not so with the flute.”

Other commenters on another site:
Subject: Clarinet harder for young players than the flute?

I’ve been a clarinet player for many years (over 20) and I started playing the flute about 6 months ago and have made astounding progress. Over the years I’ve noticed at competitions that the young flute players are always much better than the young clarinetists of equal age. And having just gone through the process of learning flute I can offer some reasons why. In the beginning, a young clarinetist can’t play for more than 5 minutes because of the pain of having the reed on the teeth. Also the embouchure needs to be strengthened to play longer. With the flute there is no such mouth pain, it’s much more about control than strength. So a young flute player can practice much longer than any young clarinetist because there is no mouth pain associated with playing….The reason I mention my findings is because it took me about 6 years to get to a level advanced amateur proficiency. Granted, because I know music theory, breath control, rhythm, have finger dexterity, and strong mouth muscles, learning another wind instrment was easier for me. With flute all I really am concentrating on is tone quality and fingerings. I’ve worked through two beginner books in about a month, and now I’m working through the Voxman duet book. But I am still amazed at how quickly I’m progressing.

Another commenter:

Just some observations. Not quite as organized as your thoughts. I’ve played the clarinet for a long time, flute about 3-4 years now, sax maybe 2-3. My clarinet/sax teacher is convinced from his own experience and that of teaching others that your conclusion that the clarinet is the most difficult of the three for the same reason. He would much rather teach the clarinet first if a student is interested in learning more than one instrument. From what he has seen it is easier for a clarinetist to switch to the flute and sax than flute and sax players to learn the clarinet later. An observation of my own is that it seems harder to keep the flute embochure in shape when I’m playing the clarinet a lot and maybe not keeping up with the flute like I should. I can’t slack off for too long on the flute or it really shows.

Another commenter:

I remember my 6th grade band director telling us the flute was the easiest instrument to learn and the clarinet was a bit harder. The clarinet section always seemed to lag behind a bit. Metal clarinets still have the same mouthpiece/reed set-up. That seems to be what gives young players fits. The embouchure is difficult to master for them.
[Source: The Clarinet BBoard: Clarinet harder for young players than the flute?]

Then, at least one commenter on this site said: “I play both woodwind and brass instruments.”

Well, that is my point. That person has learned very different embouchures in order to play woodwinds and brass instruments, so it can be done. It seems that the musician has to practise/play both instruments to keep them up at a proficient level and not let one of them fall behind, because that’s where some musicians run into trouble from what I’m reading them say. Similar to myself in that I’m not as proficient on the pipe organ because I don’t have a organ to practise on.

While writing this article I talked with mi amigo/my friend about this topic. He asked: So why couldn’t one play flute then clarinet, for example, in the same performance? (Not the same piece). Like you say, it doesn’t sound as difficult as going from piano to pipe organ and all that you’ve detailed about the organ, which has a lot more going on than “what the mouth, lips and face do with the instrument” (embouchure). It sounds like to me that there’s a lot more to playing pipe organ than the embouchure factor with either flute or clarinet. And from your research, those who have mentioned the embouchure differences really haven’t made that big of a deal about it.

I noticed that the third chair clarinetist (the guy with the thick shoulder-length grey hair) in the hr-Sinfonieorchester also played the bass clarinet in the same concert. He played the bass clarinet in the Bartók piece: Der wunderbare Mandarin. You can see him playing the bass clarinet at 3.55 in this video:

Then in the Brahms piece on the same programme, he played the soprano clarinet. The bass clarinet is often mistaken for a saxophone. And, the embouchures are not the same for the two instruments from my understanding. [Source]. You can see him playing the soprano clarinet at 12.58 in this video:

Another commenter wrote:

“It’s my impression that most classically trained bass clarinetists use an embouchure that’s reasonably similar to what they use on soprano clarinet. Especially, in having the bass clarinet mouthpiece at an angle rather than playing it straight on (ie, like a saxophone).

That said, I’ve had a series of interesting conversations with a local friend who is a fine classical bass clarinetist. It’s his impression that while most bass clarinetists use a soprano clarinet kind of embouchure there are some classical bass clarinetists on the cutting edge who are exploring non-traditional embouchures.

I, personally, use what I describe as a “hybrid” embouchure in that I take a lot of the mouthpiece beak into my mouth and lift my front teeth off the mouthpiece. I don’t curl my top lip under my teeth as in a “double” embouchure. At most, I’ll have a very thin amount of lip under the teeth. Finally, I puff my checks (I only do this on bass clarinet). I also play the bass clarinet so the mouthpiece has an angle similar to what I use on soprano clarinet. This approach gives me a very full sound and excellent response & articulation throughout the range of the instrument.

My bass clarinet friend has also been exploring non-traditional embouchures. He suggested that I try puffing my cheeks. Lo and behold, it made a positive difference!”

And another commenter:

“Here’s an update…for me, the embouchure I’m using is not a sax nor a true Bb Clarinet embouchure, but more of a hybrid. I guess the best way to describe it is “it’s a bass clarinet embouchure”. The first 15-20 minutes I was wondering if it was going to work out, but with a bit of patience and long tones the sound got better and better.”
[Source: Here and here.]

The use of vibrato:

I was also curious about the use of vibrato. The flautist has to master the skilled use of vibrato, as do other instruments. I mention the flute in particular because I’ve been paying special attention to the principal flautists of the hr-Sinfonieorchester.

As for vibrato added to flute playing, from my understanding, vibrato technique on the flute should be applied carefully and tastefully as an expressive part of one’s playing, rather than used for every note. When used too often, it can detract from a performance. Yeah, tell me about it! Just like it distracts from a performance when operatic singers screamers are unfortunately invited into a symphonic choral performance, for example, and mistake that for opera, barking and screaming their way through the solo vocal parts. Their annoying voice with heavy-vibrato does not match the choral sound at all, assuming that the Symphony Chorus is singing with a beautiful straight tone. Vibrato on the flute should be seen as an enhancer of already excellent flute tone. It should not be used as a means to cover up tone or intonation problems. Again, think an operatic singer screaming diva in a symphonic choral performance or in an opera. The flautist should be able to play with solid, consistent, non-vibrato sound, and that is just as critical in one’s playing as mastering the vibrato technique for added artistry.

If only operatic singers screamers could grasp that same concept of vibrato rather than rearing back and belting out/harshly screaming with a wobbling, fluttering and quivering voice every note they propel from their mouth like a jet engine where the listener is trying to deceiver what notes this diva-screamer is trying to “sing” because they’re singing or rather screaming in between pitches/notes making their screaming sharp or flat. With operatic screamers and with ill-prepared Orchestra Choruses singing with very noticeable annoying vibrato preventing perfect intonation, too often their poor use of vibrato is for covering up bad vocal technique and their inability to sing on pitch. Orchestras are quite skilled at playing extremely softly so the long-held myth that one must scream to “sing over the Orchestra” is brainwashed nonsense that the Vibratobots among us love to spam all over the internet to justify their ugly, wobbling, fluttering, quivering, heavy-vibrato harsh screaming. There’s nothing remotely musical about screaming. Any fool can scream. Listen to how quietly and absolutely beautifully my favourite Orchestra, the hr-Sinfonieorchester/Frankfurt Radio Symphony plays at times, according to the scores markings of course. I’ve seen a few vocal screamers (invited vocal soloists) rear back and needlessly scream over the hr-Sinfonieorchester per the “singers”/screamers brainwashing and I had to click off. Such ugly screaming ruined the performance for me.

My own experience: Being a “choral person” my degree programme was in the vocal music concentration (piano major, voice and organ double minors), not in the instrumental concentration. I served as piano accompanist for — what seemed like — half of the Conservatory (orchestral musicians mostly, a few vocalists). I’m exaggerating a bit, but the point is that I had too many people to accompany. The faculty director for the Accompanying Department kept sending people to me to see if I would accompany them, in part, because I was also piano accompanist for the Conservatory’s Concert Choir. I initially appreciated all of the referrals from her and was complimented/flattered by them. But, after awhile it just became too much — I had too many students — and because she had referred them to me I was hesitant to say, “No, I have too many musicians already to accompany. You’ll have to find somebody else. Why don’t you try that stuck-on-herself, ugly-personality pianist with her big head who is seemingly jealous of any pianist around here who works on or even sight-reads the same pieces she’s played and who plays all the piano concerti around here on campus where no one else has the opportunity. Why don’t you ask her? You know who I’m talking about. Some of us call her ‘The Concerto Swine’ because she hogs all of the concerto opportunities. Maybe that jealous piece of work will take you on.” The thing is: I always tried to be nice to her when I saw her on campus and I even complimented her playing, which took a lot from me considering the way she treated me. She never did the same to me. All she would do was criticise me even to my face and around other students and tell me how many wrong notes she had heard me play while I was sight-reading one of the pieces she had played. I thought but didn’t say to her: Did you sight-read that concerto perfectly when you sight-read it, Ms Witch? And you have nothing better to do with your day than to stand outside my practise room listening to me sight-read or practise repertoire? Don’t you have another concerto to learn or something showy that you should be working on rather than worrying about what I’m doing in my practise room? What is wrong with you, ‘Concerto Swine’?” But she wanted nothing to do with me, and I never understood what I had done to her to cause her to behave like this to me. My music friends later said that they thought she was jealous of me — and that’s why she acted the way she did towards me (cold and belligerent) — because of all the piano accompanying I did on campus. I said to them: But she’s a Performance Major in Piano (Bachelor of Music Degree). She’s not in accompanying or in my degree programme, although as a Piano Major I was trained more like a Performance Major than most of the other pianists in the BME degree programme. My friends said: Maybe she’s confused and realised after being here awhile that she doesn’t really want to perform after all. That may have been the case, because I found her online in recent years and today that’s what she’s doing: Accompanying. She’s not concertising or playing with orchestras. Now anyone can have memory slips while performing, but maybe her multiple and scary memory slips during concerto performances made her re-think things. In one of her performances with the Conservatory Symphony Orchestra, the whole thing (the concerto she was playing) almost shut down entirely because she didn’t come in at the right time because of a memory slip. Then, sections of the Orchestra were to get their entrance cue from the piano so they didn’t come in either, and other sections didn’t come in. Let’s just say the sound was pretty bare at one point. I thought the conductor was going to have to take his score over to her and whisper, “Let’s start here, dear, play something!…try this again.” And tell the same to the Orchestra. But finally, she played something that got it back on track but it was very obvious she was having a major memory slip. I think some of us started looking at each other in the audience when this happened as to say: Is she going to get through this? Did I rub that in her face? No. I either told her that I enjoyed her performance or I said nothing. On that occasion, I probably said nothing because saying that I enjoyed it could come off as being sarcastic considering her major memory problem during the performance. In one or two other concerto performances, she also had memory slips, but they were not as severe as this one. Of course if she had used her score with a page turner this wouldn’t have happened. But by silly tradition, pianists are not supposed to use their scores (roll eyes) in performance. (Related: Pianists: Use your scores. Screw these outdated traditions.) Also, interestingly, I had a very good rapport with her piano professor. She was very nice to me. I even helped her on one occasion. Hope you enjoyed that little “behind the scenes” story from my Conservatory experience.

The accompanying I did was interesting but I really didn’t learn much about each instrument unfortunately, because that was not the purpose of it. The purpose was accompanying experience. It was good experience but it became too much with rehearsals and end-of-semester juries and that sort of thing. The Conservatory required piano majors in the BME degree programme vocal concentration to accompany three musicians. Well, I had far more than that, along with the repertoire for my choral accompanying and my own piano major, organ and voice minors repertoire. And I chose to do three years for the minors as opposed to the required two years.

Maybe they have changed things by now, but I really think that the two concentrations (vocal and instrumental/orchestral) should overlap at least some so that each concentration has a knowledge of the other. Choral people should know as much about each instrument as possible, at least in a basic sense. I don’t mean studying to play each instrument necessarily but at least know the basics “on paper.” Maybe spend a week on each orchestral instrument with demonstrations about the instrument. The degree programme time would be better spent on that rather than some of these useless courses (such as algebra) that we were required to take — and I questioned at the time — in order to earn the degree. Their thinking: “But the Choral Music Director in a public school might need to teach algebra if the algebra teacher is out sick.” (roll eyes) I said: Screw that. Give the algebra classes a study hall that day. (lol) But that was the rationale used for having us in the Conservatory’s vocal concentration for the Bachelor of Music Education degree study algebra. And I’ve not used algebra since the day I took the final exam! In the long run, what a waste of time that class was.

At this point in life and especially after watching many performances by the superb hr-Sinfonieorchester, as I said earlier I’ve become quite curious about some of the orchestral instruments and for awhile have been thinking of studying the violin. After a few classes I’m sure I would be at a level to audition for Second Concertmaster with the hr-Sinfonieorchester, don’t you think? Even if that chair isn’t available. Move over superb Second Concertmaster, Florin Silviu Iliescu. You’re now third chair, mi amor. No dear reader, I haven’t gone insane. Not quite yet. I’m just joking if you don’t already know my usually-sarcastic sense of humour. But that is what some of the people who came to me for piano instruction thought. Yes they expected to be able to play one of the extremely difficult Rachmaninov Études-Tableaux in a couple of weeks apparently just because they were “sitting down with me at the piano” and they expected to play it just like me in a few classes, without having any prior piano training at all. Insane. I had multiple prospective students tell me about the difficult pieces they had heard and expected to play in a matter of a couple of classes. Astounding. Of course I didn’t tell them any differently. I didn’t really say anything other than, “Oh they are lovely pieces and very difficult.” I thought I would just allow my student to slowly take it all in and realise the mistake in their thinking. I have no idea where they acquired that thinking. Perhaps from watching one of those one-finger play-by-number infomercials on television where the key lights up on the small electronic keyboard (not even Digital and without full-sized keys) when you touch it? Or did they get this thinking through our US instant-gratification pop culture? I couldn’t tell you where they got it, but these students didn’t stay with me. After they realised there was some work involved, they were gone.

And I suspect the same is true for all instruments. It’s a lot more difficult than it looks. The same is true for all musical instruments. It’s just that a well-trained, true artist makes it look so easy and effortless, or that’s the way we were trained that it’s supposed to look. Perhaps that’s, in part, where some people acquire this thinking that, “Oh it’s so easy, only a few classes will be needed for me to play just like well-trained outstanding musicians one has seen perform.” Chau.—el barrio rosa


Since I already play the flute, how different is it to play the clarinet in terms of difficulty?

Why the organ really is king of musical instruments

2 comments on “Mastering multiple embouchures on wind and brass instruments

  1. Conservatory Student

    A VERY educational article, and I know a lot of time went into it. I must have gotten too much into the article because I felt like smacking that “Concerto Swine” you wrote about upside the head as if she’d done that to me. Sounds like you handled it the better way though…. by not responding to her….the little bully. I’m planning to go talk with some of our wind and brass majors about embouchure. They’ll be shocked that I know anything about it!! (I’m an organ student). Thanks for writing about the organ and making the comparison. Spot-on.

  2. E in Sunnyvale

    Yes, I’m the aforementioned flutist/flautist :)

    You wrote:
    my commenter pointed out that the embouchure between the flute and clarinet is very different, and if I understood her correctly — she’s free to correct me if I misunderstood her — one would not see a wind player play both the flute and clarinet in the same concert. Therefore, based on what she said, I came away with the impression that the embouchure between the flute and clarinet is so drastically different that it would be impossible to play another wind instrument.

    Well, first off, a player can certainly master both instruments. The embouchures are quite different and use a different set of muscles. As someone mentioned in the quoted comments, the flute is more about control. In fact, it’s a very fine control since the flute is a notoriously unstable instrument (the same has been said of the oboe), requiring constant pitch and tone “correction” throughout the instrument’s range. Even a small adjustment can make a substantial difference in pitch/tone.

    As for switching between the two at a concert, well, it can be done, depending on the demands of the music. If you’re playing in a jazz band, for example, and not really soloing, it’s certainly possible. But in a classical context, or when confronted with a solo, it might not work so well.

    Think about it like this: go and lift weights for 10 minutes, then try to thread a needle and sew a few evenly-placed straight stitches in fabric, or some other task requiring fine dexterity. It will be difficult because your muscles are fatigued a bit and also “adjusted” to a different set of movements. It would take time to loosen up and relax them again. That’s the best analogy I can think of concerning switching between clarinet and flute on the fly without a little rest period so your embouchure can readjust.

    In my flute training, one of the things I was taught early on to do during practice sessions is to pay attention to how your embouchure “adjusts” to each key and scale. James Galway was also taught this same technique (most likely by the great Marcel Moyse) and has discussed it in interviews. During warmup especially, sound the root, fifth, and octaves of that particular key throughout the playable range of the flute and listen very carefully to your intonation. Then do the same for another key and notice that it changes. Your lips must adjust, often very subtly, to play with correct intonation. Then do this again ‘p’, then ‘pp’, then ‘f’, then ‘ff’, and so on.

    This is true to a degree with all wind instruments, I suspect, but some are a little more “delicate” than others, and the flute (and probably oboe) would most likely count as the most “delicate” and sensitive to small changes and fatigue.

    Anyway, hope this helps clarify.

Fin. The End.