4.2 Woodwind playing tips

Nicholas Cox. Principal Clarinet, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic 1992-2014
Senior Tutor in Clarinet, Royal Northern College of Music


In just the same way that string players need time to prepare their arm movement to put the bow on the string and start the vibration to form a sound, wind and brass players need time to breathe in order to play. What the conductor indicates in an upbeat is therefore crucial in their preparation to breathe, articulate and produce the right sound. So, understanding the basic mechanics of the different wind instruments should help a conductor bring them in and play together.

Appreciating the differences between wind instruments involves understanding what produces the sound and how they use their air. To create a sound and vibrate the air inside the flute, the flautist must inhale a large amount of air and blow across the head joint’s aperture. As the head joint and flute embouchure (pursed lips) offer little resistance, they get through their air quickly, so for flute players the secret is taking the large breaths they need and concealing them (at ties, between articulations and phrase gaps). The oboe and to some extent, the bassoon have double reeds with a small aperture that creates a lot of resistance and therefore uses up the air more slowly. The deep breaths oboists and bassoonists take create the necessary air pressure needed to get both reeds to buzz and to keep the sound going. The slower usage of air requires an oboist to exhale their stale air at the next opportunity before breathing in again. Clarinets have one reed attached to a mouthpiece which might suggest that they can get away without breathing deeply. While it may take less air pressure and volume of air to get the reed to work on a clarinet and sustain a sound, experienced players know that making a great sound on the clarinet is only possible with the similar volume of air and air pressure used by their flute and oboe colleagues. The difference is knowing how to use this volume and air pressure.

So often the flow of the music provides its own solution to the best tempo. If the music limps along feeling all of the crotchets, the tempo is too slow, and the music doesn’t flow. Getting the music to flow will often also suggest the best breathing solutions for wind players. By showing understanding of the physicality of playing at such stressful moments, a conductor can either make a player’s life easier or significantly add to the stress. Be smart conductors in such places! Your job is to enable the sound and make lives easier!  

Bars for Nothing?

Giving ‘bars for nothing’ is never for nothing and any note played is only as good as its preparation. Of course, even the best conductors want to avoid beating air before the music starts, so “bars for nothing” aren’t popular with conductors. Two famous conductors found my wish for two bars for nothing at the start of the Presto 3rd movement of Shostakovich Symphony No. 9 baffling. One of them said in the final rehearsal, “do you really need two bars for nothing?” At which point, I gently reminded him that as a former principal oboist in a London orchestra, he might remember that a long breath is the only way to prepare for a tricky opening 16-bar lick without missing out a note to take a breath. His solution was to beat the first of the two bars using small finger movements in front of his body before giving me the actual upbeat bar. This allowed him to avoid beating the two bars visibly and gave me enough time for the deeper, slower breath that allows for the best chance of successfully delivering the solo. 

Dovetailing and Transposition

Sometimes, wind players might have a second player in the section cover their breaths. For instance, during the long notes in the clarinet solo of the slow movement from Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony or the long 2nd clarinet accompaniment solo in Scheherazade where the 1st might help out. Occasionally a particularly difficult passage might be split between both players to provide some relief and make the passage easier. The only consideration for conductors here is to assess whether the joints are seamless, and the result is artistically acceptable. What players often do not appreciate is that perfect joints are normally better achieved where there is an overlap; one player should finish on the downbeat note and not before the bar line.

It can come as a surprise that a seasoned clarinettist might sometimes be transposing on the wrong instrument. There are several passages in the repertoire when a clarinettist will reach for another instrument to avoid a clumsy trill or playing in an awkward key. There are also some pieces with perilously quick changes for clarinet where the best solution might be to transpose the previous passage to avoid being flat or unprepared. Sometimes, as in with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto where the outer movements are in A and the slow movement in C, it is customary to transpose the slow movement up a minor 3rd using the A clarinet. This should also make tuning later in the movement easier. If changes of instrument are required between movements, be sure to have noticed this in your preparation.

Basic Articulation Differences

The four woodwinds are strikingly different when it comes to articulation and this makes playing together and the preparation to do so slightly different on each instrument. For conductors, the cardinal rule is that the upbeat should indicate the tempo of the music. If players get a sense of the tempo from the upbeat, this solves many of the issues in playing together. The physical differences between the instruments explain why so many wind groups have difficulties starting together.

Repeating notes and producing a staccato is also a different experience on all wind instruments. Flutes have to stop the air to stop the sound and make a note short. The others have to stop the reed(s) from vibrating to shorten notes; this means the tongue going back to the reed to influence a note’s length or the air stopping. So repeating notes is a matter of stopping the reed and then releasing the reed (it is the duration of which the tongue is in contact with the reed that forms the gap). The action is not an attacking motion of the tongue but rather involves taking the tongue off the reed to allow it to vibrate before stopping it with the tongue. Flutes and clarinets can ease into the start of notes without the tongue. Oboes and bassoons find this more difficult. My advice to conductors is this, ‘don’t suggest a change of technique, just describe or sing the length you want.’ If it’s not short enough, ask them to play shorter. If they don’t match each other, try to find an appropriate length for everyone to match. 

Areas where articulation becomes difficult are the lower notes on the oboe, bassoon or sax where getting the reeds to work is the main problem, and the higher registers on the flute and clarinet which take more physical effort, more airflow to keep the airway open and sometimes a different technique. The flute’s lowest notes are not at all easy to articulate clearly, whereas a clarinet might struggle for subtlety in starting altissimo notes (above written C6). In faster passages, flautist, oboist and bassoonist can be reliably expected to double or triple tongue (vocalise “dugudugu” or “dugududugudu”) but not all clarinettists can double tongue, so playing very fast articulation can be difficult for some of them. This can result in different needs in the same piece: clarinets will prefer Mendelssohn’s Scherzo from Midsummer’s Night Dream slower as the articulation is then manageable, whereas the principal flute will want it faster so they don’t run out of breath in their long articulated solo towards the end.


In professional orchestras, a conductor might gently suggest a group try a passage on their own after the rehearsal if the tuning is not optimal. Don’t make an issue of this in front of the orchestra! Wind players hate to be embarrassed in front of colleagues. In one famous story, a conductor pointed to the 3rd flute and said “higher” to which the player responded, “Oh hiya!”. Often, it’s enough to repeat the section and get players to listen in a different context or at a different dynamic level rather than criticise individuals. Rarely will it be necessary to tune a chord note by note or section by section. The nd players are often the crucial determinants of where the pitch of the group sits. Being aware of these undercurrents is essential for a budding conductor but being drawn into trying to tune a chord with an experienced orchestra can be fraught with difficulty. Either things will improve, or the conductor’s ears will come under scrutiny and be questioned.

In younger groups, building up a wind/brass chord may be more appropriate. This can be down to the instruments themselves simply not playing very well in tune, poor reed choice or inadequate technique. In which case, start with tuning the fifths and work outwards, rather than starting with the bass and working upwards.

Here is a more detailed version of this article.

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