Thursday, March 15, 2012

Tips from a master class

My son and I went to a clarinet master class, given by James Campbell to the university players. Very interesting, listening to all the music students play, and listening to how they sounded, and what he worked on for them. Here are the tips I remember, given to the various players.
  • Tongue position. Exercise: play open G, then up A, B. Feel what the tongue does, don't try to control it. Let the clarinet dictate where the tongue should go. And that's the right position (at least in that register.) The piece was Debussy. They also worked some musical things, including noting Debussian features, like whole tone scales.
  •  Embouchure. This player needed more firmness on top, and tighter at the corners. Sound dramatically improved when the clinician held the student's embouchure in place while the student played. Piece was Hindemith, I think, and they worked some of the harmonies between clarinet and piano.
  •  A visibly nervous first year. They worked on breathing. Exercise: put a barrel (just the barrel) into your mouth, and inhale. Then exhale. Repeat couple times. Then replace the barrel with the clarinet, and immediately breath and blow, just like with the barrel. The barrel forces a big, wide opening, the tongue has to get out of the way, and I imagine the throat opens too, allowing air to flow in and out, unimpeded. A slightly less silly looking version of the same exercise has you place your open hand vertically against your open mouth, like a karate chop.  The piece was Weber. They also worked some aspects of the piece, which I think I'd gloss as working towards a big soloistic performance, rather than accurately but meekly playing the notes.
  • Finger motion. An advanced player, playing something with zillions of fast notes, with blown out chops from too many hours of rehearsal earlier in the day. He discussed pinned and moving fingers: the ones that change, and that don't change, over a passage. Visualizing the pinned fingers as static and fixed help control motion of the horn. This allowed the moving fingers to not need to provide any support whatsoever, so they could just move quickly and fluidly. He also had her play the passage without blowing, just popping the fingers down with enough firmness to sound the notes. It worked surprisingly well. The fingers need to make the rhythm.
In every case, the player was sounding much better by the end of their time than they were at the beginning. But also, in every case, the things that made the improvements, the things that they needed to work on, were described as at least a one or two year project. This, for the music majors practicing four hours a day, which was about the median in that room. Another interesting thing was how easy it was for me to project every suggestion onto the subject of my current obsession with relaxation. In every instance, forcing things makes things work badly, from tone to breathing to playing fast. And I think the way we train musicians doesn't help, so much of classical music pedagogy is negative, about not doing things wrong, and opening player's ears to whole new worlds of things that they can do wrong. With one of the players, I remember some careful and successful work on tone and phrasing go right out the window when the clinician called one of the notes "wrong", because it had the wrong kind of accent. And yeah, it's accurate and maybe useful, to say a note badly played in phrasing is just as wrong, and unmusical, and a note that has the wrong pitch. It's a good thing to remember. But I also couldn't help notice that making that point came at a cost. It's a tough job, teaching.

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