Clarinet Practice, Despair, Vade Mecum, and You

Despite considering myself a serious musician for most of my adult life, I’ve had a difficult relationship with practice. Most musicians are less than thrilled with practice, so this is not unique to me. I don’t know what motivates (or should I say de-motivates) most people not to practice, but for me it’s been a heady mixture of overwork in the day job, some technical and sometimes even orthopedic difficulties brought on by the overwork (I work with a keyboard on the day job), and 99% good old-fashioned despair.

I recently quit the job and started one I actually enjoy, so there went that excuse. The despair part is what I’m going to focus on. There are several layers to this despair. Despair about not being good enough for the practice to matter. Despair about the opportunities open to me. Despair about the opportunities that would be open to me even if I were much, much, better than I am.

Not sure I’m going to get to all these in this post (meaning I despair of getting to them all?), but I’ll throw in one more, and focus on this one for the rest of this post. Despair of being able to practice everything that has been thrown at me over the years to practice. 

I’m not blaming my teachers. It’s not their fault that there are stacks and stacks of good books on clarinet and saxophones (and flute, and guitar, and, and, and). It’s not their fault that I’m a guy with a non-music day job that would like to be more proficient in classical/chamber clarinet, improv jazz on saxophone, and Lord knows what on flute and guitar (I’m trying to get good enough on either one to be able to pick a genre).

Just to use clarinet as an example, here are a few broad areas of practice to maintain competence in, along with the usual recommended practice regimes:

  • tone quality and intonation (long tone exercises, various warm-up patterns, and of course using a tuner during practice)
  • articulation (articulation studies, which are included in most general method books, and there are some books, like Reginald Kell’s, which are devoted to them)
  • Scales and scale patterns (ditto – the definitive example is the Baermann exercises, which if organized by key a la David Hite’s edition contain 3-4 pages PER KEY. If you’re a high school student reading this and you think of practicing scales as something done by going straight up and straight down them, sorry… the good news is that scales and patterns really do insanely improve your performance, assuming you’re playing tonal music.)
  • Fingering patterns – I was introduced to this circle of hell mainly by Dr. Tim Phillips. (edit: I noticed in some notes that Dr. Lori Ardivino at Montevello also tried to get me to buy this book, but I didn’t bite on it at the time). I’d spent years as a strong amateur player without doing much of this, although I had been introduced to them in the Klosé studies. But until I met Tim, I was blissfully unaware there was an entire book of them. Yes, the Vade Mecum du Clarinettiste. Vade Mecum is a latin phrase meaning “it will feel good when it stops hurting” “go with me,” or more idiomatically, a handbook for a trade. Fingering patterns are maddeningly repetitive exercises to create fluency in various intervals, especially ones that are awkward. Tim says he goes through this entire book once a day most days. It’s a thin book; maybe the thickness of a People magazine, but it’s packed from cover to cover with 1/16th notes and sextuplets, and just crawling with awkwardness. Tim’s job is to play the clarinet very well and to teach others to do the same. He can play this stuff very fast. 2-3 pages of this stuff is my maximum daily dose.
  • Technical etudes – these are more or less music, or at least sound like music. Some are actually rather beautiful. But these are distinguished from repertoire pieces as being designed more to strengthen a problem area rather than develop a musical idea. Most are pretty rhythmically monotonous, and lack clear places to breathe between phrases. Since I made Tim seem like a bit of a weirdo in the last bullet point, I’ll give him a lot of credit in changing my approach to these. He’s encouraged me to take them apart more; be more expressive; stop and breathe, fer cryin’ out loud. Thanks Tim!
  • Repertoire studies – The actual study of actual music you might actually perform (if you can get a venue to play it, find collaborators to play it with assuming it’s not unaccompanied, and/or get anyone to come listen assuming it IS unaccompanied…).
  • Orchestra excerpts – Orchestra playing, like aviation, is 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror. There are entire books full of mostly the hard parts! Wheee!

Those are the high points – and then there’s reed and instrument maintenance, rehearsals with groups you might be in, learning music from that job you agreed to play, etc., etc. If you’ve been wondering why professionals practice several hours a day, this would be why.

In case the despair part isn’t obvious already, it’s the fact that someone like myself whose day job is not playing the clarinet is doing well to practice music an hour a day. Maybe more than that on Saturday. That leaves maybe 5-10 minutes a day to cover each of the above areas. Now, some etudes combine some of these areas – a piece can easily be an articulation study as well as a scale exercise – but regardless, I’m interested in 3-4 instruments (and did I mention there is bass clarinet, alto sax, tenor sax, bari sax…?) enough to want to improve on them. There is overlap – practicing one woodwind instrument pays dividends on the others – but on the other hand there are subtle differences in all of them. You can’t just practice clarinet all the time and expect to pick up a saxophone you haven’t touched in weeks and do well on a gig.

The time limitation, the realization that I’m not where I am as a clarinetist because I’m lazy but because there just isn’t enough time, has ironically led me to be lazier over the past ten years. I have practiced, but not methodically enough. When I was younger, somewhat less skilled and experienced, and was working more consistently with a teacher who put a limited number of things in front of me every week and just told me to work in them, I did a better job of practicing.

I’m a classic over-thinker, and it’s taken me a lot of thought to get back to a mode of – just practice without thinking about it. It is what it is. The Aristotelian divide-and-bullet-point approach to pedagogy has a value for giving yourself a map of the terrain (despite the, you know, despair problem, I’m thankful to at least understand the key areas to work on in clarinet performance, and wish I understood guitar anywhere near this well, as my practice on that instrument is VERY unfocused…)

Where was I? Oh yes, focus. Having done all this thinking, and taxonomy, and collected all these books, the task remains to practice in whatever time you have. Mix it up. Want to play scales the entire hour? Just the Mozart clarinet concerto? Take the day off from clarinet and practice jazz riffs on alto sax? Something is better than nothing. A day you could have practiced something, but didn’t, is a day you’ll never get back. Carpe Diem.

And of course, Vade Mecum.

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