Favorite blog posts, June 2018

Voicing and clarinet undertones

photo, Aprilyn Podd

A few months ago I shared a list of published opinions on how to avoid undertones on the clarinet.

Many of the ideas shared by the distinguished authors seemed like just descriptions of good basic clarinet technique (“ensure correct, stable embouchure formation,” “establish breath support/air pressure before releasing tongue”). I agree that the most important way to improve undertones is to have a solid baseline tone production technique. If you can play with a beautiful, characteristic tone, mostly in tune, with good response, then your undertones are probably mostly gone already.

I do have one small tip that I find helps a great deal with clearing up any remaining undertones, that wasn’t mentioned by any of the sources I consulted. My readers know I frequently discuss the importance of keeping voicing very stable, but as I have indicated previously that’s only one side of a multifaceted issue.

I have good success with lowering my voicing just a little bit in the upper clarion register. (I tell my students to think of warming the air by just a degree or two.) This seems to stabilize and clarify those notes.

As always, expect any change in voicing to have multiple consequences, for tone, pitch, and response. In the case of clarinet upper-clarion notes, I find a very slight lowering of my voicing to have only minimal and acceptable effects.

If anyone is aware of others teaching this technique, I would be curious to hear about it.

The value of chamber ensembles in music degrees

photo, usfpasj

My students learn to follow a conductor in their large ensembles, and how to work with a pianist on their individual repertoire. (The latter is a situation in which—unfortunately—the piano part is sometimes treated as secondary to the “solo” part.)

But in chamber ensembles they learn how to make music in a group of equals, which is a very different ballgame. In a chamber group, every member is responsible for listening critically, making adjustments, matching, blending, and finding their own best ways to contribute to a cohesive, unified performance. And non-music-specific skills are developed here too: respectful exchange of ideas, balancing of personalities, cooperation, compromise. There’s no leader per se who makes judgment calls, arbitrates disputes, or takes charge of the artistic vision.

Sometimes it seems like student chamber groups get treated as less important than solo repertoire or large/conducted ensembles, like they are auxiliaries of the band or orchestra, or pick-up groups good only for recruiting run-outs or potpourri concerts, or a way to trick  students into putting a little more mileage on their instruments. This is a mistake. Chamber music experience is critical to a complete musical education.

Groups should be appropriately challenged with the quantity and difficulty of repertoire performed, just like they are in their solo repertoire and their large ensembles. I think the ideal is for each mature chamber group to put on its own full-length, well-balanced recital at least once each semester. (We aren’t currently requiring that at my small, regional university.)

Groups should get regular coaching from faculty, but time rehearsing on their own is crucial to the experience. And by “rehearsing” I don’t mean just run-throughs: students should be spending rehearsal time discussing musical decisions together. (Depending on the group’s maturity, some of these decisions may need to be ratified in subsequent coaching sessions.)

And, as with any educational pursuit, I think the risk of failure is part of the process. There are powerful lessons to be learned when student groups make inappropriate repertoire choices, fail to make good use of rehearsal time, or otherwise fall short of expectations.

It’s exciting to see the maturity, confidence, and musicianship that my students develop in chamber ensembles. Take chamber music seriously as a part of a well-rounded musical education.

Not majoring in music

photo, Beth Jusino

I was a very committed college music major. I had picked music as a career years earlier. Being a music student felt like a central aspect of who I was. While I did struggle at times, and had other (perhaps more widely marketable) skills I could have fallen back on, quitting the music-major track never seemed like a real option.

For me, it turned out well. I was successful in my studies and now have a job that is a good fit and more or less pays the bills. But in my role as an educator and advisor, sometimes I encounter students who are considering changing directions. Here’s what I have to say to those students:

  • You don’t have to be a music major. Even if you’re good at it. Even if you really do love music. Even if friends or teachers think it’s the right choice for you. Even if you have already invested time, money, and effort into it.
  • There are other ways to make music a part of your life. In many cases you can continue to be in college ensembles, take music courses as electives, and maybe continue to receive music scholarships. (Check with your music department.) Beyond college, there are probably opportunities to make music in community ensembles, garage bands, churches, theater productions, lesson studios, volunteer efforts, and more. Even if you never play or sing again, your background in music opens up richer possibilities for you as a listener and patron.
  • There’s time to try something else. Music degrees are intensive and usually thrust you right into lots of major-specific courses right from your first semester. That can feel like a trap, like if you change majors you are wasting semesters you already completed and starting over as a freshman. But in the scheme of things, isn’t it worth extra years and dollars to graduate in a field that feels right to you?
  • This is your decision. People might try to talk you out of switching majors. Being a music major can feel like kind of a club or fraternity/sorority or cult, but it isn’t really. You aren’t betraying or disappointing anyone by doing what’s right for you. Be aware that in some cases professors or fellow students may be thinking about how your decision will affect them or their classes or ensembles. They probably don’t really mean to put their own interests above yours. Good teachers and friends, in the long run, want what’s best for you, even if it isn’t a music degree.
  • But you don’t have to rush into a decision. If music has been your life for years and now you’re having second thoughts, it’s worthwhile to figure out whether you’re dealing with a real change of heart or just some temporary frustration. Sometimes I have seen students transfer out of the music department, only to transfer back in later, now a little behind. If you need to dabble in something else for a while to find out whether music is your thing after all, then go for it. But minimize the flailing if you can. Before making a decision, give yourself time to think things through with a long-term view. Consult with people who know and love you, plus your music professors, plus people in whatever alternative fields you might be considering.

Music is great but it’s not the right career for everyone. Make your life choices carefully and honestly.