Don’t Look Down!

Dr. Michael Dean “ClarinetMike”

I’ve noticed that many young clarinetists, especially beginners, at times have a tendency to look down their clarinets while playing. Looking down the clarinet while playing can create bad habits and problems:  embouchure, head position, posture, etc. can be impacted.

This tendency to look down is especially common when students are having difficulty on a fingering, such as going over the break. Also, some young students have small fingers and can have trouble covering the open holes.

Therefore, make sure to teach your students to look straight ahead at the music and trust their fingers.

ClarinetMike says, “Don’t Look Down!”

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Upgrade Your Sound: Project!

ClarinetMike just gave six all-state master classes to high school clarinet and bass clarinet students.

Today I gave six all-state clarinet and bass clarinet master classes at a high school here in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. In today’s master classes, I worked on improving the tone qualities of the students and this included working on their sound projection. So, I thought it would be good to offer the below article I wrote a few years ago. NOTE: These ideas should generally work with any wind instrument.

Clarinet Sound Projection
by
Dr. Michael Dean “ClarinetMike”

“Andy! Pretend I’m on the back row of the hall and I’m half-deaf
from going to a loud concert. I want to hear your clarinet solo.
So play that solo straight to me.”

We’ve all heard and said similar things about sound projection to our students. We realize the importance of getting the sound out to the audience. Unfortunately, in the mad dash of preparing our students to perform we often neglect or under-emphasize this important concept.

Many of the important things I work on with my students (such as relaxation, articulation, etc.) can be tricky to explain and take a long time to achieve significant results. However, sound projection is much easier to teach and gets results much more quickly.

The following is a look at some ideas on sound projection and some suggestions on teaching them to clarinetists as a section and/or soloist. Most of these ideas will be useful to other instruments as well.

Know Your Place (Solo vs. Ensemble Sound)

We have all been to a junior high band festival and heard the 1st chair clarinet (or trumpet, etc.) play a solo that didn’t get off the stage – it had that “young band solo sound.” The main problem (other than possibly performance anxiety – a topic for another day) is that the student has likely not been consistently taught to get the sound out to the audience (i.e. the judges). He or she is not playing with a “Solo” sound.

My band director in graduate school, Allan McMurray, used to speak about the difference between performing with a “Solo” sound vs. an “Ensemble” sound. A “Solo” sound is a tone that zips right off the stage and straight to the audience. An “Ensemble” sound is one that blends and appropriately fits into the whole group. (The ensemble should project its sound, but it does so as a unit in support of the solos, etc.)

We can expand the concept of “Solo” sound to include a “Soli” sound. This is where a small group (a clarinet section, for example) blends their sound together and then projects it out to the audience – like one huge clarinet soloist.

Using the 4 (or 8!) Laws to Teach Sound Projection

Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said,

“The four laws of learning are explanation, demonstration, imitation, and repetition. The   goal is to create a correct habit that can be produced instinctively under great pressure. To make sure this goal was achieved, I created eight laws of learning; namely, explanation, demonstration, imitation, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition and repetition.” (Wooden, p. 144. Check out Wooden’s books – they are a life-changing treasure trove of genuine wisdom.)

Explanation

As per the above, explain to the students about the importance of good sound projection and the “Solo vs. Ensemble” sound distinction. Also, instruct them about how this relates to playing an ensemble soli with a “Soli” sound.

Also, I believe that it is much better to teach students to project the sound out to a specific point in the hall and NOT just a generalized “fill up the room with sound.”

Demonstration

You can demonstrate this easily with your voice or use an instrument.  Speak to the students in a non-projecting voice and then speak straight to a percussionist in the back row. Ask the students which one sounds better. If you could show them this in a large auditorium it would be even more effective.

Imitation

Have the students copy you with their voices. Have the clarinet section sing a prominent soli section of a work with a “Soli” sound. Be sure to have them blend their voices together and then project out together as “one big clarinet soloist.” I like to say, “lock arms mentally.” (FYI, I have found that having students sing the music, rhythm, etc. is a great way for them to learn.)

After they get the idea with singing, have them try it on their instruments. You may need to make corrections to improve this. (“Correction” is included in this law of learning, FYI.) Work to get them to sense how it sounds and even “feels” when they are projecting as a blended section soli or soloist.

Repetition

Talk about and work on sound projection often in rehearsals and lessons – I work on it a little in every one of my own practice sessions. (See clarinetmike.com/docs/Clarinet_Practice_Routine.pdf)

Also, when practicing in a small room, have the students pretend they are in a familiar large hall and play to a specific spot in the back.

Summary

In conclusion, I want to remind you that teaching students to project their sounds is really not difficult. However, I strongly urge you to mention this early and often in rehearsals, lessons, etc.  as you cannot just mention it at the “last minute” before a concert or contest.

I encourage you to think of new and creative ways to convey this information to your students. I would enjoy hearing about how you teach sound projection and I welcome any feedback on this topic (or anything else). I may be contacted at my professional website: clarinetmike.com.

NOTE: Thanks to the Texas Bandmasters Association for kind permission to reprint this article. The original article can be found HERE and appeared in the Bandmasters Review, Vol. 11. Issue 1 in September 2009.

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“Head In The Right Direction!”

Proportions of the Head (c. 1488 – 1489) is a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci.

In a recent video post, I considered the importance of not leaning over too much when playing the clarinet. A related issue is that of head position/weight. The average adult head weighs about 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) – imagine a 10-pound bowling ball on your neck! Unless you are careful, leaning over when playing the clarinet can lead to biting down too much on the mouthpiece because of the weight of the head.

So, if I have a student who is leaning over too much when playing the clarinet, in addition to telling them to not lean over and have the clarinet come to them, I also often tell them to have more of the weight of their head resting on the neck. Sometimes I’ll mention this head weight issue by itself if I get the feeling they are biting down too much on the mouthpiece. This posture adjustment almost always benefits the student; it usually produces a better clarinet tone as the reed is allowed to vibrate more freely. (See E-Tips for E-Lips Clarinet Embouchure Tips)

ClarinetMike: “Try it out for yourself and with your students.”

NOTE: Image above is in Public Domain and can be found HERE.  This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

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7 Ways to Improve Your Practicing!

ClarinetMike with a cool new work he premiered in Italy this past summer!

I know many of you are practicing feverishly preparing for all-region, all-state, lessons, concerts, orchestra auditions, concerto competitions, university auditions, recital hearings, juries, etc. Below are some tips that will help you make the most of your practice sessions.

7 Ways to Improve Your Practicing! by Dr. Michael Dean “ClarinetMike”

  1. Practice First: There’s a famous maxim in time management that says “Works expands to fill the time available for its completion.” (Parkinson’s Law) This means if you wait until you finish all your homework (or housework, etc.) to practice, then you won’t practice because you’ll run out of time. So, my suggestion to my students [and myself, yikes!] is that they practice first for at least one practice session before starting work on homework after school. This way they’ll get at least some practice in every day.
  2. Let There Be Light: Make sure you have adequate light in your practice space. FYI, you should own a couple of stand lights. Always take them with you to a gig – I used 2 stand lights on my stand last Friday night at an outside orchestra concert in a park!
  3. Care About the Chair: Get a good chair to sit in that is comfortable and the right height for you. Similarly, make sure you have a quality music stand that is adjustable.
  4. Straighten Up and Fly Right: Be sure you sit up or stand with good, relaxed posture – NO slouching, leaning over, leg crisscrossing, etc.
  5. No Fan of Fans: Do not have a ceiling fan (or similar) going above your head or near you while practicing. The fan will blow your sound around and you will not be able to accurately hear yourself.
  6. Turn Off the Dang Phone: Limit distractions by turning off all beeps, buzzers, and bells on cellphones, tablets, laptops, computers, etc.
  7. No Baseball: Do not do something else while practicing. I know someone who listens to baseball games while practicing. NO! Another friend warms up on his instrument while reading email. NO!

ClarinetMike says, “Check out the excellent book Deep Work by Cal Newport. The book discusses the need for improving our ability to do sustained Deep Work: ‘the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task [like practice!].’ (from the dust jacket flap copy of Deep Work by Cal Newport)”

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ClarinetMike Master Class Video: Posture!

 

I discuss two simple posture adjustments in the above master class video (recorded at Florida State University):

1.  Don’t perform with the clarinet bell right under the music stand. Take a step back.

2. Stand (or sit) up straighter and have the clarinet come to you. DO NOT go to the clarinet with your head or body. This is one of the best tips I know – it fixes a million sins.

For more ClarinetMike teaching videos, CLICK HERE and HERE.

ClarinetMike says, “Watch the video above!”

NOTE: For “technical reasons,” the picture below was added to help with the presentation on social media.

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ClarinetMike’s “Practice Tips A to Z” [Complete Article]

ClarinetMike uses these tips when preparing cool New Music like this recent world premiere in Italy.

Practice Tips A to Z
by
Dr. Michael Dean “ClarinetMike”

The following are some ideas I have found useful with my students and in my own practicing. An easy-print PDF of this article can be found HERE.

A. Always ARTC (Approach, Relaxation, Tone, Counting – “Artsy!”). Always pay close attention to the basics. Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “There is no replacement for sound fundamentals and strict discipline.”1 “Approach” refers to the mental state when practicing. We need to keep our minds engaged when we practice – mindless practicing gets mindless results.

B. Breaks. Take short rest periods when practicing. Organize your practice into several short sessions (no more than a half hour) with breaks between the sessions. Legendary violin teacher Leopold Auer (whose famous students included Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, and Efrem Zimbalist, Sr.) said:

In all practice-work, and this applies to the advanced student as well as the beginner, rest during practice hours should never be overlooked. My advice – based on the experience of years – is never to practice more than thirty or forty minutes in succession, and to rest and relax for at least ten or fifteen minutes before beginning work again.”2

Auer also reportedly taught that forty-five minutes, followed by a fifteen-minute break, was probably the maximum time possible for good concentration.Additionally, lengthy practice sessions without breaks can put strain on your body that can result in injury.

C. Counting-Aloud Technique. Rhythmic accuracy during practice is of supreme importance. A great procedure to improve even performance of rhythms is the “Counting-Aloud” technique found in Lesson 5 of Leon Russianoff’s Clarinet Method, Book I.4

D. Double Articulation. This is a useful technique for working up a tough technical passage. It consists of putting two articulations of equal duration on each note of a passage. Double articulation works best in a passage that has straight eights, sixteenths, etc. It is often helpful to use it in alternation with other procedures (such as Counting-Aloud – see above or Fingers Ahead – see below).

E. Enjoy your metronome, but don’t get addicted. The use of a metronome is an essential part of any practice session; however, it is important not to become overly dependent on it for maintaining a steady pulse. The small and inexpensive “credit card” type metronomes are great for students and other musicians who are “on the go.” Get a metronome App for your phone.

F. Fingers Ahead. This valuable technique was used by legendary clarinet teacher Daniel Bonade and is explained in his short, but useful book, The Clarinetist’s Compendium.5

G. Go Slow at first (with ARTC), then Go Faster. Many are aware of the value of slow practice, but few seem to really go slow enough when working on music. It is important to go very, very slowly when practicing and at the same time maintain good fundamentals (such as ARTC – see above). Neurologist Frank R. Wilson states:

Slow practice is the key to rapid technical progress. The cerebellum is a nonjudgmental part of the brain: it assumes that any repetitive activity in the muscular system is being repeated because the conscious mind is trying to make it automatic. The cerebellum will be just as efficient an automatizer of incorrect sequences of timing as of those that are correct. When practicing takes place at a pace too fast for accurate playing, there is very little chance for the material to be mastered, and reliable, confident performance simply will not occur.”6

H. Hands! “If you can’t clap it, you can’t play it.”

I. Intensity. Learn to stay focused while practicing. This means you can’t practice while watching television! Also, make sure mental focus does not tense up the body while practicing – work for an ever-improving relaxed, natural, and efficient technique (by “technique” here I mean all that the body does when playing an instrument. In baseball, the word used is “mechanics.”) Remember to “Relax in your body – Concentrate in your mind.”7

J. Judge your playing soberly. By sober I mean maintaining an attitude of openness and honesty without becoming mentally or emotionally out of balance. Work hard to know what is “really going on” in your practicing.

K. Kinko’s [now FedEx Office] Go to a Kinko’s or other copy shop and make a study score of the piano part. Otherwise when you give your piano part to your accompanist, you won’t have a copy of the piano part to study. Also, when you come back to a piece you’ve performed before, make a copy of the old markings on your part before you start erasing and adding new ones. I often buy a new original to start out fresh – this is a very good idea if you have a new teacher. But, keep the old copy/original for future reference. You might look back in a few years and discover you like the older ways (or teacher) better.

L. Look for patterns in the music. Most music we play is based on scales and chords – even more modern composers use scales such as octatonic and whole tone. When you recognize that a composer is using a certain scale or chord, feel free to mark it on your music. For example, classical/romantic composers will sometimes outline a fully diminished seventh chord to add some punch to the cadence at the end of a section of a work. (See end of the exposition of movement one to Mozart’s Concerto for Clarinet and m. 176 and m. 178 of Weber’s Concertino for Clarinet.) If you have been practicing fully diminished sevenths, such a passage is quite easy. If you don’t recognize the chord [or haven’t been practicing them!], then the passage is much more difficult to learn.

M. Make MUSIC! Great fundamentals and fantastic technical skill are a means to an end: to free the performer to express art.

N. No distractions or interruptions while practicing. Get away from phones, pagers, computers, television, internet, cell phones, etc. as much as possible. Also, learn how to diplomatically “get rid of” people who just drop by your practice room to “chat.” (Check out a blog post I wrote on this HERE.)

O. Organize your practice. We live in world of routine. Developing and following a good practice routine that includes a warm-up, scales, sight-reading, etc. will greatly speed up your progress.8

P. Pay Attention to Pitch and Tuning. Check out the small and inexpensive tuners now out on the market. Download an App on your phone!

Q. Quit if it hurts or you get overly upset. Don’t quit permanently! Just take a break and come back in a few minutes or another day.

R. Recordings. Listen to CD’s, tapes, [Youtube], etc. for insights, but not too much (don’t copy!). (I really dislike the practice of giving students recordings of all-state music, solos, etc. and telling them to copy. Such copying is counterproductive to genuine artistry. Such short cuts will eventually take a toll on how well a student does at auditions, contests, etc.)

S. Sit and Stand during practice. I like to start out my practice sessions by standing so I can check my posture and breathing. How much I sit vs. stand in a given practice session is determined by the kind of performing I have coming up. If I’m going to be performing a concerto with an orchestra or wind ensemble, I practice standing more. Conversely, I practice more sitting if I’m preparing some chamber or large ensemble music.

T. Tape yourself and listen to it. [Use your cell phone to record yourself – just download an app!] It is also extremely valuable to video yourself. It is imperative that you are aware of how you actually sound (and look) to the outside world. (For example, some clarinetists have a sound that only another clarinet player could love!).9

U. Understand the words, symbols, etc. on the music. Always have a good music dictionary10 handy to look up words you don’t know. You also need to pick up separate French, German, and Italian dictionaries since many composers (especially after 1900) have indications in their native language. (Go to a used bookstore and pick up a paperback language dictionary – you don’t need the latest edition.) Composers expect performers to understand their indications and it is imperative we work to understand the meaning of their words, symbols, etc. as much as possible. [If you “Google it,” be careful!]

V. Variety. Spice up practicing by changing the routine. Try working on jazz.11

W. Work on hard parts first.12 Don’t just go straight through a work over and over at performance tempo! Break the music into sections.

X. Examine the larger form. Notice what phrases, sections, etc. repeat. A little thoughtful analysis can pay big dividends. It can also aid in memorization.

Y. Yodel or SING the music. Singing is a valuable practice tool and does need not to be on pitch to be helpful. During a practice session, singing the music can be done when the embouchure or wrists, etc. need a rest. [Yodel your music only when alone!]

Z. Zero in on Rhythm (pattern & pulse). Think “Rhythm First, Notes Second.” Always be working to improve your ability to execute rhythmic patterns with a steady pulse. This is one of the most valuable skills a musician can possess.

1 John Wooden with Jack Tobin, They Call Me Coach (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1988), p. 168. Also, see his comments on pp. 169-170.
2 Leopold Auer, Violin Playing As I Teach It (New York: Dover Publications, 1980 [first published in 1921]), p. 17. This book can also be viewed or downloaded HERE. The quote is on p. 47 of this ebook.
3 Formerly at http://www.smsaonline.org/practice.asp.
4 Leon Russianoff, Clarinet Method, Book I. (New York: Schirmer Books, 1982), pp. 54-73. Unfortunately, out of print; however, it is available at many university libraries [use interlibrary loan].
5 Daniel Bonade, Clarinetist’s Compendium (Kenosha, WI: Leblanc Publications, 1962) pp. 2-3 and 8-10.
6 Frank R. Wilson, “Mind, Muscle and Music,” American Music Teacher Vol. 32 (1982) p. 14. Also quoted in Wilson’s Mind Muscle and Music: Physiological Clues to Better Teaching (Walnut Creek, CA: Selmer, 1981), p. 14. Also see his book, Tone Deaf & All Thumbs? An Invitation to Music-Making (New York: Vintage Books, 1987 [originally published, in hardcover, by Viking Penguin, Inc., in 1986]) pp. 203-205.
7 Michael Dean, “Performance Anxiety Tips,” interFACE [Utah Music Educators Association journal] Volume 44, No. 1 (fall 1998) p. 15. Also see HERE.
8 The practice routine I use is available at my web site, CLICK HERE.
9 James Boyk, To Hear Ourselves as Others Hear Us: Tape Recording as a Tool in Music Practicing and Teaching (St. Louis: MMB Music, 1996).
10 I suggest Don Michael Randel’s Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1978). It is an excellent one-volume book with compact entries for terms, composers, etc.
11 A good place to start is Jamey Aebersold’s Vol. 54 “Maiden Voyage” Jazz Play-A-Long book and CD.
12 This is one of Wynton Marsalis’ practice rules on his excellent video on practicing, Marsalis on Music: Tackling the Monster (New York: Sony, 1995).

This article is © by The National Association of College Wind and Percussion Instructors NACWPI Journal, Vol. LI, No. 4, summer 2003.

[NOTE: The above is based on a presentation given at the NACWPI National Symposium 2001 at the University of Kansas.]

[NOTE: A concise version of these tips along with a practice routine is available HERE.]

ClarinetMike says, “Quit goofing around and start doing lots and lots of smart practice.”

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Practice Tip: “I Will Clap The Music Every Day!”

ClarinetMike says, “Teach Your Students How to Count!”

Inside ClarinetMike’s Studio: A few years ago, one of my bright-eyed junior high students, Ian, came to a lesson and played music that he was preparing for a contest. He did an excellent performance of the notes; however, the rhythms were less than great [i.e. bad!]. He told me that he had not worked much (or any) on the rhythms during his practicing at home. This in spite of the fact that I always emphasize rhythm using clapping and other counting techniques during lessons. So, as seen in Ian’s own handwriting above, I went sorta Old School on him and made him write, “I will clap the music every day” five times.* The next week Ian came to his lesson and played the music brilliantly! He told me he clapped the music every day in his practicing at home!

In addition to clapping, singing the music works great, too! Also, check out my Rhy-No Practice and Feed The Rhy-No Tips.

One of my favorite maxims is, “If you can’t clap it, you can’t play it.”

*FYI, I do NOT advocate the old idea of writing a sentence 100’s of times on a blackboard as punishment – making a student’s hand hurt seems a terrible idea to me as a musician….

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