Human beings are creatures of habit. Over the course of my life I have somehow found myself working out a method for handling reeds which is basically a combination of trial and error and great tips from other clarinettists.
This blog is not a 'how to' - it's just a description of what I do. Everyone has their own 'rituals' and I'd love to hear what yours entail!
No matter how good the brand, reeds are not entirely reliable straight out of the box - if you play on them too much to begin with they can change a huge amount. They can start out great and then five minutes later they've turned to tissue paper! I find that running them in gently like this gives them greater stability/ reliability and can help them play better for longer.
We all know that a happy reed = a happy clarinettist! So for whatever it's worth, here's
I'll venture further down the reed-rabbithole in future blogs. Meantime, I hope this has been helpful! Let me know how you get on, and please add any tips of your own in comments :) I'd love to hear from you!
('footer' - colloquial term meaning to fiddle/ mess about/ tinker with etc)
I realise that I'm probably a little late to the party with this one, but thought it was worth a share anyway...
First of all, a confession: I bore really easily, and over the last year I have actually found videoing my playing to be a really helpful practice tool. Not only can I listen back easily (and therefore pick holes in every single thing I do!), but I can also watch my hands and face as I play. We all 'teach' ourselves all the time, but this process allows me to observe my playing from a totally different perspective. Practising using video technology has helped me to spot issues I think I might otherwise have missed. I can also set myself goals, and at the end of the process I feel I've achieved something. This week I took the whole thing a stage further and downloaded the 'acapella' app - and basically it's tons of fun :)
Previously, recording multi-track video was a total nightmare (and involved using MovieMaker multiple times, and making my own click track.... ), I did a 4-part recording this way at Christmas-time last year and nearly drove myself mad! This app makes it all so much easier. It's dead easy to use, and you can set your own click track to suit & listen back as you add more layers. The free version will only give you a couple of minutes recording time (and be warned you need lots of spare memory if you're going to record for longer or with more layers!), but I paid for the full version, and am actually really impressed. Whoever designed this knew what musicians would need and how to make it intuitive to use. One nit I would pick though, is that there doesn't *seem* to be a way to balance up the parts/ screens before doing the final render. Some sort of separate mix-desk for the audio would be helpful. Perhaps there is one and I've just not found it yet!
Recording in this way is great for improving things like rhythm, intonation, and listening skills. You can even collaborate with other users of the app. This makes it a really fun and creative practice tool.
This weekend my better half whipped up an arrangement for me and the result is below (clarinet geeks, I'll post a link to where you can buy it shortly!). No this recording isn't perfect, but hey, it was lots of fun to make and I've been stunned by the number of shares & positive feedback! Watch 'til the end ;)
'Stage Fright', 'nerves', 'jitters'... Just a few words to describe a feeling most of us are familiar with. It's something we pretty much have to learn to manage in order to perform.
But what do these words actually mean? I'm not entirely sure.... They attempt to describe a feeling which may be very different for each person. Perhaps they don't do justice to what can be a very real struggle.
But nerves aren't all bad.... Being nervous means you CARE. Nerves can help us to 'up our game' and provide the additional focus and energy required to perform well. It's an evolutionary thing... The physiological changes which accompany a stressful situation can help our bodies to perform at their optimum level. Once upon a time that might have meant the difference between eating and not eating!
The problem comes when our nerves get the better of us, and start to make things worse.
Someone recently told me that I didn't appear at all nervous or anxious about my playing. Well done me then! My 'game face' must be strong - or it was that day!
I know I'm not alone in managing my nerves even if it's not something we musicians tend to talk about a lot. Over the years they have sometimes been easier to deal with and less bothersome, and at other times harder to manage, but they've been a constant companion. 'Nerves' can manifest in a variety of ways. They can be very short-lived or more insidious, less immediately obvious but with perhaps with more far-reaching consequences...
Most of us would relate to some of the well-known symptoms of nerves, things like:
There are probably as many different ways of coping with these things as there are people. I've observed musicians going 'into' themselves before a concert, mentally and physically taking themselves off somewhere else - I sometimes do this myself. Dealing with other people and making polite conversation can be all a bit much if you're feeling nervous. Some people actively seek out distraction though, and that's perfectly valid too as long as you're not annoying anybody! Deep breathing can help a lot, mindfulness exercises are wonderful. Some people swear by rescue remedy, EFT or homeopathy. Ultimately though the hope is that all your hard work, experience and FOCUS will carry you through and the nerves will melt away. But it can be a hard mental game.
But then there are the more persistent 'nerves', which many of us will also have to manage at some point:
To a degree these are also 'normal' signs of nervousness, and I'm sure many people can relate to them. But what do you do if you find that they are affecting your ability to do your job or are starting to make your life a misery? What if a feeling of nervousness or nervous thinking isn't just limited to the short window of time around a performance? This is no joke. Out of control thoughts and feelings like this do destroy lives and careers. Being unable to perform without (self-)medicating with beta-blockers or alcohol is far from unusual in the music industry but the reality is that for some people it's the only way to pay the bills. Perhaps the saddest part of this scenario is how little we talk about it - it's the 'elephant in the room'. One reason why people might not want to talk about it is that admitting to getting nervous is like admitting that you might make a mistake, and we can't have that! ;)
Whether we talk about it or not, the reality is that it just isn't healthy to spend too much time in an anxious state like this, it can become habitual. It starts to feel normal, even though it isn't. Perhaps we even become addicted to the drama created when we spend our lives a constant cycle of high anxiety/ adrenalin/ relief! But it's important to remember that while short-lived periods of anxiety don't do us any harm (humans are designed to cope with some stress), living life in what is essentially a permanently anxious state of mind isn't healthy.
But think for a minute: if your amazing mind can conjure up all this anxiety and stress out of nowhere then just imagine what might happen if you were able to harness its 'creative power' for good!
I don't remember there being much focus (if any) about nerves or managing nerves when I was at music college and I think this was a shame. Professional musicians spend countless hours practising, constantly analysing their playing in minute detail for ways to improve it. Many musicians are 'perfectionists', but it doesn't take a genius to work out that the flip side of all this perfectionism can be anxiety....
There's no shame in a top sportsperson consulting a sports psychologist, Andy Murray recently talked about this very thing. In fact, mental strength is recognised as being a very important part of what makes a champion. However we can't expect our musical-mind-game to be strong if the rest of our life is a mess, so it's important not to look at any one thing in complete isolation. Getting enough sleep, eating well, not drinking too much, getting exercise, getting out into the fresh air & having time out & balance in the rest of your life counts for a lot too. These things keep us grounded and anchored generally.
It's easy to see how a strong mental game could help your career though: imagine walking into an audition with a strong mindset - regardless of how beautifully your competition can play you're at an advantage if they're a bundle of nerves and you are beautifully focused, confident and composed!
I remember my teacher suggesting I read a book called 'The Inner Game of Music' (or the original book which inspired it 'The Inner Game of Tennis') when I was a student. This was good advice and I still recommend these books to others. Essentially the books describe a type of 'mindfulness' which enables us to shut down the negative self-talk which can accompany a performance. Staying 'in the moment' is powerful but it requires practice.
I found out about the power of hypnosis when I used it for the births of my last two children. Our brains really can be trained to work for us, as well as against us! I've also used hypnosis as a way of dealing with performance-related nerves and I've found that it can work extremely well.
If your nerves are really affecting your life, then please do get proper help. There are interventions which can make life easier. It might cost money and take a while to sort out, but just imagine for a moment that your instrument had a broken spring or wasn't working correctly. You'd get it fixed, right? Your mind is every bit as important.
And if all else fails, I also recommend this ;)
What techniques help you with your performance anxiety? Do you have any suggestions for others? Please let me know. I'd love to share them in a future post.
The pictures above show two 'Reverse-Facing' Bonade ligatures. The one on the left was bought in the 1990s and the one on the right a few years ago as a replacement. I don't see too many people using Bonades these days, but some time ago they were pretty popular. I feel they help to give a nice dark, creamy sound and facilitate articulation. I'd often use my Bonade with a good reed which I felt was slightly too 'excitable', just to bring it into line!
My last post was about variations in Vandoren reeds made years apart. Some differences between reeds can, of course, be explained by the fact that they're made out of organic material and this means there are natural variations. However, the differences in the ligatures above, cannot.
You can easily see by eye that these two ligatures are NOT identical. I measured the distance between the railings with my (fairly) trusty vernier calipers.
The older of the two ligatures (which is more tarnished), measures approx 2mm between the rails at the top, and 3mm at the bottom. The more modern of the two measures slightly over 4mm at the top of the rails and just over 3mm at the bottom!
This means the rails which make that all-important contact with the reed (the whole purpose of a ligature!) on the more modern 'Bonade' are TWICE the distance apart at the top compared with the older ligatures. The rails actually start to come together (converge) towards the bottom of the reed! The older ligature does the opposite, the rails diverge slightly towards the bottom and they start much closer together at the top.
Neither ligature has been altered in any way by me. Like I said, the Bonade has a lot of great qualities which I appreciate. I bought the first ligature directly from a good shop, and the second online (through Amazon), from what I thought was a reputable seller. Of course it's possible I bought a fake.
I also see that many of the reputable UK dealers are listing Bonades as 'out of stock' at the moment, perhaps the maker has stopped making them? It's also interesting to note that these ligatures still seem to be widely available from less reputable sources elsewhere in the world, and seemingly at a cut price... (I paid the full whack, mind!).
I'd be interested to hear if anyone else has noticed any changes in these ligatures though?
P.S. - my reason for replacing the original ligature was that the screw thread went on it after a fair number of years. I have to say the same thing happened with the replacement after less than a year of very occasional use (nb. I don't think it was due to over-tightening!).
I'd love to get my hands on an original one of these with some life left in it if anyone has one!
However - when you really believe in something and you know it will do good for the community, that does make it easier to 'sell it'. I'll admit that having experience as a performer probably was helpful in making this presentation, but it's one thing playing music and quite another talking about it... I was quaking in my boots! Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?
I began by talking (with a little help from my ukulele) about the real good that accessing music & playing music can do for people. Not just for some people but for all people... Then I went on to explain what exactly Ultonia Arts would spend the funding on if we were successful in obtaining it. The most incredible thing about this experience for me (apart from the fact that I actually went through with it!), was that our company was chosen to receive the funding by popular vote.
This means that people really DO believe in what we're trying to do and really wanted to support us. A number of people also came up to me afterwards to tell me that they'd voted for me/ us, and that they really felt music was so important to life. It was inspiring to witness how many of those in attendance valued the Arts in exactly the same way that we do.
So huge thanks to Social Enterprise NI, Armagh Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council, and especially Derek Browne at the Social Enterprise Hub. Can't wait to share more about our plans as we move forward.
So I was just gifted some amazing 'vintage' Vandoren clarinet reeds by another one of my wonderful mentors and friends, Arthur Acheson... The earliest reeds (unplayed) date back 50 years to 1966. The others are (I'm estimating) early 1980's and early 2000's.
My flabber is well and truly ghasted and I'm going to post some more blogs on these as and when I can - but in the meantime, here's me embarrassing myself trying to open one of the boxes!
The aim of most young instrumentalists planning a career in music is – as it has been for generations – to get a place a music college/ conservatoire. It’s a great idea. Music college is fantastic. It’s immersive, and young musicians have the opportunity to study with really great teachers and devote themselves to hours and hours of practice in order to hone their techniques and learn about their chosen field. Beyond this there are opportunities to perform and compete in lots of different settings, if you’re an orchestral musician you’ll learn about the audition process, and if you’re lucky perhaps you’ll get your first professional work somewhere down the line. It’s an incredibly energetic and exciting place to be.
This was the path I went down twenty (cough) years ago, and I don’t regret it for a single moment. I would absolutely encourage others to do the same….
…but here’s the thing… When you graduate, you are very unlikely to walk into a salaried job doing the thing you went there to do in the first place (playing or singing). In fact, in all likelihood it will never happen... You need to be damn good as standard, your face needs to fit (yes, it really does!), and to a certain degree those planets need to be in alignment too. Of course it’s also possible to enjoy a worthwhile & rewarding freelance performing career, but it’s competitive, and even regular freelancers will usually need another other source of income.
I’m not trying to depress you – actually far from it – so bear with me while I talk about myself for a bit..
I graduated at the top of my year at both undergraduate and postgraduate level at music college. I didn’t go on to get an orchestral job (to be honest I only did a handful of auditions), but I was lucky and freelanced for many years with orchestral clarinet sections who were for the most part very loyal and supportive. I supplemented work as a freelance clarinettist with some teaching which I juggled (and I do mean juggled!) around the travelling and playing. So far so good. Eventually I met my husband through work, and ‘settled down’. And that’s when the trouble started ;)
I remember telling one orchestral manager that I’d probably be free to work again three months after my first baby was born. She was a mother herself and advised me to wait and see how I got on…. It turned out I massively underestimated the effect that having a child would have on my life, and consequently on my career. At three months post-partum I barely knew my own name and in the end I was only able to get back to playing when she was around 14 months old. I can recall desperately trying to express milk for her in a portaloo at an outdoor gig followed by a speedy drive home! The glamour....
We didn’t plan it, but my husband & I ended up going down the ‘attachment parenting’ route with first one, then two, then three kids. Becoming a parent did affect my career opportunities (I don’t think that’s exclusive to music btw - it happens far more often than people admit, especially if you’re freelance), but other things changed too. My tolerance for the casual sexism I sometimes encountered also went into major decline. Things that had once seemed incredibly important suddenly didn’t seem so important anymore. I basically ended up taking a ‘career break’ – with no idea if I would end up having a career to go back to.
With my hands full and reluctant to waken small children once they finally went to sleep I found I needed new (quieter) outlets for my creativity – and I began writing and experimenting with henna art. Discovering that I was more than a musician was a major revelation! I began to realise that henna, the written word and music have a lot in common – they are all crafted by the artist out of core patterns (words, scales/ arpeggios, shapes). However this time I was teaching myself – I was improvising - something I found incredibly difficult to do on the clarinet. I began to realise that perhaps I was more than an instrumentalist, and I began to think of myself as a creative person.
As time went on (and the kids got older) I found myself desperate to get back to ‘myself‘, and myself meant music and playing the clarinet. But time away from the orchestral world and a new perspective on life meant I now viewed myself more as a creative being with something meaningful of my own to offer, my own ‘voice’, and my own ideas... Being able to play what's on the page, the way your colleagues do, and the way a conductor wants you to is so so important, but it's not the only thing... A simple shift of mindset was all that was required to allow me to see a whole host of new possibilities. Instead of being inside the box I had grown up in, I found myself outside of it.
Better late than never.
My career now isn’t the way I thought it would be when I first graduated, but ***NEWSFLASH*** life happens! And it will happen to you too in one way or another :) I now get even more joy from playing the clarinet and my career is more varied than I ever imagined it would be! No two days are ever the same. I work with people from age 4 to grandparents. I am much more open-minded in my approach to music-making. I lead workshops and am inspired by closer relationships with artists from other art forms. Music college equipped me with many of the skills I needed as a clarinettist but it by no means gave me all the skills I needed to be a music professional. And these days, that’s what it takes.
Now back to you – young musician with a world of possibilities at your feet/highly-skilled orchestral musician facing change….What do I want to communicate to you as you continue your musical journey?
I want you to know that music is your vehicle, but you are good at it because you’re a creative, because you’re an artist. You don’t need to confine yourself to any box... Plan, practice, prepare, but know that flexibility and adaptability is your best friend in the modern musical world. Your passion and creativity will enhance your work in ANY field. Believe it.
Here are a few practical suggestions from me:
About nine months ago now (and at the recommendation of my dentist!), I joined my first yoga class... Although I'd been doing yoga on my own for a long time, I found taking part in a class to be something completely different and I am so happy it's a part of my life now!
I would imagine most yoga classes work in a similar way, even if the content varies. You begin by connecting mindfully to your breath and letting go of the 'outside world', and then you work your way through a series of poses under the guidance of your teacher. The class usually ends with 'yoga nidra' which is where your body rests and relaxes fully while your mind is awake and in a sort of meditative state. During this part of the class my teacher will often draw one activity to a close so we can begin the next by saying: 'now we release this practice'; and something about this phrase (said with a beautiful Italian accent) has stuck in my mind...
As a child I remember my mother drilling me on scales. I hated every minute of it! I saw the time spent with my clarinet as a means to an end... If I'm really honest I probably only kept playing because it brought me some positive attention! In the years that followed I often only practiced because I needed to work FOR something. Exams, concerts, work, whatever... I had a goal in mind. I was pretty good at meeting those goals too, and so it continued, all the way into my professional life.
I now realise that my practice left a lot to be desired.
You see no matter how often I did it, and no matter how good I got at it (and with apologies to anyone reading this from America!), I wasn't exploring the practice of clarinet playing in its (correct) form, as a noun... Practice was something I did, but I didn't find it a meaningful and mindful experience in and of itself. Even though I was learning the music or training my hands, I wasn't fully experiencing the practice of playing the clarinet. I was always trying to GET somewhere, but without really enjoying the journey.
When we find something difficult, be it in something in a piece of music or just a situation in our life, it's common for us to 'tense up'. When we become tense and anxious our breathing becomes shallower and our pulse rate increases. These are normal physiological responses to stress. Yoga teaches us to relax into postures. It teaches that even when something is difficult at first it becomes easier if we go at it gently, little by little. We need to allow ourselves space and time to grow into the postures. Yoga teaches us to focus on the breath in those tight spots and twists... What a gift to be able to bring that philosophy and physiology into my practice of playing the clarinet!
Now I approach my daily practice in quite a different way. I am kinder to myself, I am less anxious, I am more mindful, my breathing is better... I ACHIEVE MORE. Of course I still have goals and things I need to work towards, but they are no longer the only thing I'm focused on. My daily relationship with my instrument is the most important thing, everything else comes from that.
Anyone who knows me well knows that (unlike some friends I can think of!), new-fangled clarinet gadgets aren't really my thing... Normally reeds - and maybe ligatures - are as technical as I get, and those can be stressful enough! To be honest I'm firmly in the Leon Russianoff camp – who prefaced his famous 'Clarinet Method' with the following:
'I am concerned with neither the science of clarinet playing nor with our traditional obsession about reeds, facings, baffles, chambers, mouthpieces, reed holders, and mouthpiece cushions. […] It is my deep conviction that endless preoccupation with the reed-mouthpiece syndrome is diversionary: it distracts us from our artistic purposes and shifts attention away from an artists realities.'
And so it was with a great deal of trepidation that I decided to search for a second mouthpiece... I've been happy with my Brad Behn for the last six years or so but a recent 'near miss' (thanks to my gorgeous smallest person), persuaded me that it was a good idea to try out a few others. After a quick phone call to Howarths, some new blood was on its way!
They sent me three Grabners, 2 K13*s (in the 'Kaspar' style), and a 'Virtuoso' – his newest mouthpiece and what the maker himself describes as:
'the very best mouthpiece I know how to make '
Hannah at Howarths also sent over a Backun MoBa PRT.
All four of these mouthpieces were created from Zinner ebonite (hard rubber) blanks.
I tested them out using my Buffet R13 Prestige clarinets, a 66mm barrel and a Vandoren V12 reed, strength 3.
I tried the K13*s first... The maker describes these as having a:
'Closer tip than the K13 and an enhanced facing curve.... a higher level of focus and clarity. Dark, warm ringing CORE tone, for maximum precision.'
These mouthpieces have a medium/ closed tip opening measuring between 1.03 – 1.05 and I found they gave a focused and dark sound, just as described. One of the two was markedly better than the other though, and had a depth to the sound which made it feel like a strong contender from the start! The intonation was also great. This mouthpiece definitely feels like it's in the Kaspar tradition and it allowed me to find a 'stillness' in the sound, something which I find very appealing. Without a doubt it's a great mouthpiece for the money.
So on to the Virtuoso... For someone who has played on a fairly close lay for a good length of time, the wider tip opening of the Virtuoso (1.1) did take a little bit of getting used to, but once I found the right set up I was very taken with this mouthpiece. It has a huge dynamic range, and centres the air really well making even large leaps a breeze... The altissimo register plays with incredible ease and resonance. The Virtuoso is bright and lively with a creamy tone – as the maker says it is very 'free blowing'. If I were to nit-pick I might say that *I* found it a bit harder to focus the sound in quieter dynamics, however in all likelihood that was down to me & I feel sure it is something that would come in time. I felt invited to explore new possibilities on the Virtuoso and I was finding it really hard to put this one away. I ended up spending the next TWO DAYS pretty much going between it and the K13*!
Just when I thought 'THAT'S IT, THIS IS THE ONE!', I would change my mind again....
Lastly I tried the Backun MoBa PRT (Philadelphia).
This has the widest of all the tip openings I tried and so I probably *should* have found it an even bigger leap from what I normally play on, but funnily enough I didn't... The MoBa PRT was designed in collaboration with Ricardo Morales of the Philadelphia Orchestra (hence the name!) and according to the makers description it is designed:
'To fill the largest halls, the PRT has a wider tip opening and requires a very strong embouchure and reed setup. Tip opening of 1.15'.
The PRT has a focused, dark sound which offers the 'stillness' I value, but alongside the flexibility and power of a more modern mouthpiece. If you 'gie it laldy' (to quote a friend) it doesn't become over-focused or shouty and 'holds' the sound, and at the other end of the spectrum you can still create a really introverted , calm atmosphere. The intonation is excellent and the throat notes are a joy!
Of course we played the mouthpieces too, but the decision remained the same. Incidentally, playing for someone else (so therefore under a small degree of pressure), in an acoustic you're not used to is well worth trying when you're looking at mouthpieces. It really does show where to go.
Michael Wayne of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a Vandoren Artist, has the following three criteria for selecting a mouthpiece:
1/ That it helps you to create a beautiful sound
2/ That it has good intonation
3/ That it is 'reed friendly'.
Those seem like pretty sensible criteria to me...
What do YOU look for in a mouthpiece? Let me know in comments, I'd love to hear from you!