I will begin this blog post about clarinet playing the same way I begin each new day with my instrument—checking in with fundamentals. There are so many things to be aware of when making music and playing an instrument, far more than humanly possible to think about simultaneously. Focusing on one element at a time during the first practice session each day is a kind of meditation, relieving the mind of any concerns other than the single aspect of playing being explored. This approach makes an enormous difference in the level and consistency we bring to our rehearsals and performances.
The first area I focus on is tone production, listening for my most beautiful voice. Crescendo/decrescendo long tones are the most straightforward way to begin (I usually think 8 counts crescendo, 8 counts decrescendo, in order to reinforce breath control and evenness of dynamic variation). I begin on low E and, one note at a time, play long tones on each pitch, ascending chromatically for one octave. While playing these sustained tones, I’m listening carefully for beauty, clarity, focus, consistency, stability of pitch, matching tone quality from one pitch to the next, control and symmetry of dynamic variation, and rhythmically precise niente attacks and releases. I’m also watching myself in a mirror, observing my air intake, embouchure, hand position and posture. In order to create our ideal sound there are so many things to think about, even just when playing one note at a time, and we haven’t even talked about many other things that we’ll explore in later posts. From the outset, it quickly becomes clear why it’s a great idea to isolate areas in this way.
I use many different long tone exercises which I vary to enhance my depth of interest and motivation. Many of these exercises are from my former teachers, and many I have created based on strengths and weaknesses in my own playing, based on demands within repertoire I’m working on at the time, as well as to serve the needs of my students.
Technique is the next fundamental area that needs daily attention. Many technical passages in standard repertoire are based on scales, thirds, returning scales, and arpeggios, so spending time during our first session each day honing and refining scales and other technical exercises better prepares us to approach repertoire with ease. With this daily discipline, we equip ourselves to learn challenging passages more quickly and to perform with greater confidence and consistency. It is important to incorporate observing oneself in the mirror while practicing technical exercises in order to reinforce proper hand position and finger motion, and to guard against needless physical motion.
The materials used each day will depend on each clarinetist’s level of ability, ranging from Albert and Klosé to Baermann, Jettel, Jeanjean, and others. My favorite way to explore technique each day is to choose a key area, then play all the exercises in that particular major and relative minor key available in the book I’m using at the time. Using this approach, I rotate between Baermann Book 3 and Jettel Book 1B, choosing an easy key area one day and a more challenging one the next. For example:
Day One: C/a
Day Two: F#/d#
Day Three: F/d
Day Four: Db/b flat
Day Five: G/e
Day Six: B/g#
And so forth. When not using Baermann and Jettel, I rotate between Jeanjean, Langenus, Hamelin, Stiévenard, Klosé, and playing scales and exercises from memory. This variety insures greater flexibility and control, preventing me from getting in a rut by playing scales in the same patterns week after week, month after month, year after year.
Many students begin working on scales and lose heart when turning the page to more challenging key areas. By alternating between those keys that are easier and those that are more difficult to maneuver (both in terms of reading/absorbing all the information and in terms of finger coordination), we balance our experience and create an inherent reward for our efforts. Of course, the greatest reward is the comprehensive and consistent technical command of the clarinet.
Though I have usually incorporated articulation into long tone and technical exercises at this point, I choose to spend the next segment of my daily warm up on this very important fundamental area. There are countless facets to articulation, including quality, consistency, speed, agility, flexibility, length, varying degrees of weight, variety as demanded by repertoire, etc. This area alone could easily consume the entire session. As with long tones, many of the exercises I use regularly have come from former teachers, or I have created them based challenges encountered in repertoire. I also use the Kell 17 Staccato Studies, #11-13 from Langenus Complete Method, Part 3, and Jeanjean Vade-Mecum.
In my experience, articulation exercises can be quite taxing, increasing embouchure fatigue more than long tones and scales. For this reason, particularly when I’m doing a full-length warm up, I save focus on articulation for the end, allowing my muscles to rest and recuperate prior to my next practice session.
While I recognize that each one of us is very different, I feel strongly that embracing fundamentals with intention and mindfulness each day can have an extraordinary impact, both in the short and long term. This practice will ultimately allow each player greater endurance and freedom, allowing us the luxury of trusting our playing, rather than taking things for granted.
Many people express concern that this approach will require too much time, especially when daily schedules are already packed with rehearsals, teaching and performances. I can’t stress enough that the amount of time spent is far less important than the quality of time, and five minutes on each area is better than nothing at all. I have different variations on warming up that take from 10 minutes to an hour and a half, depending on my schedule and my goals on any given day.
The only bad thing that can result from this kind of commitment is a dependence on completing one’s warm-ups prior to rehearsals and concerts. It’s crucial that we be able to play as soon as we assemble our instruments, because you never know when you might just barely make it to an 8 a.m. rehearsal, or when your flight might be delayed and you have to perform right after landing in another time zone! My own commitment to daily fundamentals has actually freed me from needing a lot of time to be ready, because I’m nurturing the basics every day so that I can trust they will be there.
Look for future blog posts devoted to each of these individual areas, allowing us to explore in much greater detail.
“There are no short cuts to anywhere worth going.” ___Beverly Sills