Many years ago, while playing Assistant Principal and Eb clarinet in a major orchestra, I developed a very serious repetitive stress injury that threatened my career as a clarinet player. I took some time off from the job but ultimately decided to resign--I wanted to make sure that I'd be able to play in some capacity for the rest of my life and not sacrifice my long term ability just to keep my current orchestra position. This was a hard decision because, really, all I'd ever wanted from the time I was in high school (and through my conservatory years) was a professional orchestra gig. However, as is so often the case, not only was it the right decision but I truly came to see my injury as a great gift.
I was diagnosed with dystonia of the right hand when the field of music medicine was just beginning. A focal dystonia is what used to be called Writer's Cramp where, in my case, the fourth and fifth fingers of my right hand neither worked independently of each other nor worked together. Unlike tendonitis there is often nothing physically "wrong"-- no inflammation that ibuprofen would knock out, no weakness that physical therapy would strengthen, etc. Without getting too technical, it's a neurological disorder where the message to move a particular muscle gets short-circuited from the brain to the finger. I was devastated.
I went to one of the very first clinics for performing artists called The Miller Institute. It was in NYC and was affiliated with St. Lukes Roosevelt Hospital. In addition to learning how to avoid future injuries--stretching, frequent breaks while practicing, varying practice routines, proper posture and alignment, etc (all strategies that are now commonly known and widely disseminated)--they encouraged the practice of modifying the instrument to fit the hand. This is the exact opposite of how we're taught from the very beginning which is to force our hands and body over time to fit the permanently fixed instrument. Try this:
---Put your right arm at your side. Now raise it up from the elbow without moving your wrist or fingers. You'll notice that your wrist is pretty straight and your fingers are slightly curved. This is the most natural position for your clarinet playing hand.
You can look at the photo of my clarinet to see how I made the adaptations: extensions were put on all the pinky keys so that the pinky, which is shorter and weaker than the other fingers, doesn't have to reach out so far; a cup with a pad was put over the G/D tone hole so that the ring finger doesn't have to reach out as far as the middle finger. I also had a left hand Ab/Eb key added so that my left pinky could share that burden. Many clarinets now routinely come with that key.
The upshot? My fingers adapted almost immediately to the modifications and, because of the resulting new position of my hand, the dystonic response was almost completely mitigated. I played principal clarinet for the next 25 years in orchestras and opera festivals, played chamber music, taught, began my solo klezmer career--all without anyone knowing there had ever been a problem. And what was the gift? If I had been locked into a full-time orchestra job I never would've begun playing klezmer and, hence, never would have experienced the unfathomable creative outlet it became for me. This is a lesson I live every day--what seems like a curse can actually be a wonderful blessing.
Here are some links that may be helpful as you navigate your way through an injury:
National Dystonia Foundation:http://www.dystonia.org.uk/index.php/about-dystonia
Musicians Health.com: http://www.musicianshealth.com/whyrsi.htm
Stephen Fox--custom clarinet repairs: http://www.sfoxclarinets.com/Woodwind_Repair.html
As an instrumentalist we often face many physical challenges that, over time, can lead to chronic physical discomfort, pain, or worse. I have found that dealing with discomfort--even slight discomfort--as soon as the sensations arise is better than waiting to see if they go away on their own. I am a big proponent of holistic healing methods and, while my suggestions here may cost you some money, the amount pales in comparison to the cost of mainstream medical doctor's visits and the loss of income from not being able to play. So, here goes:
MASSAGE - for neck/arm tension and tightness. Good also as a way to reduce emotional stress before an upcoming concert. i like to have a massage two days before a concert, if possible. The day before is also okay but never on the day of. It can make you tired or lightheaded.
ACCUPUNCTURE - for any type of localized pain. This ancient Chinese healing method will relieve pain, speed up the healing process and make you feel both calm and revitalized simultaneously. Better yet, there are virtually no side effects other than perhaps a slight discomfort for some people when the sterilized needles are inserted.
CHIROPRACTIC ADJUSTMENT - in the hands of a skilled practitioner, this method of adjusting your neck and spine can relieve both sharp pain, dull aches, and tingling that are either localized or that radiate down your arms. The thought of it can be a bit scary the first time but, really, it's not painful and it can work wonders.
Other modalities that you may want to try are the Alexander Technique and the Feldenkreis Method. They focus on posture and freedom of movement and can make one realize just how much the habitual ways of using our bodies can interfere with breathing and movement.
I find that heat makes my fingers and arms more flexible but if I feel sore in a particular spot I will try and ice it to reduce the inflammation. Over-the-counter medications, such as ibuprofin, can be of help if you find it is really necessary but I try to avoid them as much as possible. A good natural alternative is a topical ointment called arnica gel--it can be found in health food stores and has none of the chemical drawbacks (or odors) that are found in products such as BenGay. And, of course, your grandmother's method of soaking in epsom salts is not only soothing but is a tried and true way to naturally reduce inflammation.
In short, don't be afraid to try any or all of the above. As players we need to keep our bodies happy and healthy. It may feel like you're pampering yourself too much but addressing--immediately--even the slightest discomfort in these ways is insurance against long-term disabilities (and costs). So, yes, do go ahead and "pamper" yourself. You and your music making are worth it!
My first article on playing double high C's on the clarinet dealt with the mechanics of getting out notes in that range - the fingerings, using a hard reed and taking in a lot of mouthpiece. But making music is much more than technique - in fact, the mechanics are only tools to work through in order to actually make music -- in order to inspire people. And boy, when these high notes are played right, they really can inspire! Like a singer going for it on American Idol or Pavarotti at the climax of a great aria, the audience can be moved, quite literally, to tears.
So, here are some suggestions on how to do that:
1. If you're improvising try to build up to the note. Create anticipation in the listener's ear by the melodic and rhythmic motion just prior to hitting the high note.
2. Be as expressive as possible - on the clarinet you can not only hold a double high C but you can play it with vibrato. You can also make a crescendo just before you're about to leave the note.
3. Regardless of the style of music try to hold the note as long as possible. If your music is strictly notated your pianist or conductor will wait for you. If you're improvising you obviously have much more leeway.
In this recording listen for the double high C at 1:22. All of the suggestions listed above can be heard in this very short klezmer tune: there's a wonderful sense of tension as the music builds to it's climax, the note itself is very expressive, and it's held for almost 22 seconds! The clarinetist by the way is my Dad, Harold Seletsky. He wrote this klezmer freylekh and specifically included a section where he could improvise and highlight his ability to circular breath on this extremely high note. Enjoy!
This is the second in a series of articles that deal with the potentially debilitating phenomenon that used to be called stage fright but is now referred to as performance anxiety--a much less loaded term. It is my hope that people will be helped by what I have come to learn through my years of experience. Part I explored the somewhat esoteric (but incredibly effective) practice of opening the crown chakra--a yoga and meditation technique. This article will deal with a much more conventional strategy--creative visualization.
Years ago I read a book called The Mental Athlete which helped me a great deal. The field of sports psychology (and sports medicine, for that matter) has been about 15 years ahead of that of the music world. They figured out that in order for Olympic athletes, for example, to win at competitions more than just their bodies had to be trained. Their minds had to be trained as well. The book explained the use of positive imagery to help develop the experience of playing a sport with heightened concentration while maintaining a relaxed body, executing moves and maneuvers with confidence and alacrity, all while enjoying the process. I said to myself, "That's exactly what I want to do while playing a concert!"
So, here is The Mental Athlete's prescription for achieving these goals. Using the sample below as a guide, write a script for yourself that walks you through the process of getting ready for a concert, playing the performance, and leaving the event. Include descriptions of how you want to feel--confident, optimistic, joyful, etc. Be sure to keep everything in the present tense, in the first person, and worded in the positive, i.e. "My body is relaxed" instead of "My body is not tense". Leave pauses where you think you will need them. You can begin your script with some very basic progressive relaxation techniques. Researchers have found that the subconscious is more receptive to suggestions when the body is in a relaxed state.
After you've written the script you will need to record it into a device that will easily play it back for you--your Smart Phone, for instance. From then on all you need to do is listen to your recording every day for at least a week before your performance. You can listen while lying down, before going to sleep at night, or even while taking a hot bath. (It's important to note, however, that you should NOT listen to your recording while driving a car.) Here is a sample visualization that I've used myself and recorded for many of my students. You should adapt it to your own needs:
Lie down and get very relaxed. Breath in....breath out...inhale....exhale.... My toes are relaxed. My legs, trunk, fingers are relaxed. My arms, back, shoulders, neck and head sink into the bed. With each breath I get more and more relaxed.....Now I see myself getting ready for my concert. I see what I'm wearing and I like the way I look. I'm happy while I'm getting myself ready--looking forward to sharing my music with others. Now I'm arriving at the venue. I'm confident because I know how well prepared I am. I greet my friends and colleagues. Now I'm onstage and I put my instrument together, put my music on the stand, and I warm up. I sound good. Everything is working perfectly and the sound coming back to me from the back of the hall is beautiful. Now the concert begins....[hear the passages in your head exactly as you would like them to come out]...Now it's another piece. My concentration is total and complete. I blend perfectly with everyone else and my solos are filled with expression....I easily let go of any mistakes....I'm taking in positive energy from the audience and from my colleagues. Now the concert is over. I'm packing up...telling others how good they sounded...thanking them when they complement me. I make sure I have everything and I leave the stage. I leave feeling good.
That's all there is to it. Just listen and follow along in your mind's eye and let this process work it's magic. For it DOES work and the more often you do it the better. This is a case where less is definitely not more!
Have a great concert.
Many years ago I competed in the Naumburg Competition in New York City and, although I practiced hours and hours a day on repertoire such as the Nielsen "Clarinet Concerto" and the Martino "Set for Clarinet" (some of the hardest pieces in the clarinet repertoire), I didn't advance past the preliminary round. Happily, my most recent experience at a high profile competition had a different outcome. I present this information here partly as a chance for me to relive the joy and excitement of the event but mostly to share information which could be helpful to any musician - at any level and in any genre - planning on participating in a competition. (Summary of tips at conclusion of article.)
The International Jewish Music Festival and Competition is held every other year in Amsterdam and draws musicians from around the globe. The application process began 8 months prior to the start of the festival with a Facebook notice announcing the event. The application required detailed biographical information, audio and video examples, a list of repertoire of our own choosing for each of the rounds, a mandatory piece that each performer or ensemble would be required to play, and an application fee. Out of over 100 applicants my Jewish music ensemble, Big Galut(e), was one of 24 chosen to participate and the only one from the United States. The months between notification of acceptance and actually arriving in Amsterdam was filled with preparations including raising funds through grant writing to cover some of the costs, researching lodging for five people--would it be cheaper to get an Airbnb where all of us could stay or take advantage of a discounted hotel offered by the Festival? Should we be close to the Festival site or deal with trams and busses with our instruments?--purchasing airline tickets, making sure passports were in order, researching restrictions on certain instruments (more on thison later) and, of course, practicing. I also scheduled several concerts in the United States as practice performances utilizing our competition repertoire.
I chose to arrive in Amsterdam several days before the start of the event (and a day before my fellow bandmates) so that I would be over jet lag by thetime we would begin rehearsing. Once all of our members convened in the city of Amsterdam, we set up a rehearsal schedule, attended the opening reception of the Festival, met some other musicians and got the lay of the land. There were two days allotted for the first round and we were scheduled for the second of those. That gave us a chance to meet and hear some of the other groups, get a sense of the acoustics in the beautiful and historic Uilenberger Synagogue, and acclimate ourselves to what we might expect. This turned out to be incredibly beneficial - we actually revised some aspects of our presentation as a result. For our presentation the following day we decided to demonstrate the wide variety of styles we incorporate in our repertoire; we performed two original klezmer tunes that I wrote (including one with quarter-tones which the jury thought was quite funny), a Baroque sonata by the 17th century Jewish composer Salamone Rossi, a humorous take (by singing it in French) on the Yiddish classic "My Yiddishe Momma" , among others. We had to carefully make cuts in several of our selections so that we would not go over our allotment of 20 minutes; these cuts were deliberately chosen so as not to unduly disrupt the musical flow of each piece.
Having an audience to play for was a wonderful bonus--it felt just like a regular performance for us (with a peripheral sense of being formally adjudicated) and I have to say we had a great time. We played well, we communicated musically with each other, and just enjoyed the chance to make music. It's important to note that, for me at least, I went into this with as little attachment to winning as I could muster. I tried to see it as a rewarding opportunity in and of itself and that anything after that would be icing on the cake. When we were told that out of the 24 ensembles we were one of 8 to continue on to the semi-final round it was wonderfully exciting -- and validating -- but I hope I would've felt good about the whole event had that not happened. In any case, yes, we went on to the next round and again chose our repertoire carefully--this time trying to demonstrate aspects of our style and rep that hadn't been demonstrated in the first round. In retrospect, I think we all feel we misjudged our choices. We wound up coming across as a little too serious (whereas in the first round we had the audience and judges laughing and smiling throughout) and partly as a result of that we were not selected to be one of the four finalists despite the fact that we felt we played our very best. However, there were numerous prizes awarded that were separate from the grand prize and we were fortunate enough to win one of them- it was called the Simcha Prize (simcha is a Hebrew word for joyous event) and the organizers are quoted as saying when they were presenting it to us: "very gifted musicians with high quality playing... and very entertaining". The prize came with a cash award of $500 Euros.
Not having to play the final round was a blessing in disguise as we were suddenly released from all pressure while having a totally free day in the enchanting city of Amsterdam. We now suddenly had time to explore, sightsee, etc. and being able to do those activities (Van Gough Museum, Rembrandt House, lunch and dinner in fantastic restaurants) together as a group strengthened our already great sense of friendship with one another. Plus, we had the joy of knowing we had played our best and had been recognized for it. At that point we realized that we had accomplished everything we had set out to do and, even though we did not "win", we won.
Tips for Preparing and Playing a Competition
1. Read all the applications materials carefully to make sure you meet the requirements such as age limit, instrument, etc.
2. Make sure you will be able to play the required works well enough to be competitive.
3. Submit ALL application materials (such as audio/video samples, fees, etc) on time.
4. Make hotel and airline reservations carefully. If overseas make sure your passport is valid for more than 6 months before expiration. You can be denied entry to a country if it is not.
5. Be sure to know ahead of time if your instrument is made with restricted materials such as ivory -- many string instrument bows contain ivory and, in fact, our bass player had to take a carbon fibre bow to Amsterdam. Grenadilla wood (the preferred material of professional level clarinets) is also now restricted but only if your instrument weighs more than 10 pounds. So, traveling internationally with standard clarinets is not a problem.
6. Straddle the paradox of committing yourself to winning but not being attached to the outcome. In other words, do everything you can to achieve your goals (including visualizations, affirmations, etc - see earlier blogs of mine regarding this issue) but don't let the attachment to winning keep you from doing your best; the attachment can keep you feeling anxious and fearful, can block inspiration, and can keep you from learning and growing from the experience.
7. And finally, Go For It!
Watch our short video for a sample look at our recent IJMF competition. Big Galut(e) is the first ensemble featured. As an added bonus, the organizers chose our recorded music as the background audio for the little montage.