Breaking it down

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Every Sunday, when I have no work commitments, no band rehearsals and nothing written in stone on my schedule, I sit down to have an intensive clarinet practice that can go on for hours.  This is when I take a long, hard look at passages that are giving me trouble, and deconstruct them in fine detail.

There’s something daunting about seeing lots of ink on a page of music, for instance a manic flurry of 16th notes that goes on for several bars.  Usually when I take the time to examine it, it turns out to be a fairly simple repeating pattern and I only need to study one or two bars of it to get the gist of it.  The rest of the time, it’s probably something I know well under another name — An E minor scale, or a B flat arpeggio, or a chromatic sequence between two notes.

Tricky rhythms are not so obvious.  Whenever there’s syncopation, with notes falling between the beats instead of on them, the first thing I do is find out where the beats actually are.  I keep a pencil on the music stand and use it to mark the underlying rhythmic structure, so that I can see at a glance whether it’s “one and two three four” or “one two and three four.”  I use a metronome, slowing it down as much as necessary to get the notes into the right slots, and keep a pulse going with my foot as well.

Fingering has been the bane of my existence ever since I started playing piano in 1965 — For the longest time I treated the numbers on the page as suggestions rather than instructions, and much to my surprise they work much better as instructions.  (A similar thing happened to me in grade 6 arithmetic class, when I got tired of getting mistakes on questions about fractions and actually took the time to follow the instructions on how to manipulate the numerator and denominator to add two fractions together.  My math scores went through the roof in less than a month.)

Clarinet fingering, though, is… weird.  Putting aside the fact that as you go up through the octaves you have to learn four completely different fingerings for every note (except for C#, D and D#, which can only be played in three octaves), there are also a few variations of the “You can’t get there from here” variety.  You have to pause, take a look at the music, and figure out which key sequence does the best job of connecting the dots.  The most annoying problem is when two alternatives are equally good.  For whatever reason, having a choice in the matter makes it harder to learn a passage:  It creates uncertainty because there’s a temptation to play the notes a different way every time.

What I have learned from my Sunday adventures, though is this:  Things are rarely as hard as I think they are, once I take the time to figure out what’s really going on.  I doubt very much that composers and arrangers deliberately try to sabotage the people who will be playing their music, creating unplayable combinations of notes on purpose.   Sometimes it’s an honest mistake, like a typo in the production house.  Sometimes there’s a shortcut that advanced players know about, like leaving certain fingers down or hitting a trill key when shifting between two notes.  When you take the time to analyze and experiment and research, you learn stuff — and not just what you thought you were learning.


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