The summer break is over, and many people are starting to return to their usual routine, including music practice. A rest is no bad thing, and the principles of ‘spaced learning’ and ‘spaced retrieval practice’ are becoming more and more commonplace in schools seeking to increase the speed of learning. The work of Dr Bjork and others at UCLA also suggests there is a benefit in allowing some time to forget something. If it feels a bit hard to remember later, you get a bonus to how well you learn it next time around.
Taking some time off can also freshen up people’s determination to learn, and even though there is a dip in performance when you restart, your refreshed rate of learning means you soon outstrip the point that you left off.
One of the problems faced by reed musicians is squeaking. Squeaking is a common problem on wind instruments. It can be very frustrating during practice, and embarrassing when it happens in a concert, exam or performance.
The good news is that squeaks can usually be corrected quite easily, and the risk of them reduced massively. Here are my top tips:
1. CHECK YOUR REED:
How is my reed positioned?
This is often the problem, especially if you are rushing to get set up at the start of the lesson. If the reed is wonky then there is a higher likelihood of squeaking or if the student’s bottom teeth are touching the reed.
Is the reed wet enough?
Give the reed a good suck before you place it on the mouthpiece or leave it in a cup of water for about 5 minutes.
Is the reed broken?
You should discard a broken reed. Even if it used to be a lovely reed, it won’t sound the same after you split it. If you find you’re getting through a lot of reeds, synthetic ones are more durable (but you still need to take care of them!
Is it a brand-new reed?
Make sure it is wet enough or it will be hard to blow and then encourage overblowing. You should have a few reeds that you’ve ‘broken in’ by playing them for a few minutes over a few days. I often find that students only have one reed in their case. Not only does this mean that they’re in trouble if it breaks or warps, but it also means they aren’t keeping some reeds readily broken in.
2. Try not to OVERBLOW into your instrument. Too much air at once can cause the instrument to produce an overtone and a squeak. Keep the air flow fast, but under control to get a good even sound.
3. Make sure you are not putting too much tension on the MOUTHPIECE – you should not be biting as excess pressure will cause squeaks. Go and read my blog on embouchure for more information.
4. Do not put too much of the mouthpiece into your mouth. You should have about a third of the mouthpiece in your mouth. Also, have a talk to your teacher if you’re playing the mouthpiece that came with your instrument, or that you’ve been playing for a long time. Sometimes the supplied mouthpieces are hard to play well, or perhaps you’ve outgrown it. Some mouthpieces are harder to play without squeaking. For example, ones with wider tip openings and are designed for more experienced players who want to achieve a particular effect.
5. Check your finger positioning: if you accidentally hit another key then this might cause a squeak or if you are allowing some air to escape through the holes. On a clarinet, you might not be properly covering the holes.
6. Check your ARTICULATION – it could be that you are not tonguing your notes correctly then this can cause the instrument to squeak.
7. Service your instrument about every eighteen months. The pads and springs sometimes deteriorate, affecting tone and causing squeaks. This is often easily identified by the fact that only one note is squeaking, but the mechanisms could affect a whole lot of notes.
The last thing to say is that squeaks are very common indeed. Don’t let them frustrate you too much, and don’t try to contort your mouth into strange or uncomfortable shapes. Often, students try to find a way that prevents squeaking, but unfortunately ruins their tone or completely distracts from playing fluently.
If a squeak is not down to the instrument (which you can check if somebody else plays it without squeaking... although perhaps don’t do this during a pandemic) then it is down to your playing, and you have the control and skills to learn how to fix it. Take some of your lesson time to get feedback from your teacher as you try playing it a few different ways, and hopefully you will rapidly consign these annoying things to the past.