Learning New Instruments to Teach

2011Symposium_1_2I am an early adapter. Without overdoing it, I find the challenge of new things exciting, especially if I have chosen to initiate something new, and if I believe the new thing will be beneficial to my teaching and my students. While there are positive aspects to being comfortable with change, their are also liabilities. One of these liabilities is that I at times jump into things too soon, before I have really prepared. It is helpful to keep these positives and negatives in mind when approaching the learning of an unfamiliar instrument that you want to teach your students to play. Spending the time to become comfortable with the instrument has many advantages.

Over the years, I have at times spent time learning new instruments for the purpose of teaching them to students. Often, these have been instruments I already knew how to play, and could play simple tunes on, but that I was having trouble teaching when students encountered problems. I could only go so far on my knowledge of how to play the instrument, and because I could  not play much beyond the student’s ability level, I found myself telling students to do things I hadn’t done myself. This was especially true of teaching flute. Sound production can be tricky on that instrument. I could play all of the notes I needed to demonstrate music I was teaching students, but my tone was not what I wanted my students to imitate, particularly in the upper register. I determined that I needed to put in some serious practice, and needed to talk to friends whose primary instrument was flute. I got some good advice and a few lessons from these friends, and began practicing some flute everyday. This continued over the summer. When I returned to school in the fall, and had been teaching a month or two, one of my former band students who played flute came back to visit. She heard me playing flute while I was teaching, and later remarked how much better I sounded on flute then when I had taught her. I also noticed that as my confidence level increased playing flute, the confidence of my students also increased. It no longer looked like I was asking them to do something so difficulty, something that even I was having trouble with. The result was my flute players were starting to play better. The point here is that it takes time to learn an instrument well enough to teach it well–much longer than the semester or less that most of us get in college instrument methods classes. It’s important to take the time to not just stay a step ahead of students, but to be able to present ourselves as reasonably accomplished players of instruments we teach.

This is just as true for learning a new instrument as it is for improving on one for which we picked up a working knowledge in college. New instruments may be acoustic ones such as recorder, guitar, ukulele, or steel drums, or they may be computer driven instruments such as workstations and controllers. To teach these instruments, the teacher must not only know how to run the software and use the hardware, but also how to use them; to know what these instruments are used for in the performing and creating of musical works. We sometimes get so wrapped up in the “how to” of an instrument that we don’t give enough attention to what we hope to do with the instrument once we performance anxietybecome fluent with it. This can only be learned by spending more time with the instrument than it takes to be able to play a few tunes. Summer workshops that immerse teachers in a particular instrument or group of instruments are good, because they provide extended time to explore and use it while an expert is on hand to guide and answer questions. Like my flute improvement plan, having someone who specializes in what you are trying to learn is critical.  Without a person like that to come along side, you will be limited to your own small awareness of what that instrument can do. We really can’t know until we have seen and heard. I remember one summer I was giving a performance of the clarinet quintet by Weber. After I finished, a high school student who had been in the audience came up to me and said, “I never knew the clarinet could sound like that.” How would he, if he never heard it played by a specialist?

My word of advice to any teacher about to learn a new instrument for the purpose of teaching it, is to take your time.  Don’t try to prepare over a week’s vacation, and think you are ready to teach. You won’t get very far before you will reach the limit of your knowledge. While you’re learning, keep in mind what it will be like for your students, who are younger and do not have a music degree, to learn what you are learning. How will someone with much less musical experience handle learning what you are doing? It’s always good to anticipate our students’ problems, and be ready with solutions ahead of time. Taking a summer or even half of an academic year to prepare to teach a new instrument is the best approach, and will result in better teaching and learning.

Why Do So Many Music Students Hate To Practice?

2011Symposium_1_2I hated it, others music teachers I know hated it or even still do, and many of our students hate it–we a have all hated to practice our instruments. I find this disturbing and strange. I no longer hate to practice, in fact if I go many days without practicing, I can’t stand to be away from my instrument any more. So it may be fruitful to attempt to answer the question of why so many hate to practice by comparing why I used to hate it, to why I don’t hate it anymore.

My experience with this has had three stages. I hated to practice when I wasn’t very good. I struggled for my first couple of years of band in school, and because I didn’t sound good and was struggling to do in my lessons what most of my friends were doing without much effort, I became discouraged and didn’t want to practice. This resolve on my part may have been enough to end my playing right there were it not for two inescapable facts: my mother, who had studied piano as a child, refused to let me give up, and insisted on sitting with me while I practiced, and helping through my assignments. She did everything she could think of to keep me playing;  I even remember her dancing around the room while I played “The Merry Widow.” The other fact was that although I hated the struggle I was in, I loved music. Just how much was made evident when finally my failures and the band director’s advice finally convinced my mom that there really wasn’t much point in my continuing. But then something unforeseen happened: I began failing at everythingpractice else in school. Luckily, an alert teacher made the connection, had me placed back in band, and immediately my grades went back up. I don’t think even I knew how much I loved that clarinet.

With new hope, and a glimmers of future success peeking through, I began my comeback, until everything finally “clicked” and I was on my way to being successful playing the clarinet. The better I got, the more I enjoyed practicing. In high school, I couldn’t get enough of clarinet concertos by Weber and Mozart. At that point, I used my study halls to come down to the music suite and practice. No one had to force me to practice anymore. This was the second stage.

The third stage, which I am still in, started when I began my studies with Kalmen Opperman. If there was ever anyone who could one moment make you feel inadequate and small, and the next moment like you could be a world renowned clarinetist, it was Kal. He didn’t just teach clarinet, he taught life. He knew that if you had your head on straight, that was half the battle. He knew that nothing would come easy, even for the very best, and that the only guarantee of success was to simply be so good, even those who didn’t want to hire you would be forced to admit they had to. I grew as a clarinetist while studying with him more than I could have hoped or imagined would be possible. What he gave to me was worth more than perhaps even he ever knew. The ghosts of my past failures were finally put to rest. I believed in myself, and would never allow myself to loose what I now had.

piano practiceI enjoy practicing today because I have reached a level of playing that is satisfying,  and good enough to play professionally. But I know that mediocrity is only weeks away if I neglect my instrument, so I gladly practice often. So how can my story benefit your students? Here are some suggestions. First, play for your students, not to show off, but to let them see what you can do, and what they can do if they follow your teaching closely and practice diligently. Second, convince them that it’s only a matter of hours. Practice is infinitely more valuable than talent and natural ability. I have a modest amount of both, but have achieved a great deal more than my talent and natural ability, whatever that is, would indicate.

Third, set your students up in really exciting performances. Maybe a community volunteer theater needs a musician for their show. Push for your student to play there. Maybe there is a festival band or orchestra with entrance by the school director’s recommendation. Talk to the director and convince him or her to recommend your student. Fourth, go to your student’s school performances, regional and all-state concerts. The personal investment in them that this kind of support demonstrates is powerful. Students will do practically anything you ask when they see that you are genuinely interested in them and what’s important to them beyond your classroom or studio.

If you are playing professionally yourself, introduce your student to other musicians you play with, and arrange for your student to substitute for you at a performance now and then when you are unable to play. All of these things are encouraging, motivating, and really important to a young player trying to get a start in a tough business. Once presented with these kinds of opportunities, and the affirmation that they are capable of playing in these situations, a student will run to the practice room. All of us have very little difficulty finding the motivation to things we enjoy and that bring us affirmation from others, especially significant others like teachers, parents, and friends.

Front and Center in the Background

2011Symposium_1_2My school has four exhibition nights, one at the end of each marking period. The school is a museum magnet school. The museum part of that means that as the students learn about something, they create artifacts that can be displayed in a museum and that demonstrates their learning. Student docents are selected, and parents come and walk through the school building transformed into a museum with the help of museum personnel from the many fine museums in New Haven. Because the superintendent of schools was coming, I was asked to play piano. The intent was that I would add a touch of class and ambiance to the evening. So, right at start time, I opened up my Real Book and began to play popular and jazz standards. The encounters that followed were enjoyable, fascinating, and instructive.

Not too far into the evening, I became aware of someone humming along to “God Bless The Child.” Soon, the man came over to the piano and told me he knew that song. I looked up and smiled at him as he continued to hum. He quietly began singing some of the words, and then went back to humming. I went around another time, and then the man stopped humming and just stood there listening and smiling. When I ended the song, he walked away with a look of satisfaction all about him.

Shortly after that, a high school student came along; one of my former students who had graduated from the PK-8 school and was now attending a performing arts magnet school. “Is that your Real Book?” he asked, again as I was playing. “Yes, as a matter of fact, it is,” I replied. I have one too. I’m playing out of it in school.” The boy is a trumpet player who started trumpet lessons in 6th grade. He was excited that I was playing out of the same book he was using, and stayed a minute or two and then left to view the exhibits. Three other former students came over to say hello, one of them with her sister who is a current student of mine, a fifth grader. It is always good to see former students, especially when they return to school and pop in to see me. My appearance playing piano gave them a chance to visit for a few minutes, and reminisce.

Occasionally throughout the evening I got up from the piano and switched over to clarinet. I had brought a few solo art-of-teachingpieces and played one now and then. The first one was Air from the Orchestral Suite in D by J. S. Bach, popularly known as “Air on the G String.” At this point, the crowd was sparse, and I wasn’t aware of anyone in particular listening, but the space had such full acoustics, I was just enjoying playing this beautiful melody there. When I finished I heard commendations addressed to me; I turned to find the source of these kind words was one of my teaching colleagues, a 6th grade teacher. He was in the kitchen heating up the pizza that was being served, had heard me playing, and had come down the hall to listen. He had never heard me play clarinet before, and told me I had made the Bach sound like a beautiful opera aria  He doesn’t particularly like opera, but he knows I do, so it was a thoughtful compliment.

Other students, mostly young ones, walked by and stopped to watch and listen as I played. Young children are fascinated by people playing musical instruments. It seems to them like some kind of magic whereby the player moves his or her fingers around on the keys to produce the music. Once, I looked to my right where a third grade class had their exhibition set up, and three of the children and their teacher were dancing to a jazz tune I was playing. When the pizza was ready, I took a break and went into the cafeteria to get a slice of pizza. The food service worker who was serving recognized me from seeing me playing in the atrium, and introduced himself. “Are you the music teacher here?” he asked me. We exchanged a few kind words, and then I returned to my piano, pizza and salad in hand. I doubt I would have really met the food service employee if I hadn’t been playing music. I would have just been one of many getting a slice of pizza.

When I was playing piano, my clarinet was carefully laid on my coat under the piano, but not so well concealed that a 2nd grade girl couldn’t spot it. “How does it work?” she asked. “Does it go up when you let go of it?” It took me a few seconds to grasp what she meant, but then I realized she had seen my fingers come off the instrument while hearing the pitch go up. Quite the observer, this second grade child. I explained how tone holes and keys worked, and confirmed that she was right about letting go and the sound going up. She was pleased that she had understood, and merrily skipped off as delighted children do.

When the event was over, I put my things away and headed for the door to go home. Two administrators caught sight of me with my coat on, thanked me for playing, and all said how wonderful it all sounded. Every encounter I had throughout the evening was different, every one was special, and all of them made me realize how much more there is to playing background music at a museum opening than just being in the background. My music meant something different to everyone I came in contact with, and it no doubt meant something to the many more who heard the music but did not stop by to say hello, hum along, or ask questions. Now if only I had thought to have a tip bowl.

Life-changing Memories

There are a handful of orchestral concerts I attended years ago that I still remember, while there are many more I don’t recall in the least. Today, I’m interested in why this is. Why is it that I remember some performances and not others? When I thought about it, I realized that in each case, there was a specialness to what was going on in the concert, to the person I attended the concert with, or to the reason I was at that particular concert. In other words, what made each of these concert memorable was the context in which they were given and in which I attended.

Sometimes in the winter of 1974, I attended a performance of Verdi’s Requium. The performance was in a huge cathedral with an echo I seem to remember timing at 7-11 seconds. The choir was massively big. It was a field trip taken with my high school music appreciation class, and it was the first time I had heard a choir that large. To this day, the Verdi Requiem is one of my favorite pieces. Later that same year, in the spring, I attended my first opera with the same class. It was Puccini’s La Boheme, and the effect on me was much the same. I was enthralled with the music, captivated by the plot, and was absolutely carried away when the tenor sang Che gelida maninia. To this day, La Boheme is, you guessed it, my favorite opera. In both of these cases, with the Requiem and with La Boheme, there was an exciting newness, and a powerful emotional surge that burned the whole package—music, staging, story, and how it all made me feel—into my memory. As a music educator, I cannot forget the impact that a music teacher who took his students to these concerts had on me, and the ways in which it brought my love for music to full bloom.

Sometimes, when I take my students to concerts, I am sure that a similar awakening will occur in at least some of them. It is not always readily apparent, Many kids, when asked after the performance how they liked it, will nonchalantly reply that it was “good,” or “okay.” Then, maybe a year or two later, when they realize I’m taking another class to a concert, they will light up and excitedly tell me how much they liked going to a concert, and many will ask if they can go again. These kinds of encounters with the arts are deep-seated, life-changing, permanent memories. The emotions the arts draw out of us, at those moments when they are especially strong, change us.

I know my memories won’t be the same as yours, but here are just a few more of mine; a sort of greatest hits from my musical memory.

Harold Wright playing Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto

Richard Stoltzman playing Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in Carnegie Hall with the Tokyo String Quartet

Leonard Bernstein conducting Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony at Tanglewood

Pavarotti giving a recital in Hartford, Connecticut, 1977

What Is An Effective Practice Routine for Instrumentalists?

2011Symposium_1_2One of the most daunting tasks for a musician is to make a start at learning a new and difficult work. We all enjoy the ease of playing a well practiced and already performed piece, but starting work on new and challenging music takes an initial burst of will-power and self-motivation. There may be an initial burst of excitement, but as the difficulty of the music sets in, all that ‘s left is to dig in and start “woodshedding.” Be that as it may, it doesn’t have to be as difficult as we sometimes make it. Inefficient or ineffective practice habits can cause music to take longer to learn than it has to, and turn a promising project into a prolonged chore. Here are some practical ways of getting the most out practice sessions, developing good habits and avoiding bad ones. I offer these for clarinet, but the principles apply to all instruments.

Begin every practice session with scale work, beginning with the chromatic scale, three octaves on the clarinet. Practice for accuracy and evenness at a solid mezzo forte dynamic. If the scale is not even, break it into segments, practicing the scale up and down the interval of a triton (c to f-sharp, for example), several times, and then repeat a half step higher (c# to g would be next). Do this until all segments can be played evenly, regardless of what note you start on. Then, expand to a scale up and down the interval of an octave. It may be months before the octave scale is begun. Do not rush the process. Chromatic scale study develops technique inclusive of all notes, and is of tremendous value, even within a small interval.

After chromatic scales, practice one major or minor scale. Play it ascending and descending through the range of the instrument. Be watchful for places where unevenness occurs or where a fingering is awkward, and focus in on that segment of the scale, as with the chromatic scale. Also, practice the scale beginning and ending on each scale degree so that, for instance, a D major scale is played D to D, E to E, F-sharp to F-sharp, and so forth.

Continue with a staccato drill. Playing each note of the chromatic scale for one octave, articulating two sixteenths and an eighth or four sixteenths on every pitch of the ascending one octave chromatic scale is excellent. That can be followed by practicing the first clarinet part for the scherzo from A Midsummer’s Night Dream incidental music by Mendelssohn.

Next, spend time practicing an etude that addresses a known area of weakness. Etudes may address left hand, right hand, staccato, scales, major, minor, augmented, diminished or seventh chord arpeggios, to name a few areas. I like to pick an etude that helps me with something I am having trouble with in the literature I’m practicing.

The last segment of a good practice session is for practicing repertoire. For music that will eventually be played fast,squidward clarinet start slow. If the music has a constant rhythm such as all sixteenth notes, begin by playing one line at a time very slowly. The goal here is to play all the right notes, and to play them with an even tone, an accurate but light touch on the keys with no straining in the hands, producing a smooth legato. Fingers should come on and off the keys at a steady pace, never hitting or banging against the keys or instrument, and hand position must be correct at all times. If a particular fingering combination or finger is problematic, find an etude that addresses that hand and finger combination, and practice it relentlessly until the problem is corrected. Etudes by Kalmen Opperman are particularly helpful for this, because most of his etudes are focused on a particular hand or finger. The four volumes of velocity studies (easy, intermediate, advanced and virtuoso) are highly recommended.

One of the most likely difficulties a player will encounter is rhythmic unevenness. To remedy this, practice one line at a time slowly and with all possible articulations. Use one articulation pattern all the way through the line, and then play it again with another articulation pattern. Continue to repeat the line, each time with a different articulation pattern until all have been used. Finally play all the notes slurred, and listen to the evenness you have achieved. For steady sixteenth notes, articulation patterns include two slurred, two staccato, one staccato three slurred, three slurred one staccato, to slurred and two slurred, one staccato, two slurred, one staccato, and two staccato, two slurred. For groups of six notes, more combinations are possible.

After practicing two lines in this manner, play both lines, one after the other, again with all articulations, and then all slurred. Continue to enlarge the number of lines included until the entire piece or passage has been learned. If at any time you make an error, or notice unevenness, stop playing and go back to practicing slower with all articulations again. Eventually, learning will be permanent, and you will not need the articulations. While overall practice time will vary with age and performance requirements, it is important to include each segment in a practice routine; that is, chromatic scale, diatonic scale, staccato, etude, and repertoire. Following this regimen will result in gratifying results.

What Does an Embouchure Do?

2011Symposium_1_2Today I will discuss embouchure. Virtually every wind instrument music teacher uses the word, and teaches students how to form and use one. Yet embouchure can easily become one in a list of things the student must do to produce a pleasing sound on a musical instrument. When difficulties arise, or when obstacles (such as dental braces) are introduced, teachers and students alike can be at a loss as to what to do, because the concept of what an embouchure is and what it does has been overlooked.

As is often the case, beginning with the word itself can be helpful in understanding what the word means, and how the thing it represents can be used. The word embouchure is French derived from the verb embouchure meaning to put to one’s mouth. The word contains bouche, which in English means mouth. A suitable definition of embouchure is found in wordreference.com: “the correct application of the lips and tongue in playing a wind instrument.” The term “wind instrument” refers to both brass and woodwind instruments.

Regardless of the details of playing each kind of instrument, there is one thing all embouchures must do: An embouchure must firmly hold or grasp the material attached to the vibrating element so that the vibrating element can vibrate freely while having the right amount of control placed on it to produce the  characteristic sound of the instrument being played.

Doc Severinson

Doc Severinson

For brass instruments, the embouchure firmly holds the corners of the mouth and lips so that the center of the lips can freely vibrate, yet still be under control so that poor tone and blasting is avoided. In this respect, one part of the mouth is serving as the embouchure, while another part of the mouth is serving as the vibrating element.  When the mouthpiece is applied, it contacts the lips on the embouchure, but must not be delegated the task of doing the job of the embouchure, that is, of holding the vibrating portion of the lips. Such an arrangement leaves the vibrating portion of the lips at liberty to vibrate freely, unimpeded by the presence of the mouthpiece. When the embouchure is so employed, the need for mouthpiece pressure is at least nearly eliminated, and the impact of braces is reduced, if not eliminated. The other part of the embouchure (frequently overlooked) is the tongue. It adds to the work of the embouchure portion of the lips by directing air flow in side the mouth, and varying the size of the passage between the tongue and the roof of the mouth through which air must flow to reach the vibrating element. When the tongue is raised, the passageway is made smaller causing the air to flow faster in support of higher pitches. When the tongue is lowered, the passageway is made smaller causing the air to flow slower in support of lower pitches. Much of this happens rather naturally, and can be over controlled, causing tension in the throat. The throat must remain open and relaxed so that airflow is not restricted out of the lungs.

Kalmen Opperman

Richard Stoltzman and Kalmen Opperman playing clarinet with French embouchures.

For reed instruments, the lips are employed only in holding the vibrating element; they are in no way employed as the sound source. The lip is minimally curled over the lower teeth for single reed instruments and over top and lower teeth for double reed instruments. The French embouchure for clarinet, which I strongly prefer, also curls the top lip over the top teeth, with the top lip firmly placed on the top of the clarinet mouthpiece. Because the lips are directly contacting the reed, the point of contact on the reed is where all vibration stops, and where the embouchure begins. For this reason, the embouchure should be placed on the reed as far back on the reed as possible to maximize the length of reed that is free to vibrate. Remember that the further back the embouchure is placed, the firmer it must be to hold the reed, because all reeds become thicker moving away from the tip. The point at which all pitches can be played with a full and characteristic tone without need of moving or adjusting the embouchure is the correct placement.

Understanding the how as well as the what of wind instrument embouchures is key in forming and using a proper embouchure, and in correctly responding to obstacles and problems that inevitably crop up over time for every wind player. It is important to remember that the embouchure is used to hold the vibrating element with the lips, and direct the airflow through the mouth with the tongue. The later purpose is why articulation is properly done with the end of the tongue, leaving the rest of the tongue to funnel the airstream. When formed and used properly, an embouchure results in a characteristic tone evenly distributed across the entire range of the instrument with little to no adjustment.

Nothing Like A Good Band Concert

2011Symposium_1_2Recently, I published a post on the correct positions for holding musical instruments. That post was brought to mind today as I was in attendance at a school band concert. It was a recruiting concert, so the director was having each section play the same tune, giving the young audience a chance to see and hear each instrument played. The flutes played first, then the saxophones, and then the clarinets. When the clarinets started to play, I noticed they were not really in the same key as the flutes and saxophones, though the fingerings indicated they were intended to be. I had overlooked intonation mishaps in the flutes and saxophones, but now I looked at all of them and it was then that I made a disturbing realization. Not one of them had a correctly formed embouchure or was holding their instrument correctly. Not one. Both trends, that of poor intonation and that of improperly formed embouchures and incorrectly held instruments, continued through the trumpets and trombones. With accurate rhythms and correctly executed fingerings, their performance would have been excellent but for the wrong approaches to each instrument. Here is what I saw.

  • Flutes were not parallel to the floor, and embouchures were to open, creating an unfocused and airy sound.
  • Saxophones were held too low to the ground, requiring one player to crane their head forward and down to reach the mouthpiece, and the other to slouch and bend to the side.
  • Embouchures were too loosely formed around the mouthpiece, and too little mouthpiece was in the mouth (the former necessitates the latter).
  • Clarinets, like the saxophones, were played with embouchures that were too loose, and which used too little mouthpiece.
  • The heads of the clarinet players were lowered, resulting in the clarinet entering their mouths at the wrong angle.
  • Trumpets were played with bells too low, and with elbows against the rib cage, which inhibits proper intercostal breathing.
  • Trombone was played by a slouched player.

The director of this band is a drummer. The students’ rhythmic precision reflected his area of expertise. Nonetheinstruments of the orchless, many method books contain high quality photographs of instruments being played correctly, including close up pictures of the embouchure, of the fingers on the keys, and of standing and sitting position. Students should be encouraged to refer to these pictures frequently, and monitor their conformance to those positions. Directors should study and memorize all of the pictures so that they can instantly spot and correct inmproperly held instruments and incorrectly formed embouchures during class lessons and band rehearsals. For directors, and excellent source of guidance is Mr. T. Silvis’ web page, which gives detailed instructions with pictures for assembling, holding and forming an embouchure for all wind instruments. I highly recommend this site for any director who is unsure of how an instrument should be played. It is better to “nip bad habits in the bud” than to let them linger and become permanent or difficult to change later.

When all musicians are playing their instruments correctly, the ensemble instantly sounds better, and students get more joy out of playing. All instrumental teachers should be diligent in guiding their students to playing with solid technique at all times.

Overcoming the Clarinet Break

2011Symposium_1_2The clarinet break is one of the most overrated obstacles in all of instrumental music education. Much has been made of this difficulty, so much so that students often are taught they are about to have a problem before they have even tried to overcome it. The clarinet break encountered when the player has difficulty evenly playing from B-flat with the A-key and register key to B-natural, a half step higher. Most method books first have students play twelfths, adding the register key to an otherwise unchanged fingering, in order to become accustomed to producing the higher note. Playing adjacent notes in the higher register is also worthwhile preparation; it familiarizes the student with the feel of the clarinet keys, and helps the student place the fingers on the open key rings precisely and delicately. Ramming the fingers onto the clarinet in the hopes that this will help cover the tone holes is ill advised and leads to faulty technique that is detrimental go good clarinet playing. It is at this point that many teachers, even clarinetists, fail to recognize common mistakes.

Kalmen Opperman

Richard Stoltzman and Kalmen Opperman

The first of these is the placement of the left hand in general, and the index finger in particular. The fingers of the left hand should not be parallel to the floor. The fingers should be curved, the index finger should curl around the G-sharp and A keys, with the G-sharp key under the knuckle, and the A-key under the first joint. Both the G-sharp key and the A key must be engaged without lifting the index finger off of either key. The index finger roles into the A-key, moves forward from the knuckle, and straightens slightly to depress the G-sharp key. This left index finger placement is critical to eliminating the “break” between B-flat and B-natural.

The right hand fingers should be parallel to the floor, and the right thumb must support the instrument on the thumb rest on side of the thumb beside the nail. Many students struggle with their right hand technique because the thumb contacts the thumb rest beyond the knuckle, with the thumb pushed down. The thumb should remain in its natural position while supporting the clarinet, and should never be awkwardly pushed down by the weight of the clarinet.

The angle of the clarinet and the amount of mouthpiece in the mouth is also important. There should be enough mouthpiece in the mouth, and the angle should be such that the tip of the mouthpiece is just slightly below the roof of the mouth. This assures that the reed can freely vibrate and will not be choked of by an appropriately firm embouchure. The right thumb must constantly be pushing up, and the arms must be off the lap. With these three points in place—firm embouchure, pushing up with the right thumb, and plenty of air, a full, characteristic tone will be produced. I use the French embouchure (also known as “double-lip”). Many of the problems encountered in clarinet playing are solved with the use of this embouchure. Unless the student must play while marching, I recommend the French embouchure for all playing, and not just for remedial purposes.

With all of this in place, the student is fully equipped to traverse the interval from B-flat to B-natural without a break in sound. The left hand first finger rolls the short distance off the A-key and comfortably settles onto the first finger key ring as the other fingers close on the other rings and tone holes. At the same time, the right hand fingers close on the right hand key rings. All of this takes place with a gentle and coordinated motion. It is helpful to never allow unencumbered fingers to stray more than three-quarters of an inch from the key ring, tone hole or key they will depress. This helps the needed finger motions stay predictable and consistent, which is needed for even and reliable technique. When the clarinet is taught with these points in mind, the so-called “break” will not be an issue.


It All Starts With Expectations: What Teachers Do

2011Symposium_1_2If there is one thing a teacher must do it is this: expect change. We teachers are in the business of bringing about changes in our students; changes in their behaviors, attitudes, and proficiencies. Daily, we know this to be true, but the slowness with which change often takes place can easily make it difficult to see some changes taking place.  We become accustomed to certain behaviors from certain students. These include regularly making little attempt to be prepared, frequently giving attention to things other than your instruction, often not knowing what to do or showing little or no improvement at all. What change do we expect to find in students exhibiting these behaviors as we continue to teach them week after week?

It is natural to have high expectations for students who are nearly always on-task and show constant improvement, and low expectations for students who are not showing improvement. But we better serve all students if we have high expectations for each of them. We can and should expect that all of our students will do what we ask of them, that all of our students will practice what we teach at least long enough to do it right, and that all students will give their best effort along the way. In most cases, what we teach must include not only what we want them to learn, but also how they can most efficiently and effectively learn. The best teachers I’ve had made it clear what I needed to do in order to learn what they were teaching me. For example, in my college string methods class, double bassist Gary Karr taught us that lower notes required a slower bow speed, and higher notes required a faster bow speed. IfExpectations he just taught it like that, forgetful students like me would have easily confused this teaching, and wondered if slower bow speeds were for higher notes or lower notes. But the rhyme “the lower the slower” forever embedded it in my mind. The late Kalmen Opperman summarized how to play the clarinet with the refrain “push up, close off, and blow.” With this in mind, I had three points of reference to monitor as I practiced, checking my right thumb, embouchure, and breathing. All three had to be right, Other teachers had taught me breath management, but not the others. He also taught me to practice passages with different articulation patterns to achieve evenness. Other clarinet teachers simply told me to keep practicing. Left to my own devices with only “keep practicing” to go on, I made little progress. I needed to be taught what to do when I practiced before I could see my effort result in growth as a clarinet player.

In classes where I am teaching twenty or more students at a time, my students need to practice attentiveness before they can learn or practice anything. They must learn to look and listen, to ask questions as well as answer them, and learn to be a fully participating part of a class. I expect them to practice doing these things everyday, and to use these strategies to learn and practice the curricular content of the course they are in and that I am teaching. None of this happens instantly or even quickly. It will be a process, in some cases a long process of steady growth before the final expectation is met. But along the way, I expect that they will demonstrate growth in all of these areas. Some will not want to try, and that is one of the many great challenges of teaching. I must show them that it is worth their while to try, and to trust my confidence that they will succeed if they do. Every now and then success at something comes easily, but it is never so indefinitely. When someone fails to apply effort, someone else will eventually surpass their greatest achievement. Sooner or later, and sooner for most of us, success is bought with effort, and the greatest of successes is available for a high price in success. I expect all of my students to be college-ready when they finish high school, and I expect my work with students, who range in age from 3 to 13 years, to be an important segment of that preparation. Some days it doesn’t feel like any of that will happen with some of them, but it is on those days that expecting great things is most important.