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!