A clarinet master class with Marcel Luxen

Clarinet master classes are great for teachers. In the space of an 60-90 minutes you get to witness the teaching style of a veteran and hear fantastic little nuggets of wisdom that such experience brings. Not only that, you may also hear these professionals say the very things that you say to you’re own students; meaning your teaching is probably on the right track.

This weekend just gone was the NZCBA Festival where the wind bands throughout NZ (including schools) get a chance to play at geothermally active Rotorua; a place where the nickel silver keys of very expensive instruments start to react to the prevalent sulphur in Rotorua’s air (it stinks there). One of the flutes on display had to be completely pulled apart and cleaned.

I cruised down to Rotorua on my Triumph Tiger in Friday peak hour traffic from Auckland (a 3 and a half hour trip) with the expectation of just playing with the West City Concert Band and then cruising home again. I had the final of the Xterra Trail run series to do the next day in the Hunua Ranges so didn’t feel like breaking my routine; that was until I found out that there was a clarinet work shop on at 3pm. So much for riding home in the day light.

The host/sponsor of the workshop was KBB Music, the premier NZ brass and woodwind retailer in Auckland. They had a stand set up in the main foyer of the Sir Howard Morrison Performing Arts Centre and it was they who were having great fun with the sulfur laden air affecting their instruments. When a retailer is hosting a workshop, the cynic in me thinks they’re just trying to sell me instruments. Thankfully the ‘selling’ part was merely a tangent to a fantastic workshop.

Marcel Luxen

The Belgian born professional clarinetist, Marcel Luxen, was the guest clarinetist for the workshop. Funny enough, I’d had a ribbed him at the KBB stand about the NZ $7000+ (that’s about US $4400) price tag for a Buffet Divine. Don’t get my wrong, it’s a great sounding instrument but ye gods! 7k?! Like I can talk, I just bought a Triumph motorcycle. I didn’t know he was the guest for the workshop at the time but he was gracious in my exasperation of the price. It’s what one has to pay for something that has been meticulously crafted (apparently). It was about 4 hours before the workshop and even then, Marcel (who I didn’t know was Marcel at the time) was more than happy to compare his own clarinet (a Buffet Tosca) with the Buffet Divines on display.

NZ $12000 for a pair! One had better play a lot to get their money's worth out of them.

NZ $12000 for a pair! One had better play a lot to get their money’s worth out of them.

That was late morning though and 3pm was the workshop.

Marcel was good, real good. He got straight to the chase and asked for a volunteer and one of the teenage girls was busting to get up. She was bubbly and nervous and she played one of the pieces from the Microjazz book. I got the impression that some promotional material must have encouraged attendees to prepare a piece because she had clarinet and music ready to go. Lady’s first, she said. I must have missed the memo but I was winging the weekend anyway and didn’t even know there was a workshop until I arrived.

Staccato – a means of expression

The girl was just a beginner and had one of those weak tones and heavy tonguing technique that make for a crunchy sounding performance. Marcel was a good sport; rather than taking an angle such as embouchure or reed strength or any of those things that generally only time and practise will cure, he took a different approach. He took on the tonguing.

“Staccato is not a technical exhibition, it’s a means of expression.”

That tit-bit of wisdom was the theme of the workshop, the idea that expression is was makes the music, not technical prowess… There’s a huge caveat to that which I’ll mention later.

Marcel gave some tips on how to lighten her tonguing so as to not have it “sound like a gun.” He used The Cat from Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf as an example, playing it with cat-light delicateness. He then played it again with a heavy, slapped staccato; The Cat had become The Duck. That comment got some laughs, including the young performer who took it in good spirits.

Marcel enforced the point by playing William Tell – the sound of horse hooves clopping, again, not a technical display of staccatos.

After a few goes, the young lady made some strides and got a lighter quality happening. The audience gave the affirmative and she see seemed happy to have had the opportunity.

Sing like Pavarotti

Next up was an older teenager whom I suspect had a grade 8 exam; he had the Poulenc Clarinet Sonata, Op. 184, first movement all rearing to go of which he played the opening. He made a good fist of it. It was a bit chopped up, the tone was a little raw and he had a wicked vibrato on the top notes that didn’t necessarily sound bad as such but he gave Marcel quite a few potential angles to target; he chose phrasing and musicality (personification of the performance).

Big air, big phrases; Marcel demonstrated by speaking a sentence that was all broken up. I smile; I use that trick all the time. It wasn’t just the phrasing, shape and the idea of forward musical motion that Marcel commented on, he also touched on something that I also like to say to students; I even use the same artist for the example.

“You have to sing into your instrument, you’ve got to be like Pavarotti.”

Marcel also explored the personality of the music, the idea of performance, that we are singers of which the clarinet is a vocal appendage and that we are merely actors playing a role. “You’re playing for the audience,” he said. “If you’re happy, they’re happy, if you’re bored, they’re bored; you have to take them with you.”

Again, the workshops theme was in evidence; dynamics are a means of expression for emotion; it’s not technical. He comments on Mahler and his use of 5 fs at the end of some of his works, observing that orchestra players are lazy so he had to write 5 fs because with only 2, the players would slack off (noting too that forte means strong not loud).

The Poulenc was a great piece for Marcel to demonstrate personification; adding human emotion to the sound: joy, surprise, expression. The Poulenc had those, each little phrase offering a different emotion to express.

The body movement required to express these emotions was highlighted. As an example, Marcel mentioned the Berlin Philharmonic of which he had high regard for. Even if you’re deaf, you can still ‘hear’ the music, he said. Moving with the music doesn’t look funny. “There is no way you can play music without movement.” He cranks out some Weber and gets some classical groove going. I wonder if Heinrich Baermann ever performed Weber’s pieces that way.

Contrast, one of my favourite aspects to give my students a hard time about, Marcel used this to emphasise the emotions which all have their opposites: Tension, release; question, answer; male, female (he used Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto to demonstrate this)

Clarinets are privileged because we can play piano. Good luck asking a flute or oboe to play soft.

Musician’s brains

Apparently brain eating zombies would make a better meal out of a musician’s brain. One of the passing comments was about a Neural Pathologist who could identify a professional musician’s brain from that of a non musician.

Rhythm, melody, harmony, structure. Rhythm requires balance and we humans can walk on our legs. All the other complexities added on to that makes the brain rewire itself (although structure, it was joked, was so academics could over theoreticise things).

My turn

There was opportunity for one more person. “Hey, I’m keen if no one else want to have a go,” I said. I didn’t want to take the spot in front of someone else who was keen. There were no takers. “Have you prepared anything?” he asked. “No” I replied, “but I can play the Arnold if you (the Poulenc clarinet guy) have it.” “How about the Mozart Adagio?” asks Marcel, “Yeah, I’ve got that” replied the young fella.

So I was about to play the Adagio of the Mozart K 622…

…but on a Buffet Divine. Nice.

For me, musicianship and style became the focus. “Nice tone,” Marcel commented, “but I’m not a purest.” By that I think he didn’t really care too much about what the clarinet should like but rather that each clarinetist, with their own unique sound, should be able play all the required emotions. But while on the subject, he declared Karl Leister as his favourite clarinetist.

He pointed out that the music starts way before the first note is played. The act of breathing, the pace at which it is done all has to coincide with the music that is about to be played. He wanted me to repeat the Adagio again with more subtly; a slower breath and sneaky intro that crescendos into the phrase. All that good stuff. That, and doing a better job of joining the bars together into one cohesive musical sentence (Mmmm, I teach that all the time).

He elaborated on the idea. Don’t panic into starting a piece; don’t be all sh*t, f@*k, sh*t, f@*k (that was his words; we laughed) just before you start playing; you have to feel that music well before the first note. That wasn’t directed at me, by the way. I knew what I was doing.

After that series of laughs he had me play it again and I promptly played it as gracefully as a rhinoceros playing rugby. Marcel was pretty much waiting for me to forget the whole ‘get the mind into the music before the first note’. He busted me pretty good there.

Marcel then gave me his Buffet Tosca and had me repeat the opening lines of the Adagio as a comparison; a far superior clarinet to the Divine in my opinion. You could crank that thing out if you wanted whereas the Divine was more focused and didn’t facilitate outlandish playing.

Ah, outlandish playing; something I enjoy but unfortunately not too applicable to Mozart. Marcel had me play the opening phrases again, trying to get the 4 bars to all shape together and as is typical of me I was a bit ‘too’ expressive. Great for modern playing but not so much for 1791. I had to play within the ‘contained box’ of that period; a period that no one even knows what it even sounded like anyway. With each passing generation of clarinetists, the next one has never heard 2-3 generations of clarinet style prior. Good luck finding a recording or clarinetists from pre 1920s.

I was actually playing the A clarinets (the Divine and Tosca) and I kept overshooting the C key and hitting that 5th right hand little finger key that doesn’t appear on most clarinets. Whoops.

I was asked my opinion on the clarinets and praised the Tosca, holding it like a salesman and making a pitch, the audience laughs, “No you can’t buy my clarinet” exclaimed Marcel. “Well, how much?” replied the KBB rep, implying that they could easily hook him up with a new replacement.

It was good fun. I enjoyed it. Not every day one gets to play a professional musician’s $7000+ clarinet during a mock lesson.

The caveat

Afterward the workshop I shook his hand and thanked him. It was good to hear Marcel using many of the same teaching tips and style I used in lessons yet also providing many other nuggets of wisdom.

So, the caveat. Yes, emotion and musicality are important aspects of music but…

“The better your technique becomes, the more room you have to express yourself.”

So yes, technique is important but it’s not something you learn or can be taught as such, it’s something you do and acquire over time. Scales apparently fall into place after being a professional musicians for 43 years. As Marcel explained: “I had to work my arse off… people said I was talented, no, I practised while everyone else played soccer or were getting pissed.”


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