Essential Tips and Tricks for Teaching Woodwinds in the Classroom – Part 1

Lisa Canning • October 2021Wind Talkers • October 9, 2021

In the last three columns, we talked about basic repair for clarinet, saxophone and flute which is the number one most important thing you can do to help your students achieve success. Based on 40 years of anecdotal research, your ability to be able to assess and converse with a student about their natural tone color and shape of sound tendencies on their instrument is most likely to deliver a staggering 50%+ improvement in their performance abilities. 

When we can identify a student’s color and shape of sound, it gives you a pedagogically strong foundation to determine what will complement their natural gifts most in a mouthpiece/head joint and instrument to sound and play their best. Over the span of my career, I have found that it creates a new level of understanding and shared language to opening new learning pathways to produce positive results.

80% Rule for Teaching Woodwinds in the classroom begins with understanding and communicating student color and shape of sound.  The other 20% comes from the proper alignment of their equipment- mouthpiece/head joint & instrument based on this knowledge.  

Look, I know you want a uniform fluid, even, and colorful sound in your ensembles. Let me tell you a quick story to illustrate how understanding your students color and shape of sound will help you and your students achieve success more quickly.  

I played with the Buffalo Philharmonic in New York for a year, after graduating from Northwestern and studying with Robert Marcellus.  The principal player in the orchestra, John Fullam and I sounded identical. You couldn’t tell where he started a musical phrase or when I ended one because we sounded identical.  And what a joy it was playing with him! 

John Fullam and I met when he came to my shop to purchase his instruments. When he came in to try clarinets, we also tried each other’s instruments and quickly realized we could not AT ALL play on each other’s equipment. BOOM. Instantly, I realized while what we most want to sound like may be very similar, how each of us gets to that place is completely different. It’s important to emphasize to students early on how to develop their own concept of how they want to sound on their instrument to help them be able to rapidly connect and musical growth through these concepts. 

How to Determine Your Students Natural Tonal Color and Shape of Sound
The first step in this process, is to determine the foundation of color in their sound which requires about a year of playing the instrument to be stable enough to assess. Your diagnosis can easily and quickly be accomplished in either sectionals or private lessons and should be written down to ensure the information is captured. You also need to ensure your students have reeds that play easily, and mouthpieces and head joints that are free of chips, indentations, or dents. Also make sure that their embouchures are free of cuts or sores to ensure they can produce sound naturally and easily. 

After this step is completed, on a separate occasion you can assess their mouthpiece/head joint/and instrument choice, based on what you now know, to determine if they have the right setup to reach 80% of woodwind playing success quickly. (This will be covered in part 2 of this article in November.) Finally, this system is applicable for all woodwind and brass musicians. 

Tonal Color/Foundation Basics: Bright and Dark/Highs and Lows

To understand the fundamentals of tonal color is to understand whether the student is producing a bright or dark sound and whether their sound has more high or low tendencies. 

Students with Bright Sounds and More High’s
Students who sound squeaky bright, laser focused, piercing sometimes, are albeit an extreme example of a super bright sound. When a student naturally sounds bright no matter what instrument or mouthpiece they play, you can always hear higher frequencies in their sound.  

We use the red color-ring to express any degree of brightness. The reason we use a physical color-ring to express it is for instructive purposes.  We even go as far as to suggest a student hangs it on their instrument for a while because 65%+ of the population are visual learners*.  By helping students visualize their color and shape of sound, you are helping students use their hearing to what they see in their sound.  Not only will this shared language and pedagogical exercise provide a lasting impression, but we have found consistently it offers a huge growth opportunity because students can hear and verbalize something that they might have felt before and had no words for.  We all know that the first step to growth is being able to identify where one can improve, and problem solve through this type of open dialogue with your students.  

Students with Darkness and More Lows
Some students can equally swing the other way and have a very muddy, colorless, or not focused sound.  These students don’t have many highs but lots of lows in their sound. Think of a big gravelly sounding voice.  We use the Color-Ring Brown to visually express darkness in their sound. Remember, the color-rings can vary in different shades to reflect the level of darkness in their sound. 

Students who are Color-Balanced
Many students have neither a very bright sound nor a very dark sound but fall in the middle. In this case, students who are color balanced can have both a red and brown foundation in their sound that can vary on different levels. 

Two More Tonal Colors
Now that you have identified the student’s foundation of sound, let’s talk about two more tonal colors of sound they might have naturally present in their playing. 

The first is resonance (color-ring orange). When a student has a resonant quality in their playing, their sound rings. It seems to easily sing and float and carry. The greater the resonance, the more orange is present in their natural abilities. 

The second sound color to assess is sweetness that is characteristically more tender and smaller. It is also dense but expressive in its qualities (color-ring pink). The student will often play with such amazing expressiveness but not necessarily the biggest shape of sound. 

Students may have both or neither of these natural tendencies. Depending on how they play, you may wish they did. We will cover more on how to address this with equipment in part 2 in November. 

Now let’s move on to the two shapes of sound we need to cover, green and purple. 

Shape of Sound
A green color-ring means a student has a noticeably smooth shape of sound. One that has a lot of evenness between the notes with less color variation and less expressiveness overall.  

Students whose sound projects are given a purple color-ring. It denotes a big shape of sound. Some students have an overall big shape of sound that seems endless in its ability to carry and fill up the instrument and room. 

Color-Rings and Our Course Are Available to You for Free
To help you further understand these differences, I have created an education course for band directors and private lesson teachers.  The course and access to our color-rings is FREE to all band directors who are willing to implement it in their private lesson programs or curriculum.  

With our course you will receive an assortment of color rings to use pedagogically in the classroom to assess your students and create a dialogue about it. I am also available for consultation with your private lesson teachers to help you with implementation. 

If you are interested in learning more about our color-ring system, email me at  

* Zopf R., Giabbiconi C. M., Gruber T., Müller M. M. (2004). Attentional modulation of the human somatosensory evoked potential in a trial-by-trial spatial cueing and sustained spatial attention task measured with high density 128 channels EEG. Brain Res. Cogn. Brain Res. 20 491–509. 

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