Intimacy with your Instrument, part 2

If you think of intimacy with a person, the first words that come to mind are commitment, trust and communication. Also, to be close to someone, you need to know yourself first. That in itself is a lifelong process. No matter how compatible a couple might be, there will be problems: misunderstandings, a build up of bad memories, and plain complacency and boredom. All these things can kill a relationship if left unresolved. It is the same for your long term relationship with your instrument.

After graduating from Northwestern, I knew a lot about how I wanted to play the clarinet, and how others had accomplished that goal, but I didn't know myself very well yet, and though I played well, I didn't know my instrument very deeply. To carry the analogy of a human relationship further, it was as if, during eight years of private study I had been told by a very wise but dominant mother in law how to best relate to my partner, the clarinet.

During my year in Greensboro, I had plenty of time to be alone with the clarinet. The job only entailed 6 or 7 concerts and a dozen or so quintet gigs. It gave me a structure and some cash, but it was far from full time. Luckily my parents still helped out financially, so I didn't need to seek other work and could focus on mastering clarinet.

I thought a lot about what I wanted to accomplish on the instrument. I knew how to sound good on it, but only with a lot of effort. In my attempts to sound and look like Robert Marcellus I had lost flexibility and adaptability. So rather than continue along that path, I threw out the idea of sounding a particular way, and strove for physical composure and balance.

At some point I wrote a few notes summing up the ideas I employed during many of my practice sessions. These ideas can easily be translated into a set of simple guidelines for any relationship.

1- Hear, Don't Listen. The Ideal (sound) is always in your ear. You will move toward it, so don't struggle with it. Let it happen. When I found my notes years later, I was perplexed by what I had meant by "hear, don't listen". But after studying the Alexander Technique for the past few years, I rediscovered the importance of keeping judgment out of self-analysis in any relationship. When interacting with your instrument, avoid all judgment of good, bad, right and wrong. Your goal is self-evident. Your love of music, your instrument or your partner is the ideal which will promote your development. If you stumble over every little mishap and error, you'll lose sight of that goal very quickly and will get tangled in a morass of sticky judgment.

2- The breath should feel like a two way tube going from the bottom of the gut to the end of the instrument, at all times, especially during articulation. This advice obviously applies only to wind instrument players. Even so, I puzzled at the meaning of this strange image from years ago. Here again, the Alexander Technique helped me find a more concise and relevant way to put it. Breath support is just that, nothing else. It's not breath "force" or breath "rigidity". When the breath is let out, it is balanced by the resistance of the instrument. When this balance of resistance is accomplished, it does in fact feel like a two way tube! In a personal relationship, this particular advice might be translated to mean: give and take. You cannot push harder than the other is able to handle. It's counter productive.

3- Play with your whole body. This advice seems obvious, but few of us follow it. We play the instrument using a bunch of rules about how to play or not play, forgetting our direct involvement all all times. Some of us think, "once learned, that's it." Others approach the instrument daily with fear and anxiety. A relationship, whether with a person or an instrument, is never "finished" or "complete". It's a continuous process. Every time you play, it's a new experience. Leave the baggage behind and travel light. Look forward not back.

Beyond the above advice, some other ideas came to mind while re-examining my relationship with the clarinet the past few years. Try new equipment (with caution) and techniques to keep things fresh. I've been dabbling with mouthpieces and have learned the hard way to be circumspect before changing equipment. I'll soon be writing a post about that experience, but I still stand by the suggestion to try new toys. They teach you to be flexible and adaptive. I've also been experimenting with new techniques such as double tonguing and circular breathing, not because they will make me a better musician, but because they keep me humble about my abilities. There's always something more to be learned.

I also improvise occasionally, very late at night when no one is around, with the windows all shut. I have never been comfortable with improvising, but I know it's the best way to free up one's playing, both physically and mentally.

To be intimate with your instrument you need to trust yourself and play fearlessly. You need to face your limitations with an open mind and delve into problems systematically and without judgment.

Keep your love of music in sight. If you lose that, you lose direction. That's the hardest one for me as a long time player. It's easy to become jaded and resentful of the repetition involved in maintaining high playing standards. It's difficult to keep attitude and playing fresh. Writing about it or talking about it helps. Playing voluntary (unpaid) recitals is a great way to stay fresh.

Don't ever just play. Make music.

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4 comments for “Intimacy with your Instrument, part 2

  1. October 10, 2009 at

    "Very late at night when no one is around, with all the windows shut …" Oh my goodness! What must you have thought of me, putting my haphazard improvisation on YouTube!!! I guess for a classically-trained musician the idea of improvisation is … searching for words … well, I don't know! Ha-ha. If I couldn't improvise, I'd surely drop both piano and clarinet. Though I WILL say that playing printed music ENHANCES my improvisation, for one thing by causing me to have the feel of a different key "in my hands." The best improvisation comes after playing music. No, for me the free-style "noodling" is life itself. Anyway, fabulous essay as always – thanks!

    • October 10, 2009 at

      For a respected classical player to just start improvising (publicly) risks a potential fall from grace!! I'll do it publicly when I feel comfortable, which is happening. I agree how freeing it is. I need to do it more!!!

  2. October 7, 2009 at

    Ryan, thanks so much for your thoughtful and detailed comment. I think way too many musicians, especially orchestral players, become very bitter and jaded after decades of being merely a cog in the wheel. But you are correct that it's possible to prevent/heal those emotions. I hope I am doing so, over and over, year after year. Struggle yes, give up, no.

  3. October 7, 2009 at

    Your 2nd and 3rd notes are things that singers hear all the time. I love seeing the overlap. In your closing paragraph you talk about how we need to always continue to love music and not let ourselves become jaded. You are so correct I cannot commend you enough. It is difficult to prevent it, but there are so many ways to help. Thank you for your wise words.

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