Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
Almost three years ago, I raced up the winding staircase of the New England Conservatory to the third floor, hoping for help from my new clarinet teacher. I was preparing for an upcoming audition, and I was particularly focused on articulation, the manipulation of the tongue on the reed in order to control the stopping and starting of notes and musical phrases. Good articulation is as important to good playing as enunciating syllables is to speaking clear, intelligible English. My teacher told me my problem was movement in my lower jaw and neck, which signaled improper technique. For the rest of the lesson, I played scrunched up against a mirror, restarting every time my teacher saw extraneous movement. Finally, my teacher told me the next steps. Find a mirror, set up a space, and practice there. Eliminate all movement.
I was skeptical to say the least. Nonetheless, when I got home I borrowed a wall-length mirror from my mother’s room and leaned it against a wall. Then I took an old, unused chair from the attic and a fold-up music stand from my room. I started practicing there everyday, hoping to fix my technique before the audition and be done with the mirror. Today, the humble space has evolved to a simple lab located in its own niche next to a little-used staircase leading to the attic. I use the base of this staircase as a “library,” a disorganized mish-mash of music scores containing repertoire, etudes, practice books, scale sheets, notebooks, and all music-related literature. Next to the mirror is a waist-height table-stool where I keep all of my tools: reed box, metronome, notebook with pen, and a camcorder to record myself.
I spend at least seven to eight hours a week in my lab working on technique: getting better at playing the clarinet itself. In the midst of perfecting an etude, I am absorbed in the intense but familiar cycle of diagnosing problems, tweaking and training myself to solve them, and documenting my progress. Throughout the process, I am engrossed in the physicality of clarinet playing and in the series of little puzzles I have to resolve to let my clarinet and me work together effectively as a team. Much of the time, getting better does not feel like the purpose of practicing, but like a welcome side effect.
But the space is not always a practice lab. When I am working out new musical ideas, it becomes a refuge against judgment, a safe haven to be creative without any consequences. After overcoming the technical challenges of a piece, I change gears and begin the process of thinking about the expressive choices I have as a performer. For example, if I am working on the opening of a piece, I first record myself playing the first few lines. Then I compare my initial recorded interpretation with those of great clarinetists in my library of recordings. Then comes the fun part. I pick and try out interpretive nuances that help express what a piece of music means to me. I start by testing the extremes; I overdo the desired effect in opposite ways. It is through these hours of careful, but free, refinement that I gain the confidence to know a piece well enough to perform it.
This music lab has been instrumental to my growth as both a clarinetist and as a person. Soon enough the day will come when I will have to pack up my music library and leave my music lab behind; although, once on campus I will be on the lookout for wall-length mirrors.