A Master Class with Julian Bliss

Last night I went to a clarinet master class presented by Julian Bliss and hosted by KBB music in Auckland. This was something I haven’t done in a very long time and was a good chance to see more of the professional music scene and thus out from my teaching bubble. I felt a bit like a journalist, sitting there at the back taking notes of all the informative and quirky things Julian had to say. He’s quite a character, an incredibly capable clarinetist and very engaging. He tells quite a good story.

After a quick introduction he played a piece. He introduced it as a fast, party-trick piece so I instantly put my money on it being Flight of the Bumblebee.

Yeah, I was right.

Apparently he started clarinet as a 5 year old in a totally non musical family and performed on TV as a 6 year old where he was too young to realise that ‘he should have been nervous.’ It turns out he’s had quite a few opportunities to play for royalty including a private function Prince Philip when he was still a young fella, then much later in 2002 when he performed at the Royal Jubilee.

Crazy musical adventures right there.

The majority of the evening was made up of taking three students through a piece each. Debussy – Premiere Rapsodie, Brahm’s Sonata No. 1 in F minor 1st movt, and Weber’s Grand Duo. He let them play through to a certain point, then basically gave his thoughts about how to make them better; exactly what a teacher does, yes.

What was interesting about the whole experience was how it reinforced how and what I’ve been teaching. Everything from technique, practise routines, phrasing, shapes. All the things he pointed out to the ‘students of the evening’ were things that I continually cover in classes, especially for my most advanced students. It was reassuring from a professional perspective.

Still, there were some great things to share. Like I said, Julian Bliss is a very engaging story teller and I scribbled notes in order to share some of his insights and tales.

Never Too Young to Play

“No one told me I should be nervous” was what Julian said in reference to his playing as a 6 year old in front of all those TV cameras.

He shared reasons people (unfairly) gave for not playing a clarinet at such a young age.

  • Hands to small
  • Baby teeth fall out – He played with an E-flat clarinet mouthpiece perfectly between two missing front teeth!
  • Braces – I’ve had lots of students have no issue with this (except when they get tightened. Then they feel a little worse for wear).

Performance = Technique + Musicality

“If you make your audience laugh and cry… for the right reasons… you’ve done your job.”

Julian had some great things to say about performance being both technique and musicality. It’s good to hear this from him because I believe one has to have both to be a truly great performer.

He told the story of how Sabine Meyer would only agree to teach him if he in turn agreed to do one year of learning nothing but technical studies before teaching him anything else.

Ouch.

I had to laugh at that one. I’d scare all my students away real quick if I tried that on them. I guess you actually have to be awesome first to get into a “you must unlearn what you have learned” situation. Kids just want to have fun first and that’s fair enough.

Someone asked about equipment and Julian gestured around the KBB store and said that, no matter what clarinet he played, there is a good chance that it was still going to sound like him playing. This is musicality in action. Sure, a sub-par clarinet would probably hamper technique, but musicality will always shine through.

For the Brahms he suggested thinking of said composer as a fat chap leaning back smoking a cigar is one way to characterise the music. Brahms is not in a hurry, and it’s easier to speed up a piece that started slow that slowing down a piece that started fast. To be fair, the Brahms starts with the Pianist, so, ummmm, hopefully the pianist hasn’t had too much caffeine.

For Weber’s Grand Duo Julian described Weber as a wannabe Opera composer and that his Grand Duo is full of characters. Every two bars is a different character chiming in with their own piece of the musical conversation, from the mischievous to the playful, from the grand (vertical) to the lyrical (horizontal). It’s the dynamics, articulation and holding of notes (rubato) that moves the audience.

Tempo and Phrasing

“Once the orchestra starts, they’re pretty difficult to stop.”

Phrasing became quite a feature of the evening, which makes sense considering the stand-in pupils were all post grad music students. There were some great points of note.

  • Keep the momentum through phrases. “Think direction. Where is the phrase going?”
  • Play through the phrases. Prevent the middle notes from disappearing by crescendoing through them.
  • If you have two similar phrases, play them differently; the audience has already heard it once.
  • “Every note should be finished.” I personally go on the war path a bit with this one. Phrases should always taper away and not sound clipped. If a quick breath is required before the next phrase, that last note should almost always still taper. The next phrase sneaks in quickly from the dynamic that the last phrase finished on. This ensures continuity of shape and phrasing.
  • Don’t always be ‘on top of’ the notes all of the time. Hold on to the first few notes of a passage, but realise that any time taken away, has to be added back again. i.e. if you slow down temporarily by lengthening notes, then you better accelerate through the rest of them to make up for it.

Air and Projection

One topic that came up was the ability to project a piano (the dynamic, not the instrument) to the back of the room. Get the stand out of the way and visualise ‘sound’ leaving the instrument and travelling to the audience right at the back of the auditorium.

Air support.

I love that phrase, air support. It sounds like we’re calling in some bad-ass A-10 in to blast away some tanks. I guess it’s like hyperbole then, the idea that the musician is muscling their sound to the far corners of the auditorium.

Julian suggested that the best way to realise the work the body does, was to try playing clarinet while lying on your back with a couple of heavy dictionaries sitting on your stomach. Good luck balancing those.

It was great to hear Julian share similar strategies for playing staccato as I’ve been using it in classes. One continuous long note that the tongue is interrupting. Don’t let the tongue get too far away from the reed. Relax, don’t tense. Start legato, then gradually shorten.

When discussing playing high notes, he quoted Sabine with her (at the time) limited English. “When playing upstairs, you’ve got to think you are playing downstairs.” Julian let everyone figure out what she meant.

Practising Strategies

I’ve been in the process of writing a post about “perfect practice” but it is unfortunately taking a while. Writing this however has somewhat hijacked what I wanted to say, but it is probably good hearing almost identical things coming from Julian. Here was his list of strategies.

  • Slow down
  • Take a very technical section (semi-quavers, say) and then play with the rhythms. Try dotted quaver, semi quaver patterns (not swung), then reverse it. Then try triplets, then dotted quaver, semi quaver, quaver patterns (i.e. groups of three notes).
  • Play 5x in a row correctly. If you play it wrong, it’s 5x more. I smiled broadly at hearing this one. I tell my students 3x. 5x just sounds mean. The point is though, you’re going to slow down and practise correctly. No point learning it wrong.

Questions

I asked a question at the end of the night: “Do you think we, as clarinetists, generally play too quiet?”

I was searching for a particular answer and got half of it. In essence, Julian said clarinets play within too limited a range and need to exaggerate in order satisfy the difference between the dynamic they think they’re playing and what the audience hears. Bam! Score three points to me because I was baiting for those.

That being said, Julian did add one extra piece of info which I wasn’t expecting; he’s received far more complements from playing softly than for ever for playing loud. Interesting, because the best compliment I ever got was from my university accompanist praising the way I got stuck into the music (in an “in your face!” kind of way).

I guess I’m just a wannabe rock-star with a clarinet stuck in his mouth.

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