Your Student’s Next Instrument
A guide to step-up instruments for the advancing woodwind player
It’s that time: an advancing student is kicking goals, approaching that next level of examination, or preparing for a landmark performance in their path as a musician. A student instrument, which was once ideal, is now inhibiting progress. To unlock this student’s full potential, an upgrade of equipment is now essential. An experienced student will choose an instrument that suits them, preferably through the process of playing and comparing a number of instruments side-by-side. Brae Grimes runs through features and specifications that are ideal for the intermediate brass or woodwind player, and beyond.
Flutists are very sensitive to small changes, and that’s why it’s important to choose an instrument that not only represents quality and longevity, but also that suits the individual to a tee. Fundamentally, a step-up flute should include a split-E mechanism, French-pointed key arms, and preferably offset G keys.
1. Choose a flute with open holes (ring keys)
Ring keys not only offer greater control over intonation, but also improve tone and projection. Open hole flutes will come with silicon, plastic, or sometimes even cork plugs to help transition from a closed-hole flute.
2. Choose a flute with a B-foot
Apart from adding an extra note to the flute, the B-foot adds a little extra mass away from the headjoint, which usually makes the tone of the flute a little darker overall. The other recommendation which makes a difference to tone and playability, is a solid silver head, body, and footjoint. I would weight these two priorities equally, but a solid silver flute with a B-foot joint is most ideal.
3. Consider the headjoint
The cut of the embouchure hole and shape of the lip plate have a drastic impact on tone colour, projection, and response, so much so that it isn’t unusual for some boutique manufacturers to sell their flutes without a headjoint. Even though the headjoint is crucial, a good headjoint is very expensive and usually requires a very developed player to understand and take full advantage of the differences between headjoints. Additionally, extra trill keys and footjoint rollers are desirable, but not necessary.
Clarinets are made with a variety of materials, with several keywork systems and bore sizes. Their bodies can be made of: ABS Resin, Bakelite, Grenadilla, Cocobolo, and more. Keywork can be gold-plated, silver-plated, nickel-plated, Hamilton-plated, German-silver-plated, etc. With so many variations, here’s a quick guide as to what to look for when upgrading.
1. Upgrading to wood
After playing a good quality plastic or plastic variant instrument for a few years, a wooden instrument will provide improvements to the sound, response, and playability of the clarinet. These instruments are commonly made of Grenadilla. Grenadilla is an oily blackwood originating from Africa and requires more care and maintenance than a plastic instrument. For more advice on how to care for a wooden instrument, visit the read the Clarinet: Assembly, Care and Maintenance blog.
The other option would be the purchase of a wooden instrument with a resin-lined bore, like the Yamaha Duet Bore. When trying a wooden instrument, I advise trying some different bore sizes; the Yamaha YCL-450 is the same bore shape as the “CS” range of clarinets, whereas the YCL-650 is closer to the bore shape and size of the “SE” range. The difference is the “CS” is a little narrower, offering a more focused sound suitable for section playing and chamber music, while the “SE” is a little larger making it broader and more suitable for soloist repertoire and large ensemble playing. Wooden clarinets should have silver-plated keywork, which has many benefits, but is most notable for its durability.
2. Purchase a new mouthpiece
Consider purchasing a new mouthpiece, and do this relatively close to the end of the breaking-in process of the new clarinet. Mouthpieces, like clarinets, come in different materials and an even wider variety of sizes. A good quality hard rubber/ebonite mouthpiece is preferred and I would recommend trying a variety of tip opening sizes from 1.1mm to 1.25mm and a variety of brands so you can find the right chamber and baffle size. Mouthpieces make a big difference to the feel, response, sound, and intonation of the instrument. It’s often recommended to try ligatures and a variety of reeds with your new mouthpiece.
3. Consider an auxiliary Eb lever
An auxiliary Eb lever permits several alternate fingerings, which will help with later examinations. In addition to these features, pitch correction keys aid with intonation for low E and F, but aren’t completely necessary.
Saxophones come in all shapes and sizes. When looking to upgrade, it is a good idea to decide which direction the player is heading: classical repertoire, jazz, orchestral, pit/commercial, a bit of everything, moving from alto to tenor or doubling. This will shape the decisions you make next when choosing an instrument.
1. Finding the right fit
Finding a brand of reed, mouthpiece, and ligature that is suitable for the player is essential — some players will even have multiple mouthpieces, reed brands/cuts, and ligatures they change between depending on the performance. The general rule is, the closer it is to you, the more impact it has on the overall sound and response of the instrument.
2. Consider an F# key option
Discounting the octave pip and any additional auxiliary keys (which are more uncommon), the front/high F tonehole is the highest tonehole on the saxophone. On modern instruments, the addition of the high F# key facilitates an easier and more balanced high F#, particularly on smaller instruments like the soprano and alto saxophone. Some sopranos even have a high G key.
3. Select an appropriate neck
The neck is an important component of the saxophone, and the most important dimension of the neck is the taper from the opening (where the mouthpiece goes on) to the tenon (where the neck goes into the saxophone). In general, narrow tapers are darker and more focused, while wider tapers are broader and brighter. Necks are also made of different materials and come in different finishes. Solid silver often improves focus and projection while also offering greater presence of higher overtones. Gold plate is not only hard wearing, but also can provide faster response and a slightly warmer sound overall. Un-lacquered necks are broader and faster responding than their lacquered counterparts, despite them oxidising and tarnishing very quickly.
4. Choose the right bell flare
Choose a saxophone that has a bell flare and bell material thickness which matches the sound and style of the music the player is playing the most. The thinner the bell material, the livelier and brighter the saxophone is. Thicker bell material is darker and more focused. Modern manufacturers usually compliment the choice of materials with the right bell taper and flare, for example: a saxophone with thinner bell material will usually have a wider bell flare which tapers more gradually from the bell bow.
WORDS BY: Brae Grimes
Brae Grimes (BMus., Hons. [Jazz Trumpet Performance] – Monash University) is a recent addition to Yamaha Music Australia’s Band and Orchestral team, taking on the new role of Product and Repair Specialist. Brae has had various roles in the music retail industry and brings over 10 years of experience. Brae has also worked as an educator in secondary and tertiary institutions, as well as having a number of successful private students. In 2017, Brae undertook training at Yamaha’s Toyooka Factory in Japan, and received official accreditation acknowledging his skills as a band and orchestral instrument repairer. Outside of his role at Yamaha, Brae is an active performer and composer, and trains at 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu in Melbourne.