What a clarinettist can take away from Andreas Scholl


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.


My story with the clarinet


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.

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


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.