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In the last three columns, we talked about basic repair for clarinet, saxophone and flute which is the number one most important thing you can do to help your students achieve success. Based on 40 years of anecdotal research, your ability to be able to assess and converse with a student about their natural tone color and shape of sound tendencies on their instrument is most likely to deliver a staggering 50%+ improvement in their performance abilities. 

When we can identify a student’s color and shape of sound, it gives you a pedagogically strong foundation to determine what will complement their natural gifts most in a mouthpiece/head joint and instrument to sound and play their best. Over the span of my career, I have found that it creates a new level of understanding and shared language to opening new learning pathways to produce positive results.

80% Rule for Teaching Woodwinds in the classroom begins with understanding and communicating student color and shape of sound.  The other 20% comes from the proper alignment of their equipment- mouthpiece/head joint & instrument based on this knowledge. 

Look, I know you want a uniform fluid, even, and colorful sound in your ensembles. Let me tell you a quick story to illustrate how understanding your students color and shape of sound will help you and your students achieve success more quickly.  

I played with the Buffalo Philharmonic in New York for a year, after graduating from Northwestern and studying with Robert Marcellus.  The principal player in the orchestra, John Fullam and I sounded identical. You couldn’t tell where he started a musical phrase or when I ended one because we sounded identical.  And what a joy it was playing with him! 

John Fullam and I met when he came to my shop to purchase his instruments. When he came in to try clarinets, we also tried each other’s instruments and quickly realized we could not AT ALL play on each other’s equipment. BOOM. Instantly, I realized while what we most want to sound like may be very similarhow each of us gets to that place is completely different. It’s important to emphasize to students early on how to develop their own concept of how they want to sound on their instrument to help them be able to rapidly connect and musical growth through these concepts. 

How to Determine Your Students Natural Tonal Color and Shape of Sound

The first step in this process, is to determine the foundation of color in their sound which requires about a year of playing the instrument to be stable enough to assess. Your diagnosis can easily and quickly be accomplished in either sectionals or private lessons and should be written down to ensure the information is captured. You also need to ensure your students have reeds that play easily, and mouthpieces and head joints that are free of chips, indentations, or dents. Also make sure that their embouchures are free of cuts or sores to ensure they can produce sound naturally and easily. 

After this step is completed, on a separate occasion you can assess their mouthpiece/head joint/and instrument choice, based on what you now know, to determine if they have the right setup to reach 80% of woodwind playing success quickly. (This will be covered in part 2 of this article in November.) Finally, this system is applicable for all woodwind and brass musicians. 

Tonal Color/Foundation Basics: Bright and Dark/Highs and Lows

To understand the fundamentals of tonal color is to understand whether the student is producing a bright or dark sound and whether their sound has more high or low tendencies. 

Students with Bright Sounds and More High’s

Students who sound squeaky bright, laser focused, piercing sometimes, are albeit an extreme example of a super bright sound. When a student naturally sounds bright no matter what instrument or mouthpiece they play, you can always hear higher frequencies in their sound.  

We use the red color-ring to express any degree of brightness. The reason we use a physical color-ring to express it is for instructive purposes.  We even go as far as to suggest a student hangs it on their instrument for a while because 65%+ of the population are visual learners*.  By helping students visualize their color and shape of sound, you are helping students use their hearing to what they see in their sound.  Not only will this shared language and pedagogical exercise provide a lasting impression, but we have found consistently it offers a huge growth opportunity because students can hear and verbalize something that they might have felt before and … read more on SBO Magazine.