Monday, December 13, 2010

Latest Greatest Practice Tools

In my never-ending quest to carry as little as possible with me, I’ve started using my iPod Touch to substitute for other devices such as a metronome, tuner, and recorder. I’ve got a 2nd generation and the battery life is pretty horrible sometimes, but the apps are getting better and better, and this iPod can truly function well as a practice buddy.
That said, I have mixed feelings about recommending my students use their phones as their tuners and metronomes, because I know how distracting these devices are. I’m not sure a cell phone belongs in the practice room with some of my students, as addicted as they seem to text messaging and such. 
Assuming that you use self control or turn of the internet and phone functions on your iPod touch or iPhone, here are my favorite practice tool apps for these devices:
  1. Clockwork: Metronome with a bell sound for accented beats. Easy controls with all the control of accents and divisions of the beat that I need. Love it so much, that it inspired me to buy a real metronome with a bell sound. I also have the Tempo app by Frozen Ape which also works well. The nice thing about Tempo is that all the stuff you select is on the home screen.
  1. iStrobosoft: Virtual strobe tuner by Peterson. I have to use a cheap little thumb tack microphone to use it, and I think that the Peterson site sells a hook up that you attach to your instrument. Regular hookup microphones don’t work. It’s just as good as my Peterson V-SAM virtual strobe tuner - actually a million times better, because it isn’t broken!!! The Cleartune tuner app also works nicely for a different look. 
  1. Amazing Slow Downer: This app slows down the speed of sound files so that you can practice your music at a reasonable practice tempo. I’ve been doing this kind of thing for years and years with the Amazing Slow Downer Mac app, Quicktime Pro, and SmartMusic, but having a super customizable easy-to-use tempo (and pitch) adjuster on my iPod is wonderful. You need to use headphones with this to hear the music as you play, but a cheap pair of foam headphones will allow you to listen to the music and your clarinet sound. 
  1. iTalk lite: I use my iPod Touch to record rehearsals almost as much as I use my Zoom H2, which is a far superior recording tool. iTalk allows me to get a decent enough recording that I can hear balance and tone and other stuff, and the iTalk software can send the recording to my computer. Alternately, you can also use Voice Memos on your iPod, which sends the recording automatically to iTunes when you sync. I just started using Voice Memos when I lost my iPod Touch for a month, and I had to use my iPod classic to record with a Belkin TuneTalk Stereo. The Belkin device fits on my iPod Touch as well, and probably records better than the thumbtack microphone. Not sure, but I will vouch for the Zoom as being my quality recording device of choice!
Also, there are some fun applications to develop your ear training skills as well. I’ve been using a couple of them to pass the time when I’m stuck somewhere. Might as well practice my intervals and chord qualities while I’m waiting at the doctor’s office - it’s as fun as most games.

Update: Here's another app I'm using right now to track my practice time. It's called Musician's Practice Journal, and it has a color coded graph that shows practice time from day to day. It motivates me when I'm tired in the evening after teaching to get my practicing done. (Monday, January 31, 2011 - 07:38 PM)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Hanukkah Music - Take Three

Today, the extended clarinet choir at WCU (21 players) performed my latest version of Hanukkah Music at the annual School of Music “Sounds of the Season” concert. You can hear our live performance complete with audience participation (lots of coughing, footsteps, and a baby screaming) here - scroll down to the bottom of the page.
I wanted to round out my two part piece by adding a third Hanukkah standard: Rock of Ages. To keep it fresh, I added some early polyphony in fourths, polytonality, and a Renaissance dance section with finger cymbals and drum. We celebrated the Festival of Lights by having clarinetists wear strings of lights. The new LED strings of lights really put out some light! (Hope to have a photo up soon.)
Anyway, we had a good time playing this, and the concert is all for a good cause: music scholarships for music majors at Western Carolina University.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Goodbye Orange Cat

Not about clarinets, but important to me:
Our cat Austin went missing last Monday, and my husband and I and our other cats are in the process of grieving for the big orange problem child we had for twelve years. It’s very quiet in our house without Austin’s monkey meows and amplified purrs....

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Richard MacDowell in Cullowhee

I’m probably going to get into trouble for posting this photo (doctored up courtesy of my husband Odell and Photoshop), but I think it’s really funny. Check out the tattoo on the hand.
Anyway Richard MacDowell’s visiting as guest artist at WCU this next week, and I’m really excited to have him here to play and work with my students. Here’s a link to some videos of his teaching: 
And here’s some information on the concert and masterclass he’s doing at WCU.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Fake Clarinet

The photo at right is from a painting by my colleague Bruce Frazier. I love the vibrant colors he uses and how he distorts the clarinet to make it look like it is alive.
I want to share an experience yesterday that really affected me:
Something was fishy the moment she handed me the clarinet: it looked like a clarinet, but it didn't feel like a clarinet. The metal keys bent too easily, and the pads had this rounded look like they were all bloated. The barrel seemed almost too tight for the upper joint - a common problem for wooden clarinets, but not synthetics like this. I slipped my mouthpiece on the clarinet and blew into it. It sounded the opposite of roundness, like edgy cardboard; and I had to press hard to get the lower pads to begin to seal. The chromatic scale was just an approximation, and not in the usual Boehm way. The 12th from low E to B was literally a 12.5! I won't reveal the brand name, and I don't remember it anyway. 
What a tragedy for a student to use one of these instruments thinking that he or she is actually playing a clarinet. Imagine the crazy changes to one's embouchure and technique one would have to do to make this instrument sound acceptable within a school band. A young clarinetist must feel horrible about himself or herself as a musician, since the instrument makes it impossible to match the normal sounds of students playing on “real” clarinets. These instruments should be outlawed, and the people selling them to young musicians and their unsuspecting parents should go to jail. It's hard enough to play with the right embouchure, air support, finger position, and have a good reed. A fake clarinet just kills the whole dream of music-making. 

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Clarinetfest 2010 - a few impressions

Richard MacDowell and I
Here are a few quick impressions from Clarinetfest in Austin:
  • Amazing playing by dueling virtuoso hosts Richard MacDowell and Nathan Williams: they sounded more like the headliners than the guys organizing the conference! 
  • New discoveries: Spanish clarinetist José Franch-Ballester delivered a flawless and invigorating Copland Concerto.  Bulgarian clarinetist Vanguel Tangarov is the upcoming clarinetist to watch - fantastic control of the instrument and gorgeous sound. 
  • American clarinetists need to take a lesson from Sergio Bosi on how to keep an audience entertained.
  • I never tire of the Mozart, Weber, and Brahms quintets when they are played well.
  • Chris Howard persuaded me that Roshanne Etezady’s Glint for clarinet and saxophone IS worth learning.
  • I was almost convinced to take a second look at the second Spohr Concerto - quite a stretch for me - thanks to the magnificent artistry of Philippe Cuper. Word of advice: don’t yell “Philippe” in the hallway when Philippe Cuper is walking by, because he might actually hear you and turn around.
  • Young Artist Competition: every one demonstrated great accomplishment and excellent sounds - yay! A little advice, however: learn the Baroque - early Classical style of Johann Stamitz, and make sure your cadenza reflects the harmonic and melodic style of the period. 
  • Mike Lowenstern is the bomb (on harmonica too), and he left the audience wanting more with a late afternoon recital under 30 minutes. Class act!
  • And one really sad note: David Etheridge, the beloved organizer of the beloved annual Oklahoma Symposiums at OU died Thursday after a shockingly short bout with cancer. He was very kind to me in past conventions, sending me my misplaced camera, and even providing me with a tape recorder and tape when I interviewed Tony Gigliotti for my doctoral treatise. David will be greatly missed, and his shoes will be difficult to fill.
There is so much more I heard and loved, and I’m sorry that I didn’t include others. It was great to see and hear so many old friends and meet and hear some new ones at the school I did my doctorate! I am so proud of earning my DMA from the UT Austin School of Music. There are so many fine people there and I learned so much there. It really means a lot to me that the Clarinetfest was at UT - despite the humidity and almost 100 degree heat outside!
The photo above is my teacher and friend Richard MacDowell and I on Friday, the day I played. I look so happy - it must have been after I played!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

ClarinetFest 2010

I was going to title this entry “insomnia,” because that is the reason I am writing this at 1:30am.  In lieu of ambien, I decided to continue on the off chance that someone actually reads this before next week and is inspired to hop on a plane to Austin!
As I’ve said before on this blog, I’m going to ClarinetFest this year, which is going to be held at the University of Texas at Austin July 21st-26th. Austin is my former and most favorite hometown, and I probably would have never left had I not found this wonderful job opportunity at Western Carolina University in the beautiful Smoky Mountains. 
For the uninitiated, ClarinetFest is the annual conference of the International Clarinet Association. It traditionally takes place every summer two years in a row in the United States and every third year in another country. I attended my first ClarinetFest in 1989 in Minneapolis, and that experience changed my life: it showed me the real clarinet world and I got to hear SO MANY fine clarinet players. Minneapolis is where I first heard Richard MacDowell’s amazing sound and dramatic playing, and it’s what led me to study with him at the University of Texas. 
Since 1989, I’ve been to ClarinetFests in Tempe, Lubbock, Norman, Salt Lake City, DC, and Atlanta. Each experience has changed me in ways I would have never imagined. As has another clarinet conference I’ve attended multiple times and highly recommend: the Oklahoma Clarinet Symposium.

I consider the ClarinetFest mandatory for any clarinetist who has aspirations to be a professional performer. I know I will get some protests from my students for saying this, but most of the clarinet students at Western Carolina University have a pretty narrow view of the clarinet world and what you have to accomplish to get your foot in the door and keep it there as a performer. They need world perspective - and ClarinetFest has it!
Yes, it’s true that at WCU I play for my students, so does the other faculty, and we also have fine guest artists here. My students also live on YouTube, etc., and that’s great, but... it’s just not the same as communing with other clarinetists from around the world and hearing and seeing great clarinetists live. ClarinetFest is where and when the real turning point in my thinking and playing occurred in my own career. It’s the point when I decided to go for it full blast and start my doctoral degree in clarinet performance.

Let me just give you a glimpse of a few of many great experiences I’ve had at clarinet conferences:
Ricardo Morales opened the Tempe conference by playing every French clarinet show piece imaginable: Bozza, Widor, Messager, Saint Saens, etc. Before that time, I always heard Saint Saens as a student piece. He really turned that conception on its head, and ever since, his brisk tempos and intensity are part of my own performances of this work. 
The first time I heard Alessandro Carbonare and Andrea Dindo in Norman, Oklahoma, I remember someone (I think it was Burt Hara) suggesting on the way out that they should have provided trash cans so that we could throw our clarinets in them as we left the concert. It was that incredible - absolutely breath-taking! Alessandro was inspiring and ALL ABOUT EXPRESSION. His playing inspired me to learn the Lovreglio La Traviata Fantasy and play really softly. Alessandro’s tone reminded me of that of Harold Wright, whom I heard numerous times, but his musicianship is all his own! I’ve heard most of the best clarinetists in the world play in concerts, and I can honestly say that the top three clarinet concerts I’ve heard were played by Alessandro Carbonare. He’s the ultimate showman with no smoke and mirrors - it’s all genuine heart-felt fantastic clarinet playing!
I’ve heard many masterclasses at conventions by fine clarinetists, and there’s always something to learn from everybody. Some people who stick out in my mind as excellent masterclass teachers are Eddie Daniels (what energy!), Loren Kitt, Richie Hawley, Burt Hara, Bil Jackson, and the great pedagogue and player Larry Combs, who really knows how to put it all together.
While you are at Clarinetfest, don’t skip the competitions - plan to see at least one round of orchestral or solo competitions. There’s usually some public feedback or written comments from the judges, but just listening to the contestants is enough to teach loads of useful information to both teachers and performers.
And then there’s the exhibitors: LOVE THEM! I am as bad as the next person when it comes to collecting clarinet equipment (actually probably worse). I don’t want to be a bad influence on others, but I do want to put in a good word for my very favorite tried and true vendors that are scheduled to be at the ClarinetFest 2010:
Mouthpiece Makers: Brad Behn and Walter Grabner - excellent mouthpieces, totally different from each other, both great stuff. Brad’s doing some new mouthpiece material designs that you must try.
Buffet Clarinets: Lisa’s Clarinet Shop - my favorite clarinet chooser.
My favorite every kind of equipment vendor: Muncy Winds (Phil and his rocker wife Pam) from Western North Carolina!
Annette Luyben at Luyben Music Shop, home of the former official poodle greeter named Bonade after Annette’s father’s great teacher. Annette will find you whatever clarinet music you want.
Please feel free to contact me with any questions, or say “hello” at the convention. Barring margarita breaks (aka Mexican martini: Cedar Door - best, Trudy’s Tex-Mex and El Arroyo - often sampled and recommended), I’ll be at ClarinetFest the whole time. I’m playing Clara Schumann’s Romances at the ClarinetFest on Friday, July 23rd (my wedding anniversary) around 4pm. 

Note: The photo at the top is the WCU clarinet section on NC tour in 2009. It’s totally unrelated, except everyone’s playing the CLARINET.
The photo is of my student Leanna Smith performing the Rondo from Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto with the Western Carolina Civic Orchestra. Leanna’s going to be at ClarinetFest 2010!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Practice, Practice, Practice: Favorite Exercises

I’ve been back to practicing after a long break. It’s always difficult to motivate myself to play the clarinet to prepare for something immediate, but these less busy times are also some of the best times to read new repertoire and practice more thoughtfully. 

I am a firm believer in scales and exercises and spending at least twenty minutes (usually more) at the beginning of every day’s practice doing this. This is not always popular with my students, but those who do it build a solid foundation of sound production and technical skills. I tell my students that if you only have time to practice one thing on a busy day, make it warm up exercises. Biting embouchures, messy finger technique, and overactive tongues tend to reappear if you don’t do daily, thoughtful practice in this area. 

To vary my routine, I use many different materials, but I do have a few favorites: Some days when I really need to work on my sound, I spend the entire first 30 minutes on Klose low register exercises just focusing on maintaining a round embouchure and strong air. If I need to get my fingers moving and have limited time to warm up, I play the Klose scale etude (all majors and minors in one etude). This is memorized, so I don’t have to find the music. See this IMSLP link to download a public domain version of the complete Klose. The scale etude is on page 97 and the low register exercises starts on page 177. 

My favorite Klose exercise is a progressive interval study I found in an obscure French edition that I will share with you if you would like to email me. It’s definitely advanced reading - with all the accidentals, double flats, and such, but it’s well worth learning to build up your ability to keep the embouchure steady and air going through large intervals. Another essential that I carry with me everywhere is Paul Jeanjean’s “Vade-Mecum” du Clarinettiste. I play the first three exercises at least twice a week. The first exercise is for isolating finger technique and it’s easily memorized. The second exercise concentrates on the left hand and the third exercise concentrates on the right. I promise you that if you do these with great care to keep your fingers close to the clarinet and moving economically (from the back knuckle), you won’t find anything better to improve your finger technique. Warning: this book also includes a lot of accidentals, and you’ve got to do some French translation. See to find the Jeanjean. It is not public domain, so you need to purchase it. I’ve bought two myself, since the first got so worn from use. 

The photo above shows my practice desk at home. It’s originally a child’s desk, but it works great for my purposes. The roll top allows me to protect my reed water from becoming a cat water bowl!

Monday, May 24, 2010


After living in Western North Carolina for thirteen years, this feels as much like home as any place to me. But, I still have connections to other places that I’ve lived; and this year, I was able to return to some of my favorite former homes, and make some music too. 
In October, I traveled back to Portland (my hometown) and the University of Oregon in Eugene. Although I was officially there to perform at the College Music Society National Conference, it was the perfect opportunity to visit family and friends, as well as perform recitals in both Portland and Eugene. It
was wonderful to reconnect with two of the most influential people in my life: my middle school band director and high school clarinet teacher, Stan George, and my undergraduate clarinet teacher, Wayne Bennett. (That’s Wayne in the picture of me showing off his expert dancing skills after my concert at the UO School of Music’s Beall Hall.)
In July, I will perform at ClarinetFest 2010 which is going to be held at the University of Texas in Austin, where I lived for seven years when I did my doctorate. Not only will I get the chance to commune with the great people of the clarinet world, but I also get to visit with the other clarinet gurus of my life: Richard MacDowell (at UT Austin) and Michael Webster (Rice University), whom I studied with in Boston.