What I want to be, amongst probably too many things, is a professional note-player. Part of this process of attempting to become a professional woodwind musician in Australia, where gigs are not always plentiful and our postmodern musical society demands a lot from its players in terms of breadth of style, has involved a great deal of time spent learning how to ‘double’ on woodwinds other than my principal instrument (clarinet) and learning how to improvise — activities not normally associated with the pursuit of classical music. In the last couple of months I’ve performed on almost every member of the clarinet and saxophone families — piccolo, flute, oboe, and cor anglais — in settings including orchestra, opera, theatre, small jazz ensemble, free improvisation, and classical chamber playing. It probably goes without saying that my skills across these woodwinds are not nearly as strong as players who concentrate wholly on one instrument or who dedicate themselves to perfecting one particular style, and I’m at peace with that. What my varied pursuits give me though is versatility and a smorgasbord-esque approach to both my practice and my practise. As I’ve grown older and gained more experience, in both music and in being a functional human being, my understanding of what constitutes effective practise has changed. Here are a couple of simple thoughts on how I work:
1) Be holistic
There isn’t usually a normal week insofar as my performance demands go. My studies at ANAM involve, of course, quite a lot of clarinet playing, including a fair amount of bass clarinet and Eb which require their own preparation, and I usually end up spending a lot of time on my doubles—saxophone, flute, and oboe—as necessitated. In attempting to straddle these different languages and instruments, I need to keep reminding myself of the inter-connectedness of woodwind playing, and of music in general.
For me, clarinet is home base. It’s where I spend the most time in practice, and what I mostly think about when I’m thinking about music. If my clarinet playing is in good form, I find that it’s easier to make sure that my other woodwind playing is working as it should. Good air, good tonal imagination, and good ears are all concepts that are equally applicable to all wind and brass instruments. This is a concept applicable, really, to any instrument combination. Practicing the piano will surely strengthen your cello playing, even if it’s in terms of harmony and pitch.
I like to think about my practice in terms of keeping knives sharp. Each of my woodwinds is a different tool, and so too are my basic abilities to play in tune, in time, with appropriate stylistic awareness, and with proper ensemble sensibilities. If any of those things aren’t sharp, I’m not doing my job properly and I know that I need to go back to basics to address any fundamental issues that I might be experiencing. Once those issues are addressed though, it’s amazing how often the more complicated issues I have, in terms of fingering or legato or articulation, tend to fall into line. Truly in this sense, less is more.
The physical relationship between myself and my instruments is only the nexus between myself and what really matters: the music I’m playing. It's easy to get caught up in the physicality of playing an instrument and lose sight of what it is that we're producing with these wonderful tools of ours. It’s accepted now that the time spent physically attached to the instrument is one part, though a vital one, of effective musical practice. The benefits of mental practice have been espoused greatly in recent years, but even more important, to me at least, is the process of listening and being completely familiar with what it is that I’m playing. If my mental concept of what I’m trying to achieve is strong, and if my knives are sharp, then I’m in a good place.
2) Be kind to yourself
I’d wager that all of us have experienced that guilt when torn between ploughing forward into the night to better prepare for that recital or audition or gig, and calling it a night and going home. You’ve had a long day, you might have work in the morning, you maybe haven’t eaten properly, and your heart just isn’t in it. You could bully yourself into giving another 20 minutes or an hour or two and try to get something productive done, it’s true. There have been too many days recently when it’s almost 6 or 7pm and I’ve realised that I’ve barely practised any clarinet despite having been playing for most of the day, and I’ve been faced with the choice of forcing my tired mind and fingers back into the studio, or trying to recuperate overnight and continue the push fresh in the morning. Often I’ll push on but almost always I end up wishing that I hadn’t. Knowing your limits is so important, for reasons beyond the lurking dangers of RSI and the like. Work with yourself, not against yourself. A good relationship with your instrument and with music begins with a good relationship with yourself—if you’re unkind to yourself in the practice room, I believe that it will come across in performance.
3) We’re never really finished
Doesn’t this almost go without saying? We can practise for eight hours a day (though most of us really shouldn’t) every day of the week, and we’ll certainly get a lot better, but I’m in no rush. Music will be a lifelong pursuit for me in whatever capacity that ends up being, and I believe that the journey and the process is much more important than how good I will be when I die. The old adage from Pablo Casals about why he still practised for so long at 80 years of age — “Because I think I am making progress”—resonates with me. The practice of playing, of practising, is what helps define us as music-makers, and it might as well be good practice. You get done in the day only as much as you can, and then you continue the next day, a little bit better than before. Perfection in music is perhaps fiction—we’re never finished, and we never should be. There’s always going to be more to do, more to learn, and so we might as well enjoy the journey because there are worse journeys to be on.
4) Shake it up
Test yourself, all the time. Every one of our minds works and learns in slightly different ways, and mine in particular benefits a lot from remaining very non-static in my practice approach. If I’m getting stuck on articulation for too long, I like to try and make it through a couple of forms of a blues or Giant Steps, or try scales in 10ths for a change, or try an arpeggiated sequence in a way I haven’t ever played before. Don’t think about it too hard, just play and see what happens. You won’t always get a lot of time in some musical situations to adapt to a strange request or a sudden change of plans, and by practising mental versatility, adaptability is slowly bred.
I always come back to words from veteran Melbourne woodwind artist John Barrett if I get overwhelmed by what’s coming up: “From the teeth back, the blow is the same.” He’s right, of course. A flute and an oboe and a bassoon are all the same basic tube; all involve the same fundamental six fingers covering holes with variations on a theme when thumbs and pinkies are involved, and playing all of them take the same amount of control and discipline. If my knives are sharp, if I’m breathing correctly and have my ears in the right place, I’ll usually be okay.
Practise is making sure that I’m as good as I can be, for as much of the time as I possibly can be. It’s the doorway into bigger and better things, and so it has to be sacred. Although I might be getting a bit better at the clarinet or the flute every time I walk into the practice room, I know for certain that I’ll be getting better at music every time I play, so long as my knives are sharp. Keep them sharp, my friends, and don’t stop playing.