About ashleywilliamsmith

A clarinettist from Perth, Western Australia.

What a clarinettist can take away from Andreas Scholl

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Tonight I just saw the most incredibly life affirming performance by one of the great counter-tenors of our time, Andreas Scholl, accompanied by his wife, Tamar Halperin, at the piano. I thought I should put down in words a few things that are roaring around in my head after the performance:

What we can take away musically:

– Total humility, honesty and generosity. From the outset is was clear that here was a man that is serving the music and serving the audience. There is clearly no ego involved in his art. Rather, what came across was a genuine love for the music and his fellow musician.

-Total musical conviction, flawless presentation. The entire recital was memorised and flowed seamlessly and the program made one hundred per cent musical and dramatic sense. Every phrase was delivered with poeticism and time.

– Simplicity and nuance: Every phrase of every piece was shaped in the most simplest way possible. The sound itself is what was most interesting. During long tones and extended passages sung senza vibrato, the sound was never cold. The warmth came from the timbre itself, not decoration or shifting the amplitude.

What we can take away as clarinet players:

-Sound never needs to be pushed. Scholl employed only the optimal amount of air strength by finding the point where the sound must have resonated best within his body and within the natural acoustic of the room. Wind instrumentalists often push beyond this believing that they are not working hard enough if they are not pushing volumes and volumes of air. This kind of approach takes away warmth, resonance and the sound becomes distorted. In fact, the overall effect is less sound.

Scholl’s lack of ‘push’ revealed the natural character of the human voice in its most pure form. One of my big gripes about modern clarinet playing is that many pre-eminent players and teachers are advocates of pushing so much air through the instrument (resulting in a sound that is too focussed and forced) and falsely claim that this is a pure sound. No! If we compare the modern clarinet sound to the gentler sound of the classical period instrument, it is easy to see that modern playing has ‘thrown the baby out with the bath water.’ I believe that many players have lost track of what the clarinet’s pure sound actually is. Scholl’s voice is a reminder of what we a missing out on.

– The distance between Purcell and Brahms is perhaps not a far as we think. In a world that is obsessed with performance practice, it was interesting to see one of the masters sing Purcell with great Romanticism and Brahms with so much transparency. That was a revelation.

Scholl’s performance reminded me what music is capable of: it is able to send its audience away as more loveable, compassionate people. It was a performance that reminded me that this is my ultimate goal as a performer.

An unapologetic use of metaphors

I was recently in a bar in New York after a concert when a friend introduced me to her friend who is a singer. The conversation turned to my new project with taking voice lessons to get a new angle on clarinet playing and teaching. My new friend remarked that it must be so different from the clarinet, to learn an instrument which is primarily taught through metaphors and description, because the instrument hidden inside the body. In my own teaching, I am forever apologising for the amount of metaphors and images I use to describe how an action feels within the body, thinking that there must be a better, more concrete and universal description. However, my conversation with this singer got me thinking about the degree to which the process of clarinet playing is in fact represented externally. And the conclusion that I came to, is that like the singer, it is very little at all! 

The exterior of the body provides only few physical representations of what is actually occurring during the process of singing. Indeed, without a laryngoscope and a whole lot of technology (which is absolutely of great importance to the development of the craft), a typical voice lesson is not going to involve being able to view the instrument. Therefore, vocal pedagogy has come to rely on metaphors, imagery and body mapping (a concept that we shall explore in detail in a subsequent blogs) to communicate physical phenomena. The physical realisations that the teacher and student can work on in front of the mirror are obviously what can be viewed externally: issues including posture, general tension in the whole body, the position of the head and jaw, tension in the mask and jaw, the movement of the larynx, movement of the tongue, expansion and contraction of the chest and lower abdomen. This all seems like quite a lot of information (and there is, of course, much more) however the list of what is happening internally is obviously going to be much greater.

Similarly the exterior view of the clarinettist’s body is only going to be able to provide a limited physical representation of what is occurring during the process of clarinet playing. Like the singer, the wind instrumentalist will concentrate on external representations of breathing, general muscular tension, posture, position of the head and neck, tension in the jaw. In addition to the singer, the clarinet player may also consider external representations such as the instrument-specific embouchure, pointedness of the chin, external movement of the skin below the jaw, the position and movement of the fingers, position of the arms and the angle of the instrument. These are all aspects of clarinet playing that we can see and touch. 

However, like the singer, the list of what is occurring internally for the clarinet player is infinitely greater. Consider for instance all the internal information required to examine and teach the process of tonguing: the refined movement of the absolute tip of the tongue and its interaction with the reed, the movement of the front, middle and root of the tongue, the position of what is referred to in clarinet pedagogy in blanket-terms as ‘the throat’ (one of the aims of this blog shall be to examine l the anatomy and functions of the whole oral cavity and vocal tract in great detail), the position of the sinus cavities, the interaction between the mouthpiece and the top teeth, the amount of pressure between the lower lip and the reed. Additionally, I would also argue that the entire breathing mechanism effects tonguing, which opens up an infinite amount of internally physical aspects. Thus, for only one aspect of clarinet playing, the list is in fact endless! When we come to look at the technique of ‘voicing’ on the clarinet in an upcoming blog post, we shall find that this process is almost an entirely internal one, without any external representations at all. 

Therefore, as it is impossible to view (and sometimes even impossible to physically feel) the vast majority of physical phenomena occurring during the act of clarinet playing, metaphors and imagery should unapologetically be an essential part of clarinet pedagogy. Furthermore, the better we are at using the most effective imagery and metaphor, the better performers and teachers we shall become. In an upcoming blog post, we’ll examine the most effective metaphors and images used by vocal coaches and see how they can be applied to clarinet technique.  

 

My story with the clarinet

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Before I start getting down to business, I thought I should start off with my own story.

For as long as I can remember, I have always know that I would be a musician. Although I came from a family of non-instrument playing parents, I was surrounded by music throughout my childhood and came from a household that sang from the moment of waking up, until falling asleep. This probably stems back to my highly eccentric grandparents who would make up songs based on subjects as diverse as their the chickens to the quirks of their next door neighbours. I also grew up to a continuous soundtrack of recorded music. This was the music of the Bee Gees, the Carpenters and Burt Bacharach, all of which are extremely technically accomplished pop artists.

It was, however, a video of Pavarotti which I watched incessantly as a five year old that really sparked my interest in classical music. If I am honest with myself, the urge to sing like Pavarotti has been with me since that moment. Much later on, the clarinet came into the equation when I saw Artie Shaw playing in a film and upon receiving my first clarinet, became hooked.

For the last decade, I have been studying music at a tertiary level. I completed my Bachelor of Music at the University of Western Australia, and then went to to study for three years at the Australian National Academy of Music. Currently I am completing a Master of Music at Yale University under the tutelage of David Shifrin. Almost from the outset of taking up the clarinet for serious study did I know that I was not cut-out for a career focussing exclusively on orchestral playing. Perhaps my greatest strength as a performer is my versatility: I love playing music of all genres and periods. Often I am pigeon-holed as a contemporary musician, and some of my favourite projects have been working on the music of current composers including Magnus Lindberg (see my performance of Lindberg’s Clarinet Concerto here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aj41GST5x_A&feature=plcp) and Jorg Widmann (see my performance of Widmann’s Funf Bruchstucke here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYDACnhnpXk&feature=plcp) as well as collaborations on new works with composers. However I equally love performing Mozart, Schumann and Brahms. Ironically, the music I listen to over breakfast is normally Monteverdi, Vivaldi and J.S. Bach.

I feel that the bass clarinet is my strongest instrument and, without a doubt, is my favourite instrument to play. Over the past year I have also been performing on five-key classical clarinet and basset horn, and just this last week had to play the saxophone (and instrument which I totally adore and am to excited to finally get around to playing!).

Another important aspect of my career has been teaching. This has encompassed a multitude of experiences and extremes: everything from clarinet teaching for eight year olds through to under-graduate and post-graduate tertiary students, from working with children from disadvantaged backgrounds to being a faculty member at some of the most privileged private schools in Australia. Further to this is my experience with teaching clarinet to several children identified on the autism spectrum as well as a drumming with special needs children and children with children in behaviour management programs in government primary schools. Through all of these experiences, I have gained so much insight into the process of how we learn, which has informed me considerably in understanding my own learning processes. It is these skills that have also shaped my own view on why I believe music is such a necessary aspect to everyones life. I truly believe that no child should be disallowed an education in music.

One of the greatest skills we learn as musicians is how to work as a smaller part of a larger machine. My previous teacher David frequently remarked that the most important skill for a musician is simply “to be easy to play with.” Here, David is referring to playing in tune, and rhythmically. However, it also refers to a broader concept of how we operate as artists and people. I firmly believe that knowledge sharing is an important element of what it takes to be a musician. As an abstract art-form, it is critical that all members of the community pass on the knoweldge of the art-form as well as contribute to its development. Writing this blog is part of my contribution. The lessons that I have learned in the brief time that I have been singing have proven so insightful and revelatory, that I believe it is essential that it is shared by the rest of the clarinet playing community.

Please check out my Youtube channel (http://www.youtube.com/user/ashleywilliamsmith) which features some of my favourite performances. I have included a video here of a performance of which I am particularly proud. Ross Edwards is an Australian composer and I love his music for it exuberance and theatricality.

Who should read this blog:

Any instrumentalist can learn much from vocal pedagogy and this blog will be of interest to any advanced wind instrument performer or teacher. As vocal pedagogy relies much on comparison and metaphor, hopefully much can be gained by the voice performer and teacher from understanding issues related to their craft from a wind players perspective. This blog may also be of interest to the non-performing classical music enthusiast and will provide an interesting insight into the process of learning an instrument at an advanced level. There will be many video postings and analysis of great performances by ‘musician’s musicians.’ These are the performances that advanced performers look towards for inspiration and insight. Without a doubt, these can be appreciated by anybody!

As my own background and profession is in clarinet and bass clarinet, this blog shall mostly examine issues from a clarinet players perspective. Aside from clarinet-specific issues (particularly registration and embouchure), I am sure that these ideas can easily be translated to the technique of any wind instrument.

This blog is, however, specifically targeted towards wind players who are already performing at an advanced level. It is particularly of benefit to players who perhaps feel that their playing has ‘plateaued’ and are seeking new ideas and techniques to take it to a new level. Many of the postings shall rely on the performer having already gained a highly developed advanced understanding of general musicianship and are practicing an advanced understanding of all the technical aspects of wind playing: sound production, breath, posture, voicing, articulation, control of legato, finger technique. It is hoped that the issues discussed in this blog shall add greater understanding as to why specific processes and techniques work. It is also hoped that there will be great revelations along the way!

In many ways, this blog is geared towards my students that I teach in Australia and the USA at tertiary and college level. It shall often reference successes or ‘dead-ends’ that I am experiencing with teaching specific techniques as well as with my own learning and growth as a clarinettist. I sincerely believe that the voice is the ultimate instrument –  everything we do as instrumentalists should emulate what the human voice naturally does, or, at least, should take the voice as a principal point of departure. I know that many of my students complain that I sing too much in their lessons (which is probably another reason why I took up voice lessons). However, my own experience has shown me that the best way to teach techniques such as legato phrasing and the voicing of wide intervals is by allowing the student to hear and experience it being sung first. This removes the element of the instrument, which as instrumentalists, is ironically the element we are trying to remove in performance. As my current teacher David Shifrin frequently remarks, “We are performing music, not the instrument or the reed.”

My students will attest that Youtube is perhaps my greatest teaching tool. As a clarinettist, I know that I have gained so much from watching the performances and demonstrations on Youtube. For instance, I learnt the technique of slap tonguing through viewing Michael Lowenstern’s incredibly valuable Youtube posting on the subject (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xt8GPZXBfi8). In my own teaching, the laptop is frequently whipped out so that the student is able to examine a technique being employed in performance by one of the world’s leading practitioners. Throughout this blog, I will post specific Youtube performances which I personally refer to daily in my teaching and in my own learning.

So, whether you’re here as an advanced wind player or just as someone who wants to know what is happening in the performer’s practice room and mind, welcome! I sincerely hope we all become more informed and developed performers and appreciators of the art-form.

Cecilia Bartoli – ‘Per Pieta’ from Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte

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Perhaps the best way to get things going is to start with some of my favourite performances of my favourite musicians. For me, it doesn’t get much better than this: Cecilia Bartoli, Nicholas Harnoncourt. This is performing at its most technically masterful, its most informed and also its most spontaneous and raw. Exquisite.