Beginner’s Mind Music School

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There’s something about summer vacation that has a way of turning everything upside-down — and not necessarily in a bad way.  Technically I’m on holiday from taking lessons until September, but something extraordinary is happening:  I’ve been spending more time, not less time, with my various instruments.

It all started on Monday evening, after I got home from the last lesson of the 2017-18 school year.  I had just spent 45 minutes with my teacher, working on a couple of pieces and getting my summertime assignment (a Rosé study, continuing a series we worked on this past year).  I got home and piled up my gear in its usual spot on the end of the couch.

Then I noticed the bass clarinet sitting on the other side of the room.

It looked lonely.

What else could I do?  After a quick tea break I opened the bass clarinet case, went through the rigmarole of assembling all four sections (eight, if you count the reed, mouthpiece, ligature and neck strap), and concentrated on just one thing:  Getting a nice, clear sound.

It was rough going at first.   Squeaks and squeals were made (ironically, most of them on the very lowest notes).  I took my time and kept re-trying notes that would not “speak” properly, at the same time trying to observe how my mouth was holding the mouthpiece.  It’s a bigger piece of hardware than the one on a regular clarinet, so subtle adjustments have to be made to the face muscles to provide an even, leak-free stream of air.

Bit by bit, minute by minute, the sound became less wretched and more pleasant to listen to.  I went exploring up and down the instrument, trying bits and pieces of things I know how to play on my regular B♭ clarinet (a bass clarinet has similar fingering but sounds an octave lower).  It started to sound — dare I say it — encouraging.

On Tuesday night I gave the same VIP treatment to my alto clarinet.  Wednesday night I took my regular clarinet and went to rehearse with the Manitoba Millennium Band, a group comprised of the die-hard players from September-to-June community bands in and around Winnipeg.  Last night, Thursday, I brought out the bass clarinet again and got even further.  60% fewer squeaks, too.

Tonight I spent more quality time with the alto clarinet, and also poked around on the piano for a few minutes.  Originally my objective was to try to figure out how jazz piano works, and I had great fun smashing down random groups of keys and trying to resolve them harmonically.  In the end I concentrated on developing more strength and less tension in my pinky fingers.  It was fascinating to hit a key and watch the small finger flare out, higher than the back of my hand, instead of remaining politely curled like the 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers.  I started playing piano in 1965, and it took this long to notice?

I have no idea what instrument I’m going to play on Saturday, or what mysterious habit will get outed.  Learning something new, either about music or about myself, is guaranteed.



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