The Combative Student

One high school aged student of mine who has been playing for quite a while just won’t play loud. I’m never sure why. She can play loud when I encourage it out of her like a personal trainer encourages a gym-goer to do just one more lift, but then she just regresses back into her comfort zone.

It’s an incredibly frustrating and exhausting teaching exercise because all the strategies I’ve employed in the last 18 months for her to grow her sound don’t seems to work. She’s a real challenge and quite combative, questioning everything with suspicion and distrust. She probably doesn’t mean it to sound this way but that’s the perception (and if there’s anything I’ve learnt in industry, perception owns us all).

As an aside, she’s actually a bit of a tech-geek, being the programmer in her robotics team at school. Funny enough, I’m a full time programmer currently using C++ and my clarinet teacher during high school was (is?) also a programmer. Even My University clarinet teacher was writing with scripting languages. Is this the reason why she’s such a challenge 🙂

One of the best ‘challenges’ she made during a lesson was during my quest to get her to achieve a greater sound. I asked her to play a note without her teeth on the mouth piece.

“Why?” she asked, quite abruptly.

Now, this type of response isn’t all that uncommon from her and over time I’ve had different types of responses:

  • I indulge her ‘curiosity’ by giving her the ‘why’.
  • I get her just do what I ask and let her discover the ‘why’ herself.
  • I reply back with ‘tell me what you think?’ (being careful with the inflection as to not sound condescending).
  • Or I get totally exasperated and say something not worthy of comment here.

In the case of the above example, I think I did a bit of ‘try it first, then I’ll explain.’ I would have shared something like the following…

“…Many clarinetist squeeze the mouthpiece too much. The bottom lip is tucked in, suppressing the reed. The mouth is too smiley-faced and outwards pulling, again suppressing the reed and airflow. Then there is just the general lack of abdomen muscles pushing air out. If there’s no air, there’s no sound. Very simple really.”

“But why no teeth on the mouthpiece? Well, it so happens that when you try and play a note with out the teeth holding on, you are suddenly forced to use totally different muscles in order to make the clarinet tone sound okay. It just so happens that all those mouth muscles are the muscles that should have been doing all the work in the first place. Somewhere in the many years of learning students start to make a ‘nice tone’ by working the wrong embouchure shape and the result is often a sound that is too quite.”

“Now that the ‘correct’ muscles have been identified, we can go back to putting the teeth on the mouthpiece (to hold on and get better balance) and with more application of gut-muscles, we should have a bigger sound with a rich, warm tone.”

The best part was that my student actually thanked me for the explanation. I have no idea how teachers treated her particular personality in the past, but she gave me the impression that historically there wasn’t much room for explanations.

Unfortunately, despite the ideas, shyness is always going to be the great destroyer of performance. Her exasperation in today’s class during an attempt to get the volume up was something along the lines of:

“It sounds really bad.”

Right, so here we go again. This is where I probably lose my composure a little.

“It sounds bad because you don’t have adequate mouth strength to make a nice tone, but your mouth strength is not as good as it can be because you never try and play loud. It’s by trying to play loud that your strength improves.”

The great practise-paradox. I went on…

“I play along with you in the hope that you become less shy and play louder to meet my dynamic. If you never play loud, the tone will never improve.”

*sigh* I’m all out of ideas. She can play loud but won’t. She plays in an ensemble but obviously hides behind everyone else. I play along with her but she succumbs to her comfort zone.

Why so shy? What’s there to fear? A bad tone? The solution to a bad tone is to work your ass off; play loud, play with guts, play with strength. Clarinet is one of the few wind instruments that benefit from more, more, more of everything physical. If the mouth/embouchure is overcoming the tone, push more with the gut. If the gut is pushing the sound too loud, strengthen the embouchure to kill off the volume (with the benefit of better tone). If the embouchure is overcoming the reed and seizing it shut, get a stronger read and relish the darker tone the harder reed creates.

All this drama (some would say excitement) reminds me why I only teach one-on-one. Imagine teaching an entire class with all these little battles taking place. It would be exhausting.


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