We’ve all seen them – the magazines at checkout counters promising wildly unrealistic results for weight loss (lose twenty pounds in one week!), finances (become a millionaire by next year!), or life in general (be the most popular person in any room!). These are certainly enticing but are based on skewed results, making their promises nearly impossible to reproduce. And for the most part, mastering an instrument is no exception. It is the accumulation of years of dedicated practice, critique, performances, and hard work. There is no substitute for this (and if you find one, please let me know!), but enough tiny changes can add up to make a big difference.
Below are ten tips for small improvements to make in under ten seconds-no joke! These details might seem insignificant on their own, but the collective payoff can be major. Read on for my tips and tricks:
- Make sure your chin is parallel to the ground. Too high up or too far down will constrict the air passage, making it harder to optimize your air and breathing.
- Make sure the reed is on straight. If it’s not centered on the table of the mouthpiece, it may cause stuffiness or resistance . Also experiment with how high or low it lies on the mouthpiece. Reed placement might seem nit-picky (after all, you’re probably moving it less than a millimeter), but the results are substantial.
- Change reeds. If you are guilty of using a reed for too long out of habit, comfort, or laziness, the problem is two-fold: 1) The reed is probably warped, blown out, or not as flexible as it used to be. 2) If you’re using the same reed, chances are that you’re not rotating other reeds to prepare in case your beloved reed chips/breaks/dies. I’m sure we’ve all been guilty of using reeds that are comfortable but just a liiiiittttle too stuffy/resistant/dull/thuddy for our own good. Know when a reed has overstayed its welcome.
While we’re on the subject of changing reeds, experiment with a variety of different cuts and strengths. Many clarinetists choose reed strengths and cuts based on teacher preferences, band director recommendations, or peers’ usage, but it is highly individual and will sound different on each setup and with each player. Find the reeds that work best with you and your setup. (For what it’s worth, I am obsessed with the Vandoren V21 reeds – if you haven’t tried them already, do yourself a favor and pick up a box!)
- Count off before you start playing. Tap your foot, sizzle, count in your head – just do what it takes to establish an appropriate tempo. I’m surprised at how simple this is and how much it improves rhythmic stability and precision, yet so few people do this. This also prevents the inevitable “Oh crap, I took this WAYYY too fast!” when you get to the trickier sections.
4a. USE A METRONOME. Your teacher, band director, or whoever else nags you for this is telling you for a reason – it works.
- Sit up straight. No excuses. Poor posture leads to poor playing
- Get the bell out of your knees. Notice that your middle B is flat or resistant? It’s most likely because of this. Playing with the bell in your knees also decreases clarity of sound.
- Adjust your horn angle. A general rule is to keep the bell approximately even with your knees (but not resting on them), but this is not one size fits all since people are different heights. Experiment with moving the bell closer and further away from you to find your optimal horn angle – just make sure that your chin position doesn’t move up or down with the angle of the instrument (refer to first tip).
- Stretch before your warm up. There’s a reason why classes like “Yoga for Musicians” and “Introduction to Alexander Technique” are gaining popularity among musicians – to prevent injuries. Even though we aren’t tackling football players or running marathons (and kudos to you if you are), musicians are especially prone to injuries due to the repetitive nature of practicing and performing. Benjamin Franklin very wisely said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Follow Benny’s lead and take time to stretch before even opening your case.
- Close your eyes. Stuck on a tricky passage? Close your eyes and try again. Sometimes outside stimuli (aka your messy desk to organize, pile of clothes to be laundered, stack of papers to be sorted) can distract us even when we don’t realize it. Closing your eyes might also help by focusing on the tactile element of the passage.
- Put your phone away. Those constant alerts for iMessages, Twitter, Facebook, etc are distracting you more than you are willing to admit. And if you use your phone for a metronome app, put your phone on airplane mode to silence the alerts until you’ve finished practicing.
I hope these tricks help you! I would love to hear what suggestions you have for quick improvements in a short amount of time – leave a comment with your advice below!