I have been inspired again by students and others who question the meaning of technique, specifically clarinet technique. Reading everything from suggestions for unequal practicing of equal notes to changing rhythms to using a metronome, all of which arebut part of the equation, not all of the control needed to have any kind of technique and most specifically, the first and most basic: Rhythmic . Most students and many professional players do not have this total control of the rhythm in music, and it is what will always trip them up, or trip you up.
Beginning with an anecdote I remember a student coming for a lesson in preparation for the audition he was to take for a position in the Toronto Symphony. This was a very good clarinetist, mind you. He told me the rules: there would be no talking during the audition, that he wold be asked to play from a given list of pieces and if he was to be eliminated,a bell would be rung. And that was it. Over.
He then played some excerpts which were OK and then came to the Scherzo from The Midsummers Night Dream, by Mendelssohn. The first 4 measures are not difficult, but when he got to the 5th , because of the awkwardness of moving from G# to middle B quickly, he lost a bit , a tiny bit of time.
“Charles, I said, they will ring the bell here”. So we rehearsed it until it was smooth and in time. But when he came back with the results, he told me they had rung the bell. I said, “Where?” He pointed to the same place I had stopped him at. That may cause a smile, perhaps a frown, but it was the rhythm that tripped him. He was unable to coordinate his breath/support with the change from the throat G# which takes hardly any support and the middle B which uses much, and instead of compensating by more support and staying “in time”, he lost time. Time, time time, is what playing anything is all about.
It is NOT about how fast you can tongue or how high you can play, which has little to do with playing under pressure, The very first thing you must have is complete control of the rhythm, which is not playing things in uneven rhythms or tonguing ahead of the note or any of that; it is knowing where the rhythm is and knwing how to play whatever it is you have in perfect rhythm.
You are after all, playing for a conductor, not a metronome. So while a metronome is another part of the equation, knowing exactly where to put your few notes in time is what is more and indeed most important. It is what happens between the beats.(read the last sentence again, please.)
There are beats, yes, but there are also very structured strong pulsations between the beats. That is how really to play in time. One must never lose track of all of the basic beat, and it must remain within your consciousness until it becomes absolutely thoughtless, and totally ingrained.
How do you learn to do that? To aniticpate what actually occurs in rests and how to prepare to change a rhythmic pattern in midstream? You learn by practicing changing rhythms in your mind prior to playing them. When you are playing straight eighth notes, a very simple legato group of eighth notes, and you must suddenly change to playing an eighth-note triplet, what is your process?
How do you switch “gears”, so to speak from two notes to a beat to three?In order to divide the change exactly you must find a common denominator, which between two and three, is 6. Because 6 is divisible by both two and three, it is the simplest equation to subdivide, which is the basic answer for executing any rhythm and changing that rythm.Dividing the two eighth notes is obviosly quite simple, but changing those two into three is what can be difficult and is where that common denominator is of great importance.The solution of course, is to have practiced that change many times at many tempi. There is where your metronome comes in very handy. You keep the time going, give yourself a beat or two, then change to the triplet figure. Try it. The beat is wrong, right? Either too fast or slow. That is wrong. The metronome is usually correct, expecially if it is digital. Mechanical metronomes are not terribly accurate. They are excellent for establishing a tempo but not for serious practice,as a check against our own human failings. It is important that the metronome be set at a very slow tempo because you cannot cheat that way, and it is in our nature to cheat the beat.( It is in our genes, I think). Especially when you are young. Rushing does get slower as you age. When young, I used to “Take off like a wonded bird”. But as I aged, I improved.
Rather than give examples, let me suggest two of the best books for this learning and execution of the common denominator.
Lots of folks cannot do that because it involves a basic syncopation, the most difficult and the easiest, changing from 2 to 3. The syncopation is made in your ear. At a slow tempo with a very slow pulsation on a digital metronome it becomes more difficult. You can execute it only with the using of the common denominator. When you play the duplets, , you create in your mind, two groups of three notes each. Each eight note get one of the groups of 3.
This is the basic lesson to be learned precisely, to change from equal eigth notes to equal eighth-note triplets.
Let me again make those suggestions for the acquisition of two books for you; both are not large and not expensive, but they will do what I have suggested, if you use an accurate metronome at a slow tempo.
Gaston Hamelin, who was the Principal Clarinetist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra wrote a book called “Scales”, very simple book utilizing scales, starting at different points of the scale in all kinds of different rhythms, which is very helpful in establishing good legato as well. (The Hamelin is piblished in France) (sorry)
The other is the most difficult book of studies and the is the Emile Stievenard book of scales(publishes by International), a complete different kind of study book which has nothing but scales in changing rhythms. You can open the book and it will look terribly simple. But, when you use the accurate metronome, set at a slow tempo, and then play the exercises, using only the written rests to change the rhythms, you will be confronted again by the inaccurate sound of the metronome, which is not that but your own inability to cope with, as I mentioned, that syncopation between duple and triple notes within one beat. In the first exercise in C major, you have forte, staccato eight notes
The metronome continues to “go”.There are couple or three pulsations or rests, and then you must come in with triplets, legato and pianissimo. Try it once, and you may detest me and rhythm in general, but I guranty that it is the way to complete control of rhythm, which is the beginning of a real technique Do not leave the first two lines until it is perfect,then leaving the metronome at perhaps 43-52 for the basic pulsation, continue. The rhythm, dynamics, articulations change constantly. Always use the ciommon denominator until it becomes ingrained. When the metronome is “right on” with your playng, you may be ready to go on.
Now, when the conductor gives a couple of beats between one rhythm and a different rhythm, you will be in time, because you know it, not ever guessing, and then you are ready to go further.
Best of all good fortune. Remember techique means control, not ever speed, but the latter comes from the former, which comes first.