Troubleshooting a Student’s Instrument

I have a general reluctance to try and play a student’s instrument, mouth piece, reed and all. Call it the “grossness factor”. When I play, the only way the reed gets wet is from sucking it prior to playing it, or the condensation that builds up under it. A student though, they’re sometimes not as controlled with their saliva.

See what I mean? Just the word saliva sounds a bit gross.

And even when the students are beyond that spit-overload-stage, it’s as if their mouth piece and reed have all these micro-organisms that have been specially tailored for that player, so that if a different player comes in contact, e.g. me, the mouth and tongue riles, and I feel like I have to drink water for the next 30 mins to wash the psychological overreaction away.

But to do a successful troubleshoot, it sometimes has to be done. Here’s a couple of examples. Thankfully, the first I could my own mouthpiece, so no harm there. The second I needed to play the tenor sax with the student’s setup to figure out what was up.

The Squeaking Clarinet

My young clarinet student was initially having a terrible time with low notes. It was definitely fingering related because small hands take a bit of time to get used to stretching and applying pressure. I knew his clarinet was pretty good because I had played it when he first started and so any squeaks were generally fatigue related. That’s why I encourage youngsters to rest the bell of the clarinet on something.

Over lockdown though and the subsequent Skype lessons, we reached high notes, and it didn’t go so well. We mixed it up with some low note pieces, which generally went much better.

Upon exciting lockdown and an eventual face to face lesson again, I felt compelled to play the instrument again just in case. You never know sometimes, because instruments come in with mysterious malfunctions and the like. Instruments don’t like being knocked and dropped.

Anyway, I swapped off the mouth piece and sure enough, even I was having issues with getting the high notes to sound. It turns out one of the pads wasn’t closing perfectly if the clarinet wasn’t perfectly aligned when putting it together.

A not-perfectly-straight assembly resulted in the join mechanism pushing a pad higher. NB: This is my instrument (not the student’s)

Yikes! Most clarinets are way more forgiving, and this would explain why sometimes the student was fine, and other times not so. For whatever reason, the mechanism relied on perfect alignment or else a pad wouldn’t successfully seal unless the student pressed the keys down really hard.

I’m large handed adult and not a 9 year old, so my hand pressure could get me by, but it was obvious the student wasn’t going to be able.

Once the mystery was solved, the student was acing all his high note homework. Fantastic. Unfortunately the clarinet is difficult to put together; it’s cork is thick and often the wood expands, making it very difficult to pull apart, but that’s a side issue.

The Mystery of the Quiet Tenor

Louds and softs; a critical aspect in playing a wind instrument. If the instrument can’t exercise any kind of dynamic contrast, then, well…

So after going through my usual teaching repertoire to try and encourage some more volume from my tenor student, I had to play her instrument to ascertain if the setup was okay. I did this at the end of the lesson to give all my personal mouth bacteria a chance to die on her equipment before she practiced again (as I wrote earlier, gross).

Sure enough, teacher-mode showed that her tenor was a mighty beast capable of outlandish fortes and super mysterious pianissimos, complete with aggressive marcato and smooth legatos.

So what gives? Why could I get this insane contrast out of the instrument whereas the student could not?

  • Her embouchure looked fine
  • She reads music incredibly well so there’s definitely brain power to spare for details like dynamics.
  • Generally the pulsing air exercises generate some dynamic change, but not too much, so that may be an aspect worth looking at.

The point of playing her instrument wasn’t so much for me to show off, although, to be fair, that’s part of it. The point was to show that her setup was capable of doing what I was trying to describe how to do. It means there’s something wrong with my instruction; it’s almost impossible to get a student to truely understand physical requirements of things such as:

  • How hard to squeeze the mouthpiece? Where on the mouthpiece?
  • How hard to squeeze the reed?
  • Where is the tongue exactly? It’s under the reed and always touching, but that’s hard to describe this.
  • What is the shape inside the mouth? Saying dooo, aaah, taaah, yaaa all make the inside of the mouth take on different shapes.
  • How much force is the guts really applying to force air out of the instrument?
  • How much should the embouchure “fight” the air coming out? How much resistance should the embouchure create?

These are hard things for a student to come to grips with, but I have one idea. Different reeds.

The reed is too soft, despite it being a somewhat large sounding 2 1/2, it was a Rico and they’re typically soft. Generally a soft reed is too easy for the student to squish closed again the mouthpiece, stifling the sound. A harder reed would would be far too hard to squeeze closed, and producing a sound would force more core muscles (gut muscles) to get involved.

The student now knows what the instrument is capable of, it’s a matter of getting her own physicality to match, so something in her equilibrium needs to change.

Just like a weight lifter lifts heavier and heavier weights to allow the muscles to grow (else it just turns into a cardio exercise), I think experimenting with harder reeds may be the catalyst for getting other aspects to work differently. “Oh, the saxophone is too hard to blow, well, now the guts have to work harder, the mouth has to loosen a bit but the bottom lip has to solidify more…” things like that.

Now to send a shopping list of reeds to the parents.

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