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5 Things Every Music Ensemble Member Should Keep in Mind

These are the 5 things every ensemble performer is responsible for during a rehearsal:clarinet lessons flemington

    1. Punctuality (be on time)
    2. A pencil
    3. A working instrument
    4. A good attitude
    5. Knowledge of the instrument

It is the  responsibility of every performer in an ensemble to know his/her instrument.   What are the tendencies of the pitch in each register?  Which register projects more?  Which less?  Which register more clearly articulates?   These are the  questions every member of a performance ensemble should know the answer to.   As a clarinetist, I know what my instrument can do.  I know the upper register of the clarinet is very brilliant, almost brass like.  I know the low register is very full and strong.  Most importantly, I’m aware the middle register of the clarinet is its weakest register.  This is one of the very unique qualities of the clarinet.  Most instruments’ weakest registers are the low registers.   The middle register just doesn’t project  or articulate very well on the clarinet, and tends to be slightly sharp as well.  When I encounter a staccato passage in a  band piece, and it’s located in the middle register, an alarm goes off.   I know I have to do a little more to get the articulation out of the instrument.   If  I  encounter  a passage  marked forte, and it’s in the upper altissimo register of the clarinet, I know I don’t need to give much at all to produce a forte.   

Ironically, even though the middle register (known as the throat tones) of the clarinet is the weakest register, it has the potential to be the most beautiful  register.  My old clarinet teacher was of this opinion, and I’ve grown to agree with him.  When I was a student, like most other young clarinetists, I didn’t  particularly enjoy the sound of the middle register.  It was very stuffy and didn’t project or articulate as well as the high register.  Now that I’m older, I very much enjoy playing solos within the range of the throat tones.  In my opinion, the throat tones are the pitches of the clarinet which most closely resemble the sound of the human voice.  I think Mozart and Brahms were two composers who were particularly aware of this.  

When  players in an orchestra or band are aware of these details it makes conductors much happier.  If a conductor doesn’t have to stop as much to rehearse sections because his musicians have done their homework, rehearsals become much more efficient.  This is what separates good ensembles from excellent ensembles.  This is also why private lessons are so crucial.  It’s impossible for a band director to know every detail about every instrument.  A private teacher can easily cover these details with a student.  I encourage all band and orchestral, and even choral directors to constantly remind their players of the importance of private instruction. 

Joe Pinto, Clarinet Instructor at Hunterdon Academy of the Arts

The Quality of "Piano" (By Joe Pinto)

Dynamics.  We all know the markings: pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff.  As young  musicians we are taught that pp means to play at the softest level while ff means to play at the loudest, along with all the levels in between.  It wasn’t until I was into my late 20’s that I realized, most of the time, dynamic markings had very little to do with volume.  
    Whether you’re  a wind player in a band or a string player in anflute student orchestra,  you know when you see the back of a conductor’s hand it means to give more volume and when you see a conductor’s  palm it means to give less volume.  I know brass players affectionately refer to  the latter as “the hand”.  As  a clarinetist, I performed in a band every year from 4th grade all the way through the second year of my masters.  The clarinet section is normally the largest section in a band.  Balancing and blending with the section is extremely important, especially when playing in the high register.  After years of being told by my band directors to exaggerate the dynamics (make the piano’s softer and the forte’s louder), I adopted a very rigid mindset when it came to dynamic markings.     
    When playing a solo such as a sonata or concerto, a chamber work, or even a solo in a large ensemble, you must look at dynamic markings in a different light.  When confronted with any dynamic marking, consider how you are playing the notes, instead of how loud you are playing them.  Younger musicians often struggle with piano.  I coach my students to refrain from looking at a  piano marking as a restriction or ceiling on their interpretation.  You can do anything in piano that you can do in forte as long as it’s done with a “piano quality”.  Here are some things to think about when playing piano other than playing soft:

  • Consider the manner in which you attack a note.  Create a more gentle start to the sound.
  • How is the note released?  Be more attentive to how you taper and release the sound.
  • Check your fingering.  As clarinetists  we drop our fingers onto the open tone holes of the instrument.  One of my teachers came up with the phrase “forte fingers.”  In forte passages we use forte fingers which means we can be more aggressive with our fingering technique.  In piano passages we have to be much more careful and attentive to how we drop our fingers.  I make sure all of my students understand  how a delicate finger drop can go a long way towards creating a piano quality much more than just playing softly can.                                                                            
  • Piano does not mean boring.  Attention to the direction and curvature of the phrasing is just as important in piano as it is in forte.
  • Imagine you’re playing forte.  A conductor of mine once told me, “Whenever  you play piano, think forte.”  This was great advice.  Sometimes when confronted with a piano marking we tend to shrink back in our chair, shut down our air support or play with timidity.  Steps 1-4 are more easily controlled when playing with the intensity one often uses in forte.

Band directors often chastise soloists in their bands with the quip, “A solo does not mean to play so low it can‘t be heard.”  Younger musicians often play too softly during solos marked piano.  This is completely understandable considering most of the time students are told to blend and balance their tone and volume with the rest of their section.  If students are taught  early in their instruction that solo dynamics are entirely different than ensemble dynamics, it will go a long way towards their advancement as confident performers.  
    I’ve arrived at the point where I no longer have a fixed response to dynamic markings.  Every piece of music is different.  Forte in one piece can sound completely different than forte in another.  I challenge myself to experiment with the various qualities that dynamic markings imply aside from volume.  When you next encounter a “p” or an “f” in a piece,  I encourage you stop thinking of how loud you are playing and instead start thinking of how are you are playing.

By Joe Pinto, Clarinet Instructor at Hunterdon Academy of the Arts

Request a free clarinet lesson wih Joe!

You Can Play It When You Can Sing It (By Joseph Pinto)

COUNTING. All musicians are tasked with it. Whether one playswoodwind lessons the flute, trumpet, cello, or sings, we have to count.  While studying as an undergraduate, my clarinet teacher made sure to instill in me what he thought were the fundamentals of musicianship.  He would constantly remind me that rhythm comes first.  Before notes, before articulation, before phrasing, the rhythm must be accurate and steady. When the rhythm is counted correctly and the tempo steady, the articulation and phrasing often fall into place quickly.
     The first step towards counting rhythm accurately requires the most important tool any musician has at his or her disposal--a pencil.  When confronted with a confusing rhythm, it becomes every musician's responsibility to mark in the downbeats. One can simply mark a vertical slash over each beat.  I still do it to this day, and I've been playing the clarinet over 20 years.  Penciling in the downbeats emphasizes the important "landmarks" in a measure.  When tapping one's foot, each foot tap should line up with each penciled downbeat. 
    The next step involves something some instrumentalists despise while others enjoy.  SINGING.  I'm not talking about belting high notes like Pavarotti.  By singing, I simply am referring to singing rhythms on the syllable "tah."  The rule I have with all of my students is, "You can play it when you can sing it." When one can produce the sound of the rhythm from ones own body, it makes performing the rhythm on the instrument infinitely easier.  So, do not be afraid to put down your instrument, start tapping your foot, and sing the rhythms aloud when practicing. 
    The last step of course is to perform the rhythm on the instrument.  Hopefully after steps 1 and 2 have been accomplished, this last step should come quickly.  I often go through steps 1 and 2 with my beginner/intermediate students during our lessons.  After having gone through these first two steps, if a student makes a mistake while playing, I'll have them sing it again.  
    The rhythm is what gets us from the left side to the right side of the page.  As I mentioned earlier, when the rhythm is accurate and played with confidence, melodies become easier to hear and shape.  If you follow the 3 steps (penciling, singing, playing), I guarantee it will is assist you in gaining confidence when counting rhythms.

Joseph Pinto, Clarinet Teacher

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