Seven days, 30 minutes a day

I’m always encouraging students to do 20-30 minute a day practices in the mornings before the day’s activities build momentum. For the 7 days after Christmas I decided to practise what I preach and do the same.

I’ll admit that I don’t play as much as I used to when I was at university. At 7:30 am the automatic locks to the music school’s practice rooms sounded their mechanic click and released the doors to those of us keen to get their musical day under way. I’d practise for about 45+ minutes and then probably clear off to the computer science labs to be a geek rather than a muzo.

Subsequently my playing fitness was right up there (although I’ll admit it took a full year doing uni clarinet to get that ideal strength up) but with all things fitness related, that strength started to wane once I finished the music part of my conjoint degree then started staring at a screen for 8 hours a day as a software programmer. These days, after teaching for about 3 hours and playing quite a few duets, I can really feel the lips starting to tremble.

Without anything to strive towards (i.e. having no personal music goals of my own) there is no motivation for me to practise. Those precious 30 minutes are better spent eeking out a little bit more side-project code or going to the gym and trying to be the ‘next American Ninja Warrior’ or something. This Christmas break however, I wanted to give it a shot if only as a little experiment, which in itself is like a mini goal. What would I observe? I haven’t done a 7-day streak of clarinet practise in aaaages.

The setup

I practised in the main bedroom because it seemed like the place where the sound was less likely to annoy the neighbours. I could have used the spare bedroom and closed the curtains to act as a sound sponge but it was quite good to keep the door open and allow the subtle reverberation of the clarinet through the house to enhance the clarinet’s overall sound. I didn’t want to play in the lounge because I didn’t really want to serenade the neighbourhood; it’s been hot an humid in Auckland so the ranch slider door really needed to stay open.

Standing posture of course, using my excellent robust stand; the type of music stand you never take to a gig but is fantastic as a permanent home music stand, or a clothes rack.

First impressions

With the door open, there was a fantastic reverb as the sound subtly bounced around the painted walls of my house. Definitely not a bathroom like echo, but just enough to warm the sound. It’s more enjoyable with this acoustic rather than playing in ‘dead’ room by closing doors and curtains.

It got hot really quick though as it was typical humid Auckland weather and unfortunately not much airflow gets into the bedroom. I didn’t want to open the window because of my ‘don’t serenade the neighbourhood’ policy.

The routine

The idea was to start with some scales and then move on to pieces. On the first day I set the iPhone’s timer to 10 minutes to try and time-box the effort but on subsequent occasions I ditched the timer and just started with scales until I was sick of them. From there is was onto some pieces. I tried to practise in the mornings but there were three occasions where it bumped much later than I wanted.

The repertoire

For a 30 minute practise of which 5-10 minutes is scales, there’s only enough time to get through an entire sonata or maybe a mish mash of things. Here’s a list of what I played through.

  • Crusell – Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra Op. 5
  • Horovitz – Sonatina
  • Sait-Saëns – Sonata for clarinet an piano Op. 167
  • Malcolm Arnold Sonatina
  • Paul Jeanjean – 18 Advanced Etudes.
  • FJ Thurston & A Frank – The clarinet A comprehensive tutor for the Boehm Clarinet (old school but fun to play)

Paul Juanjuan has a book of terrors. I’m going to have to go through them and bit more thoroughly and see if there is anything remotely worthwhile giving to my students. The Thurston and Frank book is an old school tutor but it has some fun to play etudes that fit under the fingers nicely and actually sound good, rather than being a kind of random mind-melt that isn’t that satisfying to master.

The thumb

Reversed thumb rest and leather neck strap; for those with big thumbs and RSI.

Reversed thumb rest and leather neck strap; for those with big thumbs and RSI.

I never had a problem with RSI until the very end of my second year of university clarinet at which point my right thumb started to complain. The ache would extend right up to my wrist and was making practice not so enjoyable. I had to get a neck-strap, something that I was reluctant to do because something as small as a clarinet (well, it looks small on someone who’s 190cm tall) didn’t seem to warrant one, unlike the mighty saxophone. Vanity said I was going to look like an idiot.

I bought one that has a leather sleeve that slips over the thumb rest. Believe it or not, my thumb rest is inverted because my thumb is massively wide; 26mm across. Inverting the thumb rest was the first thing I tried before selling out with the neck strap.

The neck strap helps though. I’d say it improves the situation by at least 100% (double) so nuisance pain that would crop up after about 15 minutes takes about 30 minutes to show at which point by lips are probably gone anyway.

The lips

My sorry state for an embouchure; so long to being able to go hours at a time. I’m struggling after 30 minutes now, hence these practises not going beyond this. If I was training up for something I’d take an hour break then come back for a second round but I had holiday stuff to do, like cleaning the outside of a house and painting a fence.

Conclusion

There was nothing that I didn’t really know already; the lips are weaker, the RSI will exist forever but the tone is good until the lips give out. It was a surprise to hear a warm acoustic in the house and hopefully the neighbours didn’t get sick of me.

I can now boast to my students that I played every day for a week after Christmas before going back to work, then joke with them (somewhat) that they should have been doing the same.

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