The rewards of playing with earplugs

I just had a great lesson with Emily Bacon, who has studied with me for a little over a year.

She is finally done with all her music school auditions, so we could move beyond the material required for those. (as much as I love the process of preparing music with a deadline, it hampers the real learning process, which has it's own timetable)

We had nothing scheduled to work on during today's lesson, so our time was a blank slate.

I decided to review some basic techniques with her. I gave her two exercises. The first is to play a chromatic scale, 16th notes, 3 octaves, and to articulate every other 16th. (tongue the first note, then slur two note groups all the way up, so the articulation is a 16th off the beat) This allows the player to keep the tongue very light and to emphasize the quality of air and voicing throughout the range of the instrument.


The second exercise is inspired by the first Parez Scale Book. C scale, slurred, one 8th and 16ths one octave up to an 8th at the top, stop-tongued, then an 8th on the lower octave C, stop-tongued. (I'll write this out and post it below). Then the same scale on D (still a C scale), then the same on each note up the C scale. Then reverse and start from the top C coming down.


After we had reviewed and stabilized these two exercises, keeping the basics in mind (lose, open jaw, soft throat, soft "sinuses", high back of tongue), I suggested a radical idea: playing with earplugs in!

What I love about Emily is her willingness to try something new and different. And she doesn't just go through the motions, she really gives it a good shot, and she also trusts that I have some logic in mind.

So she put in some earplugs and played a few notes. "Ew, it sounds awful!" was the first, and expected, response. Then I had her play the exercises we had practiced before, and told her to trust the feeling of a soft open jaw, soft throat and sinuses and a high tongue. And she sounded GREAT! (to me, that is, since she could not tell how she sounded, only how it felt)

We continued, with earplugs in, by playing through some standard excerpts, such as the slow movement of Brahms 3rd symphony. When ever something didn't sound right, I reminded her of the feeling of the basics, and it immediately improved.

I also recorded her playing these excerpts with the plugs in, so she could hear how good she sounded.

She then removed the earplugs and continued to play "by feel", not allowing what she heard to influence how it felt. And, Voila!, she continued to sound really wonderful, with lots of ring in the sound all the way up the range, with perky articulations, clear attacks and releases of mid-range notes.

Today was the most rewarding kind of teaching, when a fresh idea takes root in a wonderfully receptive student. Thank you, Emily!

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2 comments for “The rewards of playing with earplugs

  1. March 16, 2009 at

    @Allen G: HI. Welcome. Glad you found me. I’m fascinated that you came to the same conclusion! I sometimes think of myself as a “nutty professor”, coming up with good ideas which hardly anyone understands!!

    Thanks for stopping by.


  2. Allen G
    March 16, 2009 at

    David, I’m learning clarinet in my retirement. A while back, it occurred to me to try practicing with ear plugs, and I was amazed at how relaxed and liberated it made me feel. Also, it seems to help a lot let me know where the clarinet wants to be played to be in best in tune through the whole range.

    Today it dawned on me that someone else must be practicing with ear plugs, and Google lead me to this page and your other one describing how you stumbled upon it. Your descritions of the benefits and how to carry them into one’s regular playing are helpful. Also, your using the ear plugs to help in selecting mouthpiece and barrel was interesting. Thank you.

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