Tag Archive for clarinet

Practising – Excellence versus Perfectionism – Part I

The pursuit of perfection

I have just finished reading Glenn Kurtz’s Practicing—A Musician’s Return to Music, a book I think should be added to the list of required reading for anyone seriously considering a career in music, or any vocation in which you give your ultimate all in the pursuit of perfection.

Practicing is striving; practicing is a romance. But practicing is also a risk, a test of character, a threat of deeply personal failure. I warm up my hands and awaken my ears and imagination, developing skill to equal my experience. I listen and concentrate in an effort to make myself better.

Kurtz describes a process parallel to my own (it even includes the classical musician’s obligatory pilgrimage to Viennawere we there within a year of each other?). He recounts the familiar stories of early promise, that music school optimism, the successes, the failures, and then the final and seemingly inevitable descent into musical oblivion. For Kurtz, a classical guitarist, graduation from music school meant a quick nosedive from the Elysian Fields of pure music into the sordid streets of making a living.

For me, I was one of those orchestral players he mentions in his book (the ones who could look forward to a steady paycheque playing with an orchestra). And his take on it is partially true—I certaily held it that the only viable way to be a successful musician was to land an orchestral job. And I seemed off to a good start as after graduation, I landed a job as Principal Clarinet with the Prince George Symphony (a community orchestra with aspirations enough to hire several principal players). Two years later, I quit to follow five years of free-lancing with the Vancouver Symphony (the real deal except of course that I was but an extra).

I lasted only a little longer than Mr. Kurtz before I too lost heart. In my last truly professional year, I auditioned for the Edmonton Symphony, the Hamilton Philharmonic, the Toronto Symphony, the Victoria Symphony, the Portland (Oregon) Symphony, and the Vancouver Symphony managing to come in as semi-finalist with the Toronto Symphony and runner-up finalist with both the Edmonton Symphony and the Hamilton Philharmonic (in back-to-back auditions no less).

The following years were exceedingly dry for clarinet vacancies across Canada with nothing but a Windsor Symphony audition (it actually paid less than the Prince George Symphony) to keep hope alive. After crashing and burning on that one (spectacularly), I was done.

In fact, I would go on being done for several decades to come.


Continued…

Practising – Excellence versus Perfectionism – Part II

…Continued from Part I

When music breaks your heart

But now, I’ve read this book and realise that perhaps I’m not done. Or rather, I realise what it was that I was done with—and what it was was not music.

Concealed in all the careful tutelage of the conservatory system is an almost heartless contempt for the many who can never sustain such standards once they’ve graduated. This system is all about super stars and even more toxically, it’s about perfectionism and conformity. What isn’t destroyed by the conservatory system is put to the torch by the marketplace, which in my case was what I like to call the “Orchestral-Industrial Complex”.

In Kurtz’s Practicing, he once again reflects my journey back to music from the well-intentioned but highly destructive schooling that most musicians undergo. Like mine, his return isn’t a return to the audiences and certainly not the “music industry”, but to the soul of music itself. Practicing is about the musician’s journey back to his first love of music—the quasi-erotic sense of connection that is the essence of music.

As I play the theme of ‘Weeping Willow’ one last time, all my fantasies of success and all the flaws in my character rise again to the surface, my ambition and despair, concentrated in my fingertips. Each impulse, each need and doubt, clamours for expression, a little tyrant demanding its own way. And with each note these urgent demands collide with the limitations of my hands, my instrument, and my imagination. It is the same thing every day, the same as it always was. Yet everything has changed.


Continued…

Practising – Excellence versus Perfectionism – Part III

How do you return?

I was wrestling with the idea of playing music and (just like Kurtz) had the realisation that my playing back in the glory days hadn’t been especially great. The story I’d been telling myself was basically a victim one. I’d done everything I could and was cheated out of what I had deserved (there is a real story of deceit at an audition to prove it too)! But sitting there on the couch wrestling with the problem, I had a sudden dreadful thought. “What if I’m just mediocre?” I asked myself.

But as I listened, my heart sank. Rather than great potential lost to circumstance, I heard a harsh justice. The performance was not as good as I’d remembered. There were mistakes, of course. These were not what bothered me. Recordings accentuate finger slips. Few listners who aren’t also guitarists would hear them during the performance. The mistakes that bothered me now were botched prases, garbled lines that interfered with the music. There performance was full of musical ideas. But no piece was good from start finish.

Naturally, this deeply disturbed me although it was a fresh new thought. The next day, I took a look at that terrible question again and then asked myself “Now, do you still want to play music?” And like a rushing wind the answer “you bet I do” rushed through me. It turned out that the perfection I’d always aspired to was nothing but a chimera—the real goal was simply to play. In fact, to arrive is to die. It turns out that excellence is not a place (like a position in an orchestra), but it’s a feeling, it’s a way of being.

Everyone who gives up a serious childhood dream—lives the rest of their life with a sense of loss, with nagging what ifs. Is that time and effort, that talent and ambition, truly wasted?


Continued…

Practising – Excellence versus Perfectionism – Part IV

It’s About Excellence

 

But Kurtz’s Practicing is quickly becoming an important way-station in journey that has caused me to question my earlier life-choice to bail on music. Discovering the tárogató was another as was the long-awaited acknowledgement from the music establishment in the form of a BC Arts Council grant, but Practicing condensed all these little positive experiences into a sense that I wasn’t the problem, and certainly music wasn’t the problem—in fact, there really is no problem that a little practising can’t solve.

What I’d forgotten was just as music is a reward in itself (music has no goal other than to be music), my greatest satisfaction in being a musician was in the pursuit of excellence. Somehow that was skewed into the pursuit of perfection, but they’re utterly dissimilar. Where perfectionism is an unrelenting yet unattainable goal, pursuing excellence itself is the goal.

Nerdy good times – a tárogatónist’s confessional

Nerdy-Good-Times

Quite apart from being unquestionably sexy and having a reputation as savvy trendsetters, musicians also have a nerdy side. When string players visit their favourite luthier to have their bows rehaired, they will talk with disturbingly fevered intensity about the relative merits of Appaloosa over Arabian horse hair required for the job. Pianists tie rubber bands to their fingers to increase dexterity, and are known to also have preferred rubber band manufacturers, about whom they argue on Internet forums. Of course, none are worse than oboists who have no social life whatsoever. How could they? They spend the greater part of their lives sealed up in basement cells shaving their reeds down to a microscopic fineness; then, emerge only to perform and complain about how much more work they need to do to achieve reed perfection. To a lesser degree, it’s the same for other woodwind players of reed instruments: As a rule, most reed players can’t tell a bad reed from a bad week.

By taking up the tárogató, I seem to have painted myself into a particularly arcane corner (even by musician standards), so it’s no surprise that I too find myself just as prone to the same sort of nerdy obsessiveness as what dogs players of other instruments. It was inevitable.

Studio

Working on Adam Hill’s “I Will Stay Here” for tárogató and electronics

When I commissioned my tárogató from Toth & Tarsa of Budapest, I was provided with a deluxe menu of options similar to what you might expect when purchasing a custom Tesla or investing in a teak plantation. I could choose the wood (cocobolo), the fingering system (I chose the German Albert system over the French Boehm only because I’d been playing a borrowed Albert system tárogató prior to investing in my own horn), and the mouthpiece style (I naturally chose one that would take a clarinet reed over one that took a soprano saxophone reed—there are no tárogató reeds).

My tárogató's birthplace - Budapest, Hungary

My tárogató’s birthplace – Toth & Tarsa, Budapest, Hungary

When my tárogató arrived, I was delirious with joy and didn’t mind some of its funky tuning (“hey, it’s a folk instrument!”) and its limited range (only two octaves compared with four on the clarinet). Gradually, however, that nerdy musician thinking started to peer into the room and make suggestions about how—if only I tweaked this or bought that—my playing would improve unstoppably.

All my neighbours are out of earshot of my practising, so it is to their good fortune that they missed out on the months of squawking that transpired as I attempted to extend the range of the instrument. While clarinettists can chose from a number of method books that contain vast anthologies of fingerings for every note on the clarinet (I have one such book with over forty fingers alone for the altissimo G#), the tárogatónist must contend with a miserable starter’s fingering chart displaying but one fingering per note. Working on the two new works I commissioned from Jeffrey Ryan and Adam Hill forced me to extremes, so thanks to them and a lot of aforementioned squawking, I have now amassed quite a handsome new chart of tárogató fingerings.

Tarogato-fingering-chart_Jason-Hall

Caution should be taken when attempting these fingerings as they have only been tested on the Albert system tárogató (nobody knows for sure what would happen on a Boehm system tárogató).

Just as tárogató reeds are not known to exist, tárogató mouthpieces are a rarity. You can’t just march into your local guitar and drums music store and demand to see their display of tárogató mouthpieces.

LOTR_tarogato

My tárogató came from Budapest with a pleasant sounding mouthpiece, but with nothing to compare it against, I really couldn’t be sure if it was good or not. My quest for a superior mouthpiece led me to Dr. Ed Pillinger of Middlesex, England.

Dr. Ed is a skilled craftsman who spends most of his days whittling away at custom clarinet and saxophone mouthpieces. But every now and then, some tárogató-wielding colonial who’s heard he makes a good Stowasser copy, rings him up. I now have two “Pillingers”: one is pitched at about A445 (European pitch), whilst the other is pitched appropriately for North America at A440. The doctor and I had to find a cure in the latter one when the former one proved untunable and untenable with piano (or anybody on this side of the pond).

Pillinger-mouthpieces

Photographed on arrival (nothing makes social-media light up like the arrival of new tárogató mouthpieces).

With all this nerdiness now becoming a fixture in my life, I was instantly smitten when clarinettist François Houle let me try his new Ishimori Kodama II ligature (the thingy that holds the reed onto the mouthpiece). Smitten enough that I couldn’t be stopped until one of these babies was flying its way to me from Japan (of all places).

Ligature-instructions

Ishimori & Co. wins “World’s Shortest User Guide” award for 2017.

All of these marvels together has done much to strengthen the tuning of the instrument (no more excuses) and improve my confidence in the upper register. I’ve yet to start affixing tape into tone holes, a laborious practice to coax individual notes into pitch by adding successive layers of electrician’s tape (or as I’ve recently learned, “Kapton tape” available at any fine purveyor of model train accessories). Tone-hole taping will undoubtedly commence once all the new equipment has had time to settle in.

Tarogato-setup

A marvel to behold – New Pillinger mouthpiece with even newer Ishimori ligature.

So if ever you have romantic thoughts of the life of a musician as some care-free communion with the muse, think again: Musicians are about the nerdiest people you’ll ever meet.


Jason plays a custom Albert-system cocobolo tárogató made by Toth & Tarsa of Budapest, Hungary, a replica Stowasser mouthpiece by Pillinger Mouthpieces of Middlesex, UK, a Kodama II ligature by Ishimori Wind Instruments of Tokyo, Japan, and Légère Signature synthetic reeds formulated by Guy Légère of Montréal, Canada.

Tarogato-Project-logo

On 30 April 2017 (4pm),
The Tárogató Project and St. Philip’s Church (Dunbar) presents
“REFUGE”
a concert of Hungarian music and stories (old and new)
of refugees to Vancouver.
St. Philip’s Anglican Church,
3737 27th Avenue West,
Vancouver, BC, Canada

My Six Keys to Achieving Excellence

I just read Tony Schwartz’s recent blog on the Harvard Business Review describing the six keys to achieving excellence. I enjoyed it and was inspired. Then, I thought how my music training, apart from providing a lifetime of enjoyment playing music, has given me a first-hand experience achieving excellence. Sometimes, I forget that not all people have had that excellence, so they don’t know why things are tough or don’t they don’t get the results they want.

I’ve taken Mr. Schwartz’s six points and applied them to my experience in music to draw some inspiration in other areas of my life where I feel, er, less accomplished:

  1. Pursue what you love. This is a no brainer as nobody in their right mind would pursue music for any reason other than he or she loves it. A couple of years ago when I started questioning the wisdom of leaving a promising career as an orchestral musician for technical writing (what?), I had an epiphany that has helped me rejig my career back into something I can say I love.
    I was using my head to make big decisions (what shall to do with my life?) and my heart to make small ones (what should I have for lunch today?). I should have been doing the exact opposite.
    I realized I’d been directing my life to things that were rational and, um, boring instead of inspiring. On a daily basis, I was being capricious in a way that was essentially undermining my plans. I needed to start doing the exact reverse: plan my life from my heart and my daily affairs from my head. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” — “Practice!”
  2. Do the hardest work first. In music, the fastest way to do something is slowly. Orchestral musicians meticulously dissect a passage of music until they can play it with ease. Getting to the ease part can take a long time and a lot of patience, but things don’t necessarily come easy—even in music.
  3. Practice intensely, I think people imagine that playing music is relaxing. Well, it is but only after conquering the Himalayan peaks of practice. I don’t know whether musicians practice because they love music or they love music because they practice so much. I think I practiced my way into loving music. It became all consuming in the best possible way. Don’t do things by half measure.
  4. Seek expert feedback, in intermittent doses. There is nothing so humbling as bearing your soul before a more accomplished musician. I’ve always been suspicious of the self-taught musician. How can anyone grow surrounded only by there own opinions and habits? There’s no better way to acquire new abilities and to go beyond what you thought yourself capable of than by seeking out an expert to help you reach your goals.
  5. Take regular renewal breaks.When I studied at the Banff Centre for the Arts, we would play chamber music in the morning and then go skiing in the afternoon. By the next day we were indeed renewed. Besides, when you’re doing what you love (or loving what you do), you’re integrating new information all the time—even when you’re asleep.
  6. Ritualize practice. As a musician, I really liked playing scales. It was like a morning ritual. I had the most brutally difficult study book I’d found somewhere. It was called, “Vade Mecum” which I think means “Take along companion” and it was actually written for flute. It included every possible scale and arpeggio configuration in every register. Two hours of that and I felt like I could wrestle a bear!