Should Teachers Play Along with Students In Lessons?

Clarinet, Clarinet Teachers and Professors, Clarinet Tips, Teaching, Uncategorized

Over many years of teaching, I’ve carefully considered how much to play clarinet along with students. Looking back at my own teachers, there were no fast rules. My high school teacher Jim Barkow played quite often with me, but at Eastman D. Stanley Hasty played rarely. Joe Allard never brought out his horn, but Mitchell Lurie got out his clarinet in lessons every week at Music Academy of the West.

I find that I model some aspect of clarinet playing at almost every lesson….with care. For me, it is important for students to become supremely comfortable playing for others. Lessons are an excellent opportunity for a mini-performance of assigned materials. Then after a run-through we go back and work. Concepts, fundamentals, tone and style are modeled during the working phase of lessons. Excerpts that feature first and second clarinet together may be used to work on more advanced concepts with college-age students. Duets are, of course, useful at any level.

If my advanced students express interest in teaching, I encourage them to demonstrate only after lesson assignments are heard…..and then model good clarinet habits when doing detail work. It is a learning process and a balance. Thankfully, if a teacher thinks they played too much one week, there is always next week to try something new!

Most students absorb instruction well when it is a mix of verbal, descriptive instructions and sound imitation. I model more often with young students because they seem to respond to it so well. Because I’m sitting so close to the student, they can feel, hear and imitate the resonance and/or pitch.

I asked my wonderful teaching colleagues for their philosophies of playing clarinet with students. Answers ranged from ‘never’ to Western Kentucky University’s Clarinet and Saxophone Professor, Dr. John Cipolla’s wonderfully succinct response:  ‘…always, a lot…’.

Dr. Julia Heinen, Professor of Clarinet at California State University, Northridge says this about playing with her college students: ‘…Early on, freshman and sophomore, I am demonstrating constantly for many reasons. One is to hear what a clarinet should sound like, what support sounds like, what different types of articulation sound like, etc. It’s really many times in a lesson. In addition, I play along with students a lot. First, at their pitch level and then an octave below so they can hear themselves. It’s really for me the quickest way to get concepts across. As they get into their junior and senior years, it gets much less. I need them to have the concept in their head or get it there, and if I demonstrate too much it becomes them imitating me rather than thinking for themselves and getting their concept across. At the grad level, it’s less except when I’m fixing issues. Then, I need to get it done quickly because I don’t have a lot of time with masters students since they do a recital quickly. My view about all of this, is that this is an oral tradition that is passed down from generation to generation. The sounds that students hear on a CD do not directly relate to what they should hear from themselves and me playing next to them gives them a much better idea of what kind of sound they should be hearing when they are playing themselves…’

Northwestern University Bienen School of Music Clarinet Professor Steven Cohen comments that he ‘always’ plays with his students. 

Dr. Diane Cawein-Barger, Professor of Clarinet, University of Nebraska-Lincoln states: ‘… ‘…For me, it depends on what a particular student needs. My teachers only picked up theirs instruments in a lesson if they really felt I needed to hear something; in fact, Mr. Marcellus rarely played in my lessons, but perhaps he did more of that when he had his sight. If I play, it is not very much. Always with a purpose of modeling in some way, but not “this is how this goes”…’ 

Gregory Oakes, Professor of Clarinet at Iowa State University says: ‘I make sure to play in every lesson. The nuances of how to combine dynamics, rubato, and timbre meaningfully into a phrase just can’t be succinctly expressed in a better way…..’

On her new blog, Boston clarinetist Marguerite Levin says yes to modeling for students of all ages. ‘I cannot stress how important it is to play with and for your students. For the pre-college aged student, it is imperative that they consistently hear beautiful clarinet tone every week. You are most likely the only professional sound they hear on a consistent basis!’

Sauro Berti, bass clarinet of the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, has begun video tutorials devoted to modeling for young players:

Sauro says: ‘…also my live lessons are without words, above all when the student doesn’t speak Italian, neither my bad English, neither my very bad Spanish or any translator is available!…’

What do you do? Please add your comments below and thanks for visiting my blog!

Listen to – and Learn From -Experienced Musicians

Articulation, bassoon, Clarinet, Clarinet Tips, Clarinet Wholistic, Orchestra, Practicing, Teaching, Uncategorized

Last year a friend of mine offered a really great idea to help our orchestra. This person is a long-time member of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. When I suggested this person talk with our management, the response was “No, no one wants to hear from someone my age.” I was taken aback and saddened by this comment from someone who has done fine work in the SLSO. Others in previous orchestras I’ve performed with have expressed similar sentiments.

This is not unique to orchestras. It’s part of life in many fields, and frankly, I believe it is short-sighted. I dare say it is even disrespectful, as those who go before us pave the path that we are lucky enough to walk upon. In the case of orchestras, past musicians fought for better working conditions and better salaries. I am thankful for every one of them.

Before rehearsal one day with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, veteran principal bassoonist Nelson Dayton was warming up and talking about changes in his playing as he grew older. I asked him what had changed the most in his playing. “Tonguing!” he almost shouted. He went on to talk about how much harder he had to work as he aged in order to achieve the same results. He gave me tips on how to work. As a 27-year old who could tongue easily I didn’t understand, but I filed it away. Now that I am in my fifties I totally get it and am grateful for his insights. Nelson was a gracious, caring man who became a mentor to me. If I had not asked for his advice or had neglected listening to him, I would have lost valuable information….and lost an opportunity to be friends with a fine musician.

I would like to suggest that we buck the trend of ignoring older musicians. Go to players outside your circle of friends and age group. Ask questions about their families and about their approach to music. Ask them to tell stories about weird conductors or tour mishaps.

But go even deeper: respect them and BE THEIR FRIEND. You will learn many valuable musical…and life…lessons.

Thank you, Nelson Dayton, for your mentoring and friendship.





Character Traits of Great Clarinet Students…and Musings On Ego

Clarinet, Clarinet Tips, Clarinet Wholistic, Classical clarinetists-female, Classical clarinetists-male, Practicing, Teaching, Uncategorized

One of the greatest teachers of young clarinetists today, and someone I greatly admire, Eva Wasserman-Margolis,  recently wrote a profound statement: ‘The quality of music is of utmost importance …. but it is really about the human being behind the music that is most important to me’. I have maintained that in teaching, the heart of a student is more important than their playing ability. In a very real sense we educate hearts in lessons, instilling compassion for music, for others, and for ourselves.

After reading Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth, I decided to create a document for college and high school students. My ‘Characteristics of A Great Musician’ is given to all of my students. You will find the document at the end of this post or it may be downloaded from my website here.

I asked several students to expand upon my ‘Character Traits’ definitions. It will come as no surprise that they gave terrific answers. What you read in the document below, then, is a list of character traits developed from my own experience, from information online, and partly defined by students.

Note: Students are most curious about humbleness as it applies to music. I find humility is often thought of as a negative concept. Students think it means lack of ego, self-deprecation, shaming self or others, low self-esteem….or worse, that it means allowing others to abuse. Nothing could be further from the truth. I like to use this quote to define humbleness: ‘True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.’

Indeed, that quote might lead to a fun discussion. What is ego, and is ego good, bad, or neither? What part does ego play in performing?  Is it possible to play in humbleness? What might that look like? How might humility help or hurt performance? Hmmmm…….