Things beginning band directors say to clarinet sections

photo, byronv2
  • “Firm up those embouchures!” An efficient embouchure is relaxed, not tight (nor “firm” nor any other euphemism) and allows the reed to vibrate easily for a beautiful, seemingly effortless sound.
  • “You’re flat!” This is very, very often a voicing issue. It’s not helpful in the long run try to fix it with biting (or “lipping up”), overly resistant reeds, or needless equipment purchases.
  • “Next year, I’m making you all move up a reed strength.” Stiffer reeds won’t make you play better any more than larger shoes make you better at basketball. Use what fits
  • “You all need to switch to a ________ mouthpiece.” Sweeping gear recommendations aren’t useful. Often they are based on outdated or incomplete information, plus mouthpiece purchases in the beginner stage are often pricey lateral moves. Mouthpieces aren’t always made consistently, either, and having a student switch blindly to a bad specimen (even of a highly-regarded model) may actually make things worse. Generally, stock mouthpieces are fine for beginners, and advancing players would be wise to consult with a private teacher who can work with them individually on upgrades. And the finest professional clarinet sections in the world play on non-homogenous equipment and blend beautifully—having everybody play the same thing isn’t the key to matching tone or pitch.
  • “Get ready, because next month you’re going to learn how to cross the break, and it’s going to be hard.” Crossing the break is only as hard as you make it. If you are teaching good tone production and finger technique, crossing the break is a non-event, not even worth mentioning.
  • “Keep those chins flat and pointed.” “Wow, your chin sounds amazing,” said nobody. Focus on the real issue: forming a relaxed embouchure within the space of an open jaw, backed up with good voicing and breath support. You will know it’s working because of good response, characteristic tone, and stable intonation, not because everybody’s chins look a certain way.

Focus on the important and too-often-overlooked fundamentals for success in your clarinet section.

Isolating problem spots

Earlier this month I posted about a fundamental practicing concept that sometimes escapes my less-experienced students. Here is another:

Me: Play your D melodic minor scale.

Student: [Begins D minor scale, plays a wrong note in the second octave.]

Me: Whoops, remember to play B-natural.

Student: Okay. [Starts over, makes same mistake.]

Me: Please start at the second-octave A, and play just from there to—

Student: [Starts from second-octave A, makes the same mistake, proceeds to finish the scale.]

Me: No, I want you to start at the A, play just to the B-natural, and stop.

Student: [Plays.]

Me: Okay, that’s correct. Now—

Student: [Starts over, makes same mistake.]

Practicing in overly large segments is an issue for less-experienced students for at least three reasons. The first is that is it makes it difficult to notice exactly where the problem is happening. Students may tend to “power through” a section and evaluate it as a whole (“That wasn’t very good”), then simply start over again and hope for the best. Sometimes my younger students are surprised when I point out that they are actually making the same mistake over and over. In their minds, it’s a roll of the dice every time, hoping that everything turns out right, and if it doesn’t, then start again and hope for better luck this time. Practicing in smaller segments makes it much easier to identify and isolate problems.

photo, Basheer Tome
photo, Basheer Tome

The second issue is that even if the precise problem is known, practicing it within too large a segment increases the cognitive load—it’s hard to devote enough attention to the actual problem when there are so many other notes to think about. Plus, practicing too long of a segment raises the stakes in a way that often doesn’t work well for inexperienced practicers: by the time you actually arrive at the problem spot, the pressure is really on to get it right, since you’ve already invested a lot in this run-through. If you isolate the problem to a much smaller segment, it’s not such a big deal if you have to start again.

The third issue is efficiency. If your goal is to correct one wrong note, which lasts less than a second, and you play 30 seconds’ worth of music leading up to it and another 30 seconds’ worth after it, then you can only get about one repetition done per minute. Even if you get it right, it will take you hours to really solidify that passage. But if you can narrow the problem down to two seconds’ worth of music, you can do many repetitions per minute.

In most cases, the problem that needs fixing has to do with getting from one note to another successfully. It may be that the second note isn’t the right one, or that it doesn’t respond right, or that the articulation isn’t correct, or a variety of other things, but the crucial concept is that there is a pair of notes, and the first note is right, and the second one isn’t.

Step one is to practice just those two notes, not just once through, but many times. If this is only accomplished with difficulty, it may be due to the second note having a less-familiar fingering, or perhaps some kind of particular response difficulty. Practice those two notes—and only those two notes—over and over until they improve. If they don’t, consult a teacher who can help to you diagnose and improve your technique.

If playing the two notes is trivially easy, then the problem is something about the context in which they appear. Add one more note before the first one, and repeat it several times. If it’s still easy, add one more. Continue until the problem returns, and practice that sequence of notes slowly and carefully until it feels natural and solid. If it becomes clear that adding more notes before the problem isn’t what’s triggering it, then start again from the two notes and gradually add notes after them. Sometimes anticipating what follows can cause something to go wrong.

Don’t be overly anxious to put the (former) problem spot back into the “context” of a whole scale or etude or movement. Make most of your practicing small-segment work, and very gradually reassemble the small segments into slightly larger ones. Repeat the slightly larger ones many times, then combine them again into still larger ones.

Take the time to break your practicing down into smaller chunks, isolate the problem spots, and work them methodically and repetitively.

Slowing down

I can’t tell you how often I have had this happen in lessons, especially with my younger students:

Me: Play your E-flat major scale.

Student: [Begins scale at breakneck speed, plays 3-4 notes, makes a mistake, stops. Begins again at the same speed, makes a different mistake, stops.]

Me: Wait—

Student: [Begins again at breakneck speed, makes a different mistake, stops.]

Me: Wait. Please slow down and play accurately.

Student: [Begins again at same speed as before, makes a different mistake, stops.]

Me: Okay, let me show you what I mean. [Demonstrates.]

Student: [Rolls eyes. Plays the scale slowly, with much-improved accuracy.]

Me: Good. See what I—

Student: [Plays at breakneck speed. Makes a mistake.]

Younger or less-experienced students in particular seem to get fixated on a perceived need to play everything as fast as possible, and often seem to prefer fast-with-mistakes over slower and more accurate. But as more experienced practice-ers know, time spent practicing this way is virtually 100% wasted.

Mastery of a technical sequence, such as playing a scale or musical passage, requires repetition. If my scale turns out differently every time because I’m playing too fast and sacrificing consistency, then I really haven’t done any repetitions. Or if I’m making the same mistake repeatedly because I’m not giving myself time to think while I play, then I’m doing repetitions of something that I didn’t want to master: an incorrect version of the passage. I spent many of my younger years throwing away practice time doing each of those things.

It’s also a mistake to move on too quickly from playing slowly. Sometimes I will see a student make several hasty, sloppy attempts at a passage, then relent and play it slowly, and then, having “succeeded,” immediately return to playing too fast. Once isn’t nearly enough. It may take several, or dozens, or hundreds, or more accurate, controlled repetitions before it’s possible to play the passage at the desired speed. But if I have laid this foundation well, I find that speed is the least of my worries—I have all the speed I need, and with solid accuracy.

And the speeding-up part of the process often takes place very late in my preparations. I think sometimes my students expect their speed to increase like this:

speed-straightBut I get much better results if I allow this to happen:

speed-curved

I spend more and more of my time polishing every detail of a passage at a slow tempo, and let the speeding up happen later and later. When I do this, I learn technical sequences much more thoroughly and much more efficiently (in other words, the “Time spent practicing” for a particular passage gets shorter and produces better results).

Don’t waste time and effort practicing mistakes. Be patient, slow down, play it with accuracy and control.

Learning fingerings as shapes

I observe that many woodwind players, when learning a new fingering—whether a beginner learning a standard fingering or an advanced student learning a new alternate fingering—tend to think of them as sequences: “This finger plus this finger and this finger and this key over here.” Sometimes my students even want to recite the fingering aloud as they add one finger at a time, and then finally play the note. The problem with this is that there is obviously no time for such a procedure when playing music.

I now occasionally find that I have the opposite problem: a student will ask about a fingering, and I will discover that I am not prepared to verbalize it. I need to pick up the instrument, do the fingering, and then explain which keys I am pressing. My fingers know how to make the right shape, even if I can’t immediately recall the list of keys involved.

Photo, Bassonist26
Photo, wfiupublicradio

To learn new fingerings in the most efficient and practical way, move as quickly as possible to the “shape” stage. I suggest this method:

  • With instrument in hand, think through the fingering, referring to a fingering chart if necessary. If you need to, think in sequence about each finger that will move and where it will go, but don’t move yet.
  • When ready, move the fingers all at once, in a crisp and snappy way.
  • Freeze, and think through the fingering again. Did you form it correctly? If it is incorrect, don’t fix it “in place,” by moving a finger or two into place; release all fingers and start over. Fixing it in place habituates a sequence of events, rather than a single shape.
  • Put the fingering into context (a scale, a musical passage, etc.) using a metronome set on a very slow tempo. The object at this point is to succeed at forming the fingering shape accurately and on cue. Speed up only as you are certain that you can maintain 100% accuracy. If your fingers don’t move simultaneously, you are wasting time cementing a sequence.

Practice hard smart!

The magical properties of air

Often, when I discuss with my students issues in their playing technique, I follow up by asking them, “How can you solve this problem?” They learn quickly that “breath support” (or a rough synonym like “more air”) is generally a safe answer.

And with good reason. Breath support is absolutely key to tone production—it is crucial to reliable response, consistent tone quality, and stable intonation. If I can get a student to improve their breath support, I can generally count on each of those things improving immediately and noticeably.

But I think there are other things that are improved, perhaps indirectly, with air:

  • Finger and tongue movement. I am lumping these together because I have a theory that air helps them in the same couple of ways. The first is that focusing on breathing—a movement so natural that we literally do it for our whole lives and barely think about it—diverts attention away from the finger and tongue movements that woodwind players get so stressed and tense about. This lets the autopilot (or Gallwey’s “Self 2”) take over and execute in a relaxed, natural way. The second way air helps here is that good breath support requires good breathing, and good breathing gets more oxygen to the finger and tongue muscles.
  • Expression. Expressive playing often involves things like dynamic contrasts, vibrato, and nuances of tone color (to name only a few). Each of those things functions better when well-supported: dynamic range expands, and vibrato is smoother and more controlled (again a result of better-oxygenated muscles?). Tone color, I think, actually gets less flexible, in the sense that it becomes more consistent note-to-note despite quirks of the instrument; this means that tone color changes may be applied in a more deliberate way.
  • Confidence and relaxation. Deep breaths are a common and effective insecticide for pre-recital butterflies. The breathing should remain centered and Zen even after the music starts.

Pictured: air. Photo, Matt Peoples
Pictured: air. Photo, Matt Peoples

Crossing the break on the clarinet is easy

The following is a comprehensive list of what clarinetists need to do to successfully Cross the Dreaded Break:

  1. Put the correct fingers in the correct places at the correct time.
  2. That is all.

I frequently meet young clarinetists who have been taught that a successful Crossing of the Dreaded Break requires many other things, including but not limited to:

Photo, MikeBlogs
Photo, MikeBlogs

If breath support, embouchure, and voicing are correctly established, then Crossing the Dreaded Break ceases to be a Thing. It’s just another note: a moment ago you were playing B-flat, and now you are playing B-natural. As long as your fingers get where they are supposed to go, then that’s all there is to it. Personally, I don’t even use the word “break” with a beginning student—there’s no need to get them all uptight about what really is a non-event. Continue reading “Crossing the break on the clarinet is easy”

Staying connected to the clarinet

Photo, KSMF Webmaster

In general, I’m not that concerned about keeping fingers close to instrument keys. A lot of woodwind players and teachers seem to believe that “close” fingers mean more speed, which I haven’t found necessarily to be the case. To me, a much larger factor is tension: if my fingers are tense (because, for example, I’m trying really hard to keep them close to the keys), they move more slowly.

But when I work with beginning clarinetists (whether first-time instrumentalists or doublers), many of them seem to have a great deal of trouble with squeaks and with notes responding sluggishly—problems that I think in most cases can be traced to fingers not completely covering toneholes, or not covering them in a synchronized way. And one of the major reasons that this happens is that the fingers are too detached from from the keys. It’s not a question of distance, per se,  but one of awareness.

One reason this is such an issue for clarinetists in particular is that so many fingers have multiple jobs. The left thumb operates a tonehole/ring and a key, which must sometimes be pressed individually and sometimes together. The left index finger has a tonehole/ring and two keys. The right index finger has a tonehole/ring and four “side” keys. And the pinky fingers have responsibilities exceeded only by the bassoonist’s thumbs. Throw in a couple of sliver keys, and you’ve got a lot of fingers constantly in transit from one key to another. Continue reading “Staying connected to the clarinet”

Woodwind doubling and “similar” fingerings

Photo, thorinside

Some of the questions I am most frequently asked about woodwind doubling involve the similarities in fingerings between the instruments:

  • “You play all those instruments? Well, I guess the fingerings must be pretty much the same, right?”
  • “I play the oboe, and I would like to learn the saxophone. How close are the fingerings?”

There are, in my opinion, two misconceptions at work here:

  1. Fingerings are the biggest hurdle to switching instruments.
  2. Similar fingerings are a good thing.

In my experience, neither of these is true. Continue reading “Woodwind doubling and “similar” fingerings”

Getting an “outsider” opinion

bassoon
Photo, Pirate Scott

Saxophones, more than many other instruments, have a tendency toward mechanical noise: clicks and clanks are a hazard of the relatively large keys and articulated mechanisms and of the relative popularity of “vintage” instruments. Much of the noisiness can be solved by a good technician, but it’s sometimes surprising how much key noise saxophonists tolerate on their otherwise pristine recording projects.

The oboe has a particularly sensitive mechanism involving the right index finger and a linkage between the upper and lower joints. It requires a great deal of finger precision to avoid unwanted “blips” (brief, unintended notes) when moving between, say, A and C. If you are listening for that sound, you will find that it is not uncommon, even on recordings that are technically impressive in other ways.

I think a lot of saxophonists would be scandalized by “blips” in each other’s playing, and oboists would be equally appalled by rattling, clanking keywork. But it is easy to become accustomed to hearing those sounds in our own playing, and to stop really noticing them. Continue reading “Getting an “outsider” opinion”

Rediscovering the clarinet’s left-hand sliver key

I think for many doublers the clarinet’s left-hand “sliver” key seems useless or problematic. For example, the sliver key is easy to press by mistake when intending to cover the middle and/or ring finger holes. And even when reaching for the sliver on purpose, it’s easy to accidentally cover part of the ring finger hole, producing an E-flat or B-flat that is flat and stuffy.

The left-hand sliver also lacks any real analogue on any of the other common woodwinds, so its use is a technique that doesn’t transfer easily from another instrument. Flutes, saxophones, and standard bassoons don’t have any key in that spot. The oboe has a trill key there, but its usage isn’t similar. Among the standard band/orchestral woodwinds, only the contrabassoon has a key positioned here that is used in a similar way to the clarinet family. Especially for saxophonists, the right-side fingering is much more familiar.

The Woodwind Fingering Guide (still the best fingering source on the web) lists three E-flat/B-flat fingerings in its standard clarinet fingering chart, with only the right-side-key fingering marked as “basic.” The left-hand-sliver fingering is described as a “Chromatic and trill fingering,” to “use in combination with D4 [D below the staff] and A5 [A above the staff].” (The “one and one” fingering using both index fingers is also listed, though it might perhaps be better relegated to the “alternate” fingering chart.)

Occasionally I’ve run across the attitude that the sliver key could perhaps be removed or wedged shut to prevent accidental venting. I think this would be a waste, and all clarinetists of an intermediate level or higher should get used to using this key as an equal partner with the right hand key—not merely as an alternative for rare occasions.

Here are a couple of examples from well-known solo repertoire where the left-hand sliver makes sense: Continue reading “Rediscovering the clarinet’s left-hand sliver key”