Secret Sauce for Music Success: Woodwinds Edition

Picking up a new instrument often feels like a daunting challenge, especially if it’s a woodwind instrument that requires such a unique set of muscle movements.

That’s why we asked Seth Kibel—SMT’s own clarinet, saxophone, flute, and woodwind teacher—to tell us about his own Secret Sauce for Musical Success.

In the following collection of practice tips, Seth talks about how you can make the most of your woodwind lessons and dodge some of the biggest pitfalls of beginning musicians!

1) PRACTICE OFTEN: So much about learning music involves muscles and muscle memory. As woodwind players, we use muscles in our fingers, our lips, our tongue, our cheeks, and more—which is why it is VITAL to practice regularly in order to build up those muscles and muscle memory. If you skip more than a day or two of playing your instrument, your musical progress doesn’t just stop—it actually goes BACKWARDS. Unless you are consistently working those musical muscles, they will almost surely weaken and lose their familiarity.

I always tell my students that I’d rather they practice 10 minutes a day instead of sitting down for a three-hour marathon practice session once a week. You can’t cram for a music lesson!

2) PRACTICE IS ESSENTIAL: Even if I were the best music teacher in the entire world (which I clearly am), taking one lesson with me each week isn’t going to make you any better. The only way you are going to improve is if you put in the time between lessons—and the more time you put in, the more you’ll get out of it.

3) EXCUSES DON’T MATTER: I’m sure you’ve got great excuses for why you haven’t been practicing. Maybe an alien stole your instrument and only returned it to you minutes prior before the start of our lesson; or maybe you were working undercover for an international spy ring—it doesn’t matter! It doesn’t matter whether you have the best excuse in the world or the flimsiest: you will not get better without practicing.

4) THE MOST IMPORTANT DAY TO PRACTICE is the one right after your lesson. If you don’t review what you learned the previous day, it WILL fall out of your brain like a password for an app you haven’t used in months.

Maybe you have seen this happen in a cartoon: someone at the top of a snowy hill goes to great trouble to pack together a tiny little snowball so they can send it rolling down the hill. As it gains momentum, it starts getting larger and larger. It starts picking up more than just snow; squirrels, trees, skiers, cars — you name it. By the time it reaches the bottom of the hill, it has ballooned into a ginormous snowball capable of picking up anything and everything in its path.

That’s what learning a woodwind instrument is like. The first few days, weeks, and even months of learning a woodwind can be SO frustrating. For some students, it can take several lessons just to get a single sound out of their instrument—and even longer to get a single sound that doesn’t sound like a wounded animal!

Those early weeks and months of learning a woodwind can be so discouraging—but you have to stick with it. Practice, struggle, and get that snowball rolling down the hill; because if you can make it through those difficult months early on, you’ll eventually get to a point where you start making sounds that are actually quite pleasing to the ear. And when that happens, something really strange will occur — you’ll actually WANT to practice! So then you’ll start to practice a little bit more, and if you start practicing more, you’ll start to get even better; and the better you get, the more you’ll want to increase your practice time; and the more you increase your practice time, the better you get; and the better you get… well, you catch my drift.

If you can persevere through those early stages, you’ll get that snowball rolling down the hill, and before long, it’ll be picking up every fun piece of music along the way!

I’m not a marine biologist, but it’s my understanding that whales are NOT fish. Because whales don’t have gills for breathing underwater, these giant mammals will merrily swim through the ocean for several few hours until they eventually run out of air. After making their way to the water’s surface, they take a giant breath of air—we’re talking gallons of air. Then they go back underwater and happily swim for several more hours until they run out of air once more.

This is how you should breath when playing a woodwind instrument.

Now I’m not saying you should go several hours without taking a breath (that would be a BAD idea), but rather than taking lots of little breaths, you should take BIG breaths as INFREQUENTLY as possible.

Look, let’s try something: say a sentence, but take a breath in between every word.

“I (breath) really (breath) like (breath) taking (breath) lessons (breath) with (breath) Seth.”

Not only does that sound unnatural, but it makes you sound vaguely creepy. You don’t talk that way, and you shouldn’t play music like that either! So remember… take big breaths as infrequently as possible.

Oh, and NEVER, EVER, EVER breath through your nose. I don’t care how big your schnoz is (and I’ve got a pretty big honker!) you can never take in as much air through your itty-bitty nostrils as you can through your mouth.

Seth Kibel is one of the Mid-Atlantic’s premier woodwind specialists, working with some of the best bands in klezmer, jazz, swing, and more. Wowing audiences on clarinet, saxophone, and flute, Seth has made a name for himself in the Washington/Baltimore region, and beyond. He is the featured performer with The Kleztet, Bay Jazz Project, Music Pilgrim Trio, The Natty Beaux, and more. Winner of 28 Washington Area Music Awards (Wammies), including “Best World Music Instrumentalist” (2003-11) and “Best Jazz Instrumentalist” (2005, 2007-8, 2011-14). His most recent recording, “When You’re Smiling,” was released in 2018 on the Azalea City Recordings record label. His song “New Waltz” was the Grand Prize winner of 2016 Mid-Atlantic Song Contest (MASC), sponsored by the Songwriters’ Association of Washington (SAW). When he’s not performing, Seth frequently lectures on a variety of topics in music history for numerous institutions, including the Osher Lifelong Learning programs at Johns Hopkins and Towson Universities.

Click here to sign up for virtual lessons with Seth today!