Listening — by Christopher Pell

Auditions, Clarinet, Clarinet Teachers and Professors, Clarinet Tips, Clarinet Wholistic, Digital Clarinet Academy, Orchestra, Practicing, Teaching, Uncategorized

One of the most important things that has helped me as a musician and clarinetist is learning to just listen. When I get nervous, distracted, my self-doubt kicks in, when anything useless pops into my head, I remind myself to simply just listen. For me, this is focus. What does someone mean when they tell you to focus on what you’re playing, what are we supposed to do with our brains and our attention? Listen! 

It’s amazing how much we miss because our thoughts cloud the world around us. For the longest time I thought that good practicing meant always having a metronome on, a useful, nagging little practice buddy that kept me rhythmically in line. I’d prepared everything with a metronome. And then when I had to play for a masterclass, lesson, or just about anything in public, I would feel like some part of my playing was missing; I had no core pulse, no groove. I gradually began turning off the metronome, the tuner, and stopped using sheet music for pieces that I clearly had memorized. By ridding myself of all of these stimuli I was able to listen to and focus on what I was actually creating. 

You begin to develop your own way of working through a phrase, a new way of playing that isn’t reliant on the approval of your little technological friends. It doesn’t matter if you can play something perfectly with a metronome, tuner, or decibel meter if it doesn’t add up to an emotional connection with the listener. So turn everything off, shut the music, and just listen to what you’re producing. Your body will adjust immediately to whatever you’re hearing. I’m losing the intensity here, I’m rushing this passage, I’m sharp- whatever it is, your ears will show you what you need to do. 

The end result is two-fold. First, you’ll develop your own sense of how you’d like to approach music and your instrument. And secondly, you will play in a way that is more natural, free flowing, and expressive. Remember why we do this in the first place: to communicate with the audience and share an emotional experience with the people around you. Sometimes playing everything perfectly in time is sterile and unnatural, sometimes playing everything perfectly at 440 sounds just wrong, and sometimes a dynamic marking refers more to an emotion than a decibel level. So turn off these devices, turn on a recording device, and just play. Listen to what it sounds like in your own head, what it sounds like on the recording device, and gradually get a sense of what you’re communicating. Listen and enjoy!

Clarinetist Christopher Pell is Principal Clarinet with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He is also on the faculty for Session 3 of Ixi Chen’s Digital Clarinet Academy summer clarinet intensive programs. Ms. Chen is Second Clarinet with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

Porch/Patio Lessons – A Student’s View

Clarinet, Clarinet Teachers and Professors, Clarinet Tips, Covid-19, Practicing, Teaching, Uncategorized

Another student of mine, Catherine, came to her first in-person lesson yesterday since the quarantine began. It was a hotter day so we moved from the porch to the shadier patio in back. Catherine ordinarily has a joyful smile. But this day her smile was even ‘smilier’. Mine was too. It was so good to see her. Catherine has thrived during the quarantine, clarinet-wise. She is proficient at most subjects and activities so was stretched for practice time during the school year. The quarantine gave her extra time to practice without distractions. She sent recordings a few times a week, and she began to bloom as a musician. It has been wonderful to witness her improvement through Facetime.

But I didn’t really know how far she’d come until we were together in person. I was blown away by what I heard. Her focus level is greater. Her sound has improved and her technique has become more fluid. I could not hear much of this over the Internet. But in person? Wow!

I thought students might like to hear from a peer about porch lessons, in case they wish to pursue this avenue with their private instructor. Here is what Catherine had to say:

D. What was your impression when we began on the backyard patio? For instance, I was really happy to see you and super-interested to hear you play in person. 

Catherine: I thought the backyard lesson worked out really well, and would 100% do it again. I didn’t have to worry about losing connection or any technical difficulties, and it was just nice to play for you in person. 

D. Which do you prefer—internet or face-to-face lessons? Why? 

Catherine: I prefer face-to-face because I think there are subtle but important embouchure, tone, articulation, etc. corrections that can be made in person that just can’t be detected over facetime. Also, Wayne and Gracie are really cute. 

(L. to R. Wayne and Gracie)

D. What did you like about internet lessons, if anything? Do you think you improved? If so, in what areas? 

Catherine: I think Facetime lessons were an appropriate substitute for in-person lessons given the current situation. I could at least get some feedback on my playing over the phone. I think I improved on gaining more tongue control when tonguing at different speeds and creating a rounder sound quality, but I am still working on those two things. 

D. Was there anything that surprised you today? Something you had forgotten about? 

Catherine: It’s funny; I had to think about this question. I think even though you are my teacher, and I am more comfortable to play around you than other people, there’s a different “pressure” to play for someone in person. Because, since quarantine, I have been playing into my phone for either lessons or recordings, there’s just a different vibe when playing for another person in person. 

D. Any other comments? 

Catherine: Music teachers and students should definitely consider porch/backyard lessons if possible. They’re really fun and refreshing.

Porch Lessons

Clarinet, Clarinet Teachers and Professors, Practicing, Teaching

Are your eyes and brain fatigued from looking at a screen while teaching music lessons online for hours? Are you done with saying “what”? Are your ears burnt out, trying to listen through space for nuances in sound, articulation and technique that just cannot be heard? Maybe you feel like this music teacher.

Yeah, me too.  

While I am super-grateful for video conferencing programs that have allowed me to teach remotely, it is not the same as teaching in person. Sure, there are slick programs that promise great learning online, but for high-level work on a musical instrument NOTHING comes close to lessons in person. 

A couple of weeks ago a student sighed and said “Mrs. Haskell, I just wish I could see you.” 

Broke my heart. My students have been troupers, sending me recordings several times a week, smiling at every lesson, practicing incredibly well and improving….but I hear from parents who say their children are suffering in subtle ways. We humans are meant for relationship. In person! 

So I began to think about safe ways I could bring my local students back into my studio. Put up plastic sheeting? Open the windows? Fans/no fans? Air purifier? (I could find no residential air purifier that filters viruses). Nothing seemed safe enough, until I thought about our porch. It’s not huge but unless it’s pouring down rain, might I be able to continue lessons safely outside on our porch for a few months? I asked a nurse friend and studied CDC guidelines for distancing outside to come up with a plan. 

Then I asked each parent and every student what they thought. All were excited at the possibility. We agreed I would stay 10-12 feet away and would wear a mask. So I set up a chair and music stand outside, wiping down each surface. I added wipes for students too, and masks if someone felt safer that way…..though obviously not during playing! All surfaces would be wiped down between students. Here is the result, with my student Sam (who learns everything in a week — yes, really):

Look at that smile!
Not everyone has the luxury of a porch. But if you do have a porch or patio that is big enough to social  distance according to CDC guidelines, I can tell you that Porch Lessons are much more effective than online private teaching. Porch Lessons are now my interim way of teaching until further notice. 

In a few weeks I will write with an update. Happy teaching and may the world be restored soon.

Articulation: Warm Ups, Stroke Work, Flexibility and Stamina

Articulation, Clarinet, Clarinet Teachers and Professors, Clarinet Warm Ups, Practicing, Teaching, Tonguing, Uncategorized

Recently I updated the articulation packet on my website. Preference is given to working on articulation within music, but there are times when isolating the act of tonguing is helpful.

Assuming one’s air is supported properly, the embouchure is stable, and the player does not lack in endurance, the biggest issue is not tonguing speed. Rather, it is the learning a myriad of releases and lengths appropriate to any given musical style. Too many players, in their pursuit of higher/louder/faster, believe tonguing to be solely about speed. Yes, a quick tongue is necessary. But truly, articulation is a musical device. We must incorporate into our tonguing arsenal a wide variety of articulation styles—from uber-legato to semi-detached to marcatissimo—and everything in-between.

Finally, note that directions for these exercises are given in lessons, but do not appear in this packet.

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…….




Preventing Injury In Clarinet Students – Five Guidelines For Private Teachers and School Conductors

Clarinet, Injury - Musician, Orchestra, Practicing, Teaching, Uncategorized

Several high school students recently came to me with tension, muscle weakness, pain, numbness or tingling. This was largely due to overuse, poor muscle tone and poor body positioning. The students were afraid to tell anyone, and they thought it was ok to continue playing through the pain. Mostly they didn’t want to let their band director down, whom they adore. This is not uncommon, but as a teacher it is difficult and time-consuming to unravel the problems.

Dr. Lynnette Khoo-Summers , Associate Professor in Physical Therapy at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis (and my own physical therapist) says, “Some injuries for young teen clarinetists happen when changing from a plastic to wood clarinet. There is an inability to hold the added weight, especially if thumbs and wrists are weak. Older teen players often have poor posture and muscle tone in general. This can translate to playing issues over time. Finally, students these days have a lot of homework in addition to band/orchestra rehearsals and practicing. It’s a lot to expect! Getting seven to eight hours of sleep becomes important to muscle recovery and maintaining good health.”

With all we must accomplish in our jobs, how can we as teachers and conductors work with students to prevent injury?

Here are five simple guidelines:

1) Remind students to tell you if they are experiencing pain, numbness or tingling. Instruct them to stop playing if in pain and come to you for assistance. I highly recommend that suffering students see their physician and ask for a referral to a good physical therapist.

Once a month I ask students, “are you feeling any pain, numbness or tingling in your neck, arms, jaw, wrists, fingers, and back?” and “Are you getting enough sleep?”

2) Check that students are physically set up well, with proper posture in relaxed and supported fashion. Make sure chairs are the correct size. Encourage students to live an active lifestyle. If you are a teacher who uses neck straps, try fitting your student carefully to take pressure off the right hand, thumb and wrist. If there are weaknesses in muscles or if finger joints are collapsing, do not hesitate to reach out for help from sports or arts physicians and physical therapists. Teachers and band/orchestra directors cannot specialize in everything! It truly takes a village.

3) Allow increases of practice time by 10% per week ONLY. If students are practicing 60 minutes and the teacher wishes to increase the total to 120 minutes, it will take approximately eight weeks to reach the goal. Sudden increases in practice time cause stress on muscles and joints. Bodies need time to adjust!

4) Cell phone and computer usage can contribute to overuse injuries on the clarinet. Encourage students to straighten their arms often to offset hours of bending the elbows. When you see students sitting at a computer, ask them if their neck is thrust too far forward and if they are maintaining good back posture.

5) Backpacks should weigh no more than 10% to 15% of child’s body weight. I had a 17-year old female student complain of neck pain, only to find out her backpack weighed over 30 pounds! With the lack of physical conditioning prevalent today, heavy backpacks are a recipe for disaster. Be sure to encourage students to leave unnecessary materials in the band room or locker. Remind students to distribute backpack weight by using BOTH straps.

Injuries in young music students are on the rise. Simple preventative measures can help prevent serious problems later on. Students will enjoy playing more if they are not in pain.

Questions or comments? Respond below.


Clarinet, Classical clarinetists-female, Practicing, Teaching, Uncategorized

In practicing, students usually fall into one of two groups. Using highly technical terms (not), I call these groups:

1) those who get lost in details (detail-ers)

2) those who run through material without much attention (runners)

‘Detailers’ enjoy the process and can get lost in musical minutiae, forgetting that time exists. An hour later they may have completed work on two measures.

‘Runners enjoy playing music from start to finish without stopping. They rarely listen well or fix issues. Then they go walk their dog or text their friends.b

Truth is, we need a balance between being a Detailer and a Runner in our daily practice.

Below is a formula for practicing that includes time for detail work and time for performance. I’ve put everything in percentages that can easily be changed into number of minutes. Use a timer. Note: there is no magic in this formula. As I always say, make my ideas work for YOU. I have shown two options only as a starting point. Be creative!