Five Traits of Great Players

A few months ago I stumbled on an lecture/article from the International Clarinet Society archives which I shared briefly, but did not write about. It's worth reviewing and quoting here because it outlines the map to becoming a great player.

In today's ├╝ber-competitive music world, students must consider the mountain they are climbing. You cannot just be talented, or just work hard, or just have a good teacher. You must have all these, plus a vision of what you wish to become.

A failing of many students these days is to ignore the traditions and accomplishments of great players of the past. Most students take for granted all the modern tools they have at their disposal, such as recordings, electronic metronomes, tuners, machine made mouthpieces, numerous reed and reed tool choices, lots of great teachers, plus the added benefit of books on how athletes train, and the Alexander Technique for how to use the Self. 50 ears ago, recordings were a luxury. Now they are ubiquitous and accessible with a click of a finger.

Few or none of these existed 100 years ago, yet some players broke through the crowd to map new territory for their instrument's technique. How did they stand out? Were they simply geniuses? Lucky?

On the contrary, they worked their asses off PLUS they thought outside the box. They didn't just settle for being the best. Instead they created a whole new level of "best" for everyone else to match.

Students these days often wait for a teacher to solve all their problems for them. If not, the teacher must not be good enough. I try to teach students to identify, isolate and solve their own problems, with my guidance.

The article/lecture outlines and details five traits of truly revolutionary players. Though many of the descriptions are somewhat obvious and mundane, the basic message is clear.

Great players set their goals high and broad, then find a way to fill in all the details through patience and perseverance.

Here is the introduction, including the five traits:

This lecture explains why it is important for musicians to study the greats of the past, understand what made them stand out from their peers and how to apply these traits to themselves. Through brief profiles of Carl Baermann, Ernesto Cavallini and Buddy DeFranco, 5 traits are introduced which today's musicians can develop to improve their musicianship and artistry. Also included is an article called Internalizing the Music which describes the process of learning that these great players go through when practicing.

Five Traits for Today's Musicians to Develop:

1. Playing with spirit and emotion
2. Having a deep theoretical, historical and overall knowledge of music
3. Playing with flawless technical command of instrument
4. Developing an individual style and sound
5. Internalizing the music

My views follow-

1. Play with spirit and emotion- Why are you a musician? What does music do for you? If your answer is "Because I love music.", then why? Keep asking, and when you get to more questions than answers, you are ready to begin the real search for spirit and emotion in music. Listen to every recording of the Mozart Concerto, or whatever piece represents your instrument for you, and pick your favorite one, or two. Then ask yourself as you listen, "Why does this appeal to me?" and/or "What would I do differently?".

2. Have a deep theoretical, historical and overall knowledge of music- This search becomes obvious after pondering the first trait.

3. Play with flawless technical command of instrument- keyword "mastery". It's not about getting the notes, it's about playing the instrument as easily as you walk (which can be an exploration itself). A lot of soul searching is required to face this minefield path. Patience, perseverance, and intelligent problem solving are the keys. Without such exploration, injury and limiting habits are guaranteed. Again, use questions to guide you. "What is causing this technical limitation?" The answer is not merely "more practice", but instead "more practice with better understanding of causes". The cause is often far removed from the symptom, and may stem from mis-use of your whole self. Great players mine these questions with scientific precision and patience, though they may not broadcast it.

4. Develop an individual style and sound- Don't copy; emulate. Marcellus told me that many of his students suffered because they tried to sound like him (including me). Trusting your own internal concept takes courage. You may not sound the way you want right away. But don't give up and return to imitation. I again suggest listening critically to many recordings to create your own "recipe" for sound and style.

5. Internalize the music- Cipolla offers a number of suggestions for doing this. I recommend memorizing a passage almost immediately to engage the more primal memory of the body. I also recommend singing passages to train your ear. (this is especially important for wind players, who, unlike string players, can more or less "push a button" and get a note without hearing it first.

The lecture/article is called Historical Perspectives of Excellence for Clarinetists, by John Cipolla, from the ICA ClarinetFest® 1999, Oostend, Belgium, July 10th, 1999.

Go read it now. Then practice with a new attitude.

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1 comment for “Five Traits of Great Players

  1. sc91
    June 24, 2009 at

    Thank you

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