Harder Reeds for the Beginner Clarinetist

One of last night’s lessons was a classic example of the importance of having the right reeds for a clarinet setup.

One of my beginner students has, for the last 4 weeks or so, being learning high notes (notes across the ‘break’). This student is one of the slow-but-steady types; doesn’t really practise much, but still improves over time.

The high notes, however, has exposed his weak embouchure. Getting the notes in tune is hard work and the tone is very weak and reedy sounding. He can get the notes in tune for a time, but you can tell that the reed is too soft. The extra embouchure tension required for tone and tuning basically squishes the reed up against the mounthpiece lip and stifles the sound. To loosen up is not an option, because then the pitch drops and the tone sounds ‘Australian.’

So I said to him for each of those lessons; “you know, you really need to go buy some new reeds (well, get your folks to buy you some reeds), and experiment a bit. Try some cheap Rico Royal 2 1/2 – 3s and see how different it all feels.”

But he hasn’t (yet) and so everything has been more challenging than it needs to be. He’s using a size 2 1/2 of the Flying Goose brand.

From what I’m hearing, that brand is rubbish.

Credit where credit’s due, the student did note that he didn’t like the reedy sound he was making. This is always the first step to improving; knowing that something is wrong. The challenge for the student is knowing how to fix it.

I took a punt.

I got out one of my ‘retired’ Vandoren V12 3 1/2 reeds. It had probably been sitting in the case for 3 years or something silly. It had ‘softish’ written in pencil on it, so it was probably only used a couple of times. I gave it to the student, told him to try it out and keep it.

This trick is touch and go. Sometimes kids can’t get a sound out of the things, but to my surprise, this time it worked a treat. Sure, the student really had to put some muscles in, but this time all that physical effort wasn’t crushing the reed against the mouthpiece; this thicker reed could handle it.

Better yet, not only did he get a sound out, much more in tune, with decent volume and didn’t have that reedy tone any more; it was far more richer with none of those horrible high frequencies sneaking in.

The student noticed the contrast too, thankfully (it’s all for naught if the student can’t tell the difference). He managed to endure the increased physicality for the remainder of the lesson too.

“Does your face hurt yet?” I asked.


“Good, because now your embouchure is getting some exercise.”


When dads wish to play music too

I had a surreal teaching experience last night when I gave an adult student his first lesson. It was a potential a disaster from the start because the music centre who booked him in didn’t make it clear that he needed an instrument (usually I don’t bother calling new students before their first lesson but perhaps I’ll have to change this to avoid these situations).

But it didn’t really matter because I have the clarinet standing by and most of the lesson was going to be demonstrating how to get a sound out of the thing. Luckily I had a 1 1/2 strength reed so I gave him my saxophone, showed him how to set it up and away we went. Clarinet is a sufficient demonstration tool.

Well, this guy was giddy as a school boy, as the saying goes, not that I’ve ever seen a school aged kid get as excited as this guy was. Safe to say he was looking forward to this moment a lot. His son was learning guitar and he figured that this was his chance to finally learn the saxophone and he’d thought, heck, I’m based in one spot for a while, work is local, let’s do it!

This guy was so visibly psyched to be playing sax that I had a grin a mile wide. The guy totally got it too; fingers were in the right place, tone steadied out and by the end he got used to the tonguing. He would have raced off and bought a saxophone right there and then if it wasn’t 8pm on a Thursday night. I convinced him renting one for a few months would be a good starting point. I gave him a bunch of details about stores and books, photocopied off what we played that night, and that was that.

So it was with regret that I had to inform him that I was going on holiday to Europe for 4 weeks and that that lesson may be his last with me. You can’t get a guy that excited about playing saxophone and then deprive him of it for 4 weeks! There’s another sax teacher at the centre on Wednesdays so he should be sorted for subsequent lessons.

Gutted for me, because I’m interested to know how much progress an adult student with that much excited energy can make.

Teaching Movement to Music

One thing that I’ve noticed over the years is that once students get to grade 7-8 level, most still do a poor job of moving to the music. Music as a performance is part visual so it’s important that one actually moves in such a way that’s representative of the music. I can only guess that for many of them, there is a lack of experience with small ensemble performance, like duets, trios etc.

Yes, many students struggle with tapping beats and other coordination issues early on, and I make sure that they develop this skill as soon as possible, but I’m talking students way beyond this stage.

Here are some examples of awkwardness.

  • Difficulty in cueing leading notes (so that an accompanist knows when to come in).
  • The body moving down during an up beat and up during a down beat.
  • Lots of random (almost twitchy) little up and down movements during a long phrase.
  • Lifting the clarinet bell up too high and at strange times.
  • Sinking the clarinet bell much lower than what has happened before.
  • Making a down beat happen on ‘important looking’ notes rather than actual beats.

On beats and off beats

At its most basic, the music comprises of on beats and off beats. The foot taps a downbeat and is up (or in transitional movement) during the offbeat. In computer gaming terms, it’s game over as soon as that foot hits the offbeat (missing an on beat is less dramatic).

Moving to the music is merely an extension of the foot tap. A performer shouldn’t be tapping their foot (this isn’t a hoe down) so it’s the motion of the clarinet bell that take its place. The hands, then arms, then body are all attached, so ultimately everything moves together to replicate the foot tap. This brings on the next point…

Move like a conductor: the invisible box

A conductor moves their arms within an invisible box. The box has a base level; the arms move down to it but never below it. The box has a top; the arms move up to it, but never beyond it. At its simplest, keeping within that same sized box creates predictability to the watcher.

The conducting equivalent of tapping the foot is reaching/tapping the bottom of the invisible box. The opposite is true for the top of the box being an offbeat.

When a student’s clarinet bell moves beyond that box, awkwardness ensues, however, there is one particular case where, even when keeping to the box, the awkwardness is still possible. That is…

Too much ‘up’

Oftentimes, the students hits the downbeat and instantly bounces their bell airborne. With the clarinet bell up too early, the awkwardly long transitional movement tempts the student to move the bell down again and bang, they’ve just gone down on an offbeat.

Usually the simplest answer is just to get the student to chill, relax, and use simple, small casual movements; not ‘oh my god, the music is so insane!’ erratic movements.

But what happens when the music is like the 2nd movement of Spohr’s Clarinet Concerto No. 2 and the slow rubato could result in 8 demi-semi quavers within a beat? Well…

‘Present’ the beats to the listener

The performer has to help the listener out. How does the listener differentiate between a 6/8 time and 3/4 time? The answer is how and what notes are emphasised. One would basically play certain notes louder than others (or ‘lean’ into them with accents or tenutos etc.). Emphasising the first and fourth quaver would signal 6/8 time and emphasis on the first, third and 5th quaver would sound like 3/4.

But as well as sounding like there’s emphasis, the performer has to look like they’re putting in some emphasis. This is where I like to teach ‘presenting’ the beat to the listener. It goes like this.


Imagine rock-paper-scissors. Say you’re facing off against your opponent and you do the bounce, bounce, go, method of play.  Notice how when making the move, you flick our your hands to the required shape and just keep it there. That’s what we’re after.

So  imagine you’re playing ‘paper’ and we just remove the initial bounce, bounce part. You flick out the paper move and voila, that’s you presenting the beat to the listener with a super obvious gesture.

Actors and orators do this all the time. They’re using good, solid arm gestures to ‘present’ an important word. As a musician, we’re doing this to a beat.

Back to the Spohr Concerto. If the performer does a down beat with their clarinet bell and bounces too early, they have to somehow get through 8 (probably rubato timed) demi-semi quavers. Awkward. Instead, they should just ‘present’ that beat with their paper-like-flick, hold that pose, play through the notes, then just before the next beat arrives (and only just before, as in, with about 3 demi-semi quavers to go), move the bell up in preparation for the next paper-like-flick.

So yes, in complete contrast to a conductor, the best solution to this situation is to just hold that down beat in place for a while, get the notes out the way, then prep for the next beat just before it’s required a again.

The student will likely keep stuffing up the prep, so put the clarinet away for a moment and practise with arm gestures and counting subdivisions e.g. 1-e-&-a, 2-(get ready for the flick…)-e-&-a flick-e-&-a- 2-(prep)-e-&-a flick-e-&-a- 2-e-&-a flick …(repeat).

Moving away from the basics

Of course, this is all very prescriptive but it’s a necessity to go right back to basics in order to get students out of bad movement habits they’ve develop over time. It’s amazing how much some of them wiggle around without even knowing.

Once this is mastered, it’s just a matter of trying to add back in the more conductor like movements but again, conductor-like is still a simplification, it’s more like someone working a thick elastic band around both hands, stretching it out and then gradually letting the band pull back. The look of effort creates a strong looking, slow, rubato.

Oh, but then there’s fast… Gosh, I could go on forever about visual tricks.


The WiFi Ensemble Challenge

After the successful NZ Concert Band Association Festival ‘campaign’ this year, the WCCB has spent the last few rehearsals having some fun pulling out random pieces of music, including some requests. The Pirates of the Caribbean arrangement was one such request; something I last played as a trombonist with the ‘old’ WCCB that had a god awful saxophone section of old men who refused to listen and learn. If there is one lesson in life, when you grow older, never stop listening to the youth because sometimes they just know better than you (you’d think the tech industry would have made that obvious, but music can be the same). Thankfully those stubborn old white men are all gone now (I swear to never, ever be like them).

…anyway, it was great to hear a band play through that arrangement in one go and not suck at it. Crotchet triplets from the saxes and clarinets: sorted.

Yet I digress; this post is about an exercise that our conductor had us do for the first half of the rehearsal last week.

At the prevous rehearsal he asked us to bring a WiFi capable device for the purpose of a game/exercise as a bit of fun. I just brought my iPhone 5S along. As it transpired, we were to, in our sections, find a piece or some inspiration online, practise up a resulting ensemble piece and then perform it to the rest of the band before the break.

Damn. I didn’t want to go to a band rehearsal and have to think. I had done enough thinking at work and didn’t want to have to subject myself to any more effort for the day (playing clarinet in a band is easy compared to sitting in front of a computer all day making software behave).

So, a bit downcast at the realisation that, as the section lead, I would probably have to direct things on behalf of the clarinets, we went to the practise room and got access to WiFi. At first I thought we could somehow play a pop song from ear; something like Titanium or Stay the Night, but there was just no way. I’m hit at miss at playing by ear and most of my section wouldn’t be able to pull it off.

At this point I think I heard the saxophone section practising Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or something.

The the bass clarinet player mentioned finding music off musescore and then I took a punt and typed in ‘clarinet quartet sheet music’.

We were saved!

The second link was to 8notes.com and the very first entry on the site was In the Hall of the Mountain King. Even better, it was a well written, perfectly legible, perfectly formatted, two page score for 4 clarinets. Exactly what we needed.

At this point, it became apparent that we could only pull this off by having the 5 clarinets and 2 bass clarinets standing around two tablet computers. There was no way my iPhone 5S was going to be legible enough for this performance. Even the two tablets posed a reading dilemma. It turns out the old iPad running safari tries to be clever and hides tabs, so, unlike the Android tablet, we couldn’t have the browser have two easily accessible tabs for each page of the music. With adversity however, came the opportunity for adding a quirk to our performance. On the last note of the first page we added a fermata/pause and held it until each browser could be switched to the second tab/page (very slow on the old iPad).

It got us a few laughs given the nature of the performance. Ultimately it was a successful exercise from our section of which, thankfully, I was able to just stay within my comfort zone of sight reading clarinet music and not having to do anything by ear.

For the record:

  • The trumpets played the Throne Room music from Star Wars along with a MIDI backing track. One of the guys had his laptop with him.
  • The flutes played a pentatonic piece which they pretty much made up; brave of them.
  • The saxes ended up playing off a paper copy of a sax quartet one of the players had on them.
  • The lower brass and bassoon player did Cantaloupe Island.
  • The percussion had made something up (I think).

As our conductor said, this was a bit of fun to get us out of comfort zone and to play just for the sake of making music. Personally I go to band for the comfort zone of just playing music, getting away from the computer and going home again but I can appreciate the sentiment.

It’s definitely an worthwhile exercise for a high school music class, that’s for sure.

Video games are fun but music is forever

After finishing a class with a student I went out to the foyer to see my next student sitting at a seat by his mother playing a game on his tablet computer.

“Shouldn’t you be in a practice room warming up?” I asked as he walked to the practice room. (I hope I wasn’t in earshot of mother).

I like computer games, I’ve had a huge amount of enjoyment on them and recall fondly the fantastic game mechanics of Close Combat and World in Conflict, the absurdity of the early Command & Conquer series, and the story line of Knights of the Old Republic. I remember the hilarity of the police chases the first time I played GTA3. Earlier than that, it would have been Red Baron on the 386, or even earlier still, Load Runner, Blue Max, California Games and Airborne Ranger on the C64.

Despite having clocked up a ridiculous amount of hours on games I somehow managed to get in clarinet practice, do my schoolwork and partake in other extra curricular activities. Something must have been working right in the household.

Perhaps I should thank my parents for never getting me (or allowing me) a game console, especially not a Nintendo Game Boy. Heck, Dad was so tight, any new computer we bought (beyond the very first i386 PC, which was top of the line for its day) was already about two generations behind. It took ages to upgrade from a 5 1/4″ drive to a 3 1/2″ drive to a CD drive; from a ribbon printer to an ink jet; from an i386 to an upgraded i386 to make it an i486 to finally an AMD Duron then later a Pentium 4; and from dial-up to, well, not dial-up. I think I may have even paid for ‘not’ dial-up.

I have mixed opinions on today’s digital trappings. Games, especially those with story arcs, are as memorable as great books. The popular ones will be referenced in pop culture for decades and you’ll be in the know. But then there are time sinks like Facebook and I’m just so glad it wasn’t around during my studies. All we had was ICQ and then the much simpler MSN messenger. Good luck to the parents in trying to keep kids away from phones and tablets.

Yet I don’t play games anymore; the PS3 was stolen in a burglary and my eyes don’t like playing on a small mobile screen. The closest I get to games on the phone is practicing Spanish using Duolingo. Yet music I still do. I teach, I play in the WCCB, it gets me away from the computer – a good thing considering the hours I pour into the Chartopia side project. Okay, so maybe I’ve just transitioned from games to software side projects…

…but I’ll likely play music forever.

So back to the student who was playing a game while waiting. He wasn’t aware that he was free to grab an empty practice room and warm up because he’s usually my first student on a Saturday (it was Tuesday). For that, I shall give him the benefit of the doubt.



Freebie lessons

I’ve gone and done something which, after 17 years of teaching I’ve never done; given a former student a few lessons to get them back into playing again.

As a member of the West City Concert Band, I’ve often been asked to encourage my students to join.  It was actually my original clarinet teacher who encouraged me to join the WCCB all those years ago (the mid 90s) and I attribute that experience to having accelerated my clarinet ability during those early years. I’d hazard a guess to say that a lot of my playing then was (positively) modelled on the clarinetist sitting next to me.

I’ve never been able to encourage my students to join either the WCCB or any other community band, although a couple of students did a few school terms with the North Shore Youth Orchestra without my influence. ABRSM exams I can promote, the band, not so. It didn’t help that the WCCB wasn’t actually that great 6+ years go. Encouraging school level students to participate in outside-of-school music groups is difficult because of distance, time and the fact that the high school bands and orchestras are just so damn good now.

But what of my former students? The ones that no longer have so many school activities? I don’t make a habit of keeping in touch with any of them although a couple of them I’ve bumped into at band festivals/performances, playing for the University of Auckland Concert Band in fact.

For whatever reason though, probably because it was the early days of Facebook, I have a couple of students added as contacts. I noticed one had made passing references to playing saxophone so I contacted this former student and made mention of the WCCB, asked her to think of it as a reason to start playing again and then offered a couple of freebie lessons to help her blow out the cobwebs.

It certainly helps that the musical quality of WCCB is light years beyond what it was 6 years ago. (…as I proof read this, the WCCB has just cleaned up at the 2017 NZCBA Festival with best band, best performance piece and best performance of the set work).

A return to the place I teach was quite nostalgic for the student. The venue was the same but I guess everything seemed a bit smaller given that she’s taller. “Even the vending machine is still the same!” she noted. “I bet some of the overpriced chocolate bars are probably the same too.” I replied.

One could say she was my biggest fan; the guy that played in a ska band, worked for Serato and, yes, she said it, looked like what Harry Potter should have grown up to look like (I used to wear glasses and my 6ft 2″ frame would tower over Daniel Radcliffe).

Will she persist and join the band? Maybe, maybe not, but hey, I got her to get a saxophone out again and for the time being, she’s have a good time belting out some notes.

Work Hazard

While the U.S. bleats on about health care reform, New Zealand, thankfully, has it’s own universal ‘no fault’ accident coverage that works just fine. The Accident Compensation Corporation is a government entity of which we all pay into via tax on our earned income. If we come a cropper, the ACC will not only pay for treatment to your injury but will compensate you for a large portion of you income while you’re off work.

Good luck getting something like ACC working in a place like the US with its litigious culture and anti-democratic-socialist morons in Congress. The whole point of ACC is it’s ‘no fault.’ If a neighbour slips and breaks a leg on my slippery driveway, I won’t be sued and the neighbour will be patched up at no cost to them.

What has this got to do with music (and clarinet playing).


I went to the dentist and the hygienist noticed some very fine cracks in my top teeth that she could only see with the light at a particular angle. I’m pretty sure I’d noticed them before but I just figured I was getting old and teeth just did that over time.

“Cracks don’t happen like that naturally, they’ve had some kind of trauma.”

Not being someone that gets into fights or gets smashed up playing rugby, there was only one thing that stood out as a possibility for the cause of the cracks.

Teeth versus clarinet mouthpiece.

On occasion, likely from sheer absent mindedness, I’ve gone to put my clarinet in my mouth and completely missed. It sounds completely absurd but it happens and the result is smashing my mouthpiece against my top teeth. Those tiny chips at the top of my mouth piece aren’t there from dropping it, those are from full on dental collisions.

It turns out that my teeth didn’t get away scot-free after all and now I have teeth with trauma.

In comes ACC.

At the behest of the hygienist (and the actual dentist who was brought in to confirm her suspicions), X-Rays were taken and I filled out an ACC form to explain how the injury came about. A few days later, the ACC sends back it’s fantastically consistent replies.

“…We’re sorry to here about your injury…

“Based on the information provided, we’re pleased to confirm  that we’ve accepted your injury for cover.”

And this is why ACC is freakn’ awesome. It’s not so much about the current trauma, it’s that, now that a claim number is against this injury, any subsequent flow on damage that occurs, say, if the teeth completely crack and cause (as the dentist said) a $3000 bill, I’m covered. Phew.

And I know the system works. In 2001, at the age of 17, I had repair work done on a chipped molar courtesy of a tackle I made while playing bull rush (dental for under 18s is free in NZ). 15 years later, that repair work chipped away a bit and it was (because the claim number existed) fixed by the dentist free of charge.

Hurray for my taxes doing what they’re supposed to do.