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.