Interpreting Clarinet Repertoire

As a clarinet teacher I have always found it really interesting how students develop their own way of learning to play clarinet repertoire. I believe graded instrumental exams (like ABRSM or Trinity College) have a big influence when it comes to beginners learning new music. Students who prepare for grade exams are usually offered a recording of each piece to listen to it ‘for an easier and clearer way of learning’ these pieces. Personally I just call this ‘copying what you are hearing’ without the need of really understanding the rhythm or any other musical terms included in the piece. And I have always wondered… ‘What is the point of it all?’ In the same way as when we are studying for any other exam in high school or university, there is very little than a student can remember after an exam if he/she memorises the whole content without even understanding any of it.

I remember when I started learning the clarinet my teacher wouldn’t let me listen to the pieces I was playing until I was able to figure out rhythm, notes, articulation and other details for myself. Her main aim was for me to be able to ‘create my own version and interpretation of the piece’, and only then I could listen to different recordings of it and compare styles and various ways of interpretation.

Thinking a bit further in the clarinet learning process, once a student has a strong and consistent technical ability to play the instrument, there is the musicality and interpretation of the pieces that comes to play. Personally I believe that every musician is able to feel and express the same music in different ways but not everyone necessarily realises about it. Sometimes it is difficult to get that extra skill out from students’ playing, to give their own touch to a particular piece, but as a teacher I can say that it is very rewarding when this happens. I always recommend my students to research a bit about the origins of the piece to be performed (style period, geographical and sociocultural context, composer’s style, etc.) All these things tend to give a more complete knowledge to the performer.

The other day I came across a very interesting interview made to Michael Collins by the Clarinet & Saxophone Society of Great Britain magazine. I consider him one of the best and most well-known British clarinettists from this era and I must admit I felt very touched when reading his point of view regarding this subject. In his own words he said:

I have never conformed to a school, I have never been bothered that it sounded like this or that person, I just want to be myself. I've got my own ideas of what it should sound like and how it should go, and I'll stick to that. Whether that's close to the American style, British style, German style, I have no idea. And I just wish that young musicians could have some of that get up and go about them and not copy. Maybe that's also because we listen to recordings that are perfect, and the sound is perfect, and we try to copy that way of playing which of course is never like it in real life.

I found these words very inspiring as I know how difficult it can be to find your own sound today, your own way of interpreting clarinet repertoire. I understand clarinet manufacturers play a big role in this subject as every clarinet player is always looking for performing with the best equipment in the market, but I wouldn’t want to enter into that topic for this post.

I just would like to conclude this post inviting you to reflect what your role as a player is: ‘Am I trying to copy the clarinet pieces I am preparing from other recordings/players?’ or ‘Am I looking for my own way of interpreting new repertoire?’ My advice to you today is not to stop ‘pushing’ your boundaries in your playing when searching for ways of interpretation. You never know where it may lead you!

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