One of the most important things that has helped me as a musician and clarinetist is learning to just listen. When I get nervous, distracted, my self-doubt kicks in, when anything useless pops into my head, I remind myself to simply just listen. For me, this is focus. What does someone mean when they tell you to focus on what you’re playing, what are we supposed to do with our brains and our attention? Listen!
It’s amazing how much we miss because our thoughts cloud the world around us. For the longest time I thought that good practicing meant always having a metronome on, a useful, nagging little practice buddy that kept me rhythmically in line. I’d prepared everything with a metronome. And then when I had to play for a masterclass, lesson, or just about anything in public, I would feel like some part of my playing was missing; I had no core pulse, no groove. I gradually began turning off the metronome, the tuner, and stopped using sheet music for pieces that I clearly had memorized. By ridding myself of all of these stimuli I was able to listen to and focus on what I was actually creating.
You begin to develop your own way of working through a phrase, a new way of playing that isn’t reliant on the approval of your little technological friends. It doesn’t matter if you can play something perfectly with a metronome, tuner, or decibel meter if it doesn’t add up to an emotional connection with the listener. So turn everything off, shut the music, and just listen to what you’re producing. Your body will adjust immediately to whatever you’re hearing. I’m losing the intensity here, I’m rushing this passage, I’m sharp- whatever it is, your ears will show you what you need to do.
The end result is two-fold. First, you’ll develop your own sense of how you’d like to approach music and your instrument. And secondly, you will play in a way that is more natural, free flowing, and expressive. Remember why we do this in the first place: to communicate with the audience and share an emotional experience with the people around you. Sometimes playing everything perfectly in time is sterile and unnatural, sometimes playing everything perfectly at 440 sounds just wrong, and sometimes a dynamic marking refers more to an emotion than a decibel level. So turn off these devices, turn on a recording device, and just play. Listen to what it sounds like in your own head, what it sounds like on the recording device, and gradually get a sense of what you’re communicating. Listen and enjoy!
Clarinetist Christopher Pell is Principal Clarinet with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He is also on the faculty for Session 3 of Ixi Chen’s Digital Clarinet Academy summer clarinet intensive programs. Ms. Chen is Second Clarinet with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.