Tuesday, October 24, 2017

No, a carbon fiber clarinet is not going to fix your terrible fundamentals

Carbon fiber clarinets, cryogenically treated ligatures, reeds formed by space-age polymers, an endless selection of exotic woods to customize your clarinet sound to your liking: we live in an age of unprecedented innovation and experimentation when it comes to the equipment we use to produce our art. While this is exciting and fascinating in many ways, it is also a terrifying phenomenon. I say this because all of this wondrous technology and development has created a situation in which work on solid fundamentals (air, technique, tuning, etc.) is being ignored and replaced with a desperate search to get the "best" equipment, as if a fancy mouthpiece or a special ligature will magically give ring and focus to an undeveloped sound.

My current set-up, which I adore,
is entirely composed of these
new technologies
The victim of this "equipment culture" is the student, specifically the advanced student studying music at the university level. I have seen countless students that are unhappy with their articulation, so they look for a new barrel, dissatisfied with their tone so they seek out a new mouthpiece, struggle with intonation so they drop thousands of dollars on this week's flagship model clarinet, when all of these issues, at their core, can be fixed through fundamental work. As a teacher, I have to work hard to stress the importance of fundamentals to my students. It is especially difficult because my set-up is comprised of many of these new technologies. I remember taking a lesson as a high school student with my local university teacher and hearing him play. I loved his tone and for some reason assumed that the reason I didn't sound like him was because I didn't have as fancy a ligature as he did. I truly thought if I shelled out the $80 I would instantly sound like him. I was too young to realize that long tones are worth more than a solid gold ligature, Kell more than any barrel made of rare woods, Baermann more than any ergonomic keywork, and time with my tuner more than any boutique-style clarinet setup.

 These technologies and innovations are exciting and I have adopted many of them. I think they offer an incredible opportunity to experiment with sound and can aid us in finding the elusive qualities that many of us search for our entire lives. At the same time, however, I think extreme caution should be used when introducing these products to students, especially younger ones, as they can often get in the way of the development of the basic tenants of clarinet playing, especially when touted as a quick fix for things that can only be improved by hours upon hours of deep, quality practice.