Learning from failure

I recently read an article in the Harvard Business Review that offered a stark message: the fear of failure impedes success.

The article, written by Julian Birkinshaw and Martine Haas, is directed towards business leaders, but its wisdom is equally relevant for musicians.

We can become more accepting of failure by attempting to improve our return on it. This means benefitting more from each consecutive failure. When we are young we might play something wrong five or ten times before getting it right. But, as we gain experience and knowledge we might need only one or two mistakes before we learn how to play the passage correctly. When we require fewer mistakes to learn something, we have increased our return on failure. Failure, in this light, is seen as an investment that pays dividends.

I know many musicians (myself included) who will play a passage incorrectly several times without stopping to fix it. Perhaps it is an out-of-tune shift on the violin or an interrupted legato on the clarinet. We only need to hear a single mistake in the passage to know that we are not perfectly in control. If we stop to work on the problem area immediately, we won’t practice the mistake but rather practice the solution. Fixing a problem after one error is an example of a high return on failure.

Ideally, after every audition, students should analyze (together with their teacher) what went wrong. It is not enough to say, “I was not as good as the person who won.” Ask yourself, why am I not as good? What is the level required to win first prize and what sort of preparation is required to reach that level? Did my preparation omit something important? Did I adequately prepare for all of the variables inherent in a performance (nerves, climate, reeds)?  After every concert or audition, make an effort to gather insights about what worked and what didn’t. Crystallize these insights into maxims or modes of operation that will help you prepare better for future concerts. These can be practical, such as “Never eat right before a concert,” or more philosophical, like “you don’t know a passage unless you have performed it flawlessly ten times for an audience.”

Success in the practice room should not be solely measured in terms of getting the piece right. Conduct an experiment while practicing, and you will find that success is about confirming or rejecting a hypothesis. The authors write that failure is less painful when you extract the maximum value from it.


Here’s the original article!


I started sanding my reeds two weeks ago… and I’m not going back

In the following video, starting at about 6:00, Stephen Williamson of the Chicago Symphony talks about his strategies for breaking in reeds. 

I recently started preparing my reeds according to this method, and the results have been impressive. Before sanding my reeds, every reed I played would have one of two problems. It would either possess a good resistance and sound rich in forte but fuzzy in piano. Or it would be too light and sound great in piano but pressed in forte. However, now I am able to get reeds that are both rich in forte and flexible and pure-sounding in piano.


Here are the basic principles for the method:

1. Use very fine sandpaper (I use 1200) to lightly sand all of the surfaces of the reed without damaging the tip. When you sand the underside of the reed, you must tilt up the back of the reed so that the tip is flush against the reed plate. That way you don’t chip the tip of the reed when going over it with sandpaper.

2. Wet the reed and play the reed for only about 10 seconds the first time. Let it dry out before sanding it and playing it again. You sand the reed before every time you play it. Roughly double the time spent playing the reed each time. My break in period usually goes like this : 10 sec, 20 sec, 1 minute, 2 minutes, 4 minutes, 8 minutes, 15 minutes. By the eighth time I play the reed I am up to 30 minutes. I consider the reed to be broken in at this point. It usually takes me about four days to get up to 30 minutes of playing per reed.

3. Keep track of whether a reed is light or resistant. If it is resistant, keep using the sandpaper. If it is light, switch over to normal paper for the sanding.

4. Not all of the reeds you prepare in this way will be good. Stephen Williamson said that he gets around 8 good reeds out of a box. I get usually 4 or 5. But even this is not so bad.


Some observations from my own personal experience:

Stephen Williamson uses really hard reeds. Before starting this method, I used Vandoren traditional 3.5 reeds with my mouthpiece. In the last two weeks, I have broken in both 3.5 and 4 traditional reeds in this fashion. Most of the strength 4 reeds were too hard. I have two excellent 4s, but now I am only breaking in 3.5s and just sanding them less than I would 4s.

Sometimes I find that the middle of the reed dries out while I am playing. You can usually see this when it happens, as the tip will look wet but the area over the window of the mouthpiece will have a different color, indicating that it is dry. A reed that gets dry like this will start responding funny, but simply wetting the reed again will usually be enough to return it to normal.

Keep using fresh sandpaper! The sandpaper will show some wear after a few reeds. Move to a different part of the sandpaper to ensure that you continue to get an even sanding.

Try to do the same number of strokes on all sections of the reed.

Don’t dry the reeds upside down. The tips will become wavy.  Dry them in a reed case that allows air to circulate underneath them.

Making the high notes less harsh

At the end of last summer, I set a goal of playing high notes that were less shrill and more resonant. I had tried the new Vandoren BD5 mouthpiece, and I liked the covered, mellow sound of its high notes. I opted, however, against the BD5 since it had little flexibility in producing tone colors. I still wanted those BD5 high notes, though, so I resolved to do what I could to make my B40 sound better in the altissimo register.

Six months later, how did I do?

There has been some improvement. Notes like F sharp, G, and G sharp an octave above the staff do not feel particularly high anymore.

I also have better legato between the notes of the altissimo register than before.

Still, the tone is a little too strident for my taste, and I am laboring to make these notes more resonant.


My main method for working on high notes during this six month period was practicing scales up to the C and C sharp a twelfth above the staff. As I worked on the voicing of these highest notes, it became much more comfortable to play notes which were a fourth lower.           

By working toward my goal, I reminded myself of some important fundamentals of clarinet playing

There are a few things that conspire to make high notes shrill. One is too much air pressure. Another is an embouchure that is too tight. It is a common problem among clarinetists that the jaws compress the mouthpiece more as we go up in register. By the time we are in the altissimo register, the bottom lip often exerts a lot of pressure on the reed. This added pressure prevents the reed from vibrating freely and makes the note sound pinched.

How to guard against biting? The solution lies in the corners of the lips. The corners must always be engaged – pulling the cheeks in and forward toward the mouthpiece. Engaging the corners this way focuses the airstream and serves as a counterweight to the tendency of the jaws to come together as we go higher in register. When the corners are engaged, the jaws are not needed to hold the mouthpiece in place and this reduces the tendency to bite. When I play in the altissimo register, I feel that the corners are straining more. This prevents me from crushing the reed against my bottom lip. I can now play with a smooth legato up to higher notes than before, sometimes playing c sharp minor scales up to the fourth c sharp on the instrument.

I also focused on maintaining a consistent stream of air through the instrument. I found that as I played different intervals, the movements of my fingers moved the instrument slightly and interrupted the smooth passage of air. I stabilized the instrument by pushing the clarinet up more with the thumb of my right hand. Then I could insist on a perfectly smooth air stream. Maintaining the same direction of the air was helpful when going over the break, but it was especially helpful in improving the legato in the altissimo register.

Learning from Medicine

I just finished reading Better, by Atul Gawande. It is an inspiring book about how the medical community continually seeks better outcomes for its patients. The book is organized around three principles - diligence, ethics, and ingenuity - which are explored in a series of essays. The book is filled with parallels to practicing a musical instrument, and for this reason I highly recommend it to any musician.

Gawande discusses the existence of a bell curve in medical outcomes, something the medical profession is loath to admit. Some doctors are consistently better at keeping their patients alive and healthy. He interviews and observes one doctor in action. This man has helped patients with cystic fibrosis live close to 20 years longer than the national average. Astonishingly, even as the national life expectancy for patients with CF has increased, this doctor has increased the life expectancy of his patients by even more. In interviewing this doctor, Gawande finds a man who has a single goal (keeping the lung capacity of patients with CF from diminishing) that he pursues in unique and creative ways with each patient. This doctor’s most important quality is his willingness to acknowledge failure. Anytime a patient misses a treatment, the doctor considers it a collective failure of the patient and the doctor. There is no leniency of the sort that is generally afforded human beings. His responsibility is to keep his patients alive and every missed treatment reduces the chances that they will live a long and healthy life. “We’ve failed,” he says to his patient. “It’s important to acknowledge when we’ve failed.”

It’s extremely easy to blame external factors when we don’t perform as expected. But, people who are at the far right of the bell curve are less lenient of their own failings than people who are merely average. The doctor’s calm acknowledgement of failure can be instructive for musicians. It contrasts with the anguished and destructive self-criticism that some musicians engage in and the excuses that other musicians make (a bad reed, difficult travel, etc). Recognizing failure is important for developing musicians.

Another lesson of the book is that extraordinary results require extraordinary organization. Gawande writes at length about the logistics involved in administering polio vaccines to 4.2 million children in southern India in a mere 4 days. This was not accomplished solely by ambition, but by careful planning and incredible diligence. The parallel with music is clear. Accomplishment in music depends on developing strategies for making progress, a meticulous attention to how these plans are carried out, and regular evaluation. The work is not glamorous, but it is necessary to achieve impressive results.

It was also impressive to read about the wide range of competencies of surgeons in India. The absence of many specialists meant that general surgeons often performed the work of a gastroenterologist, neurologist, and otolaryngologist in a single day. The willingness of these general surgeons to research and try operations that they had never before conducted in order to save lives is admirable. Gawande writes about an important daily ritual practiced by the surgeons he knew in India: “Each day I was there, the surgeons found time between cases to take a brief late-afternoon break at a café across the street from the hospital. For 15 or 30 minutes, they drank chai and swapped stories about their cases of the day – what they had done and how. Just this interaction seemed to prod them to aim higher than merely getting through the day.” Talking with fellow musicians is a valuable way to share knowledge and provide impetus to improve. I studied at two music schools, but only in one did students regularly discuss their practicing, ask one another for tips, and openly share their struggles. This sort of environment is indispensable for the developing musician. It reminds me of a quote from my favorite Italian economist, Luigi Zingales. “If I could, I would work in the United States and live in Italy,” he says.  He talks about all of the important traditions in Italy, such as eating every dinner together as a family, and explains how they transfer knowledge from the older to the younger generation. Talking about what you are doing is an indispensable resource for musicians.

After reading Better, I was relieved to be practicing music, a profession where no one dies when we play a note that is out of tune. A memorable quote from the book reminds me of the luxury of music: “Excellence came from seeing, on a daily basis, the difference between being 99.5% successful and 99.95% successful. Medicine’s distinction is that lives are lost in those slim margins.”

The book was inspiring throughout. It is filled with quotes that deserve to pasted on every music stand.  In his conclusion, Gawande writes: “Better is possible. It does not take genius. It takes diligence. It takes moral clarity. It takes ingenuity. And above all, it takes a willingness to try.”

A follow-up to the talent discussion

As a follow-up to my previous post, I want to explain how I think talent relates to what we do every day in the practice room. From a philosophical standpoint, I am interested in finding out more about talent. In the practice room, talent is irrelevant. We cannot change it, and we should not fret over it either. While others may be more talented than we are, there is often a simpler reason that explains their superior level of playing. They have mastered the skills necessary to play the clarinet well. Simply put, they know what to do, and they do it.

Playing a musical instrument needs to be done a certain way in order to take full advantage of the instrument’s acoustical properties. Either as a result of good teaching, an inquisitive mind, or just dumb luck, some clarinetists stumble upon effective playing methods at a young age. The earlier we start doing the right things, the better (and more instinctive) our technique becomes. Good technique gives students the ability to get into great schools of music and learn from the previous generation how to interpret music. This combination of technical skill and musical interpretation produces masterful musicians.

Sometimes I look with wonder at people who are younger than me and play better than me. These younger clarinetists are almost never child prodigies, so I rule out that talent is a significant factor. I also rule out cumulative practicing hours, because I have practiced consistently for many hours throughout my whole life.  Instead, the difference in skill seems to be in the other clarinetist’s mastery of certain techniques that I have not mastered. This is what I call a “duh!” conclusion.

So when I encounter clarinetists who play better than me, I dissect their playing to figure out what they are doing better than me. Behind Martin Fröst’s flashy finger technique is a man who has mastered the basic techniques of clarinet playing. For example, he has an extraordinarily strong embouchure. He never seems to leak air, and the instrument doesn’t bob around in his mouth, allowing him to play incredibly fast passages with consistency and precision. When I listen to Martin Fröst, I ask myself how can I get the same super-strong embouchure?

There are, at most, a few ways the clarinet can be played well. Great clarinetists have developed techniques that work. The difference between a great and a good clarinetist boils down to how they are playing the instrument. (Duh!) A determined clarinetist will, therefore, focus not on talent but on identifying the skills they need and practicing them until they are mastered. 

Practice v. Talent

This week there is a very cool conference about practicing taking place at the Norwegian Academy of Music. Entitled, “Teaching of Practicing – new knowledge and change,” the conference features presentations by many of Europe’s leading researchers of musical practice. The keynote speech today was given by Andreas Lehmann of the Hochschule für Musik in Würzburg. He is a leading proponent of the theory that the cause of elite performance is deliberate practice.

In his speech today, entitled “25 Years of research on deliberate practice in music - What do we know?” Professor Lehmann strived to give the audience a definition of deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is :

“Structured activity, often designed by teachers or coaches with the explicit goal of increasing an individual's current level of performance. (···) it requires the generation of specific goals for improvement and the monitoring of various aspects of performance. Furthermore, deliberate practice involves trying to exceed one's previous limit, which requires full concentration and effort.”

Professor Lehmann contrasted deliberate practice with work, play, and gaining experience, none of which are done solely for the sake of improvement. He spoke about how deliberate practice is the most valuable type of practice that can be done, but it is only a part of most people’s practice regimens. Deliberate practice is the cream at the center of the practice éclair.

Deliberate practice requires resources, effort, motivation and concentration. It consists of optimized training activities performed at sustainable optimal intensity. This limits the amount of daily deliberate practice possible to a maximum of four hours a day.

Having defined deliberate practice, Professor Lehmann admitted that we can’t always recognize deliberate practice when we see it. Self-regulation, though, is a critical component. One must be one’s own teacher in the practice room, apply appropriate problem solving strategies to difficult passages, set goals, and strive toward them. He says that deliberate practice is not always enjoyable. In fact, a good practice session feels like kicking yourself in your rear-end. The most relevant and least enjoyable aspect is practice of problem spots. He stressed that practicing alone is of higher relevance toward musical progress than other “more enjoyable” activities such as playing music with others.

Professor Lehmann stressed that exceptional musicians come from exceptional circumstances – a parent who supervised their practice, a dedicated first teacher who gave multiple lessons a week, the social environment of pre-college music programs, etc. This explains the ability of elite musicians to engage in deliberate practice.

Now that I have summarized Lehmann’s useful advice for students, I will discuss the talent vs. practice debate.

One of the foundational studies in musical practice is “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Skills” (Ericsson et al 1993). This study provided the framework for subsequent research in musical performance. Ericsson finds that the elite performers in his study spent significantly more time practicing than the non-elite performers. He claims that this extra time spent practicing explains the difference in performance ability.

One of the problems with the study is the lack of random sampling. Anyone who studies statistics knows the importance of random samples in order to provide generalizable results. The subjects for Ericsson’s study were all music students at an elite academy of music in Berlin. It is conceivable, therefore, that talent is controlled for in the study. If all of the students at the music school have similar talent levels, then it is a trivial conclusion that more practice makes one a better musician. That’s why we practice, after all. But, we are looking for an answer to the talent vs. practice question. Ericsson rejects the talent hypothesis (that talent is a significant factor in accounting for elite performance) on the basis of the evidence provided in his study.

To be fair, Ericsson acknowledges this methodological problem: “It is hard to imagine better empirical evidence on maximal performance except for one critical flaw. As children, future international-level performers are not randomly assigned to their training condition. Hence once cannot rule out the possibility that there is something different about those individuals who ultimately reach expert-level performance.” Nevertheless, he sticks with his conclusion.

I took this problem of random sampling up with Professor Lehmann, who has done a meta-analysis of all the studies linking practice and musical performance. He admitted that all studies of elite musical performance have this inherent problem. Randomization, he says, is impossible with elite performers because they have the same specific traits. Perhaps, then, the conclusions of studies on elite performers are not generalizable to the general population, as Malcolm Gladwell implies in his book, Outliers. Maybe studies linking practice and performance level should examine a random sampling of musicians (that may or may not include any elite performers) rather than studying elite performers exclusively.

Professor Lehmann indicated that in order to provide evidence for the talent hypothesis I would need to find two groups of people, people who had practiced enormous amounts without succeeding and those that have succeeded without practicing huge amounts. Here is my partial stab at finding these populations. Christian Tetzlaff makes a point of explaining how little he practiced when he was young. He emphasizes how he learned through sight-reading duets and playing in orchestra, an experience which, if true, directly contradicts the primacy placed on practicing alone. It is worth considering that Tetzlaff may be, for some reason, exaggerating his lack of practice. Even in the following article, though, he takes talent for granted. He says, “if you are talented, you will succeed with more thinking and fewer hours of practicing.” His focus on using your head instead of your fingers also implies that intelligence is important for being a great musician, and extensive evidence demonstrates that intelligence is not equally distributed (i.e. the same may be true for talent). There might be other musicians who fit Tetzlaff’s mold, but I would have to search longer to find them.


As for the first question (where are the populations that practice a lot without achieving excellence), I can venture a hypothesis. It is likely that many of these people don’t find a career in music. If you compare the hours spent practicing by many musicians at music conservatories with those of Christian Tetzlaff, nearly every student qualifies to be in the population of “practices a lot, doesn’t perform at a world-class level.”


The fact is that there are a mere 120 or so studies linking musical performance to various factors. There just isn’t enough research to make definitive claims. While Ericsson 1993 demonstrates the importance of deliberate practice, this study cannot be said to definitively reject the talent hypothesis. I have one final observation directed at social science researchers who are eager to reject the talent hypothesis. How to account for the persistent belief among music educators of the existence of talent? Generations of music instructors have taken the existence of differing levels of talent as a given. It is obvious that some students grasp concepts easily and can master technical challenges with little effort. Teachers can see this with their own eyes in the span of a single lesson. If all “talent” is the result of practice (or extraordinary environments), do social science researchers really think that music educators are too dim to pick up on this themselves?


Important questions:

1.      Is there an inherent bias in social science to look for social explanations?

2.      Is it perceived to be more socially beneficial to argue that talent is not important and does this affect experimental design?

3.      Would it be possible for a university to create an advanced institute of medical science and social science in order to try to settle the nature vs. nurture debate?

4.      Can we design an optimal experiment in which test subjects must master a task unrelated to anything people do in real life (hence test subjects have no prior knowledge that can apply to this task) and examine how a large sample masters this task in a laboratory? Would there be different strategies used? Different time taken toward mastery?

5.      Why not think of musical performance as a mathematical function of many variables? The inputs are deliberate practice hours, quality of teaching, an index for the social environment, talent, motivation, etc. The coefficients for these variables represent their relative weights for the whole population. Consider that the individual coefficients might have their own distribution across this population and that for one individual talent might be the important factor whereas for another individual the quality of teaching is salient. In such a function, how does one account for the fact that the inputs are themselves dependent variables of the other inputs (social environment, motivation and practice hours clearly being linked)?

How to bring in new audiences: A framework

Even as contemporary art is booming in the new Gilded Age, classical musicians fret about greying audiences and reduced state support for orchestras. Classical music has not found a formula to reach beyond its core supporters and draw in new ones. The strategies that have been pursued by the impresarios of classical music fall into three basic categories: democratization, mystification, and reform of the musical genre.

Democratization’s basic underlying premise is that everyone can learn to appreciate classical music. Proponents of democratization assume that classical music is not widely appreciated because it is complicated. Education is necessary to be able understand and, hence, enjoy classical music. The experience of many young classical musicians who were hooked on music before knowing anything about it challenges this viewpoint. But, democratizers stress that the most important thing is for people to be exposed to classical music, preferably at a young age. This seems hard to argue with.  How can potential audiences know whether they like classical music or not if they not heard it (in a pure, unadulterated, form, i.e. not in commercials)? If you are a classical musician who believes in this democratization theory then your obligations are clear. You must act as a missionary attempting to attract new converts to classical music.

One of the great democratizers of the twentieth century was Leonard Bernstein. While the New York Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concerts had existed before Bernstein became music director, he greatly expanded them, creating a total of 53 musical lectures that were broadcast in the United States and around the world. A generation of music-lovers credit Bernstein as the source for their love of classical music.

The utilitarian Jeremy Bentham claimed that, ‘Quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin is as good as poetry.’ He meant that all forms of entertainment are equally valuable if they create the same amount of joy for those who experience them. His protégé, John Stuart Mill, balked. J.S. Mill pointed out that many in the lower class have not had much exposure to high culture (poetry) and that explains why they prefer low culture (pushpin). Since those who have had ample exposure to all forms of art tend to prefer poetry or the opera or painting, then there must be something intrinsically more valuable about these forms of expression than, say, coloring books. It is this spirit which motivates the democratizers. Democratizers of classical music believe in the intrinsic value of the art form for all of humanity.


Mystification is a tool common in the world of visual art. The English Art Critic John Berger provides an example of mystification that is familiar to anyone who frequents art museums: “[Frans] Hals’s unwavering commitment to his personal vision, which enriches our consciousness of our fellow men and heightens our awe for the ever-increasing power of the mighty impulses that enabled him to give us a close view of life’s vital forces.” Such lofty verbiage signals to all but the most highly educated (and the most pompous) that Hals’s paintings are not for you. And yet what the author is saying is so mundane it doesn’t even need to be written. Anyone who glances at a few of Hals’s paintings can see that the painter was committed to painting portraits “of our fellow men” and by doing so elevates his subject matter.

One does not have to search hard to find similar language in classical music concert programs, cd booklets, and reviews in newspapers.

Mystification exists for three basic reasons. It appeals to aspirational people seeking status. Mystification is the language of liberal arts educational institutions. Anything else using their language will necessarily enjoy a certain degree of prestige.

Second, mystification is useful for artists themselves. It obscures banal platitudes and artwork of middling beauty, creativity or originality. It allows nearly any work of art to be marketed if it is placed in the right context.

Lastly, mystification creates a whole cottage industry of specialists who can navigate the world of art for those who are wealthy but lack the education to navigate it themselves. London, for example, is filled with advisors who assist the newly-arrived rich from around the world in navigating the city’s labyrinthine class structures. (What art to buy, how to prepare your children for admission to the city’s elite schools, etc). These specialists have an interest in maintaining the veil of secrecy surrounding art.

Here is the problem with mystification in classical music. Unlike a painting, which can be hung on a wall and viewed or not viewed, going to a concert of classical music demands the audience’s engagement. Mystification risks making this engagement unintelligible for the audience. Contemporary classical music is about as mystified as it gets, and yet its financial and popular support is much lower than that of contemporary visual art.


The final strategy impresarios use to draw in new audiences is through changing the art form itself. This path is particularly in vogue among classical music reformers. The underlying assumption is that the world is changing and classical music has to change with it. iPhone-addicted youth are presented as evidence that young people today do not have the attention spans to sit quietly through a concert of classical music. Titillating visual stimulation is needed to attract them. The strategies for attraction can be as simple as marketing gimmicks or as grandiose as creating a new gesamtkunstkverk.

Canadian violinist Lara St. John claims that sex appeal can draw in new audiences to classical music. The cover of a cd she recorded in 1996 of a selection of Bach’s works for solo violin features her seemingly naked upper body, with the violin covering her breasts. She claims, “I know very well that the publicity surrounding the cover increased sales of the album by at least 20,000; a picture of J.S. Bach would have sold rather less. And to whom did it sell? To Joe and Joanne who had never heard of Bach.”

A concert by the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra concert last spring is indicative of the gesamtkunstverk approach. The concert was in two halves, but the first half featured a genuine attempt to fuse various art forms and it is what I will speak about here. The Norwegian concert pianist Christian Ihle Hadland performed  Bach’s Goldberg variations. There was no separation between performer and listener as concertgoers were free to walk around Hadland and into the art gallery where the main attraction was. Here, the musicians of the Norwegian chamber orchestra posed as human statues.  Exceedingly well-coached, they stood completely still in poetic forms for long stretches of time. Towards the end of the Goldberg Variations, one of the statues came to life. He traveled around the art gallery touching one statue after another, coaxing them to life, until all were crawling towards this master, seated in the middle, as Rodin’s thinker in the Gates of Hell.

This concert was both enjoyable and interesting, but more because of the human statues than the performance of the Goldberg variations, which, perhaps excellent, was relegated to the status of background music. It is very likely that the concert attracted people who are active in the visual arts but who do not usually attend symphony concerts. It is not clear if such a concert could be easily replicated elsewhere and compete with the standard concert hall format. It seems that if such concerts became common they would lose the appeal of uniqueness. Lastly, the concert stopped one step short of a true gesamtkunstwerk. It was entertaining and artistic, but it was not philosophy and it did not comment on the political and social problems facing our world. It failed to make a strong case for the relevance of classical music today.


Classical music is one of few fields still untouched by data analysis. Without sophisticated statistical analysis, we have no way of knowing which strategies are working and which are not. For example, Lara St. John points to sales of her cd that are 20,000 in excess of what could have been expected. But there is no research aiming to find out whether people actually listened to her cd after buying it, how many times the listened, what they thought about it, and crucially, whether they started going to concerts and buying cds that do not feature young, pretty, half-naked women. There is a sense that “something must be done” to expand classical audiences and improve orchestra finances, but without data, we are groping blindly in the dark for solutions. This leaves the door open for ignorant impostors masquerading as impresarios who will change our art form. There is the distinct possibility that extra-musical “special effects” can detract from the appreciation of a concert. Handing over the reins to people from other fields who promise to revolutionize classical music can lead to a deemphasizing of the quality of musicianship. We can lose our existing audience and fail to create a new one.


The use of these three strategies are not mutually exclusive. An orchestra often conducts outreach programs (democratization) and woos donors with the promise of exclusivity (mystification). At the heart of the conflict among democratizers, mystifiers, and reformers lie a series of unanswered questions. How to reconcile the fact that the money which must support classical music lies in few hands but concert halls have many seats? How desperately do we want certain segments of the population to be our audience? Must we adjust ourselves to audiences or can audiences adjust to us? What would need to change for this to happen?

Lessons from taking the GRE

I recently took the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). The GRE aims to test aptitude for college graduates in three sections : quantitative reasoning (math), verbal reasoning, and analytical writing. Like most standardized tests, the GRE also measures test-taking ability.

Before the exam date, I took many practice tests which made me aware of the challenges of each section. The math questions in the quantitative reasoning section were not difficult. The problem was time. I had to work fast, without making mistakes. There was not enough time to double-check each answer; I had to go straight to the next question. When I was taking the practice tests, I wanted a perfect score. I spent too much time struggling to solve the hardest problem, and there would not be enough time left over to complete the entire section. The goal of a perfect score became the enemy of a very good score. It took a change in mentality to excel at the math section of the GRE.

Our goal should never be external - to get a perfect score, to impress the audience, to win the audition. When our goal is external, we panic or give up hope when we encounter adversity. We all know the feeling when we make our first mistake in an audition and our mind lets us down. “We’ll never win the audition now,” we think. External goals make every competition a psychological battle.

Rather, our goal should be to do the best we can in every situation through applying our skills to the fullest. On the GRE, this meant skipping problems that were not instantly solvable and only returning to them after I had finished all the others. In an audition, this means avoiding thoughts like, “this passage must be perfect.” This will paralyze our thinking as we perform. Instead, accept every phrase in the performance as a challenge for which daily practice has given us the proper tools.

If we are not prepared or we do not have a good reed, accept that, and say that we will play smart – taking slightly slower tempi, for example – and try to give ourselves the best chance of giving a good performance. Do not let our weaknesses dominate our thinking during performances. Think, instead, of all the skills that we bring with us in every concert.

The best possible attitude is to see the test, concert, or audition as something fun. Why is it fun? Because it will challenge us to stretch ourselves, to apply all of our skills to their fullest potential. Just like a test, a performance can be seen as a game in which the goal is simply to play. A victory then becomes the pleasant result of having played the game well. 


Good clarinetists will often speak of changing the tone color to highlight a particular harmony. Unfortunately, it is rare to hear someone speak lucidly on the precise methods for producing various colors. The clarinet does not have the wealth of possibilities that the violin has. The violinist can alter the speed of the bow, the angle of the bow, the pressure of the bow, and the location of the bow in relation to the fingerboard and the bridge. Our situation as clarinetists is more akin to that of pianists: often we must imagine that we are doing something different in order to change the tone color. However, there are a few practical things we can experiment with.

An essential ingredient in accessing multiple tone colors is a light reed. It does not need to be a 1 or 2 reed, but it should be on the lighter side of the scale relative to the strength of reeds we use on a daily basis. This is because a light reed is more sensitive to changes in air pressure and air direction.

I have identified three general methods for achieving different tones colors on the clarinet.


We can give the impression that we have changed tone colors by altering the dynamic. The change in dynamic needs not be very large, but if it is timed well to coincide with a particular harmony, it can give the audience the effect of a spine-tingling change in colors.

Air pressure/air direction/shape of oral cavity

There are several variables at play here. Concerning air direction, you can direct the air right at the reed or you can try to direct the air towards the roof of the mouth before having it come downwards into the mouthpiece. These two strategies produce different sounds.

You can also modify the space inside your mouth while you are playing. Your oral cavity can be open behind the seal of your embouchure and the mouthpiece, or it can be narrowed and focused. This affects the resonance of the tone.

You can also experiment with the air pressure. Less air pressure generally produces a less compact sound.

These variables can be combined in various ways. For example, using high pressure air and directing it right at the reed generally produces a harsh sound which is perhaps appropriate only in 20th century music, but high air pressure with an open oral cavity and non-direct air produces a rich and resonant sound.


Vibrato can be created with the lower lip or with the diaphragm. In addition, vibrato can be continuous or non-continuous. I add diaphragmatic vibrato only to some notes to add a certain expression to them. Often I add the vibrato spontaneously, but occasionally I plan to use vibrato on specific notes.


Playing with colors means rejecting clarinet orthodoxy to a certain extent. Many orchestral clarinetists tend to worship a particular sound. Any other sound is often deemed inferior. When you produce different colors, you are indeed producing different sounds, some of which may be less beautiful than others. But, I think that we should move away from an idealization of one sound towards thinking that there are many acceptable sounds, but that some are more appropriate in certain situations than others. The color of the sound should be chosen to express the meaning of the music as you perceive it.

Getting back into shape after a summer break

I know one musician who never takes a day off from practicing. Every time she goes on vacation she brings her mouthpiece with her and plays 30 minutes a day to keep the embouchure in shape. I know the feeling: the embouchure gets out of shape so quickly. After a mere two day break, it can feel like you are incapable of playing a phrase without leaking air.

Most of us, however, like to take some time off throughout the year.  If we take two weeks off during the summer, it does not mean that for the rest of our lives, we are two weeks behind where we would otherwise be. Time off from playing presents us with unique opportunities to learn how to play our instruments better and forget bad habits.

I think that an inability to take time off from playing betokens a lack of trust in oneself. While we might temporarily lose the muscle tone in our mouths and fingers while we are on vacation, we can quickly get it back if we truly understand how to play our instruments. Trying to get back in shape without external guidance tests what we really know. If we can get back to our normal level of playing within a week, we have learned to stand on our own two feet without the assistance of a teacher. Such an experience firms our understanding of how the instrument should be played, and this understanding helps us make better progress in the future.

In addition, when we come back from a break, the weakened muscles present us with an opportunity. Bad habits can be difficult to change when we are in the midst of practicing continually for lessons, concerts and auditions. When we temporarily forget how to play, we also forget our bad habits. These habits can come back, of course, but the process of getting back into shape lets us be mindful of these habits and reduce their effect on our playing.

This summer, I took 8 days off from playing. After those 8 days, I had two weeks to get back into shape before any engagements. I practiced carefully during those two weeks to ensure that I was using my embouchure, air, tongue and fingers properly. In addition, I had two bad habits that I was trying to rid myself of. The first was a tendency to tighten the throat while I was playing, the second an involuntary rising of the left shoulder. During my first practice, I found that the throat was remarkably relaxed. I tried to keep it that way by not practicing anything too difficult, which would distract my attention from relaxing the throat. During the first week after my break I practiced only scales, arpeggios, tonguing exercises and long tones. My familiarity with these exercises allowed me to concentrate on the relaxed throat I wanted to have. I practiced for only 20 minutes at a time, moving gradually between 40 minutes of practice the first day and 2 hours a week later. Whenever I felt a bad habit coming back, I stopped and resumed practicing a few hours later.

How did I do? This past month has felt great – my throat has felt relaxed and my shoulder stationary. I felt that I was able to regain my level of playing on my own, but it took a lesson with a former teacher to remind me that my tone could be sweeter. Recently I have felt that my left shoulder is starting to rise up while playing. Bad habits die hard! However, the fact that I went so long without this problem has given me the confidence that I can figure out how get my shoulder to relax again.

How to master finger technique, part 2

This post is a continuation of my review of the methods for practicing finger technique. I start with method 5, The Norwegian method.

5. The Norwegian method

I am naming this method the Norwegian method because a famous Norwegian pianist sometimes practices this way. It is easiest to just demonstrate how the method works with pictures.

The following passage is from the last page of the Nielsen concerto. 

Below is how you practice it according to the Norwegian method.

Below is how you practice it according to the Norwegian method.

The Norwegian method helps you coordinate your fingers according to the pulse of the music. It is a good defense against rushing. The problem with practicing long passages of sixteenth notes is that you have no reference points in the middle of the passage. The Norwegian method helps build those reference points into your fingers and mind.   

The Norwegian method helps you coordinate your fingers according to the pulse of the music. It is a good defense against rushing. The problem with practicing long passages of sixteenth notes is that you have no reference points in the middle of the passage. The Norwegian method helps build those reference points into your fingers and mind.


6. Practicing a passage backwards

Yes, sometimes this can help. I try to practice the “noodles” in Daphnis and Chloe both forwards and backwards. This helps me learn the passage better. I am not sure why this method works, but I suspect that when practicing something repetitive over and over again, the brain can get tired and confused. Playing the passage backwards presents the brain with a new challenge involving similar finger movements and helps you re-focus. 

7. Practicing every note extremely slowly (as if every note were a quarter note at 60) and focusing on smoothness of finger movements, beauty of tone, and smoothness of legato. 

This method is great for ensuring that each note really sparkles and has great sound quality, but it is tiring and can be boring.

8. Identifying the exact areas where the fingers are uneven or uncoordinated and doing exercise 7 on just these few notes, often going back and forth between difficult intervals (like over the break). 

I have found this to be the only method that helps me learn the trickiest intervals in the clarinet repertoire (for example, fast passages that go back and forth over the break, such as in Daphnis and Chloe ). This is the method that requires the most thought, but I believe it helps you learn the passage thoroughly, so that you do not need to go back and re-practice the same passages day after day.


 If it seems that many of these methods for practicing technique are dull, repetitive and require only the intelligence necessary for janitorial work, you are right. The only aspect of practicing technique that takes constant thought, analysis, and a trained ear is identifying the reason for the problem, finding exactly where it occurs, and coming up with the best solution to remedy it. The student who constantly listens and analyzes the precise cause of a technical problem, and practices the problem area slowly and thoughtfully will develop excellent technique much faster than the student who mindlessly practices any one (or all) of the techniques described above.


How do you decide which method to use? It requires a little trial and error, but generally you should try to identify that problem and then apply a practicing technique that can lead to a solution. Is the problem that you just can’t play the notes fast enough? Then method number two, in which you continually repeat the passage at faster and faster tempos, is a good option. Can you play the notes fast enough, but they don’t sound even? Then the Norwegian method is a good bet. Do you always mess up in the same spot in a larger passage? Then use method eight to practice the challenging interval. Do you have great technique but a lousy sound? Then do method seven and focus and getting a great, resonating sound on each note. There is no one recipe for success. The only given is that a musician must constantly listen and evaluate.

How to master finger technique

Many music students confuse the process of practicing with the ultimate goal. The goal is to have good technique - it is not to practice technique. If we correctly identify the goal, then it is obvious that we should try to find the quickest and most efficient route to excellent technique. This means that it is crucial to spend as little time as possible practicing bad methods and as much time working on something that is effective in bringing about improvement.

This is the first of two posts in which I evaluate different methods of practicing passages that are difficult because of their speed. Over the course of many years, I have tried to find the best methods for developing good finger technique. Below is a review of some of the methods I have used to “discipline the fingers” and increase finger velocity.

1.      Rewriting even sixteenths as dotted rhythms (whereby four sixteenths become dotted 16th-32nd-dotted 16th-32nd and vice versa)

I was taught this method when I was 15 or 16 and I did it almost every day with fast passages in the Mozart concerto during my adolescent years. Now that I have learned other methods, I have found that this is not very helpful in achieving clean and seamless transitions from one note to the next at a fast tempo. In fact, I have found that this technique works a lot better on piano scales than on the clarinet. While I don’t know precisely why, I think the reason might be that we are often coordinating the movement of more than one finger at a time on the clarinet whereas a scale for piano involves movements only from one finger to the next. Dotted rhythms don’t teach the fingers this precise coordination. In fact, they often reinforce clunky movement and slapping of the keys.

2.      Practicing the entire passage at a slow tempo with the metronome, raising the metronome a click and playing it again. Repeat until you have reached the tempo of the piece.

This is the method I used with the greatest frequency while I was in high school and college. I practiced technique religiously with this method, and I often felt swamped when I was learning a lot of repertoire because this method demanded that each passage be played numerous times at differing tempos. I cannot malign this method (which was the first one that I stumbled upon) too much, since I think it is at least partly responsible for my relatively fast and even finger technique. But, it is a huge time waster! In addition, it never helped me master the trickiest bits of the Nielsen concerto or of excerpts like Stravinsky’s Firebird. A system that prescribes the same routine for every passage failed to take advantage of my natural talent. Indeed, a rigid system like this is almost too dumb for anyone’s innate talent. It forces you to play an entire passage repeatedly when you usually only need to practice the transition between two notes of that passage. As a result the fingers often get tired and begin making mistakes by the time that you have worked up the tempo from half-tempo to concert tempo. Another method which requires less time would not have the same problem. The amount of time I spent practicing this method is evidence of how I had not clarified what my practicing goal actually was. The goal is to have great technique. The goal is NOT to spend a lot of time practicing technique. Once you realize that the two goals are not equivalent and that the former is preferable to the latter, it becomes obvious that you want to spend as little time as is necessary to learn your technical passages thoroughly. Because that is what great technique is: expending little effort and achieving maximum effect. I can recommend this method, but only with the caveat that you must use your brain constantly and analyze whether it is effective or not.

3.     The Moscow method

This is another method that will induce eye-rolling with its requirement of militaristic hard-headedness. With this method you always begin with the first note. You will start by playing the first two notes and stop. If you were satisfied with these two notes, you may play the first three notes. If you are still satisfied, have a go at the first four, and then five, and six, all the way until you have finished the passage. This method may be done slowly or at concert tempo. Does it work? It depends on the passage, but, generally, yes. For the student who can learn to suffer through boring things (as I can), this can be an effective method for learning tricky passages that are not too long. But, it must never be so boring that the student forgets to think, and fails to notice when he or she makes a mistake.

4.      The Moscow method starting at the ends of pieces 

I have found that this is even better than the original Moscow method. If you do not want to work on only one note at a time, then do intervals of four notes. Start with the last four notes of a passage. Then go backward and play the last eight, last twelve, etc. (or if the passage has triplets, practice groups of 3). This helps you learn a passage even faster than the normal Moscow method, because the fingers always know where the next note is because you have already taught them the end of the passage. If you start a passage from the beginning you could get out of shape for a difficult leap later on. If you have already practiced the difficult leap by the time you get to it, your fingers will be in the right position to execute it.


Stay tuned for the next post in a couple of weeks in which I describe several other methods, and (crucially) how to select the method that will be the most effective! 

I use fewer than 10 boxes of reeds a year

I have recently begun breaking in the fifth box of reeds that I purchased in July 2014. No, I have not been blessed with an incredible run of great reeds. This is my usual pace of going through reeds. Since I purchase far fewer reeds than most clarinetists, I thought I would share my tips for maintaining decent reeds throughout the year. They may not work for everyone, but they are worth a try.

I have several assumptions that govern how I take care of my reeds. They are:

1.      The same reed will feel more resistant (stuffier) in a more humid environment and less resistant (lighter) in a drier environment.

2.      Reeds are flexible pieces of wood that respond to how you play them. If you change your embouchure or way of blowing, the reed will first react strangely before it adjusts to your new way of playing.

3.      Many reed problems are problems of inconsistency of the player. Flautists have good days and bad days. So do violinists. It cannot be that all the problems that clarinetists face are due to inconsistent reeds.

My equipment:

I use Vandoren V12 3.5 reeds with a B40 mouthpiece and a Woodstone ligature. Standard stuff, except for the ligature, but my consumption of reeds was not any higher a year ago when I used a simple Bonade ligature. My guess is that if you use a mouthpiece which was not designed in tandem with a specific reed (like Vandoren mouthpieces and reeds), fewer reeds will work with your mouthpiece.

My method

Breaking in reeds:

Every time I play a reed, I soak it in water for about 10 seconds. My first teacher explained that this would ensure that the reed is moistened more evenly than through putting the reed in the mouth.           

Whenever I throw away an old reed, I start breaking in a new one. That means that I am always breaking in a couple of reeds at a time, but that I am never breaking in a whole box (which is of course physically taxing and prevents you from practicing your repertoire effectively).

If a reed is too resistant in the summer, I mark the backside with a blue highlighter and put it away to try again when the climate is drier in winter. If it is winter, and the reed is too light I mark it with a yellow highlighter and put it away to try again in the humid summer. Reeds that are too light in the summer or too hard in the winter I usually throw away. All other reeds I keep and attempt to break in. (You should modify this logic to your own climate. Perhaps winter is humid and summer is dry where you live)

I break in a reed with scales and arpeggios, not repertoire. I play the reed for 5-10 minutes on each of the first couple of days. On the third and fourth days, I play the reed for up to 20 minutes. (It goes without saying that you must keep track of which reed is which within your reed case). I always try to stop playing the reed before the tip reaches a saturation point. You can see this quite clearly with a new reed – after a few minutes of playing, the tip will start to turn a darker shade than the rest of the reed. This darkness means that the tip of the reed is saturated with moisture. It will respond differently, too. It is best to stop playing the reed before this begins to happen.


To review:

Days 1 and 2 – Play scales and arpeggios on the new reed for about 5 minutes.

Days 3 and 4 – Play scales and arpeggios for 10-20 minutes.

Then on Day 5, I let the reed rest and do not play it. And from Day 6, I consider the reed to be a normal broken-in reed, which means that I play it only every other day.


I have two reed cases. I usually cycle through around 8 reeds a day (sometimes less, not often more) which means that I rarely play the same broken-in reed two days in a row. I keep my reeds in the standard blue Vandoren cases that can hold 8 reeds. The numbering system in the cases helps me keep track of which reed I am supposed to be playing. If on Monday I start with reed 1 in reed case one and then play reeds 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, then on Tuesday I will start with reed 7 in case one, and then play reed 8 and then move to reed 1 in case two. I am not too strict about how much I play each reed that has already been broken in. If everything is going great, I might practice for an hour and a half on a single reed, but usually not more. If I have a four hour orchestra rehearsal, I try to play the first two hours with one reed and the next two hours with another.

About four days before an important concert or audition, I make a list of my favorite reeds. On the concert day, I pick the reed at the top of the list, and, if I like it as much as on the previous days, I play it in the concert. If not, I try the next reed on the list. This means that on concert and audition days, I do not follow my normal cycle of going through reeds.

My reeds always last for three weeks and sometimes much longer. I keep each reed case in a different resealable plastic bag with a Rico humidifier pack. Rico makes some nice bags billed as ‘two-way humidity control systems,’ but you can also find something acceptable at any supermarket. One of these bags will hold one reed case and a Rico 73% humidity pack. The other bag will hold the second reed case and a Rico 84% humidity pack. The lighter reeds go in the 84% pack and the more resistant reeds go in the reed case which is stored together with the 73% pack. If a reed is stored with the 73% pack and it becomes too light, (you guessed it!) I move it to the reed case stored together with the 84% pack and vice versa. Therefore, I try to store my reeds (which of course are all slightly different) in different environments. I find that I am able to coaxe new life into my old reeds by putting them in a more humid environment and not playing them for a few days.

Since I never break in a whole box at once, I don’t keep track of how many reeds I throw away straight out of the box. I would be surprised, though, if I threw more than 3 reeds away immediately after trying them from the box. I try to give every reed that does not feel too resistant a chance. If, after the break in process, a reed still does not play well then I throw it away.

Another important thing I do is to remove the metallic wrapping from each reed when I purchase a new box. I just let the reeds sit in the plastic sleeves inside the box until I decide to break them in. I do not like the reeds when I have just taken them out of the Vandoren ‘flow-packs.’

My method ensures that I am constantly cycling through many reeds which are decent. I always have a reed that I can practice on, and I feel that I do not waste much time trying to find good reeds. And, of course, I save a lot of money.

I don’t worship the perfect reed. It is rare that I play on a reed that I feel is perfect from the instant I begin playing. I usually feel from the first few sounds that a reed is acceptable to play on, and after about 10 minutes of playing I find that I have adjusted to the reed or it has adjusted to me. And this point I need not worry about the reed and I feel comfortable enough to make really great music.

Hans Christian Bræin meets Wassily Kandinsky

A few days ago, I was going through my old lesson book to revisit the wisdom of a teacher who is now retired and I came across the following poignant words. On November 30, 2011, after clearly being influenced by a lesson, I wrote:


You have experienced most of the emotions and feelings that life has to offer by the time you are twenty. As we get older, we tend not to express ourselves as we genuinely feel, but rather we let society’s expectations of us mediate how we act and even how we feel. When I play I need to tap into child-like impulses that are still there, but hidden beneath a more mature exterior. I need to express emotions as I first felt them. I must paint not with the muted tones of adulthood but rather with the raw, vivid palette of childhood. This is why it is so essential to lead a real life outside of the practice room. Children are very good at imitating the musicianship of great performers. But, as they get older and their audiences become more discerning, these imitations are exposed. The mature performer therefore needs to draw his inspiration from a reservoir of lived experiences. Loves lost, the excitement of a new journey, the power of friendship – these are felt most strongly when we are young, and they must be experienced for us to have any hope of producing something beautiful.

Our missions as musicians are twofold: to create a form expressed through time, but, even more importantly, to express meaningful and emotional content. Just as a painting is comprised both of colors (content) and how these are bounded, limited, and expressed in relation to one another (form), so is musical performance a combination of sounds that are beautiful (or angry, or full of despair) and the way that these sounds are organized into a coherent and meaningful whole. This is the duality of music : music must satisfy us aesthetically with its content as well as intellectually with its structure. Just as the musician must shape a phrase in such a way as to make its relation to the formal structure apparent, so must the musician ensure that the sound with the framework of form, the sound itself, is expressing something that is worth expressing.

Double Tonguing - Part 2

This post is the second in my series on learning to double tongue. It focuses on learning to alternate the first and second articulated syllables. The challenge is to get the second syllable (the “ku” or “goo”) to sound like the first (the “tu” or “doo”). The feeling of producing the second syllable should be as close as possible to normal single-tongue articulation because this allows for a seamless switch between single- and double-tonguing. I have two exercises that I practice to accomplish this. Here is the first:

This exercise should be practiced slowly with a goal towards making the sound resulting from the “ku” articulation very similar to the sound of the normal “tu” articulation. Care should be taken to ensure that the voicing is high (with the roof of the mouth high enough to allow for a lot of resonance). I practice this exercise every other day, even though it is no longer a challenge for me. Often, when I speed up my double tonguing without having practiced this exercise slowly and carefully, then the roof of the mouth drops, the position of the tongue drops, and the articulation becomes “thuddy” and unfocused and it is impossible to double tongue above the break. This happens only when I get impatient and skip my slow practice. 

Here is exercise number two:

This exercise focuses on getting you to push more air through the instrument as you articulate. The reason that the middle of the articulated passage is on beat one of every bar is that it is natural emphasize beat one. Give a small crescendo toward the first beat and then a light accent on beat one and you will help strengthen the second syllable and make it sound more like single tongue articulation. This second exercise can also be practiced using only “ku” (as in Ku-ku Ku-ku….Ku-ku Ku-ku…etc)

Both of these exercises should be practiced slowly (I usually set the tempo at quarter note = 60-100) and at a comfortable mf dynamic. Think of them as long tones with just a few articulations in the middle. At some point you will need to increase the speed, but first spend a week or more just practicing these exercises slowly and focusing on the quality of the articulation.


I practice scales a lot. I find it helpful to begin each morning by warming up with long tones and scales. Scales help me get the air going through the instrument. Scales also help homogenize the tone across the various registers of the instrument. When I start on a low note, I try to maintain the initial note’s warmth and richness as I ascend. After reaching the top of the scale, I try to maintain the clarity and focus of the high register while descending. Scales also help improve finger coordination. And, of course, scales are the basis of so much of the music we play, so time spent practicing scales reduces the amount of time needed to practice certain passages in a work by Mozart, for example. Since the way you practice scales will influence the way you play anything on the instrument, it is important to practice scales in a thoughtful and deliberate manner. If you can’t do this, then it’s probably not worth practicing them.

Regular practice teaches the body the necessary movements to execute a particular passage. In the beginning, the movements are clunky and inefficient. But, effective practice helps to streamline these movements, so that they become smooth and efficient. The movements become smaller and smaller. This is how practice enables faster playing. The movements which were initially large and required conscious thought become subtle and automatic. Getting the fingers to move directly from one note to the next in a gentle and streamlined way should be a main goal of practicing scales.

Scales should be practiced slowly and with care taken to ensure that the fingers make only as much movement as they need to reach the next note. This is not so difficult when playing consecutive notes, but it becomes progressively harder as the size of the interval increases. Playing a sixth requires many fingers to move in perfect coordination, and often when the tempo is too fast a player will draw strength (and tension) from the wrist, forearm, or even shoulder to make up for this lack of coordination. When you hear the fingers slapping against the keys and feel the wrist tensing up, it is because the fingers do not have enough strength and coordination to execute the passage at tempo. So slow down the tempo, and reeducate the fingers on the proper movements to make. Fast, effortless technique will only result by practicing slowly with a supple wrist and only as much finger movement as necessary. Any interval can (and should) be practiced this way.


Scales are boring, you say?

You get bored when you have done something so many times that you no longer feel that there is a challenge – it is not usually due to mastery, but rather a lack of imagination. So, if you can, identify a new challenge with the scale, and if that is not possible, then change the scale exercise. I started many years ago by playing that single Klosé scale page that gets you through the entire circle of fifths. Then I moved on to all the scales in Baermann Volume three (spending up to two weeks at a time on a single scale with all of its variations like returning scales, scales in thirds, and arpeggios). Now I am working on exercise 5 of Jean-Jean’s Vade Mecum, which combines scales and arpeggios in every key with various articulations. There is a near infinitude of scale exercises out there, so find something new and interesting!


What about hand position?

If your hand is large enough, all of the fingers should be curved (including the pinky finger). Never play with flat fingers if it can be avoided. When you play with flat fingers, all of the distance the finger has to travel has to be accomplished in a single joint, the knuckle. With curved fingers, each joint is available for movement, which means that the movement required of any single joint is very small.


Whenever I have a lull in my performing schedule and I don’t need to learn anything new for a while, I return to scales. I use the repetitive nature of scales as an opportunity to improve some aspect of my technique. I might spend a couple of weeks of the summer holiday focusing on strengthening the corners of my embouchure so that I don’t leak air, and I will practice only scales while trying to make this improvement. Or if I want to improve my double tonguing, I will again practice it with scales. It is much easier to learn something new if I combine it with something I already know well.

Double Tonguing - Part 1

I have practiced double tonguing for about two years. I think that one could probably learn how to do it in less than six months of diligent and daily practice, but I took a few breaks of several months to prepare for competitions, so I have not actually practiced it daily for two years. Double tonguing is a difficult skill to learn for two reasons. The first is that all the basic aspects of clarinet technique must function well in order to double tongue. The corners of the embouchure must be very strong, the air stream must be very fast and focused, and the voicing and direction of the air inside the mouth is crucial (especially when articulating above the break). If you have a day in which your air support just is not good, it is probably not even worth practicing double tonguing that day. The second reason double tonguing is difficult is that it sounds bad for quite a long time while you are learning. It can be a bit demoralizing to be an otherwise great clarinetist and yet sound like a beginner when you are practicing double tonguing, but persevere and it will get better over time!

There are a number of steps in learning to double tongue. It is important to stay disciplined and master each step before moving to the next one. This will avoid a lot of frustration. I have listed a series of steps below and through the next several blog posts, I will write in greater detail about each one.


1.      Learning the second syllable (‘goo’ or ‘koo’)

2.      Alternating first and second syllable (‘doo-goo,’ ‘too-koo,’ etc)

3.      Double tonguing above the break

4.      Playing scales

5.      Playing arpeggios

6.      Starting ‘cold’

7.      Playing repertoire

8.      The Altissimo register


This post deals with learning the second syllable. This second syllable can be a ‘goo’ or a ‘koo.’ Most people find ‘koo’ easiest in the beginning, because it provides a stronger articulation. First practice without the clarinet. Simply blow air and articulate a steady stream of ‘koo’ quarter notes at 60 on the metronome. If this is easy,  articulate eighth notes.  You do not need to use your vocal chords and actually say 'koo' - merely articulating the 'k' sound with your tongue is enough.

The next step is to take the clarinet and play an open G (or lower, don’t try anything above the break just yet). Do the same thing you were doing before and articulate a single ‘koo.’ It will usually take a lot of effort and it will feel like your tongue is making a huge movement in your mouth. Next, articulate eighth notes at quarter note=60 with only ‘koo’s. If you practice this daily for 5-10 minutes, the second syllable will become stronger, which means that the movement of the tongue in the mouth will become smaller and easier to control.

As the movement of the tongue when saying ‘koo’ becomes smaller, try to make the articulation of this syllable as close to the front of the mouth as possible. When you say ‘koo’ you can articulate the ‘k’ at the back of the mouth or more towards the front if you pronounce it more like ‘keu’ or the letter ‘q.’ The closer the second syllable is to the front of the mouth the easier it will be move on to step 2 – Alternating the first and second syllable.


Some important things to consider:

1.      Don’t stop practicing your single tongue just because you are now practicing double tonguing. Double tonguing is a supplement, not a replacement, to your existing skills. Your single tongue will get worse if you only do double tonguing, but if you practice both daily, you can have great single- and double articulation.

2.      Practice this early in the day, when you are warming up. I used to practice double tonguing after I had practiced everything else that I thought was more important, but then I would only work on it when I was tired, if at all.

3.      Don’t leak air from the embouchure. Double tonguing requires really strong corners of the embouchure. Practice without leaking air from the beginning, and you won’t have problems with leaking air later.

4.      Practice slowly for now. Just work on strengthening the muscle involved in articulating the second syllable. Try to make the articulation smooth and even, but strong (as if there were accents and tenutos on the notes you are articulating).

Why Beethoven’s clarinet parts are so challenging

Almost every orchestral and chamber music piece written by Beethoven has passages which go against the natural tendencies of the instrument. The difficulties are numerous. Staccato passages at a very slow tempo and a piano dynamic abound in Beethoven’s op. 11 Trio and op. 20 Septet. Soft staccato in the high register with a diminuendo can be found in the Sixth Symphony and the op. 20 Septet.  Very fast articulation? The Fourth and Sixth Symphonies. A diminuendo while moving into the altissimo register? The Eighth Symphony. Awkward sforzandi, forte piani, and strange crescendi from piano resulting in a subito piano are ubiquitous. The forte piani, in particular, seem to take away all the air support right when you need it. Despite all these difficulties, the sound can never become ugly or harsh.

No one sound is appropriate to Beethoven. The clarinet parts in the outer movement of the Second Symphony resemble trumpet parts, and perhaps he expected the clarinet to play a similar role. The solos in the slow movement of the Fourth Symphony are incredibly legato and delicate and transparent. The solo in the A-major section of the Seventh Symphony’s slow movement calls for a rich and full sound. In many of the scherzo movements, the clarinet must appropriate a bassoon-like style of articulation. In Beethoven’s chamber music, the clarinet must aspire to something more intimate that does not overpower the solo string instruments.

There are often many passages in which the clarinet plays very short phrases, sometimes just to provide color for a mere measure of a longer phrase. The clarinetists’ time in the limelight is over no sooner than it began. The first note has to speak on time and the tone must be resonant and beautiful for the entire duration of the phrase. Pieces by composers like Brahms or Schumann, in which clarinetists play much longer phrases, are much more forgiving of a dull note here and there. In addition, Beethoven’s chamber music with clarinet has little of the tempo flexibility that Brahms’ works have. This makes them difficult for clarinetists who naturally sneak in and often play a bit late.

Despite all these challenges, we have to learn how to play Beethoven well in order to get a job as an orchestral or chamber musician.

Here’s one strategy I have for practicing those dastardly subito piani. Let’s use the trio from Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony as an example of how to work. To practice the phrase from bar 60 to 64, start in bar 63. Play it at a comfortable dynamic (mf or f, in my case). Once you can play it the way you like at a loud dynamic, start playing it softer until you get to an acceptable piano dynamic. Then play only bars 61 and 62. Make sure to do a big crescendo, but don’t play the downbeat in bar 63. Once you are happy with measures 61 and 62, you can play mm 61-64, but place a quarter rest before the subito piano in bar 63. If this goes well, you can eliminate the pause. Then play bars 60 and 61 but with a quarter rest again before the subito piano. Finally, eliminate the rest and play the entire phrase as written. The principle is to master the piano sections through playing them at a comfortable dynamic before playing them softly, and then to master the transitions by placing a short rest before the subito piano to ensure that your air, embouchure, and tongue are set. 


It is not only clarinetists who find Beethoven difficult. Many violinists and cellists say that Beethoven’s sonatas are awkward, both for technique and for phrasing. It takes a lot of knowledge and time to think your way through a Beethoven sonata and develop a convincing interpretation. Beethoven is challenging for orchestras and conductors, too. Many orchestras can blow an audience away with Strauss’s Don Juan, but far fewer can give a great performance of a Beethoven symphony. Listen to the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen play Beethoven, and one is immediately wowed. There must be something really special about their conductor, Paavo Järvi.  

I can identify three reasons for difficulty in Beethoven’s music, although there are probably many more. The greatest challenge lies in a contradiction, that Beethoven was both a Viennese Classicist and a rejecter of Viennese Classicism. Sometimes the rejections take the form of mockery. This is what the Eighth Symphony is about. All throughout Beethoven’s music, but especially in the Eighth Symphony, the dynamics and articulation markings interrupt the natural phrasing of a Mozartean line and make it feel awkward and clunky. Understanding when Beethoven is writing a simple Mozartean line, and when he is calling into question the presumptions of Mozartean phrasing with an unexpected crescendo, subito piano, forte piano, or unusual sforzando takes a lot of knowledge and practice. Playing the phrase in such a way that the audience understands that this is a mockery of Viennese classicism is even more challenging. 

Another reason Beethoven is difficult lies in what his music expresses. Many composers after Beethoven, such as Liszt and Wagner, imported external ideas from literature, myth, philosophy and art into their music. This makes it easy to figure out what the music is about. All you have to do is put yourself in the shoes of the character the composer is describing, and you can give a rousing performance. Beethoven’s music is a little different. There is no program, and the music usually does not tell a story. But it is about something. Beethoven’s music is deeply psychological. There are periods of brooding, of playfulness, of tragedy, and jubilation. Conveying these emotions without a story to help the performer is challenging.

Lastly, Beethoven is a particularly uncompromising composer (although he is not alone in this aspect). Beethoven fit the instrument to the idea, rather than the idea to the instrument. Works by composers like Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky leap off the page in part because these men composed in such a way as to take advantage of the unique qualities of the instruments they wrote for. For Beethoven, the musical material would not be limited by the instruments, and so instruments have to struggle more in order to play his works. The solution is not to learn to adjust, but rather to grow up with Beethoven, playing it constantly so that his musical language becomes intertwined with your way of performing. Eventually his idiosyncrasies will become a part of your musical vernacular.  

A natural rate of learning?

This week’s blog post is influenced by my study of economics. To understand how economics is relevant, I need to provide a bit of context.


In the field of economics, national economies are thought to have ‘natural rates of growth.’ A natural rate of growth refers to the average speed at which an economy grows over a long period of time when all of its resources (workers, technology, and natural resources) are used to their full potential. The natural rate of growth of the United States, for example, is generally reckoned to be 2.5%. Over time, the total output of goods and services of the United States grows at an annual rate of 2.5%. In reality, economic growth fluctuates wildly from year, growing 3.4% in 2005, 2.7% in 2006, 1.8% in 2007, and actually declining during the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009 before growing again after 2009. Only when averaged over a long period of time does the economy grow at 2.5%.

What happens when the economy grows above its natural rate for many years? People expect the good times to continue, they buy more than they can afford, they take on debt to pay for this increased consumption, inflation picks up, and either the Federal Reserve Bank has to raise interest rates (in an attempt to curb inflation) which causes the economy to slow down, or it does nothing and a financial crisis eventually occurs. The financial crisis is usually triggered by a bank failure or a geopolitical event, but the underlying conditions of the crisis are too much debt and not enough money in the economy to pay for everything.

Practicing clarinet follows a similar pattern. If I practice for six hours today (maybe it’s possible if I am well-rested, but I almost never try), then I am taking on a debt that will hamper my playing tomorrow or soon after. Perhaps the lips can endure a six-hour assault one day, but the embouchure will surely be weaker the next day. Too many days of overpracticing can cause many of the basic elements of technique to fall apart. When the lips are too weary to make a firm and supple seal around the mouthpiece, when the fingers are sore, and when the support muscles are tired, it becomes much more difficult to commence notes, to play in tune and to execute a difficult passage cleanly. Rest for a few days, and these skills magically return.

The lesson is that you cannot push your muscles to learn faster than they are capable of learning. Listen to your body. Learn to identify the point at which you are no longer practicing effectively and are merely taking on debt. If one day you wake up and you are playing significantly worse than the day before, it is probably because you have taken on too much debt.  Take long breaks if necessary. If the muscles are tired, consider doing mental practice instead. If you have already done a few hours of effective practice and are beginning to feel tired, stop practicing. Always leave yourself fresh for the next practice. Practicing too little will mean that you fail to reach your potential, but practicing too much will cause you to perform below the level you have reached. Try to learn closer to your natural rate, rather than fluctuating wildly and having certain days in which you seem to go backward.



The idea of a natural rate of learning is not so farfetched. In Flow, psychologist Mihaly Cikszentmihalyi explains that consciousness is limited. A person can pay attention to only so many stimuli at any one particular moment. To demonstrate this, he explains how a human can listen to three people speaking in his/her mother tongue at the same time and remember the words of all of them. But, this activity so uses up the listener’s consciousness that he cannot remember any physical details about the speakers themselves or the environment he was in. If consciousness is limited, then it is quite possible that the amount of learning that can be done in a particular time could also be limited.

A recent article in the New York Times also explains that ‘the processing capacity of the conscious mind is limited.’ The author writes that the mind needs breaks from focused activity in order to be creative. The article describes how the human brain has two processing modes, a focusing mode and a daydreaming mode. We continually learn while our minds are in either mode, but we learn different things from each mode. It is often when you are away from your instrument that you come up with a great idea about how to play a phrase or a solution to a difficult passage. Deprive yourself of the time to daydream and be whimsical and you might miss out on an opportunity to learn something you can’t learn from actively concentrating.