Ask any musician one thing they wished they could improve, and chances are most will respond with technique. Whether you’re trying to play faster, lighter, or more comfortably, technique is the vehicle that allows us to more comfortably express our musical voices.
The secret to developing great technique is to think of technique-building as musical muscle training. Musicians are athletes, but we train our micro muscles (embouchure, fingers, wrists) instead of our macro muscles. Think of yourself as an athlete in training – listen to your body and don’t push yourself too much too soon. Keep this in mind as you embark on your journey to better technique.
Once you’ve made that mental switch, here is some more advice to help you develop awesome technique:
- It takes time. I get it – we’re all a bit impatient when it comes to technique. We want better technique, like, yesterday. But, like anything else worth pursuing, developing solid and dependable technique takes time. With consistent practice, you should see technical improvements in a matter of weeks, but developing amazing technique is often a lifelong pursuit.
- Listen to your body. Never push yourself faster than feels comfortable. If you feel any pain or discomfort, take a rest (or even a day or two off). Push yourself so you stay motivated, but never exceed the threshold of proper fundamentals. Also make time to stretch, heat, and ice your arms before and after your practice routine. (For what it’s worth, my practice routine is stretching, long tones, THEN technique.)
- Prioritize proper fundamentals before speed. Before you take off like Speed Racer, make sure that you are using correct hand/arm/finger/wrist position. Ergonomics is a super important and often-overlooked aspect of technique, and any fundamental deficiencies will only inhibit your progress. Pro tip: Practice in front of a mirror so you can check your posture and positioning while you practice.
- Good technique is built during the warm-up. Repertoire is not the time to develop technique. Create a proper warm-up routine that incorporates several technique exercises. Make sure you are mentally focused during this portion to optimize improvement. The technical strides you make during the warm-up will carry over into the rep prep portion of your practice routine.
- Start slow. Chances are, you’re probably playing everything too fast at first. As a general rule, I begin my practice of all technical sections at half speed (or even slower, depending on how challenging the passage is). It should feel nice and easy when you first begin work on a new section, to the point it might even feel absurdly slow. If there was a difficulty scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the hardest, you should start at a 0.5. Starting this slowly will allow you to train your muscles without any extra tension – train without strain!
- Repetition is key. Most musicians know that repetition is important, but few musicians actually put this into practice. I like to play every passage, section, or even micro-section at least 3 times in a row correctly at all speeds. (I increase the number of reps depending on the difficult level of the passage).
- Practice good form. Just like athletes, make sure you are practicing all reps with proper form. Even if it sounds good, you might still be incorporating bad habits. Check everything to make sure you’re not carrying over any of these bad habits as you build speed and precision.
- Practice consistently. We all need a break every now and then, but if you find your technique is still not up to par, take a look at your practice streak. Do you practice sporadically or irregularly? If so, you’re not setting the groundwork for optimal technical development.
- Designate technique role models and study the pros. Watch professional musicians on your instrument whose technique you admire and garner what information you can about their tactics. Many famous musicians have already written about their own warm-up routines and technique advice, so incorporate their suggestions into your practice. You can also contact them and/or schedule a lesson to get individualized advice for your technical and musical goals.
- Going too fast too soon. Building great technique is a lot like going to the gym. Let’s say you decide to start weightlifting. You’d probably go to the gym and start with 5-lb weights (or maybe more if you don’t have weak arms like I do), which you’d use for several days or weeks until you build up the requisite muscle mass to move up to the 10-lb weights. You’d repeat the process as you gradually increased the physical demands until you reached your goal weight to lift. Makes sense, non? So why do so many musicians treat technique-building like a sprint instead of a marathon? You must give your muscles time to develop and get used to the physical demands you are placing upon your fingers, hands, wrists, and arms. Technique building is really just musical muscle-building, and if you’re not careful, not only will you hinder your technique, but you could also face some serious musical injuries.
- Not using a metronome. So much of music is subjective – sound and interpretation, for example. But the metronome is a great barometer for technical development and improvement. By regularly using a metronome to track your technical progress, you can clearly see how much faster you’ve gotten on a particular passage or study.
- Not changing it up now and then. A lot of musicians master a few technical studies…and use them for way too long. One of the secrets to developing great technique is alternating technical exercises to keep the muscles engaged and sprightly. Going back to our gym analogy: you should have several reliable rotations to exercise different parts of your body. Or, in our case, different technical shortcomings. For clarinet, I have exercises for left hand, right hand, scales/arpeggios, throat tones, altissimo, and general technique-builders, which I rotate regularly.
- Equating technique with purely speed. Look, don’t get me wrong – speed and technical agility is definitely high up on my wish list of clarinet improvements, but this shouldn’t be the only factor you consider for technique. Great technique is a mixture of agility, nimbleness, flexibility, lightness (or lack of physical tension), smoothness, connection, and the ability to seamlessly utilize all these elements simultaneously. Speed is important, but not at the expense of any of these other considerations.
My favorite clarinet books for technique
Over the years, I’ve found these books to be tried and true throughout my technical journey.
- Paul Jeanjean Vademecum du clarinettiste. The trill studies are always on my daily warm-up routine, and I alternate between the left and right hand studies.
- Carl Baermann Complete Method for Clarinet, Op. 63 Division III. This is one of my all-time favorite scale books. I love it so much I even created the Baermann Boot Camp for you to complete in just a month!
- Fritz Kroepsch 416 Progressive Daily Studies. Challenging but harmonically pleasing, these short exercises will help you develop more solid technique in every key signature. (I also made the Kroepsch Boot Camp if you’d like to complete all four volumes in one month!)
I hope these tips and tricks help. As always, good luck and happy practicing!