It’s time to extend the woodwinds.

Every single woodwind can have a range extension downwards.  It’s time for the instrument manufacturers to realize this potential and update the winds.

Flute

The normal C Flute, at least in professional settings, always has an extension downwards to a low B, yet the other members usually lack this note.  The Piccolo is the worst offender here.  The Piccolo (and sometimes the G Treble Flute) only descends to a written low D forgoing the C altogether.  However, there are numerous cases where the low C is called for.  Alto, Tenor, and all lower flutes should have the low B.  Low B-flats are sometimes seen, but almost never written for.

Oboe

There is absolutely no reason Oboes d’Amore, English Horns, and Bass Oboes should not descend to a written low B-flat.  These notes are called for in all three instruments, yet they are only available on special order.  In fact, low As are now being encountered on some Oboes (particularly those by Loree).  Why not extend all the oboe family to a written low A?  Oboes have the smallest range of all the woodwinds at around two-and-a-half octaves.  By pushing the lower limit, we can nearly reach that magical three octave mark.

Clarinets

Basset Horns, Bass Clarinets, and Contrabass Clarinets all have extensions to a written low C.  It makes sense then to have all the clarinets reach this note.  The current low E is a compromise note.  It’s as low as the clarinet needs to go in order for it to be completely chromatic.  However, if we extend the range downwards, we not only get an increased range, but performers are able to use new techniques in the break register that are otherwise unavailable.  For instance, going from a simple B-flat in the staff up chromatically to a B-natural is a cumbersome maneuver, but an extended range clarinet can do this simply by moving one finger (fingering the written low E-flat and the low E while pressing the register key).  Bass Clarinetists already use this technique that is completely unavailable to the other instruments.  So-called Basset Clarinets, A Clarinets extended to low C, already exist.  Let’s make this the norm.

Saxophones

On and off throughout the years, various manufacturers have extended the saxophone’s range to a written low A.  This note is already the norm for all modern Baritone Saxophones.  Years ago, Selmer made Altos with a low A, and now some players are having their Sopranos extended to low A.  The low A is the most logical note for the instrument to descend to.  Instead of the B-flat and E-flat instruments having their lowest notes be A-flat and D-flat respectively, their lowest notes would be G and C.  G and C are much more natural.  Sopranos can now cover the range of the Violin; Altos can cover the range of Violas.  The mechanism is already standard on Baritones, so saxophone players are used to it.

Bassoon

The bassoons are already the most extended of the woodwinds.  The natural scale starts at F, and the range is extended a perfect fifth to a low B-flat.  This is in deference to the other woodwinds whose range is extended at most a second.  However, Wagner and Mahler both write low As in their music, and this note is not really that out of the ordinary.   While I don’t think the low A should be standard, I do think it should be available as an option from manufacturers.

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Get the Instrument to Your Face

I’ve become more and more of an active member of the Online Orchestration group on Facebook over the past few months.  I love reading the questions and queries that the group poses.  However, I’ve noticed one thing, and that’s the fact that many people are in the dark about how wind instruments work.  Most of the composers/orchestrators know the basics of the general winds, but only a few specialists know the ins-and-outs of the individual instruments.  This is, of course, to be expected.  Only a trained professional can know all the minutiae of any instrument.  But, here’s where I see some failure, many have never touched the instruments that they are writing for.  In this, I’ve always taken the approach of Paul Hindemith and Percy Grainger – play as many instruments as you can so you know how to write for them better.

In other words – GET THE HORN TO YOUR FACE.

This has several benefits.  By just picking up the instrument, the composer can know the weight and how long a player might be expected to hold the instrument.  A B-flat Clarinet can be played for far longer than can a Bass Saxophone.  These instruments have a physicality to them.  If you need a player to double on two instruments, it’s a good idea to know how those instruments can move.

Know the keywork.  I have an understanding of how most of the keywork and valve systems work for all the wind instruments.  It’s taken years and lots of study, but I can pick up most instrument and be able to play a decent chromatic scale.  This is invaluable.  I know where and how the notes lie on the various instruments.  I’m not an expert, but I’ve got a sense as to where to begin.  As I write passages for different instruments, I find myself fingering along to the part on the instrument I wrote for.

Will it be possible to play every instrument? Of course not.  Of the common instruments, I’ve never tried my hand at a Piccolo.  This isn’t for any particular reason, I’ve just never had the opportunity presented where I can play a Piccolo.

A brief list of the instruments I’ve played in the name of orchestrations:

Flute, Alto Flute

Piccolo Oboe, Oboe, Oboe d’Amore, English Horn, Bass Oboe

E-flat Clarinet, C Clarinet, B-flat Clarinet, Alto Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Contrabass Clarinet

Sopranino Saxophone, Soprano Saxophone, Alto Saxophone, C Tenor Saxophone, B-flat Tenor Saxophone, Baritone Saxophone, Bass Saxophone

Tenor Bassoon, Bassoon, Contrabassoon, Contrabass Sarrusophone

Horn, Cornet, Alto Horn, Baritone Horn, B-flat Trumpet, Tenor Trombone, Euphonium, Tuba

Could I perform on a concert on all these instrument? No.  Only a small handful of these (all the bassoons, sarrusophone, saxophones, some oboe and some clarinets).  My brass technique is awful and I’m terrible at flute, but I’ve at least tried them.

Where to get your hands on the instruments? Find a friend.  If you promise to be nice, a lot of musicians will let you try their horn.  Rent one.  You can rent instruments from music stores on a monthly basis.  Borrow it.  Schools often have spare instruments that aren’t being used.  EBay.  I spent way too much money on this route…