Making the Most of Ligatures 

Do you make the most of your ligatures? Do you use more than one? I am not an equipment hound but have collected a variety of them over the years. Generally, I find something I like and stick with it. Occasionally I’ll get a new one to see what it has to offer. But overall, I use one ligature for everything.

This “one for all and all for one” attitude may be to our detriment. This became very apparent when I made the switch to Legere reeds. As with all reeds, you have to match the reed with the ligature that makes it easy to get the qualities that you are looking for. After finding the correct reed strength, I went on the hunt for the best ligature.

It took a while to do this on the saxophone. The problem was that I play many different styles on the saxophone. Because of this, I could not find one ligature that gave me everything that I wanted. I’m used to having a classical and a jazz mouthpiece but even with these there are times when I need to change my sound. For example, I’m playing a show where the band is on the stage. It is a small group so I do not need to have the power necessary for a big band and since it is on stage in a theater, the tonal quality is different than playing a combo gig. I know that there are those that play the same set up no matter what the setting. While this may work for some, I like being able to be adapt and blend to the situation.

In order to do everything I need I found that I would need to use different ligatures for different settings. I have one ligature that I use for pop, one for leading a big band, one for combo, one for theater, etc. All this using the same mouthpiece and reed.  Saxophone success!

To get more out of the ligature, one can change the angle against the reed. The Rovner’s are famously known to change the sound by tilting the ligature forward or backward on the reed but this can be done with nearly any ligature. In addition, there is the placement on the reed: how far forward or back. This too can change to tonal quality.

This helps on clarinet because we tend to use the same mouthpiece for everything: orchestral, chamber, Dixieland, etc. We often forget that each of these has different requirements. The easiest way to make the necessary change is through the ligature.  For example, chamber playing needs a nice warm sound with depth that blends well with others while Dixieland needs more cutting power and pitch flexibility for scoops and bends. By using different ligatures I can bring what is warranted for that style. On this same show mentioned earlier, I’m playing clarinet that has both chamber and Dixieland styles. What I ended up doing was to get a ligature for chamber and then adjusting the placement on the reed to facilitate playing the Dixieland parts: best of both worlds all through ligature selection and adjustment.

While you don’t have to become an equipment hound always chasing to newest things, it pays to have more than one ligature and to experiment with their angling and placement. Having the ability to make changes simply is a good thing, especially when you are dealing with finicky reeds. But that’s another story.

Boot Camp for the Woodwind Embouchure * 

I’ve got a theater gig coming up, so I’ve been getting my flute chops back to top shape. I am also getting over a hand injury that caused me to not play for nearly 8 weeks. As a woodwind specialist, I do not get the opportunity to practice every instrument every day. Generally, only the instruments that about to be used get attention while others are ignored. Percussionists call it “rotation of neglect.”

Because of this, over the years I’ve become an expert on getting ready quickly. Getting back in top shape after time off is not just practicing long tones. There are two basic types of practicing: serious study [working on improvement] and maintenance [bare minimum to keep chops active and strong]. But if you have to get back in top form quickly you have to use a different practice routine than normal. There is a third type of practice for this: chop-building, whose sole purpose is to bring back the chops of an instrument that has not been played on in quite a while.

Brass players often focus on building their chops but as woodwind players we feel that this doesn’t apply to us. This is where we are wrong; we need to build strength just like the brass and just playing long tones is not enough. In order to improve the embouchure we need to do an intense workout that creates an intense workout. I use what I call long practice.

What I mean by this is that I stop very little and try to keep playing as much as possible. In regular practice, I would focus on errors and work just that aspect, trying to improve. But that starting-stopping does not help with the doubles rejuvenation practice. Do not stop playing, even if you have problems. Things are repeated several times which gives you a chance to make things better but you keep going; fix things while you play. I got this idea from one of my flute teachers who was getting frustrated with my constant restarting, trying to get things perfect from the beginning. She told me to keep playing and learn how to make the adjustments along the way, because when performing you do not get the luxury of restarting.

Adapting this idea to all the doubles seemed obvious and I saw great improvements. The other part is the routine in the practice session. The normal routine is to warm-up and then focus attention on specific material. In this new way, you mix things up. I use my warm-up material throughout the session, interspersed with scales and thirds then complete pieces nonstop with all repeats. By sprinkling my warm-up among the other parts I find my weaknesses quickly. It also allows me to monitor my lip work during a piece. (When I’m totally warmed-up, difficult passages are easier, making it less obvious of the subtle changes that need to be done to successfully complete it.)

The other part of this is the constant playing. By stopping for mini breaks, my embouchure rests, giving it a chance to reform. I want to push the limits of my lips and this can only be done by not stopping. This creates a shock to the system which is why I mix the warm-up material throughout and not just at the beginning. When my lips start showing signs of fatigue I do part of the warm-up, which refocuses the lips and prepares it for continuing.

The material used is also important. I try to use staccato tonguing as much as possible because it requires use to be vigilante to keep a good tone. The technique must be active and varied but not so difficult that you cannot make it through non-stop without practicing it. You also want to make sure to use the full tessitura, low and high, not just the middle which is easy.

The flute routine looks similar to this:

  • Warm-up 1
  • Taffenel scale pattern, full range in C, C#, D, Eb, E
  • Harmonics study 1 (Warm-up 2)
  • Thirds
  • Harmonic study 2 (Warm-up 3)
  • High note fingering exercise
  • Warm-up 4
  • Full Piece/Etudes (I generally use Baroque material, all movements with all repeats)

I do this routine 2-3 times each day. When starting this, you may not get through all the material before your tone quality starts to drastically suffer. That’s okay. By Day two you will find your tone lasting longer. Keep going. The next day it will last even longer. As your endurance builds, extend the session with more scales and music, preferably long, taxing etudes. By the end of the week the instrument will be back to full speed, like you never took a break.

If I need to get it back even quicker, I do the routine 4-5 times a day. The routine initially lasts roughly 20 minutes, making it easy to fit several of them in a day. As the sessions start getting longer, I first reduce the scale work, then the extra warm-up material, until I play mainly music with a bare minimum warm-up.

For the clarinet I like using chord studies and two octave exercises (E1-E2-E3-E2-E1, F1-F2-F3-F2-F1) in addition to thirds. Material wise, I use etudes that have a lot of leaps and go across the break a lot. On saxophone, instead of thirds I like to use fourths and fifths as well as chord studies. Both clarinet and saxophone have their own harmonic work that I use.

Keep in mind that this is not the way to develop your tone but a way to bring it back quickly. Think of it like Boot Camp for your lips. It is very similar to short intense workouts at the gym.

By fatiguing the lips and then using warm-ups to readjust the embouchure in many short sessions you can rebuild strength in your embouchure. So if you need to get an instrument back in shape quickly, it can be done. It is just a matter of changing how you practice.

* Adapted from my e-book, The Working Doubler: Improving Your Woodwinds


I just recently played for an awards show (think the Tonys but for high schools) and Jim Parsons of Big Bang Theory did a video tribute to one of his former drama teachers. He passed along advice that this teacher gave him: Someone else’s success does not mean your failure. Great words.

How many times have we seen some one get a solo or gig and immediately get jealous and started to think about how we don’t measure up. We have to remember that sometimes there can only be one but that doesn’t mean that you are a bad player/musician if it isn’t you. Sometimes it is other’s turn. If you keep working hard and doing all the things necessary, you will get your turn.

I try to look at it for the greater good: at least someone is working. Even of it isn’t me, someone is making music. The alternative, no one making music, is a bigger problem than my ego. You can be happy for someone else without tearing yourself down. Expressing yourself musically is not a competition.