Why Clarinets Squeak and Other Instrument Oddities

Why do clarinets squeak? Why do trumpets have spit valves? What’s with all these instrument oddities? Musical instruments are strange things. Hollow tubes with holes in them. Long metal pipes bent into strange shapes. Boxes with hammers and strings. Holes where you don’t expect holes to be. What’s with all this? Here are the answers to some of those strange questions you always wanted to ask but never did.

Why Do Clarinets Squeak?

Have you ever been in beginning band? Have you had to attend a beginning band concert? It seems like the clarinets are always squeaking! Why does that happen? What can they do to stop the squeaking?

Many factors affect whether a clarinet squeaks. And all these are things that the clarinet player must learn and practice. Beginners are still learning – give them a break when they squeak.

Here is a list of some of the more common reasons for clarinet squeaks:

  •         Biting down, or clamping down too hard on the mouthpiece
  •         Having too much or too little of the mouthpiece in the mouth
  •         Inconsistent airflow
  •         Incorrect tonguing technique
  •         Bad reed – old, chipped or dried out

Good news – the more a clarinet player practices, the less he will squeak. So practice away, my clarinet friends.

If you want more information about this, see here and here.

Why Does a Piano Have Three Pedals?

Almost all pianos have two pedals. Some pianos have three pedals. What’s the difference? Does it matter if your instrument has two or three pedals?

Right Pedal

The pedal on the right is the damper pedal. When pressed, this pedal raises all the dampers (or long felt-covered bars) from the strings inside the piano. The strings will then continue to vibrate and sound until the pedal is released and the dampers are reapplied to the strings. If you have a grand piano or open the top of your upright piano, you can see this happen.

Left Pedal

The left pedal on a piano is the soft pedal. Depending on the piano, this pedal works in one of two ways. Either the use of the pedal causes the hammers to strike fewer strings, or the hammers are moved closer to the strings so they cannot strike the strings as hard as usual.

Every key you see on your piano attaches to two or three strings inside the piano. When you strike a key, you activate a hammer inside the piano that strikes the strings related to that key. When you press the soft pedal the hammer slightly moves so it only strikes a portion of the related strings (two strings instead of three, or one string instead of two).

Other pianos use a slightly different system to get a similar result. In this system, the soft pedal causes the entire set of hammers to move slightly closer to the strings. This means that the hammer cannot strike the strings with as much force, resulting in a softer sound.

Center Pedal

And then there is the third pedal. Not every piano has a third pedal. This third pedal will do one of two things, but not both. On some pianos, the third pedal, called the sostenuto (sustaining) pedal, allows certain notes to sustain (or hold) without holding all the other notes at the same time. It is an interesting effect. However, unless you are playing advanced piano literature, you probably will not need to use this third pedal.

Some piano makers have taken that third pedal and given it a completely different purpose. Sometimes that third pedal performs as a “practice” pedal or a “silent” pedal. If you live in an apartment, perhaps the neighbors aren’t too excited to hear your late-night practicing. Or your early-morning arpeggios. What should you do? Put your piano in “silent” mode, by pressing that third pedal, and practice away.

What’s So French About a French Horn?

What’s so French about a French horn? Actually…not much. And it appears that the term “French horn” is only used in the US, Canada, and Britain. Everyone else just calls it a horn. So where did the term “French horn” come from? Guess what – no definite answers exist. But there are three theories about the use of that term.

Theory #1

Once upon a time, a long time ago, a German Count went to France, picked up some hunting horns, and brought them back to Germany. These horns were a bit different than the ones they already had in Germany. Because of that, the people may have referred to these as the French horns to differentiate them from the German horns that were already in the country.

Theory #2

Horn originally developed from hunting horns. The hunting horns in Britain were different than the French hunting horns. The French hunting horns were larger. When musicians began to use these new horns in Britain they reminded people of the larger French hunting horns, so they called them French horns.

Theory #3

In the late 1600s instrument makers crafted horns in Britain, Germany, and France. Each country made the horns slightly differently, and each country contributed different features in the development of the modern horn. Evidently, the best horns of the time came from French makers, so musicians called them French horns. (Not to be confused with the British horns, the German horns, etc.)

Is there a final answer to the question about the term “French” horn? Of course not. And if you are in a rehearsal and the conductor asks the horn section to play a section of music, does he mean just the French horns or the entire brass section? Play it safe, and assume he is just referring to the French horn section.

Looking for more info? Check here or here.

Why Do Trumpets Have Spit Valves?

Spit valves are just gross, right? Trumpet players get to some rests, and the first thing they do is blow spit all over the floor. What’s with that? Ewwww! Think about how trumpet players produce sound. They blow – directly into their instrument. And with all the air that blows, you also get saliva. The air blows out through the horn, but not the saliva. It stays in the horn and collects.

Pretty soon, our poor trumpet player begins to sound like he is playing underwater. Because he is – sort of. And since he is not playing “Under the Sea,” we don’t want it to sound like that. The spit valve on a trumpet (and all other brass instruments) is located where the saliva collects in the horn. The brass player can open the spit valve, blow through his horn without making a sound, and empty all the water from his horn. Then he can continue to play with a good sound. Just be glad you don’t have to clean the floor after the band concert!

Why Are There Holes in the Tops of Violins?

The reason for the holes in the top of a violin (or viola, or cello, or bass) is simple – to let the sound out! Imagine if you are in your bedroom with the door shut and you want to tell your brother or sister to bring you a snack. You yell, but they never bring your snack. They will say they never heard you. But if you open your door and yell, they will hear you and bring you your snack (you hope). That’s the idea behind the holes on the violin. They are called f-holes – because they look like fancy letter f’s. Or some might call them sound holes. Vibration inside the body of the violin causes the sound, but that sound needs a way to get out. The f-holes let the sound out.

If the idea of f-holes fascinates you, you can read more about it here.

So, now you know the answers to some of life’s perplexing questions. You can impress your friends with your vast musical knowledge!

What are some other questions you have about instruments? You know, those questions you have always wanted to ask, but thought everyone else already knew the answers to. Ask away, and I will try to find the answers.

Leave your questions in the comments!

And check out some of our posts about specific instruments!

Violins

Violas

Flute

Clarinet

Trumpet

Marimba

Musical New Year’s Resolutions

New Year’s Resolutions. Are you a fan of them? Do you make resolutions every January? Or maybe you just set yourself some new goals for the year. Do you make any resolutions relating to music? Or any goals? Whatever you want to call them, let me give you a few ideas for Musical New Year’s Resolutions.

Go to more concerts

        Do you get to live concerts very often? Plan to go to more this year. Indoor, outdoor, free, paid, local, a new group, high school, community, professional – doesn’t matter! Go enjoy some live music. Chicago has a great line-up of free outdoor concerts during the summer. They just announced the schedule for the summer; I am already thinking about which ones I want to go to!

Learn a new instrument

        Do you play an instrument? Have you ever wanted to play something? Start learning! Choose an instrument and start learning to play! Maybe you played something in school – choose a related instrument and learn that one!

Practice an instrument you used to play

        Did you play an instrument in high school or college? Get it out and start practicing again! Practice up on those pieces you used to play. Start practicing a piece you always wanted to learn to play.

Join a performance group

        Get involved with a local performance group. Join a choir. Join the community band or orchestra. You will meet some fascinating people and enjoy making music in a group setting. Accept the challenge and have some fun with music!

Learn to read music

        Did you always enjoy singing but never learned to read music? Did you play a treble clef instrument but never learned to read bass clef? Or vice-versa? Did tenor clef or alto clef always mess with your mind? Take some time and master the art of reading music.

Explore a new genre of music

        Do you know all the latest pop music but can’t tell a symphony from a concerto? Maybe you are great with Bach and Vivaldi but know nothing about 20th century music. Whatever the case, take the challenge to learn a new form of music. Maybe you will choose to explore string quartets. Perhaps you will decide to learn about bluegrass. The options are endless! Explore something new.

Take a music appreciation course

        Learn about the many varieties of music available! Check out the different eras of music and the composers of each era. Find an online course, check out a course from your library, take a continuing education course through your community college. Learn something new!

Add your own ideas in the comments! Let me know how you are going to challenge your musical self this year.

Ideas for Musical New Year Resolutions

War Time Christmas Carols

War time Christmas carols seems like an oxymoron. Peace on earth, goodwill toward men…and war? Doesn’t make sense, does it? Did you know that two of our favorite Christmas carols are associated with three different wars? Keep reading to find out these two carols and how they are related to war.

White Christmas

How does a Russian-born, Jewish immigrant, with no musical training, manage to write the best-selling Christmas song of all time?

What does this Christmas carol have to do with the end of the Vietnam War?

What makes a great song?

  •         Memorable melody
  •         Meaningful lyrics
  •         Resonance, relevance, mood, empathy
  •         Timing – Timing is everything!

Have you ever heard of Israel Baline?

Israel Baline, originally from western Siberia, emigrated to the US with his Jewish family when he was quite young.  Jobs were hard to find; everyone in the family needed to work to earn money to survive. Young Israel (Izzy) tried to earn some extra money by singing new songs in taverns, vaudeville theaters, and even on street corners. Yes, Israel had a good ear for music and could sing well but he had no real musical training. He taught himself some basics of playing piano but never learned to write music. He did learn, though, what made a good song, and what his audiences liked to hear in a song. That may have been the most important thing he learned about music.

But who is this Israel Baline? Why have you never heard of him? Blame it on the publisher of his first song. When Israel’s first song was published, the printer made a mistake. Instead of printing I. Baline on the music, the composer was listed as I. Berlin – Irving Berlin. Have you heard of him? I think so – In addition to “White Christmas,” he also wrote “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and “God Bless America.”

“Holiday Inn”

In 1940 Irving Berlin agreed to write the musical “Holiday Inn” for Paramount Films. “White Christmas” was one of many songs Berlin wrote for the musical. But he never thought that song would be the favorite song of the show. “White Christmas” contains all the characteristics of a great song. The melody is easy to sing, easy to remember. The lyrics have meaning. The song  was relevant to the listeners, expressed a certain mood, resonated with the audience – but all for a reason different from what Berlin intended. That’s where timing comes in.

History meets new Christmas Song

December 7, 1941 – An important date in US history – the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Soon America was at war. Americans were signing up for the armed forces and heading off to war. December 24, 1941 – just a few weeks later, Bing Crosby sang “White Christmas” on his well-known radio show. Although originally written as satire, when Crosby san “White Christmas” his audience took an entirely different meaning from the song. To the listeners at the time, the song expressed a sense of nostalgia, a yearning for home, a longing for the way things used to be.  

Listen to the original version, sung by Bing Crosby.

Christmas Carols as Secret Code

What does “White Christmas” have to do with the end of the Vietnam War? In March and April of 1975 the US military was preparing for the final evacuations of embassy personnel from Saigon. The evacuation instructions contained the text of a secret code that would be broadcast to notify personnel of the timing of the evacuation. The code broadcast over Armed Forces Radio read like this: “The temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising.” This announcement was followed by the playing of “White Christmas.” Several non-US personnel had others sing the song for them in advance of the announcement to be sure they would recognize the song when it was played.

“White Christmas,” originally written as a satire in a musical, went on to become one of America’s most-loved Christmas songs. Although it was written by a Jewish Russian immigrant with no musical training, the song causes us to reflect on Christmases past, and remember family and friends when we are separated from them. And snow – don’t forget the beautiful snow! At least at Christmas we can fondly remember snow.

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

White Christmas

The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, L.A
But it’s December the twenty-fourth
And I am longing to be up North  [Not all versions contain these lyrics]

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write
May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write
May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Did you know that one of America’s famous poets wrote a Christmas carol?

Or was it an anti-war protest piece?

Or was it just a longing for peace after several personal tragedies?

Personal peace, spiritual peace, or national peace?

One of America’s Famous Poets

The poet who wrote “Paul Revere’s Ride,” “The Song of Hiawatha,” “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” “Evangeline,” and “The Cross of Snow” also wrote a poem entitled “Christmas Bells.” This famous American poet – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow lived during the 1800s and suffered several personal tragedies. His first wife died after they had been married only six months. After several years Longfellow remarried and had 18 wonderful years with his wife Fanny. A tragic fire in their home in 1861 cost Fanny her life. Longfellow himself was so injured in the fire that he was unable to attend his wife’s funeral. His poem “The Cross of Snow” was written to commemorate her life – 18 years after her death.

Holidays become Difficult

Longfellow fell into a depressed state after Fanny’s death. Christmas was especially difficult for him. His journal entries reflected his thoughts. In 1862 he wrote the following: “A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.” A year after Fanny’s death his journal reflected, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” He also wrote “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.”

War becomes Personal

In 1863 Longfellow’s son Charley joined the Massachusetts Artillery and went off to fight in the Civil War. By November of that same year Charley was severely injured and Longfellow brought him home to begin the long process of healing. That Christmas (1863) Longfellow wrote the poem “Christmas Bells,” which later became the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Longfellow had a difficult time listening to the Christmas bells chiming about peace on earth and goodwill among men while at the same time dealing with his own despair, tragedy, and his nation being at war with itself. Where is the peace? He looked around and saw hate, despair, all mocking the idea of peace. But as the bells continued to ring, he was reminded that God is not dead or asleep, and that there was still hope for both personal and national peace. The poem he wrote included two or three verses directly referencing the Civil War. When the poem was set to music several years later those verses were omitted from the carol.

What about the Melody?

Speaking of the music…Sometime in the 1870s a melody written by John Baptiste Calkin was paired with Longfellow’s poem to give us the carol we know as “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” This is probably the most familiar version of the carol. In the 1950s Johnny Marks (famous for “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”) wrote another melody for the same carol. You have probably heard them both. Here are links to both of them:

Calkin Melody

Johnny Marks Melody

Which one do you prefer?  

Image by Krishan Michael from Pixabay

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace of earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along th’unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
*(Stanza directly relating to Civil War – omitted in the Christmas Carol)

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn the households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
*(Stanza directly relating to Civil War – omitted in the Christmas Carol)

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Two wartime Christmas carols. One reminding us of memories and home, the other offering hope in the midst of despair. Both familiar parts of our Christmas celebrations. Which is your favorite?

Interested in more of the stories behind Christmas carols? Check these other posts :

The Stories behind the Christmas Carols

Christmas Carols – The Stories You May not Know

Christmas Carols – Questions and Controversy

More Carols, More Questions