During high school and up to my first year of university clarinet I remember being strangely reluctant to listen to recordings of clarinet music. I’m not quite sure why that was. Perhaps it was because I’d have to hunt for overpriced CDs in music stores (or wait 2+ weeks for them to be ordered from overseas), or because my teachers were never forth coming in giving me a copy.
I think I may have listened to some Weber when I did grade 8 and I definitely remember finally getting into listening to good recording when doing university clarinet.
Appreciating Musicality with Recordings
For the majority of a student’s initial learning, the best clarinet playing they’re going to ever hear is you, the teacher. Even then, there’s only limited scope to what the teacher can show off because there isn’t going to be an 80 piece orchestra handy.
This is why recordings are invaluable.
- They show what a great clarinet tone sounds like.
- They demonstrate the dynamic range of a clarinet (epic louds and lyrical softs).
- It exposes the student to orchestral music and all the many timbres they create. (Star Wars music is also a good way of getting students interested in orchestral music.)
…and ideally this will inspire the student to really get stuck into things.
Play, rewind, play
One of the first clarinet pieces that I was really into was When I Take My Sugar to Tea by the Ken Peplowski Quintet. I think I got the cassette tape copy/recording off a trombone player from my local community concert band (yeah, it was the 90s). I remember rewinding and playing a segment of that track so much the tape stretched, which prompted me to buy Sonny Side on CD. It was great improvisational playing and I really wanted to transcribe it. With only 23 minutes of audio per side of a cassette tape, I was also missing some of the music.
Hurray for digital!
Digital music and digital distribution has totally changed the game. CDs made a difference, but not to the extent digital music has.
When emusic created their online mp3 music store, they had a generous trial where you could download some tracks for free. Even better, if you signed up, there was a bonus x number of tracks that you could download. It was a pay monthly download service that you could cancel at any time. I think I ended up with over 50 clarinet tracks for about $12 US.
Emusic’s niche was classical recordings that the major players in the recording industry didn’t have their copyright hooks into. The result was a massive collection of mp3s from really obscure CDs available for purchase.
This was a huge deal at the time because iTunes still had DRM in their tracks, didn’t have a big classical library and was (and still is) quite expensive.
Unfortunately emusic got bought out by Sony (I think) and the copyright version of the Iron Curtain descended, basically cutting NZ off once again from digital goodness: “We’re sorry, eMusic is not available in your country.” And it still is.
Recordings in lessons
When I started teaching I bought my own cheap-ass little CD+tape stereo in order to play along to backing CDs. It turns out it was underpowered and the drum and piano accordion lessons nearby drowned it out. It also went ‘walkabout’ and I had to keep hunting for it in the other lesson rooms even though I put my name on it with massive letters.
Then the PSP came out and I bought one. It was a convenient way of playing music to share to students and with a mini-jack to RCA cable I could plug it into the AUX input of stereos. Then when I finally got my hands on an iPhone 3GS, I had this huge stash of music to share (which had a way better search function than the PSP. Sony really didn’t seem to care much about music management with that thing).
This is going to be slightly incriminating, but I occasionally email students a recording of a piece they may be learning (Spohr, Weber, Saint-Saëns). I’d be great if my students (or their parents) went out and bought music but I’m a realist and it just isn’t going to happen (and I’m not in the habit of billing for sundries).
All going to plan, the student will fill their personal music player/phone with this music and give it a good listen.
Piano Traders is my local music store and I can only guess that the 8 CDs of ABRSM clarinet and saxophone exam music was from them. It was all from the 2003-2007 exam period and most of it was no longer current. Most of it, so they may come in handy.
The last thing I want though is another 8 CDs filling up my house though, so they’re now ripped to .aac format (iTunes) and the CDs reside in some landfill somewhere. A shame, yes, but sooner or later CDs just have to disappear.
Then there’s youtube which not only provides really quirky performaces but gives you the opportunity to actually see the performance (and all the potential weirdness that offers). There’s a good one of some guy playing Harvey’s Gershwin Etudes (another who probably moves strangely while playing?)
Listen and be inspired
Listening to the likes of Martin Frost, Sabine Meyer and Julian Bliss are going to offer the student a far superior perspective of what the clarinet is capable of and, coupled with an orchestra, how grand and epic the music can be. Clarinets are never going to be rockstars but recordings offer a window into a wider world beyond the confines of a music studio or home practise.
Digital music distribution makes acquiring these tracks magnitudes simpler and cheaper and even the exam boards offer music to help students capture the musicality required for good grades.
So get out there and fill that mp3 player with legal music.