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.