The Modern Mellow Music Makers: Woodwinds

Mike Lawson • Woodwinds • October 7, 2016

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Until electronics, woodwinds were the new guys on the block! The make-up of the modern symphony, symphonic and concert bands only became possible in the last 150 or so years. With the exception of the flutes and their little cousins the piccolos, woodwinds were primarily invented instruments from the mid 1800s. Woodwinds, so-called because most either are, or have at some time, been made from wood and the sound is made by altering the air column (wind) as it flows through the length of the instrument tube.

Woodwinds comprise a significant portion of the positions in a typical concert/ symphonic band and significantly fewer seats in a symphony orchestra. A typical symphony orchestra will only have three or four clarinets with one also playing e-flat soprano and perhaps one also playing bass clarinet, three or four oboes with one also playing English Horn, three or four flutes with one doubling on piccolo, and three or four bassoons with one also playing contrabassoon and no saxophones. The total woodwinds would be perhaps sixteen. A symphonic or concert band essentially replaces the stringed instruments section with woodwinds and a typical seating arrangement would place the woodwinds where the orchestra string section would have been.

A brass player asked about what impact woodwinds would make on him responded, “well, maybe create a wooden trumpet!” That comment underlines the difference in tonality between these groups of instruments. He further described the “mellowness” of the woodwind sound.

There are three major groups within the woodwind family; flutes and piccolos (the non-reed members), single reeds including both clarinets of various sizes and ranges and saxophones of similar varieties, and the double reeds which include oboes and bassoon varieties.

Each of these instruments and instrument families has its own focused organizations, museum historical collections and education resources which include conferences, symposiums, clinics, and workshops. In addition, certain schools, universities and conservatories specialize on certain of these instruments.

Flutes, Piccolos and Fifes

Flutes piccolos and fifes, the non-reed members of the woodwind family, trace their origins into prehistory with bone examples going back to the caveman, some 35,000 years ago. They would benefit later from the invented members of the family. (equipped with keys). Much of this history and examples of early instruments, artwork and other material can be seen online from the Library of Congress Dayton C. Miller collection and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Flautists have two major organizations that serve and encourage professional excellence. The organizations and their next scheduled events include The World Flute Society, which focuses on indigenous and folk flutes, and the National Flute Association (NFA),

The Chicago based NFA is the world’s largest flute organization with over 5,000 members from 50 countries. Their August 2016 44th Annual Convention saw over 3,000 flute players from 39 countries gather in San Diego. Support is offered with a lending library of 15,000 pieces of flute music, scholarships and music composition grants. The group also sponsors flute competitions at many levels and publishes a quarterly journal, The Flutist. NFA assists with the Dayton C Miller flute collection maintenance at the Library of Congress.

Organizations exist for many college and university programs that are specific instrument focused, such as woodwind quartets, choirs and also individual events and educational offerings for these instruments.

Single Reed – Clarinets

While the clarinet does have some ancestral roots, the clarinet as we know it today only dates from the early 1800s. Adding keys and padded covers to the tone holes created an entirely new instrument with increased range and capability. Today’s instrument utilizes Theobald Boehm’s key arrangement, but other systems once existed, much like today’s different worlds of Android and Apple.

Clarinets are the band equivalent of the string section in an orchestra. Like the strings, there are various members of the instrument that provide different ranges on different size instruments: Clarinet family Bflat, Eflat (soprano), Alto, Bass.

The Columbus, Ohio-based International Clarinet Association ( is over forty years old and is the prevalent organization for clarinetists. Among their activities are publishing of The Clarinet, a quarterly scholarly journal, a variety of competitions, and perhaps most significantly, the annual ClarinetFest which offers lessons, rehearsals, workshops and performances at multiple venues. The 2017 Fest is July 26-30 in Orlando, Florida.

Another international organization is the World Clarinet Alliance ( now headquartered in Beckley, West Virginia, which provides global information about various festivals, competitions, other relevant organizations, concerts, clinics, workshops and music industry news. This is a free, online only, clarinet resource still in development.

A noteworthy collection of clarinets and their ancestors can be found at the Boston Fine Arts Museum with an excellent website access to the collection.

A wide variety of available clarinet workshops and other educational opportunities are offered online, most by various universities and colleges. Geographically these are available across the country from the Stetson University (Florida) Clarinet Clinic, the Clarinet Workshop at the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts (Michigan), to the Summer Clarinet Experience at Central Washington University. These are all full week experiences.

Single Reed – Saxophones

The saxophone must be described as the hybrid musical instrument. It was the intention of Belgian Antoine-Joseph “Adolphe” Sax in the 1840s to create a powerful and vocal “woodwind” with some of the projection/tonality of the brass instruments. He already was a clarinetist and flute player. Sax was active in developing musical instruments for military bands, especially what today would be called a brass band. His saxophone was patented in 1846 and like its clarinet cousins comes in a variety of sizes and associated ranges. The saxophone was designed to be made of brass, but is regarded as a woodwind due to the single reed and manner in which it is played, like a woodwind rather than a brass instrument. Saxophones are primarily a band instrument but are becoming more present in orchestras.

NASA, the North American Saxophone Alliance (, has an active two year cycle with a biennial national conference in even numbered years and regional conferences during spring of odd numbered years. Information including contacts for these regional conferences is in the Alliance website.

In addition to the museums mentioned earlier, an interesting historical collection of saxophones is maintained by St. Louis based Saxquest ( They are also a dealer and repair facility as well as offering collectible vintage instruments.

For nearly forty years the United States Navy Band has hosted an International Saxophone Symposium in January. The 2017 event is scheduled for January 6-7 at the George Mason University Center for the Arts. Information is available at Numerous regional and individual university symposiums can also be found online. A weeklong saxophone workshop is offered by Stetson University in Deland, Florida. Their twelfth annual edition will be June 26 – July 1, 2017. Information at The saxophone in particular also has a number of jazz focused events and educational opportunities.

Double Reed Family – Oboes

While double reed type instruments have existed for unnumbered years, the oboe as we know it dates from the 1600s. As with other woodwinds, keys to extend range and provide full tonality were added to earlier simple conical instruments. The alto cousin of the oboe is generally referred to as the English Horn. Today with its longer body, bulbous bell and a crooked metal tube holding the reed it produces a somewhat more mellow tone than the oboe.

There are groups that much like historical re-enactors construct, play and instruct historical double reed instruments and their associated music. One such active group is the Early Music Guild of Oregon ( that offers performance, workshop and class listings.

Oboes, bassoons and all double reed instruments are all included in the International Double Reed Society (IDRS). The IDRS 2017 conference will be held at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin June 20-14. This conference includes a Young Artist Bassoon Competition and the Fernand Gillet- Hugo Fox Oboe Competition. The group publishes the quarterly Double Reed, commissions compositions, and provides grants for projects benefitting the double reed community. Full information is available at the IDRS website Numerous clinics, workshops and other educational opportunities sponsored by various universities and colleges may be found online, as well.

Double Reed – Bassoons

Bassoonists not only share the attention and support of the International Double Reed Society but also many of the same conferences, workshops, clinics, and camps. One notable bassoon program is the Peabody Bassoon Week at the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland each July. Information on this program and all Peabody Conservatory offerings may be found at Another bassoon focused opportunity is the Bassoon Institute at the Interlochen Summer Arts Camp in Michigan. Their 2017 camp information will be posted at camp.

The closest thing we have to a museum collection of historic bassoons is the catalog of an exhibit of the Henk de Wit collection before it was sold off in 2000. The previously mentioned museum and Library of Congress collections do have some examples.

The woodwinds like all musical instruments generate much more than music. They also represent different cultures, styles of music and even technology. Perhaps those electronic instruments of today will also transform the organization of the symphonies and bands of the future and become the subject of a SBO article!


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