Harold Seletsky –Prolific, Versatile Composer and Performer of Clarinet Music

 Although his contribution to the clarinet world is not well known outside his hometown of New York City, the composer and clarinetist Harold Seletsky (1927-2010) wrote hundreds of works for the instrument in styles ranging from avant-garde to klezmer.  His haunting unaccompanied quarter-tone solos showcase his idiosyncratic use of a 24-tone scale and his Concertino for Klezmer Clarinet and String Quartet won first prize in the American Society for Jewish Music's 1998 International New Music Competition.

Harold studied composition with Josef Schmidt, a prize student of Alban Berg, who came to this country to escape the Nazi's.  In the Old World tradition of apprenticeship learning (vs the university system) the dozen or so students in Schmidt's studio learned the craft of composition using Arnold Schoenberg's meticulous pedagogical system.  By the late 1950's Harold was writing multi-movement works in the 12-tone system including his Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, recorded here at Symphony Space in 2010. Seletsky Sonata. He eventually abandoned Schoenberg's 12-tone system in favor of the 24-tone scale.  His love of quarter-tones informed many of his compositions from avant-garde chamber works to klezmer freylekhs (Robin's Piece)  Here is the first of four tutorials I created showing every quarter-tone fingering available on the clarinet based on what he taught me Learn Clarinet Quarter-Tones #1 

By the mid-1960's, with a family to support, Harold pursued a career on Madison Ave working for advertising agencies writing commercial jingles and film music. Most notable in this arena was the theme for the long running TV news program "Issues and Answers" and campaigns for US Steel, Air France, Gimbels, Royal Jordanian Airlines and Royal Air Maroc.  As a little kid, it was always a thrill to be watching TV and hear his music during a commercial break!  Despite his success, however, he was never fulfilled by this turn his career had taken.  He very much felt as if he had "sold out".  Jingles and commercial work was the antithesis of the music of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms - the deep and profound music that spoke to him so passionately.  By his later years he was finally able to be free of the need to compose solely for money and got out of the commercial world once and for all. 

There was so much more to Harold's musical life, however, than formal composition.  Having grown up dirt poor in Williamsburg, Brooklyn during the Depression, his first paying jobs were playing "club dates" in the Borscht Belt hotels in the Catskill Mountains.  He, of course, respected the musicianship of Benny Goodman but it was Artie Shaw's style that had the bigger influence on him. In addition to being steeped in the 1940's swing style, Harold was shaped first and foremost by the music he heard growing up - Yiddish folk music now referred to as Klezmer but simply called back then "Jewish".  If you were "Playing Jewish" on a club date it meant the portion of the gig where the familiar shers, bulgars and freylekhs were performed to the delight of the Yiddish speaking guests at a wedding or show.  During the klezmer revival begun in the 1990's, Harold revisited that genre but with a newly formed ensemble, The West End Klezmorim, so named because they had a standing gig at Art Lugoff's West End Gate.  Coming full circle, Harold now wrote scores of Jewish inspired compositions including klezmer tunes, songs, nigunim, a full Shabbat service and more.

Last but not least, he was not content to limit his jazz playing to the Big Band style of the '40's.  He was tireless in his quest to grow as an instrumentalist, incorporating progressive harmonies into his clarinet improvisations and always trying to learn from the young and adventurous players with whom he surrounded himself.

This tribute to my Dad's musical life barely scratches the surface.  I've left out his years of "legit" clarinet playing:  his studies with Gino Cioffi of the Boston Symphony (searching for the most beautiful sound possible), playing Eb Clarinet in the Houston Symphony under Leopold Stokowski, his transcriptions for clarinet and string quartet of the Schumann Fantasy Pieces, Bach Chaconne, both clarinet sonatas by Brahms - all pieces he not only loved but loved the idea of the expressive possibilities inherent in his arrangements.  His legacy lives on in his students and it, of course, informs all of my music making to this day. 

 

   

 

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.