Meri’s Musical Musings

Teaching according to the principles of Mastery

Posted on: April 28, 2009

When I first began teaching clarinet, I felt like I was trying to teach too many things at once, which sometimes led to me being frustrated and perhaps my students geing confused. Now I will often spend nearly an entire lesson focussing on one aspect of playing or music, such as embouchure, rhythm, or articulation. By the end of the lesson, the student usually has a firm grasp of the concept focussed on, or at least has nearly mastered it and understands how to work on it.

 I also often will spend at least two weeks, and usually longer, on the same piece, which I do in a layering approach. First, I make sure the student understands the rhythm—before they play a note of the piece. Second, we iron out the wrinkles, by solving problems with breathing, articulation, and finger movement, which sometimes takes two, three weeks or more. Finally, we throw in some musical expression. Usually the second step is the most challenging, but once they overcome them, they can play the piece accurately and expressively.

 One of the problems I had with a lot of the teaching material available and most method books was that they often involved too many playing or musical issues at once. My exercises and studies, as well as those I used from other sources, are designed to focus on one particular aspect of playing or music, in order to help students master the concept focussed on. This is why I like the first book of the Kalman Opperman Velocity Studies and sections of the first book of the Gustave Langueus Clarinet Method as supplementary material—the studies and exercises focus on only one aspect of playing, or can easily be adapted for a particular purpose. By doing things such as limiting range, limiting articulation patterns, limiting the types of note values, and avoiding musical nuances (unless of course, the study or exercise is focussed on that one concept), students have a much better chance of mastering the concept and combining them with other concepts.

 I also have reduced the amount of assignment material I give to a student. I now limit myself to not more than three pieces, and usually two, with the understanding that the student focusses on the particular concept discussed, such as relaxation, in the sense of making playing sound and feel easy.

 In learning new notes, I will teach the student the new notes without music, and we will play two or three duets that uses the new notes learned. We will play each duet two or three times, then go on to another one that uses the new notes learned. If there is more than one fingering for a given note, I use duets that require the student to use a particular fingering, for example, the first-line (written) Eb on the clarinet has three common fingerings. Each duet focussed on using this note can only use one of the three common fingerings. The student is familiarized with each of them by playing the duet three times. (The Eb fingering occurs several times in the piece) They are then ready to use the new note in the assignment focussing on the new note.

 With Shaoyong, I spent an entire lesson focussing on his tonguing, since he had developed a tendency to either “huff” into the note or tongue it with his throat, often moving his jaw and his cheeks. (I apologize to those of you who are not wind players if you don’t understand what I am describing) I began that lesson with an exercise that Fred used with me in order for me to blow through the notes while tonguing, but I saw as useful in order to help students eliminate the habit of throat tonguing and huffing. The exercise goes like this: blow into a note (I like to use concert Ab below the staff, since it is a stable note in terms of tone quality and hand position on the clarinet), and while blowing, place the tongue on the reed, leave it there for a few seconds, but continuing to blow.  Once he had mastered this, I had him do groups of four eighth notes in concert Eb major scale (F major) in the chalumeau register (low register) and the concert Bb major scale (C major) in the clarion, or middle register, reminding him each time before he started playing the exercise that he is to keep his chin still and the cheeks flat. (not puffing) Once he did this perfectly several times in a row, I took out a set of exercises and studies on tonguing from the Langueus clarinet method, again reminding him before he played each exercise to keep the chin still and the cheeks flat. Each new exercise was more difficult than the previous one, and I continued to remind him about the chin and the cheeks. This lesson ended with a clarinet duet in which every note was tongued, something which would have sounded horrible if he was tonguing the way he was tonguing before the lesson. His assignment for that week was to review the exercises and studies I had worked on with him at the lesson, and to apply that idea in one of the solo pieces he was learning.

 I have done similar things with Connor. I recall in one of his first lessons the lesson I spent almost entirely if not entirely on rhythmic development, since this was one of the things he struggled with in his three years of piano lessons prior to learning clarinet. For several months after that lesson, we did some rhythmic warmups, using rhythms in the music that he was assigned the previous week and rhythms he was about to learn.  He now has a very secure basic sense of rhythm, and is picking up more difficult rhythms very quickly and easily.

 We also once spent almost an entire lesson on a new scale. In a September 2002 lesson, I introduced him to the A major scale, starting by having him tell me what notes are affected by the key signature, playing through it together slowly, having him mark the notes in the key signature he tends to miss, working on the hard part of the scale slowly and gradually getting faster, playing through it together again several times, and having him play this scale on his own several times. He can now play this scale as if he was playing concert Eb major (written F major), an easy scale on the clarinet. His comment during this lesson was: “Did we really spend a 1/2 hour on this scale?” I reinforced his knowledge of this scale by using it for various warmup exercises I do at the beginning of each lesson. I taught him most of the other scales and arpeggios on the exam that he was doing that year in this way as well. What was the result? He earned a perfect mark on that section of the exam, and earned one of the highest marks on the clarinet exam for that particular grade.


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  • None
  • V V: Wish I had read this before I fell for their scheme ! Oh well - have posted my experience on Yelp and N49 and hoping others can avoid the pain of fal
  • clariniano: Thanks for the additional information. It was actually Yelp that deleted my reviews, because of so-called bias. I too have seen the horrible technique
  • No Thanks: Former Teacher at the Ontario Conservatory of Music I took lessons at the Ontario Conservatory and when I left for private lessons from another tea
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