Throat Problems, or could it be a bit of OCD?

Dear Mr. Friedland:

I have been playing clarinet for over eight years but in the last few months I have been experiencing unusual throat problems whenever I play. After a few minutes of playing, my throat makes a ‘gurgling’ sound and I cannot force any air through my clarinet. This continues until I stop playing. I have no nasal problems and am not nervous while playing. I was wondering if you have any experience of this problem, any feedback would be very helpful.

Thanking you
S. D.
Dear S.D.:
You know, I have been thinking about your question and from your description, I can only suggest that you are inadvertently closing your throat, meaning that no air is going into the horn. Can you write a bit more about what happens to you, especially the business about “cannot force any air through my clarinet”. From what you say, which is very little, that is all I can determine. Having not heard further, let me dare to suggest that you are becoming preoccupied with this problem you describe as being in your throat.

I can remember years ago that the first horn of the professional orchestra in which I was playing would stick out this hand and say, “What’s wrong with it?  

I had no response. Another time Mordechai Applebaum, an extremely talented clarinetist who played bass clarinet in the Pittsburgh orchestra many years ago would voluntarily change his seating in the orchestra. This was when Steinberg was conducting. When asked why he changed his seat, he replied, “Because I sound better here than with the rest of the clarinets.”

His playing was never in question and he was a wonderful player, from the old school. But he too was preoccupied with something not having to do with his orchestra.

These examples may be like your throat “closing up”, as you describe it.

Let me come much closer to home and tell you that a very close relative of mine who has a good job; while dong his job and he will suddenly “hear voices”. He doesn’t know why. Nor do I. It is a preoccupation which one day, may cost him  this job.

Let me put it in yet another way.Hearing a gurgling and then being unable to play is a similar preoccupation. Not being able to force air into the clarinet and make a noise is a serious and dangerous preoccupation which may be anything.

I am placed in the position from too little information to render a judgement that the first thing you must do is to stop playing for a month or so, so as to determine if you can either further understand your gurgling problem.

Then begin to play for five minutes at a time playing nothing but long tones. As soon as the gurgling appears, stop playing immediately. What actually happened to make you stop putting air into the instrument? You must be very persistent if you want to solve this problem. I cannot, from your descrition of very few words, determine anything else than that you have “fallen into a hole”, a problem which is apparantly simple but stops you from playing, making it far from simple and having to do directly about  your very impetus for playing.

While I cannot directly answer your clarinet question, it is far from being unusual, just the words are different. For many, playing the clarinet is a simple labor of love, regardless of your particular place within the world of music; for others it becomes an insurmountable problem.

An important consideration and certainly a possibility is a connection with OCD.

OCD means  Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a somewhat baffling subject to bring into this conversation. It is generally defined as being the repeating of a motion, (lets say washing your hands 100 times a day.) But, can OCD be also a musician practicing and repeating three notes, or searching for a reed or staisfying your demand for absolute perfection? After  60 years of trying to play the clarinet better, I can only answer, YES.

No, I am not a case worker in OCD, but I and many many other clarinetists and instrumentalists of all kinds, have OCD in verying degrees.Taking myself and many like me or similar to me will take a problem and work it and rework itto an extent that is difficult for anyone reading about it to conceive.

Repeating passages over and over again, while searching for keys to improving said passage; trying and re-trying reeds , and finally reworking reeds until you achieve a sound that is within your self. You know what it is supposed to sound like but only constant work and redoing will hope to achieve it. This is the realm of professional musicmaking, or of the professional athlete or the concert pianist, or any other seeker of total perfection. Of course the one factor not considered here is the personal gift of the person who practices endlessly with a goal in mind: that of absolute perfection.

There is, within the possibility of Obssessive Compusive Disorder, a possible answer to your throat keeping you from paying , and forcing you to stop.

Every great player has this “disorder”in some degree. If not, why practice on a professional level at all?

 Why practice? It is all tempered by your gift or native talent, then multiplied by your ability to synthesize the result of your thoughful working and reworking the technic, the passage, and/or the instrument, or your tennis game or your golf score. People who achieve outside the norm are also gifted as well, and all of these figure into the final equation of just how good or perfect you get.

Stop playing for a while, rest, and then give it another shot.

Very kind regards,



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