Dear Mr. Friedland,
I recently stumbled upon your website, which I found very interesting and applaud you for your wonderful and noble work!
After reading some of the archival Q&A’s, I believe I am not your typical inquirer, as I am not longer a student. I am in my mid twenties, and considered a “professional” clarinetist, seeing how I make my living playing and teaching. I graduated from one of NY’s top conservatories, and freelance extensively.
However, I have always had a skeleton in the closet that is really beginning to haunt me now – and that is the speed of my staccato. I hid and faked this problem throughout my student years, and now have to practice extensively when called upon to play say Mendelssohn’s Scherzo and Beethoven’s 4th, etc. and even then, I pray the conductor will not take it fast. So far.. I’ve been lucky.
The thing is, I can barely play a chromatic scale up and down at 130 per quarter note. And, for example, all though I can do the Scherzo at about 80-85 per dotted quarter, I can never do it comfortably at 90 (which as you know is a common tempo) unless I get REALLY warmed up after almost an hour of doing just that. And even then, it is not always there.
I have spent hours trying to push it higher, but to no avail. My question is – do you think there is a physical limit on staccato? Would it be a waste of my time to obsess with it? Any advice would be appreciated. Its a topic I never felt comfortable discussing with colleagues (as you can imagine), so I really appreciate your input!
Skeletons in the Closet
My first teacher told me a great story concerning the articulation of the final movement of the 4th Symphony of Beethoven.It is usually played as fast as the conductor can move. The story goes like this:
After the movement had been completed, the first clarinet turns to the first bassoon and says, “well, did you tongue it?” The first bassoon replied, “did we come to it ?”
You know my friend, we all have these specters within out clarinetability, whether they be real or imagined. I can well understand that staccato could be one and is with many more than just yourself.
I remember well while in in high school having the very same problem. It all started in my first clarinet lesson, which as I remember it, was all horrible squeaks and noises of all kinds for the entire half hour or so.
After the lesson, while riding on the subway home, I vowed that I would never ever make such horrible noises again. Never!
How was I able to achieve this in the space of a week? It was really quite simple. After determining that the noise occurred immediately upon placing my tongue on the reed, I simply did not use my tongue again in order to start a note, but placed it at the roof of my mouth, which miraculously made the clarinet sound without the squeaks.All this was subliminal. (I probably never thought consciously of anything until , well last week or so, I think). Imagine how well I felt, coming back for a second lesson without squeaking!
It was really a wonderful feeling and I could do it with a fair amount of rapidity, which surprised the band director and made me advance quite quickly. I continued this all through high school, playing solos for clarinet and band, mine being the Concertino by Weber, which I played many times during those years.
Then, after a period of time, I leaned that I was placing my tongue incorrectly and undoing this process took a period of time (and thought), the first sounds being quite uncomfortable to listen to, but soon enough, I accomplished a “staccato” which was and is quite respectable. There are many articles on this site concerning the very rudimentary acts of placing the tongue on the reed correctly, which of course you are welcome to explore.
Now, as far as speed is concerned, it is simply not a musical issue, but rather one of competition among students.
I have never had a problem with being able to articulate a passage fast enough, especially with the woodwind section of a symphony orchestra. Why? Because they make all kinds of concessions to articulation, especially in the two pieces you mention. That Beethoven passage is not a solo passage and usually goes by fast enough, to be articulated in some way between the bassoon and the clarinet,. I’ve never heard of it being a problem.(Have you ever looked at an actual Beethoven score. The actual articulations were probably placed years after he passed away. His manuscript was mostly unreadable, and crossed out many many times). Fortunately for us, the music however, is of a great genius
The Mendelssohn is somewhat more problematic, however the two solo passages while being difficult, can be negotiated either as is or by making a “two-and-two”articulation, the rest of the woodwinds being ready always to work together with you to achieve the desired result.
The important thing for you to remember is to articulate correctly and never to sacrifice your sound for the sake of your tongue.
In actuality, there is always a limit on speed of staccato, but there is no limit on the ability of your mind; your problem could be one of coordination between fingers and tongue, which can be fixed easily.)
best wishes, sherman friedland