Improve your clarinet and other wind instrument playing by following these few simple suggestions.
Improving your ability to play difficult music isn’t as hard as it might seem at first. Achieving the first few levels of expertise on almost any instrument comes rather quickly for nearly anyone. It’s the next levels, and in particular, the advanced ones that become the most challenging to acquire.
There are several things you can do to immediately improve clarinet playing:
1) Of course, playing scales are always helpful. Everyone knows this (well, just about) but to this day I get asked why. The answer is simple: music is based on scales and much of it is written in the pattern of scales. The idea is that if you can master your scales you will have already solved many of the difficulties of playing at least for beginner to intermediate levels of music.
The key to playing scales is to play them slowly and extremely even. Don’t rush them: NEVER rush them. Start off very slow keeping them steady, even and with good tone. Don’t feel like you have to play three octaves of the scale yet either. Play one octave in one or two breaths, depending on how slow you are actually playing and how much breath control you have (wind instrument). Also, vary how loud you play the scale. Start at MP, then MF and finally F. This way you can check to see if you begin to tense your arms, shoulders or hands as you play louder and/or faster.
2) Practice thirds. Of all the intervals, thirds are the most common in classical music --especially in the eras of Beethoven, Mozart, Weber (etc.) and probably still today with the exception of very abstract, contemporary music. Again, play slowly and very even. Make a notation if your hands tense anywhere or if you feel awkward or uncoordinated. Always have a notebook handy for practice notes and thoughts. Keep track of your improvement. It only takes a second but your notes will give you week-by-week feedback on how much you are improving.
3) Study all intervals. Take a week and evaluate your ability to play all intervals. You start with minor seconds, seconds, minor thirds, thirds, fourths and so on. Create a chart so you can keep track of the intervals that seem more difficult to play. When you’re done with your research, notate all of the difficult intervals on one page of manuscript. Those are ones that you will want to put special effort in.
Instruments inherently have easier and more difficult fingering patterns. Discovering the ones that are tough for you and then practicing them separately will improve your playing ability immensely.
Again, practice slowly and even at first. Do not try to rush or be flashy. All good clarinet playing will come to you in due time.
4) When you’re beginning to practice a new piece of music or etude, go over it kind of quickly to find the spots that will be harder for you than the rest. Anything that feels uncomfortable or uncoordinated should be noted. Check-mark the passage (lightly in pencil) on the score and then, as you learn them, erase the marks. Make a separate note of them in your notebook with the measure number(s).
First thing to do is memorize the difficult passages. Of course, you can’t play them well in the beginning because they challenge your technical ability. However, you can play each one very slow and evenly. Don’t rush them. Play sixteenth notes as quarter notes if necessary. That will almost always take care of the problem. Once you have them memorized, play them as part of your warm-ups. Always rehearse them slow and even. And keep in mind, you really don’t have to play them at real speed until you perform or test your ability with the piece.
Soon, you will find yourself naturally speeding up to tempo and it will all begin to feel more and more comfortable. That’s the time to find another challenging piece and do it again!
5) Sight-read lots of music. Get as much relevant music you can find to play through. When doing this, play the music a little slower than marked tempos but try to perform them as best as you can. If you have to stop somewhere, do so briefly and then keep going. You are not rehearsing: you are trying to improve your reaction to seeing new music that you’re unfamiliar with. You are trying to play well at first sight. This is particularly important if you want to be a studio musician. Your sight-reading ability must be top-shelf for that kind of a job.
6) Once you are in technical control of a composition, the next step is to study its tempos and dynamics. Exaggerate the dynamics a little bit in practice and also in performance. Dynamics (going faster and slower: playing louder or softer etc) have a tendency to kind of “flatten out” by the time they reach the audience. It helps to expand them just a little bit so the audience will hear them the way you do in your mind. You will have a better chance of “drawing them in” when you understand and perfect how this works. The idea is to lure the audience into the piece: lure them into the music instead of simply playing “at them”.
There are many ways to improve your musical performance and the skills behind it all. These are some of the “tricks of the trade” and they should help you immediately.
Good luck and happy playing.