I’m a wannabe carpenter. I have two uncles who are carpenters and had a father who, while not a carpenter, was certainly handy enough to be one (he did make our kitchen cabinets once upon a time). I inherited the handy genes from my dad, have gotten a lot of good tips and instruction from my uncles, and have a decent collection of tools that match my handyman skills—a collection that grows a little bit with each new project (most recently I picked up a pretty sweet pipe cutter that I likely won’t have to use again until the next time I have to change out my water heater…I guess it won’t help with woodworking either now that I think of it…oh well). However, with the demands of work and home, I don’t yet have the time to really be a carpenter. One of these days I’m going to get a table saw, a router table, some nicer chisels, etc. and build something really nice….but not until my skills are ready. I’m wise enough to know that those tools are somewhat useless to me until I have the skill set to be able to use them as intended.
I really like a guy that I’d bet most of my students have never heard of—Norm Abram. He used to have a show on PBS called “The New Yankee Workshop” where he’d use every power tool known to man to build every woodworking project known to man. Fans of Norm are affectionately (or dismissively) referred to as “Normites,” and there seem to be two types of Normites out there—those that incorrectly think that his vast collection of power tools is the reason he can build so well, and those that correctly know that his skills and knowledge about how to use those tools for the purpose of building things are the only reason he has any business owning so many power tools in the first place. I am sure there is a league of the former Normites described who, after purchasing tools they did not have the skills to use, can describe the many power tool-related injuries they’ve suffered as a result of their misguided thinking. These Normites give the others a bad name—they would be better off following my method—have a basic set of tools at your disposal and add tools to your collection as your skills progress.
Thankfully, no such danger exists when it comes to the “tools” musicians use (well…no physical danger anyway) save for double-reed players with reed knives, which is a discussion unto itself. However, the difference in mentalities does exist. There seems to be three types of musicians—those who allow their increasing skills to drive what “tools” they purchase; those who think their “tools” will progress their skills; and a third category of those who have increased skills that necessitate better “tools,” but are unaware of the “tools” that exist to make life easier for them.
Students in the first group have the right idea—in general, you step up to an intermediate or professional level instrument and/or accessories when you and your music teacher(s) determine you would see a definite benefit from doing so. Easy.
Students in the second group aren’t doing themselves any harm other then spending a lot of money for no reason, which some folks apparently don’t mind doing. I had a friend in high school band that was a great guy, but an absolutely terrible French horn player. Let’s call him Carl. The band director gently tried to address how terrible he was at playing the horn with extra lessons, suggestions to switch instruments, and the like. One day, Carl walks into high school band class sporting a brand new horn to the tune of about $7,000—apparently neither he nor his parents thought that consulting the band director about such a purchase was a prudent move. Shockingly…I say, shockingly…Carl was still terrible at playing the French horn, even with his shiny and impressive new “tool.” Who would’ve thought? Carl was a great guy, but a bad Normite. Don’t be Carl or his parents.
Anyway, students in the third group are the ones I want to address as it is clear to me after this year’s beginning of the year auditions that they represent the majority of our high school band and orchestra students—musicians with increased skills who are ready for some more “tools,” but don’t know what’s out there or why they should care. On our website, I have a bunch of “recommended equipment” for high school string and band students. It’s important for you to know that I am a good Normite and therefore only recommend tools to students that I know they’re ready for and/or which will produce an immediate benefit and improvement for them. I don’t like telling students and parents to go out and spend a lot of money on toys and gizmos that may or may not help their musical skills—but it’s worth noting that there are some things that I can confidently say are always worth the money.
Here are the biggest things everyone needs by category of instrument and why:
- For the love of Pete, change your strings. SO much of what we do at the high school level requires students developing a keen perception of tuning and intonation. Old strings do not ring well, do not produce good sounding overtones and are difficult to tune. If you’ve never changed your strings, this is the single biggest piece of advice I can give you—new strings will change everything about your sound and the way you tune. You will be shocked at how big of a difference it can make.
- Rehair your bow if you’ve never done so. Bow hair wears out, falls out and loses its elasticity over time. It also gets really gross—the rosin you use on your bow is sticky…everything gross you can imagine sticks to your bow hair. Speaking of rosin….
- ROSIN. You probably have a decrepit dried up nub of rosin encased in wood that came with your instrument when you got it back in good ol’ 2009. Throw it away. Buy a higher-quality rosin like Jade or Carlsson—it’ll cost you all of $10 bucks, will last decades if cared for, and will make the bow do it’s job more pleasantly. Use it everyday. It takes all of 23 seconds of your life a day to rosin your bow—just do it.
- Be comfortable. Invest in a higher quality Kun or Wolf shoulder rest. Everest shoulder rests are great for elementary and middle school students because they are cheap and affordable to replace should they get lost or break…but Kun and Wolf shoulder rests are more easily adjustable and are more comfortable.
- A new bow is a more logical “next step” than an entirely new instrument. It’ll cost less money, immediately improve your tone and give you more time and experience to decide whether or not you want to spend the big bucks on a brand new instrument. If you’re currently playing on a plastic “Glasser” bow, this is something to seriously consider.
- Have the proper cleaning equipment for your instrument—swabs, key oil, cork grease and the like. Guess what happens when you blow into an instrument? All the gross junk in your mouth takes up residence inside your flute, clarinet or saxophone. Disgusting. A clean instrument is not only less disgusting, but it plays better too. Flutes—that cleaning rod that came with your flute case isn’t just for having mini-sword fight battles with your stand partner while the brass is rehearsing their lip slurs—get some cleaning pads and use it to clean the inside of your instrument. Flutes can clean around the tone hole of the head joint with rubbing alcohol (if you take flute lessons and have an intermediate or professional model flute, ask your private teacher what they’d prefer you use on nicer head joints that may be plated with silver or gold). Clarinets and saxophones can clean their mouthpieces with a mouthpiece brush, hot water and a mild detergent—taking care not to get water on the cork and applying cork grease prior to cleaning to repel water away from the cork. Clarinets and saxes should swab every day after playing. Hard to do if you don’t own a swab. Owning a swab costs $5 bucks…get one!
- Be comfortable. There’s no reason for a woodwind player to be uncomfortable while they play. Thumb pads and clips for clarinets and flutes are available to help support the instrument. If you’re a clarinet or sax player and hate the sensation of the mouthpiece buzzing against your upper teeth, they make little pads to stick on top of the mouthpiece to reduce the vibration. These investments are measured in cents–not dollars…very cheap. Saxes–tired of that nylon strap digging into your neck? Get a padded Neotech neckstrap for $20 bucks.
- Reed players—play on a reed appropriate for your embouchure strength. Talk to a music teacher if you’re not sure what reed you should be playing on. Here are two helpful hints to get you started—if you’re still playing on the same 1.5 or 2 reed that you got from Mrs. Burgh in 4th grade, it’s high time to move on. And if you went to Volkweins and bought a box of Vanduren 18.5’s just to show how much of a man you are, I’ve got news for you–you’re just a bad Normite.Have a rotation of at least 3 really great reeds on hand. When they chip or break, THROW THEM AWAY. A chipped reed is a useless reed—say goodbye, throw it away and move on with life. I love students who show me a reed that has more peaks and valleys than the Rocky Mountains and go “Uh…I think there’s something wrong with my instrument—it’s playing really airy.” Really? Uh…I think there’s something wrong with you thinking that a reed with giant chunks missing out of it is going to help you make a good tone. Maybe you are one of the special people holding on to a moldy reed? And you’re going to put that in your mouth? What’s wrong with you? No, you are not the next Alexander Fleming discovering penicillin….you’re just gross.
- A new mouthpiece and/or ligature is a more logical “next step” for a clarinet or saxophone player than an entire new instrument. It’ll cost less money, immediately improve your tone and give you more time and experience to decide whether or not you want to spend the big bucks on a brand new horn.
- Ditto everything that was said to woodwinds about having what you need to clean and properly lubricate the instrument. Use cleaning rods and brushes, valve grease and oils (rotor oil ONLY goes in rotary valves—valve oil ONLY goes in piston valves). You’re even more gross than the woodwind players because you’re literally making spitty raspberry sounds into your instrument to make the sound—so much so that your instrument has little valves to accommodate said spit (except for the poor horn players who are stuck with the demoralizing task of pulling out every slide on the instrument and dumping a slow warm trickle of spit out of each one–now you know why they’re so unhappy all the time). Once you’ve purchased your cleaning materials, CLEAN YOUR INSTRUMENT by giving it a bath—no joke. Go on YouTube and look up “trumpet bath” or “trombone bath” etc. Tubas would need an awfully big bathtub to do this, which is why the school takes care of cleaning those things when they need it. Cost of this? FREE.
- Mouthpiece size matters. Think about it this way—playing on the same size mouthpiece as you did when you were in 4th grade only makes sense if your mouth is physically the same size it was when you were in 4th grade. Enough said. Don’t be a bad Normite and just go off buying whatever shiny mouthpiece you find. No, it does not need to be gold-plated. No, it does not need to be see-through. No, you do not need the $200 custom handmade lathe-turned mouthpiece. Don’t know what to get? If only there was a paid employee of the school whose job it was to teach you such things…. Where oh where would you find such a person….?
- Get the big boy/big girl sticks. Do you know how much better your motor skills are now that you are in high school than they were in 4th grade? Those 2B or 5A war clubs that you had (and probably still have) are the equivalent of those over-sized thick crayons and pencils you had when you first learned to write in kindergarten. Don’t get me wrong, those were awesome, but just as everyone is eventually indoctrinated into using No. 2 pencils, so too should you be indoctrinated into the idea of having snare sticks that can better help you handle the challenges of high school literature and drumming rudiments. While you’re at it, your own timpani mallets and xylophone mallets are a great idea as well. I bet you won’t touch the felt or yarn on something you spend $30 bucks on. Just sayin. Get a stick bag to keep all your sticks and mallets in one neat and organized place.
- For the really serious percussionist, a tuning fork or two saves you the hassle (and embarrassment) of having to thwack a mallet instrument to get pitches for the timpani. I own an A and a Bb…from either of those pitches it is easy to find any other pitch you need.
- Get a tuner. In the world of smartphones this is easier than ever and the microphone on many smartphones is actually as sophisticated or more sophisticated than those found on high-quality tuners. I have an iPhone and truly haven’t had a need to use an electronic tuner in years. If you want something separate from your phone, electronic tuners made by Korg are the gold standard. Avoid pitch pipes, which are always sharp.
Tuning apps I love are “Tunable,” “Cleartune,” and the “pricey but worth it” favorite, “Cortosia.” All of those apps show a visual aid that helps you determine whether your are in tune or out of tune, and by which direction. Cortosia has the added benefit of also judging your tone—and because you can’t tune a bad tone, I think this is well worth the extra money. One additional thing in the tuning realm—there is an app called “InTune” which is a tuning game (yes, you read that correctly). If you are someone who struggles with telling the difference between whether you are playing too high or too low, InTune is for you.
- Get a metronome. There’s nothing short of a bazillion metronome apps available. My favorite is “Tempo” because again, it shows a visual aid to help with keeping a steady tempo in addition to the audible clicks. It also allows you to set different rhythms—for example, if I’m working on a passage in triplets, I can have it play not only the steady beat but also an underlying triplet beat for even greater accuracy. Outside of apps, there are tons of metronomes—avoid the old-timey ones with the swinging pendulum…they look cool but are generally less reliable and accurate. Go for an electronic quartz tuner. If you’re really serious, you can drop $80 or more on a Dr. Beat, but I wouldn’t recommend that when you can get all of the features of a Dr. Beat in a $5 app like “Tempo.”
- Get a fingering chart—even string players. Print one for free, or again—get an app. There are two fingering chart apps, one for band and one for strings, that are simply outstanding. “Fingerings” for band and “Strings” for strings by David Q. Kelly are amazing. Every alternate fingering, trill fingering, upper level position, etc. is right there. I use both of these almost every week.
- Consider getting earplugs and decibel meters. Hearing health is important to musicians—particularly to those who play instruments like percussion or brass that are generally very loud. An app like “Noise Hunter” can help you make sure that the sounds you surround yourself with when you practice or are in class are within an acceptable decibel level. I use this one often as well—band pushes the limits a bit more than orchestra…and marching band definitely pushes the limits. If you find your ears ringing after a practice session or a rehearsal, plugs are a good idea—ringing ears are not normal. Sure, you can go get fitted for custom ear canal plugs and spend a few hundred dollars….or you can get a pair of musician’s plugs from UPMC for $6 bucks.
Don’t be a bad Normite and go buying tools you don’t need, but also realize that high school students are not the same as elementary students…there are some basic tools that will make a world of difference because those tools match the students’ level of developing skill. All of this said, if someone is set on the idea of purchasing a new instrument no matter what, that’s not necessarily a bad thing–but shouldn’t be something you do without professional guidance.
Not sure what to buy or not buy? As always, just ask! I’m happy to help you be a good Normite.
Until next time,