PRACTICE GUIDELINES FOR THE NON-PROFESSIONAL PLAYING CLARINETIST
“How To Stay in Shape And What to Practice”
(Inspired by Jeanine, Hannah & David)
It has been 3.5 years since my last blog post. Like many of you, the pandemic hit and I hunkered down waiting to see what our world was going to become. March of 2020 hit like a hammer; I did not miss a beat and switched over to full-time zoom teaching. Playing was minimal, almost to the point of non-existent, and I just felt like had nothing to offer or at least the motivation to write. I am back and my post today is directed toward those clarinet players who have a career outside of music, and need some ideas for staying in shape.
My current teaching experience over the last 10 years has been divided between youngsters between grades 4-12 and my university and adult students. My students at Northeastern University are often players who could have majored in music but decided to go another route. They are serious about playing and want music to be a part of their lives. The Boston area, where I live, is culturally fertile and there are many large and small ensembles for non-professional clarinetists. Some of these groups are competitive and expect a high-level of playing. I suspect most large metropolitan areas are similar and one can find a group that fits one’s profile.
The following suggestions are directed at these wonderful people to whom I have learned much from in the last decade.
TONE (5% practice time)
The most important part of playing is creating the actual sound. Play 3-5 minutes of long tones at each practice session. Put your metronome on 60. Start in the low register before you move over the break. Start out softly and vary the dynamics at each session. Zen out and enjoy how beautiful the clarinet sounds in the chalumeau and clarion registers. Let your mind go blank and concentrate on deep breaths and steady air flow.
If you don’t like your sound and you are having issues getting notes out, especially in the highest range, it may very well be that it is time for you to switch mouthpieces. Oftentimes, I have adults who come to me and they are playing on the same Vandoren B45 or Selmer HS« that they acquired in 1980. There is a lot of choice out there now. I always recommend Vandoren mouthpieces as there are numerous models and they are affordable. I play on them; I love the flexibility and, I can always find reeds that work on them. When choosing one, it is best to try several, even of the same model. Believe it or not, they will play differently even though they are designed to be replicates of one another.
Once you have a mouthpiece and a reed/ligature combination that you like, remember: Doing long tones at every practice session is your H2O!
TECHNIQUE INCLUDING ARTICULATION (30% practice time)
We all know how busy clarinet parts can be and it is important to keep our fingers in shape. Playing scales and scales exercises will enable you to learn your ensemble music much faster and with greater ease. Scale books will help you recognize patterns that show up often in our clarinet music. You don’t just have to play scales the way you were taught in your school band.
Here are some of my favorite scale books:
Albert – 24 Varies Scales and Exercises
Pares – Pares Scales for Clarinet
Stievenard – Practical Study of Scales for Clarinet
Baermann – Complete Method for Clarinet – PART 3
Galper – Upbeat Scales and Arpeggios
Anderson – Clarinet Essentials
We use our tongue to bring rhythm, character, variety and diction to music. The tongue is a combination of muscles and we if don’t exercise it, it can become lazy and inefficient. Some folks are quite natural at this but many of us are not! I fall into the latter category and will always have to be sure that I play a few exercises every day to keep it in shape and to keep up speed. The most important thing to remember when articulating is a CONSTANT SPEEDY AIRFLOW and keep your TONGUE RELAXED. I recommend varying the articulation in your scale exercises and don’t forget to vary your tongue practice between running scale type passages and repetitive note work.
I keep a notebook of my favorite etudes that incorporate articulation. They encompass pieces from clarinet, flute and trumpet method books.
SOLOS, ENSEMBLE, ETUDES (68% practice time)
This section of your practice should be on music that brings you progress, stability and satisfaction. This might entail working on a new etude that is challenging, a favorite solo from the clarinet repertoire, ensemble music from chamber repertoire, band and orchestra works. The important part is to play something that you like and that motivates you to want to improve. It is important that you work on music that is challenging. This is when progress happens. I always tell student that your focus should on what you cannot do. That said, there are times when you need to let loose and play things that are easy and fun. Having a healthy mix of the two will keep you in shape and motivated.
Some of my recent favorite etude books are by British composer, James Rae. They work specific technical and musical problems and they are melodically engaging.
Intermediate players might like trying out the etude books of Leon Lester. They have been around for many years and they are a good precursor to the well-known Rose Etudes.
Even more recently, clarinetist and composer Dr. Kristen Denny Chambers is getting great reviews for her many books devoted to clarinet fitness. Check these out!!
You can take the gal out of Texas but sometimes, it is hard to take the Texas out of the gal. Enjoy this classic.