Tag Archive for clarinet

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!