Stopping A Crack Habit Before It Starts: A Primer

[This post's primary audience will be people who do the bulk of their work in less than ideal environmental conditions, namely theater pits and on tours. However, anybody who finds themselves having to play outdoor pops series or patriotic concerts might also find this useful!]

This is an article I've been wanting to write for a while, but something happened recently that made it clear that now is the time. One of my very nearest and dearest friends (who also happens to be my roommate) was very recently playing the reed chair in a fantastic high-profile off-Broadway show, and in this show, among the 8 instruments in his book, he played oboe and English horn.

In the frigid air-conditioning of the theater, during a performance (as he began to play a highly exposed solo), his English horn cracked. No, it didn't crack, it EXPLODED. His precious, dark and smooth-voiced English horn, which was the instrument that his beloved mentor and teacher used for her entire career and then came into his employ upon her passing, literally burst at the seams. No fewer than 9 separate cracks happened in the top joint at once, causing what our favorite repair tech called the worst cracking incident he has ever seen in his career. It was so bad that the octave pip and tonehole inserts actually popped out.

Repair Guy did the absolute best he could to repair it, and it does play now, but it is, for all intents and purposes, dead. The beautiful silky voice it had is gone, and it is now a thin, reedy, bright-sounding instrument that bears more resemblance to a shawm than a cor anglais; it can also never be used in a pit again, because the next time it cracks, and it WILL crack again, it will be permanently destroyed. Everything that was once special about this instrument was erased in a fraction of a second, and it is utterly heartbreaking. As every serious musician knows, your instrument is not just a tool, it is part of you; PARTICULARLY when the instrument represents not just itself, but a person who is no longer with us. These kinds of instruments are irreplaceable, and something very much passes forever into the ether when something happens to them.

My friend is now, unfortunately, in the position of having to find a new instrument with which to continue his career, and I am helping him in that search. I am writing this to share with you not only a cautionary tale, but to also perhaps shed some light on some options you may not have known about for instruments that are available to us that will prevent this sort of heartbreak from ever happening.

While violinists who have extremely expensive fine violins will also almost always as a matter of course have a less expensive but serviceable instrument as a backup and for these sorts of gigs -  woodwind players, particularly doublers, rarely have backups to everything in their arsenal. (How many people do you know that have two oboes and English horns, or two bassoons in addition to all the flutes, clarinets, and saxes they must own?) However, just as a violinist wouldn't bring their Strad into a pit, we wind players must also think a bit about what tools we're choosing to use in our day to day work lives. Though it is tempting to have the finest, most beautiful instruments we can get our hands on (I mean, who DOESN'T want a matching set of cocobolo wood Howarth XL oboe/oboe d'amore/EH with gold keys?!), sometimes we need to consider the reality of our playing situations and tailor our instrument choices to our practical needs. The hard truth of the matter is that, for most of us, cracking is an inevitability when we are using wooden instruments in the pit. However, we can completely remove that particular stress from our lives by making choices to play instruments that will not crack, and there are more of those options on the market right now than ever. Gone are the days when non-wood instruments meant we had to make do with terrible-sounding student models.

In this post, I will describe the options available to us for pit-proof piccolos, oboes, English horns, and clarinets, as these are the instruments that most doublers worry about cracking. (Bassoons tend to be just fine, but for those bassoonists who feel left out, here you go: Get a Fox model III with all the extra keywork options your heart desires [I'm a high E/F key, wing Eb trill, Ab/Bb trill key, French whisper key, and gold plating kind of guy, all of which are available on the III], throw on a high-resonance bell in black lacquer finish to match the body, and you're all set! :) )


PICCOLOS


The non-wood professional-level piccolo options are few, but mighty. Hands down, my recommendation is for the Pearl model 105 in grenaditte. It is extremely well made, has a very even, dark, lovely sound and fantastic intonation, and is extremely affordable at well under $1500. I have played at least a dozen of them, and they are very consistent from one to the next. They're also available with a grenadilla headjoint (though that is where piccolo cracks tend to happen most, so it'd be defeating the purpose), and you can choose between a traditional embouchure and a wave-style, which with its ease of response and free-blowing quality, is particularly handy for those who are not piccolo specialists. I have recommended these to several professional friends, who have all purchased them and are extremely happy with them.

For those who don't mind a less traditional-looking instrument, there are a few very cool-looking options for crackproofing your tooting: Firstly, we have the Guo Grenaditte and New Voice piccs. The Grenaditte is a composite body with black composite keys and silicon pads, and is VERY sleek looking. The body is textured to resemble wood, but the black keys give it a very futuristic appearance. Sound is very wood-like, with even resistance and a great sparkle in the sound, particularly in the top. The New Voice is less expensive, and a bit brighter in voice overall, but still fantastically easy to play and great sounding. They are available in a wide variety of colors, though I'm partial to both the white and the boxwood-colored one. For under 800 bucks, you can hardly go wrong. It beats the standard plastic piccolos in that price range out of the water!

If you have a bit of a bigger budget and want to join the Powell family, the Sonare 750 piccolo is a wonderful option. Made of a beautifully grained laminate wood in two colors (A violetwood/ironwood-looking red called Tuscan Umber and a gray/black they call Indian Onyx), this picc features a stainless steel brushed-finish mechanism with very comfortable square keys. The toneholes themselves are still round, so don't confuse this with the VERY different Lopatin “Square One” instruments. The keys are very comfortable, especially for larger hands, and the sound is pure Powell.

The Roy Seaman/Gemeinhardt “Storm” piccolo is also a good option at a great price, though soundwise, I find it considerably less refined an instrument than the Pearl.

If you've got money to burn and want something REALLY special, consider the Sankyo sterling silver piccolo with soldered tone holes which sounds and plays very much like a little flute, and is really quite a fulfilling playing experience. They're quite expensive, but you are getting a top-notch handmade instrument that will last you forever. (You can also get it heavily plated in 14K rose gold, and who wouldn't want that?!) This ain't your high school metal marching piccolo, that's for sure!



CLARINETS


There are a few great options for the clarinetists out there in the crackproof world, and if you're a regular reader of my blog, then you've probably heard of at least a couple of them.

Let's start with the instrument that I played an entire international Broadway tour with, through every extreme of temperature and humidity possible; the Libertas by Tom Ridenour. Made of natural hard rubber and designed by the same mastermind that gave us the Leblanc Opus and Concerto, the Libertas is hands-down, no question, abso*LUTE*ly my top recommendation for an uncrackable pit clarinet. It is extremely in tune, has a beautiful dark sound, plays with great evenness from top to bottom, and is in every respect a professional clarinet. At well under $2,000 with an extremely generous interest-free payment plan option, this clarinet is well within the grasp of ANY musician.

The next model down in the Ridenour lineup, the Lyrique 576bc, is also an excellent instrument with a bit of a different personality than the Libertas (I find it a bit more flexible and perhaps brighter, though not in a bad way. If the Libertas is like the Leblanc Opus, then the 576 feels more like the Leblanc Esprit or Sonata.) At a price point of around $1,000, this is an extremely affordable instrument with huge bang for the buck. The biggest drawback for me with the Ridenour clarinets is that, due to the body composition, the mechanism must be nickel plated (silver and hard rubber are NOT friends), and I tend to react poorly with nickel. However, the R13 is also produced with nickel plating as standard issue, and people seem to be generally alright with that. ;)

Speaking of Buffet, most clarinetists are, of course, familiar with their Greenline instruments, which also present a very viable alternative to wood in climatically unstable situations. They are considerably more expensive (priced exactly the same as their wooden counterparts), though, and have a tendency to shear cleanly in half at the middle tenon, so there is that to consider. They are also quite heavy. However, for the person who has the budget and can handle being extra vigiliant about how they handle the instrument, a Greenline Prestige or Tosca is certainly a lovely thing to have. (Though I find that they tend to be overall much brighter than their grenadilla equivalents, and consequently need a darker-sounding setup.)

There is also the usual compliment of plastic/ABS student-level clarinets, and most of these do the trick quite nicely as a pit horn, especially for the casual player or doubler who is not primarily a clarinetist. The Yamaha 255 is a personal favorite, though if you can find a Vito V40 or Pete Fountain model on eBay or at a local shop in good condition, GET IT. 

British clarinet maker Hanson produces a range of clarinets in a variety of crack-proof materials; Ebonite, which is another term for good ol' hard rubber (like the Ridenours); a material they call "reinforced grenadilla", which is a specially treated wood (I believe it is grenadilla that is impregnated with a resin material to fill all the spaces in the wood), and something they call "BTR", or bi-thermal reinforced grenadilla, which is a mix of grenadilla and ebonite layers that is quite beautiful in addition to being crack-proof. 

The standout in the synthetic-bodied student clarinet market, for me, is the Backun Alpha. I played on one for several months before I got my Libertas, and it really is a great instrument. It is, in fact, probably the best-sounding student clarinet I've played in a very long time. It's remarkably even throughout the range, and has a lovely sound with a bit more personality than one expects from a student model. At around 800 for the base version (with nickel keys), it's also quite a bargain!



OBOES AND ENGLISH HORNS


Here we come to the reason I'm writing this in the first place; our beloved but tempermental double reeds. Oboists worry about cracks more than just about any other woodwind players, and it's usually for darned good reason. There are, however, quite a few stellar alternatives to laying awake all night wondering if that weird line you saw at that one angle in the light was just particularly noticeable grain structure or the beginnings of the crack that will destroy your life. (At least that's how it feels; the truth is that the majority of cracks are very easily repaired and do not affect the playability of your oboe/EH at ALL. They do, however, affect the resale value and your emotional state. There is also the small chance that the crack WILL hugely impact the way your instrument plays, and if we can avoid this, we probably should.)

We are not going to discuss the plastic student-level oboes, which are generally just as awful as you remember them. Only the truly desperate would resort to a Yamaha 211 or Selmer 1492, but I suppose if the choice was that or no oboe at all...well, I hope you have some REALLY great reeds handy. ;)

For years, the standard bearer in professional-level synthetic oboes has been Fox. I myself played on a Fox 300 oboe (the full-conservatory system professional model in all-plastic construction) and a Fox-Renard 555 English horn (the “intermediate) model, with all keys but a 3rd 8ve and split ring D). They were perfectly lovely instruments that played well, were in tune, and got the job done, always. Do they have any particularly special sound characteristics? Not really. They're great for pit players, though, because you can pick them up, play them, and reasonably expect that you are going to sound like you're playing an oboe or English horn.

There has been some development in recent years, and the late-model 300s that I've played have been really nice instruments. With the right reed, you can really make them do whatever you want, and they are an excellent backup to your main oboe.

The Renard English horn is a FABULOUS instrument that would suit the needs of 98% of the English horn players I have ever met. For those who require something a bit more, the Fox professional English horn is available with either a plastic top joint or an all-plastic body/bell. (Models 510/520 respectively). They are very comfortable ergonomically, and produce quite a large, round sound. I highly recommend these go on all of your short lists of things to try in your search.

Most of the major makers (Loree, Fossati, Marigaux, Rigoutat, Howarth) offer a plastic top joint with their professional models, so this is of course also an option. Howarth does a lovely thing they call the VT models (or “Velvet Throat”), which is a hard-rubber lining in the top joint that includes tonehole inserts, so if the wooden outer body cracks, the bore remains intact and you suffer no change in playing characteristics.

Marigaux makes oboes/d'amores/English horns in a material they call Altuglass, which is a stunning clear synthetic that comes standard with gold keys, and is one of the most delicious sounding things I've heard, ever. There is also an “Altu-Noir”, which looks much more like a traditional black instrument for those of you who aren't the shake-it-up type :)

If you really just can't bear the idea of playing a plastic anything, the Marigaux M2 is a great option for you. It has an innovative structure wherein the upper joint is extremely short and terminates ABOVE the trill keys, which are on the extra-long main body section. Each M2 is supplied with top joints in both wood and resin, and the crack rate between the trill keys (which is the most common place for them to occur) is extremely low with this innovative design. They also sound amazing! (If it's good enough for goddess Diana Doherty...)

If you have deep pockets and some patience, Tom Hiniker makes FABULOUS oboes in acrylic resin that are absolute killers. I have seen them in both clear and black varieties, I'd contact him to see what further options are available.

Previously, I wrote about the Buffet Orfeo oboe, which is probably at the top of the list of instruments I'd pick if I had to buy a synthetic oboe tomorrow. It is simply stunning, with a huge dark creamy sound and impeccable intonation. (I feel considerably less expansive about the standard Greenline Buffet model 3613, but lots of people like it, and it's certainly...a professional instrument). 

One of the most exciting options in the oboe world, and my current personal favorite, is from the Josef company in Japan. They have developed a material they call “LAMI”, which (as you might have inferred) is a laminate material made of a resin-impregnated hardwood that is cut on the spiral axis which results in a long sheet of thin wood/resin material, that is then layered and re-formed into a billet and turned into an instrument. They are STUNNINGLY beautiful, available in five different colors to resemble five different wood species, and they sound absolutely terrific. They are expensive, but so very, very worth it. Jan Eberle is the US agent for Josef, and is very responsive to inquiries.

International reed-making guru K. Ge has also gotten into the oboe-making business, and offers several models in a synthetic material that are of extremely high quality and sound fantastic, at an extremely affordable price. More information on these can be found at the Innoledy website (which is also where you would buy them if you're in the US), and on K. Ge's own site.


Covey oboes are also now available with plastic top joints and inserted tone holes on the wooden models. Well worth a try, though there may be a bit of a wait.  

Yamaha has also entered the lined-top joint market with their Duet+  models, and I'd venture to say that the Yamaha 841 in Kingwood with the lined top joint is one of the finest oboes I've ever had the privilege of plunking a reed into. 

As you can see, there are a plethora of options available in the professional market for crack-proof (or at least resistant) oboes and English horns.  However, many of these are top-level instruments and are quite expensive, so perhaps not entirely practical if you're looking for something as a backup. 

There are wonderful intermediate level instruments that play MORE then well enough to use in professional doubling situations that won't break the bank...

Yamaha's intermediate oboes (the 400 series) have gotten *quite* a lot better in the last several years, and the 441 Duet+ model is a lovely instrument with all the keywork you need to get the job done, and a lovely sweet sound. A synthetic top is of course also available. 

Rigoutat makes a splendid line of instruments called the RIEC (a portmanteau of "Rigoutat" and the French "Ecole", which means "school) that fills the need for a professional-quality instrument at an affordable price. Fossati's equivalent line, the Tiery instruments, are equally well made and sound fantastic. (In fact, I played a Fossati Tiery E30 oboe on a studio cast album several years ago, and it sounds killer!) 

I think I've largely covered what's out there right now, but if I think of additions, I will update accordingly! This should get you started on your search, though, and if you have have any questions, please don't hesitate to shoot me a message and I'll be happy to talk with you! :) 

Best of luck in kicking the crack habit once and for all, friends! ;-) 

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