I have always considered the Debussy Rhapsody, for clarinet and piano to be one of the most challenging of the repertoire, even though the Mozart is more difficult; total transparency for the entire half hour of performance. And it must all be beautiful, from beginning to end. I have played it many more times than the Debussy, but never perfectly.There is always something about which I am not happy. Sometimes one note out of place. And you remember that one note forever.
After playing our clarinet for over 60 years or more, i have come to the conclusion that there but three notes on the instrument that pose the most problems in all of its considerable repertoire. Only three notes. Those three are heard at the very beginning of the Debussy Rhapsody for clarinet, written in 1909. You see, I had previously selected the three notes, and then came to the rhapsody, thinking to myself, Why did Debussy choose those three notes to begin this gorgeous little work? (Which,incidentally, nobody plays perfectly.) Virtually nobody, I only wish I could hear Harold Wright do it, for I consider him to be the finest musician clarinetist of my lifetime. But, I never heard him perform the work.
We know that as the new president of the Conservatory, Debussy was asked, by Gabriel Faure, to compose two works for the prize consideration, and the two were the Rhapsody, and Petite Piece. Did he know the clarinet intimately? No, he did not, but somehow chose those three notes, open g, throat Bb and C to begin the piece. And I have come to the conclusion that the three comprise the most difficult problems of the learning of the instrument, especially in the delicate context in which they appear.”piano, reveusement”(quietly, dreamlike) And that context is legato, with small “crescendi and diminuendi”. How did he know? He didn’t ,I reasoned; but, my friends, I do know, and indeed, so do you.
The open g on the horn is the very first note one learns. It comes out sounding either as a noise or a thin sharp note similar to an open string on the violin. I am sure you all remember, and some, like myself, will never forget . It becomes easy and later becomes the note you try your reeds with. toot toot toot on that first Van Doren,or Rico, or who only knows what. That is the note upon which you will gauge your progress. Your embouchure will form itself around tempering that thin sound and blending it with all of the other notes you will learn. And you will determine that going from that open g to all of the following notes will be the most difficult, the first note to travel to and from is the thin sharp g,to the throat Bb. Easy enough to approach ,like holding a chicken wing with the left hand. Easy to make, but comes out sounding like a chicken wing , or even worse. First, it is by its very nature a bad thin and sharp note and not even the correct fingering, but an incorrect fingering. It uses the register key which makes for the tuning, and so, depending upon our ability to hear, or perhaps our talent, we learn to negotiate that very difficult incorrect fingering. And the first giant problem with which you are confronted is moving from the throat Bb to the clarion C on the third space. Easy enough to finger, but going back and forth is almost impossible. Unless, of course, you try a gimmick or two or three, like holding all of your fingers down as you move from the Bb to the C. It seems to work or to make it easier, but it makes it impossible, because the tuning of the Bb is changed as you hold everything down in trying to make actual legato. What you are doing by holding extra fingers down Becomes your undoing, and most,or many do it. (which makes their Debussy clumsy sounding).
We spend so much of our time looking at every instrument made, any way of moving the toungue or the fingers faster, choosing ligatures and barrels and all matter of ways to achieve an imagined technic, always having to do with speed, that we neglect the basic reason for the clarinet, a single line instrument which emulates the voice. We see our teachers moving back and forth during lessons, always encouraging the students to “sing”, to bring something special to the music, to make it sing means to achieve a quality of sensitivity in our playing.
And the word that helps to define this sensitivity is seldom found. It is most difficult to achieve, and there are no words to sing. We have to play a melody seamlessly, smoothly, with understanding and direction. Legato is the most important way in which we express the intent of the music. Much of legato is written into the music: forte, piano, pianissimo , sforzando, and all combinations thereof.
Getting back to the Rhapsody, how do we learn to play those three initial notes? We make a musical context by making the three notes blend with one another: the g must be in perfect context with the Bb, and the next clarion c is the most difficult note. Not to just play, but to play so that the three sound totally connected, exact same timbre, quality and dynamic. In listening to the many fine players who have recorded the work, few do it with absolute seamlessness. Perhaps they may have been nervous, spending more time encountering the actual difficulties which abound in this little 9 minute work, but they seem distracted enough to almost ignore this first measure, which actually sets the context for the entire work. Legato is its secret, stage presence is also part of the mix and control of these difficult moving notes. To take the audience with you as you open the piece becomes the whole work. And so, while not being g, Bb, and c, it is the way we from one note to the next: the same sound as we move from and to each note.
There are a myriad of ways to achieve a seamless and beautiful legato, including by rote, actually copying what you hear , or are made aware of, listening to those around you, but copying is what should come naturally, though not completely.
You must choose the note on the clarinet that gives you most pleasure to simply play and hear. Perhaps it may be f on the 5th line of the staff, Is it your best quality of sound? Your very best. Play it, listen to it and enjoy the pleasure it gives you. When you know f is the note, carefully go up one half step to f#. Carefully duplicate the same quality of sound. It must be perfectly the same, save for the pitch. Then, connect the two notes noticing no difference whatever in the quality of the two. If you use the fork f#, there may be a slightly more brilliant quality. Try to make the sound, the timbre, exactly the same, even. Here is where you begin to strengthen your embouchure, your actual perception of the sound you are making. Now, for this apparently simple process, much time may be needed, listening, before you begin to notice the results. No movement of your mouth should be seen. (yes, keep a mirror on the stand). While any music book can help, the Gaston Hamelin Study of Scales can be one of the better. Somehow I feel that the French legato is more preferable.Or perhaps it is Hamelin nimself, who is considered to be the father of the so-called American School. This is the same Hamelin who was Principal Clarinet of the Boston Symphony, who happened to play a Selmer clarinet made of metal, a full-boehm instrument. His contract was not renewed by Serge Koussevitsky. conductor of the BSO, so, he returned to France, and happened to take a few students with him, among whom was Ralph McClane, who became Principal of the Philadelphia Orchestra. That was the beginning of the so-caled american tradition of clarinet playing. *(the story goes that there was a standing ovation given the BSO, and when Hamelin stood, he waved his clarinet, and when Koussy saw the photo, he took offense)
Back to “getting even”. this comparing of each note as you slowly go up and down in half steps is part of the process of developing a perfectly even legato. This becomes more difficult when encountering notes that are more difficult to connect smoothly.
It may be news to some, but pianists have the very same problem, as the keys can be terribly uneven as played. Many concertizing pianists have their own piano, which they simply play at every concert. Horowitz was one, who also would only play at 4:00 PM on a Sunday. Perhaps that can be called an eccentricity, however here was aplayer who still dominates the world of piano, even though he has been gone for several years.
Most other pianists simply have to deal with different actions with totally different timbres.
As the sound of a soprano has to have an even sounding range, so too, does the clarinet/It is one of the facets we look for when acquiring a new instrument.
This kind of evenness throughout the clarinet is the thing for which we strive.
Getting even, is developing a totally smooth production of sound. HAMELINS scales can help, though your ear is the final judge before you audition.
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