Friday, November 26, 2010

When is it you, and when is it the bass clarinet?

I got two notes from people this week that I wanted to post here as an example of when you might have trouble with your instrument, or when you just need to practice more.

First from Facebook:

Hey, i have a soo festival next thursday and all of a sudden my high notes (b-f) wont come out iif i am playing quiet. all i get are squeeks. is there anything i can do to fix it?

To which I replied:

My first stop would be a repairman. When you're playing quietly, you're not forcing as much air through the instrument. Often, when you have a leak, pushing more air through the horn will overcome that leak, but quiet playing will be a problem. I would bet that the problem lies in your F key (clarion F; top-line of the staff) isn't closing completely. One way to check this is to rotate your bass clarinet top joint so that the bridge key doesn't connect. Then try those notes again. If they come out, then the problem is in your bridge key. Other than that, someone might have to look at the horn.

When your instrument is simply not speaking a note, or squeaks all the time, it is most likely the instrument -- ESPECIALLY if it is a school bass clarinet. Having your band director look at it is a first line of defense, but even seasoned repairmen don't often see a bass clarinet, so expecting your band director to see the problem is pretty unlikely. I recommend taking the instrument to a good repair person (with your band director's blessing, of course), and then see what s/he says.

Now, to a text message I got off my site:

I'm a 9th grader and I have been playing b.c for 5 years. How can you switch smoothly from different octaves?

Well here's what I replied:

Thanks for your note. Well, I hate to say it, but the real way is by practicing a lot.

What you need to understand is that when you play an A (second space in the staff) and then play a B (third line in the staff) you are going from playing about 16 inches of bass clarinet (where the A-key hole is -- it's high up on the bass clarinet) to 3 feet of bass clarinet (where the B-key hole is). So, when you go from playing that A to playing that B, you have to get all your air all the way down to the bottom of the bass clarinet INSTANTLY! That comes from making sure you have a consistent and well supported air stream.

The way I like to think of it is blowing all the way to the bell of the bass clarinet *all the time* -- it helps when you have to make these register leaps (or, as you call it, "octave switches").

Sometimes it's hard to tell if it's you or if it's the instrument. I'll make a video soon to help tell which is which. But in the mean time, I hope this helps.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

How to clean a mouthpiece

Got a text from Erika asking about how to clean a mouthpiece. First off, you should dry your mouthpiece regularly (like every time you practice) but you should NEVER run a swab through it. At least not regularly.

There are two reasons to clean a mouthpiece, and they take two slightly different approaches:

Reason #1: It's disgusting inside. Gunk, reed nastiness, and other whatnot has collected in there, usually by the inside of the mouthpiece rails. While I usually don't let it get that bad, sometimes I forget (gross, but true). So, to clean this, I usually fill a cup with 1/2 Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2) and 1/2 water. I'd bed you probably have some H2O2 in your house, but I also bet it's old. It loses its potency, and it's cheap to replace, so if it's old, replace it from your local pharmacy. Anyway, soak your mouthpiece in that for about 15 minutes. It'll bubble something fierce, which is the H2O2's reaction to the bacteria in your mouthpiece. Afterwards, roll up some kleenex (no aloe- or lotion-infused kleenex, please) and run it through the inside of the mouthpiece to clean it. Get in the corners with a Q-tip if needed.

Reason #2: It's got lots of calcium caked onto the beak of it. That white stuff around where your mouth goes? It's not gonna come off with H2O2. But it will come off with a little weak acid. I take lemon juice and mix it 1/2 and 1/2 with water (if you don't have lemon juice, use white vinegar, but dilute it a little more). Soak the mouthpiece in that for 10 minutes or so, and then rub with a cloth or kleenex on the build-up. It should come off with a little elbow grease :)

Again, NEVER use a swab inside your mouthpiece unless you're looking for an excuse to get a new one.

Hope this helps Erika!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Releasing your music to the world

Got a great question from someone a couple of weeks ago:

Michael, I wanted to ask you a couple question about the procedures one has to encounter when releasing a CD with his own music. I have three classical CDs released where I perform music of different composers, but I am not sure how it works when you release your own music. Do you have to copyright it or not?

Also, I wanted to ask you about labels. I know that a lot of people prefer to release material under their own labels. I saw that practically all of your CDs have been released under earspasm. Is there just no point trying to release music on some relatively famous label?

I'll take the easy one first:


Copyrighting your music is very simple. As soon as an original work of authorship is fixed in a tangible form and published, a copyright exists. If you would like to go one extra step do this: If it's sheet music, put it in an envelope, take it to the post office and put it in the mail to yourself. That's it! The postmark from the post office is all you need to prove the date of copyright. If you want to be extra-special careful, you can send it certified mail, but all that does is make you 1) go to the post office and 2) pay a lot more money for the same thing. If you want to copyright a recording, just take the recording and do the same thing as you would printed music.

Of course, there is a more official way of registering with the copyright office here in Washington, but really, this "common law" copyright is legal and binding.

Releasing your own CD

So, yeah. Lots of different advice from many people on this one. I guess I can just tell you why I chose the route I did, which is to self-release. This is the story of my five CD's and how they got released:

Spasm came out in 1996. The first conversation I had with New World Records (a GREAT company, by the way) took place around the early summer of 1994. I offered them the proposal of a "recital" sort of disc, where I would commission a bunch of composers to write for me, I'd record them and give the master to New World. New World liked the idea, and they went ahead and wrote a much of grants on my behalf to fund the release. Back then, the cost of releasing the disc -- not recording, mind you, but releasing -- was over $15,000. That covered Mastering, the liner notes, cover art, manufacturing, distribution, PR, and overhead.

I went ahead and recorded all of the pieces not knowing if the project would ever happen, but I was in grad school with access to good equipment, so it was all good. Finally, in the winter of 1996 (March-ish), I got word that the grants came in, and Spasm would be released. I signed the contract (which gave New World the rights to the recording for 10 years, and would pay out royalties only). I was entitled to purchase the CD's at a discounted rate of $7 after the first 100, which were free.

Total time from recording to release: 30 months.

On 1985 I decided to go a different route, because I didn't want to wait over two years to release the next record. I contacted Capstone (NOT a great company, I'm afraid), who's deal was this: you give us the CD's (yes, I had to get them printed myself, but then again, I got to control everything from the artwork to the notes), and $500 and we'll do the PR for you. Well, the good part was that I got all the CD's I wanted (I had to warehouse them). But, the bad part was that Capstone did no PR, was terrible at bookkeeping (I hounded them for almost 6 years and finally got paid a fraction of what they owed me). I canceled the agreement and re-released it myself.

Total time from recording to release: 4 months

Ok, so for Ten Children I had heard about CDBaby (another GREAT company). Their deal was: whatever dude. Sign up for $35, pay us a little more for a barcode, send the discs when they're ready and we'll get them up on iTunes (and everywhere else). You set the price yourself, they take $4 per disc, and manage all the fulfillment (i.e. they ship it). When they run out of CD's you send a few more. In 2003, this was an amazing thing -- the democratization of CD recording/releasing/distribution. For Ten Children, I bought my own CD duplicator which recorded and printed the disc in batches of 20. I could buy jewel cases in bulk, I had the covers/inserts printed in bulk, I bought the blank CD's in bulk, I purchased a shrink-wrap kit and bought the shrink sleeves in bulk. I got the the per-unit cost down to about $1.06 (Spasm, again, cost me $7 per unit to buy from New World; 1985 cost me about $4.40 per unit). This also allowed me to release the following 2 CD's (Fade and Spin Cycle) and use the same bulk equipment. So at any given time I could produce batches of whatever recording I needed to with one set of bulk blanks (except, of course, for the inserts, which were printed in lots of 500).

The good parts about this is many-fold: 1) I'm in complete control of the recording/PR/distribution -- talk about vertically-integrated! 2) I carry no significant inventory; 3) My stuff is on EVERY digital channel but also is available from a few channels as actual CD's; 4) I can release a new CD whenever the hell I want to.

The downside is this: I have to do everything myself. And it's time-consuming. But if you have the will, you can release a disc, get a lot of free press & reviews, and your outlay of cash is relatively low.

Total time from recording to release: 3 weeks.

But ultimately, you have to decide for yourself if you think your music is something a label will "pick up" and run with. Just having them release it is nothing. It's worthless. They need to back it with some PR & marketing, and you have to make sure your contract is something that you're comfortable with.

Oh, and you can ALWAYS release it yourself and RE-release it with a bigger label if you get one interested. But having a CD to sell at a show always beats not having one.

Hope this was helpful.


Sunday, July 11, 2010

Getting ready for Austin

So, I'm here in Brooklyn riding out the heatwave in the basement (the only room(s) in the house with decent air conditioning!)

I've got my new setup, which I'm totally pumped to bring along to Austin for ICA. Here is a pic of the new "Tree" (the mic stand with all sorts of crap attached to it.) -- By the way, I'm really sorry the quality of the pix are so bad -- Katherine took the camera to Michigan and all I have is the camera on this computer!


Show and tell time:

From top to bottom, left to right, we've got:
• Rode NT3 microphone. My old standby -- feeds back a bit, but sounds so much better than any Shure I've used (and own) that I can't help but use it. I need that proximity effect when I'm beatboxing...

• A new 10.1" LCD monitor i got off ebay (showing sheet music when necessary, otherwise it's unused now -- this is a change from when I had a touch-screen monitor where everything happened on that monitor. Unfortunately it weighed a lot, so I'm glad I don't have to shlep it any more.

• My iPad running TouchOSC which controls the mac via WiFi. Totally wireless, two-way communication between the pad and the mac, so, if I make a change on the mac in Max, it shows up within 200ms on the pad. Sweet!

• Korg's Kaossilator. When I bought this thing I figured it'd be a fun toy that I'd never use in concert, much less a recording. Um, I used it more than the $2,800 Access Virus TI synth for my last record Spin Cycle. Yeah, it's plastic, and it's yellow (though you can now get it in pink), but it sounds AMAZING for what it is.

Okay, so below those I've got a rack shelf holding my harmonicas and across from that is...

• an Akai EWI, which I use more as a vocoder carrier than as a synth.

The other little monitor to the left of the tree isn't used, I just didn't move it for the pic.

I'll get a better pic of the iPad when Katherine gets back, and possibly a video of how it works as a demo. It's really cool... I'm nervous about it a bit because I haven't used it in concert yet, and I have not performed with it on an ad-hoc network (I'm using my Airport to link the two -- ad hoc networks for those who don't know are when you can make your computer as the hub of a WiFi network).

Anyway, this Austin gig is going to be really great, if short (I've got all of 30 minutes). I'm planning to do a few new tunes (My Mouth, Bam Pip and Trip) and a few of my other faves (Ariel's Hands, Sha and Summertime). Hoping I can get all of them in...I'd like to do Abbey as a final tune. We'll see.

Anyway, there you go. If you're in Austin please come by and say hi. I'll be there for nearly the whole conference.


Monday, July 05, 2010


From the mailbag:

I was wondering if you could advise me briefly on how complicated it is to compose music on garageband. I don't mean the musical side of it, but the technical side. I'm asking on behalf of my 82-year-old father who composes piano music for pleasure in his retirement, writes it painstakingly the old-fashioned way, and records it to an archaic cassette deck left over from the 70s or 80s. I've seen the process demonstrated at an Apple store and it looks amazing, but I wondered how difficult it would be for my father to master. We are both Mac users; I am reasonably adept, but no genius (and no composer!), and he is amazingly adept for a recent convert. I'd just love to see him be able to print his sheet music easily and make MP3s of his recordings to send to friends and family. Do you think it's realistic to encourage him to invest in a decent electronic keyboard and try this?

Thanks very much for your time,


Hey there Heidi,

Thanks for your email. So, I think you should indeed encourage your dad to use Garageband - it is very intuitive, has built-in instrument sounds (that actually sound very good), and is free(!). Garageband itself is simple for most users, but it is geared mostly for loop-based popular music. You can used it very easily for more traditional music composition, and I think your dad might find it much more easy to get his ideas down than when using pen-and-paper and cassette tapes, but it will take some getting used to.

A portable USB-powered keyboard is fairly inexpensive (i would recommend this one for its price-to-feature ratio:, $170, 61 keys; fewer-key models cost less), and very portable. Since they are powered by the computer, they are very convenient, but they make no sound on their own. Given what you describe his interests to be, I think they are a good bet.

Of course, I'd always consider the possibility that he LIKES to compose the old-fashioned way :)

Hope this helps.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

How to find a good mouthpiece, part 1

From the mailbag, a question about mouthpieces and how to find a good one:

On the bass clarinet. I went extremely low end, just try it out. It is a used Busher (sp!), which, save for a slightly moldy smell, has no other major difficulties. The next stop is a new mouthpiece (the one on hand is a stock piece that came with the clarinet), which brought me to your site. I'm inclined to call/write the first fellow you mention (McClure, or something close to that) and get an S2. Still advisable, or are there other recs that have come to the fore? I can swing the price (though it will be more than half of what I paid for the clarinet), and I know well, from my tenor, that the mouthpiece opens up new worlds. I need as well a new ligature. Recommendations here?

My reply:

So to answer your question about the mouthpiece, as you can imagine, it's a very personal quest. And by "Personal" I mean, your mouth is different from mine is different from anyone else's -- and that's where mouthpiece recommendations begin to fall flat. You want a mouthpiece craftsman who can -- either through trial and error, or through voodoo -- pick up on your cues and make you something you can easily play on. Those cues are successful inasmuch as you are able to accurately describe what your difficulties are (or what you like) about any given mouthpiece. Think about how resistant it is, or how it responds when articulated loudly (or softly), if it is able to give you a pure (and unfuzzy) tone in all dynamic levels, if you can move easily between registers, including extreme register leaps. Stuff like that will help them help you.

There are many manufacturers/refacers out there who are good, or so I'm told. Walter Grabner, Clark Fobes, and McClune are the three I hear most about.

Ligatures, well, I think they make little difference -- I have a rovner I have used for about 20 years. I like it because when I sit on it, it doesn't break. :)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Playing Ten Children with live electronics instead of tape

From the mailbag: I was looking to perform some (or several) of your compositions, particularly Drift and Ten Children. I was wondering if you could tell me what I would need in order to perform them the same way you perform them instead of with the tape accompaniment. Thank you very much.

So, I'm going to make a video for the site to show all the gear I use, but until I get around to doing that, this post will have to suffice...

First of all, you need a "basic" electronic music computer setup like mine:
  • MacBook (probably pro, but I think you can make do with a non-pro)

  • Audio Interface with at least two inputs

  • Instrument Microphone

  • Vocal Mic (like an SM58 or something better)

  • Foot pedal (something simple)

Then you'll need the software & plugins:

The rest of what I use is optional, really.

I guess the reason I don't make these non-tape versions available to people is that there is a LOT of troubleshooting that needs to go on in order to get things working with each particular setup. For example, everyone has a different footpedal, so I would have to reprogram that part of every movement to handle that; everyone has a different audio interface, so the levels need to be optimized, etc. etc. Basically, It'd be too big of a pain for me to do it, so I don't. That said, if you're ever in NYC, you got all the necessary hardware/software and you want me to set your machine up, I might be persuaded...

Like I said though, stay tuned. I will try to get a video "tour" of my setup up on the site asap.