Yes they can! Clarinetists are often required to play quarter-tones in contemporary music and I've developed a fingering system to make this possible. My Dad was a composer who was very active in the New York Microtonal Society--among other things--and I've adapted and codified his fingering and notational system for a 24-tone scale on the clarinet. It does not require additional keys on the instrument--your regular clarinet can do it all! Watch the video and see and hear the possibilities. If you're interested in learning the fingerings or purchasing my quarter-tone fingering chart contact me through my website and I'll be happy to help.
In addition to contemporary music, quarter-tones are often used in different types of ethnic music, notably Arabic and other Middle Eastern styles. However, I've found that those usually sound more stylistically appropriate if they're achieved by adjustments from the embouchure and throat rather than fingerings on the clarinet. Having said that, though, I've written and recorded a Klezmer Freylekh -- a typical klezmer dance tune -- that uses quarter tones. You can listen to it here, recorded by my klezmer band, Big Galut(e). So, yes, quarter-tones ARE fun.
Have you ever thought about an upcoming performance and instead of joy and excitement there's a tightness in your gut and an anxiety that just won't go away? Have you ever been in an actual concert and you were so nervous that it was difficult to concentrate? Or your hands shook? Or you couldn't catch your breath? Well, I can tell you that many, if not most, artists have experienced some type of performance anxiety in their careers. I know I have. And I knew all the standard strategies to deal with it--deep breathing, positive self-talk, no caffeine, high-potassiam foods like bananas, etc. They all work. However, for me, they didn't work dramatically enough; I still struggled with anxiety to the point where I questioned whether or not I wanted to continue to be a performer.
And then I found a teacher who, although not a musician, quite literally changed my life. I guess I would describe her as a holistic practitioner or a meditation teacher of sorts--the labels don't matter. She taught me about the Chakra system--the energy centers in the body that affect our lives in very deep ways. I will focus here on the one chakra that, through a particular kind of awareness, "cured" my performance anxiety. The Crown Chakra. The crown chakra at the top of your head opens with inspiration and closes with fear. And since it's impossible to feel fear and inspiration at the same time all you have to do is STAY INSPIRED. It's that simple. Now, if you happen to subscribe to a particular spiritual practice or religion you can view the crown chakra as an opening to the spiritual realms (think halos in the depictions of religious figures). And you may also see the connection between Inspiration and those same spiritual realms ( in-spirit = in-spir-ation). But you can be a complete atheist and this will still work for you. Here's how:
Think of a piece of music that gives you chills up and down your spine--maybe Puccini's Nessun Dorma or the opening sounds to Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. It doesn't have to be classical music--maybe a Bruce Springsteen anthem does it for you. Regardless, when you feel those "chills" from that music, that's your crown chakra opening. So, here's the prescription. Listen to that piece of music on your way to the concert. Sing it to yourself while you're walking into the hall. Hum it while you're putting your clarinet together. If you have a long rest during the concert where you won't lose your place if you stop counting for a few seconds you can think of that musical phrase--even for the briefest of moments--and get your crown open. Of course, it will close the minute you start focusing on your fear but with practice it will stay open and you will be able to perform with a kind of joy and freedom you never thought possible. This is not pie-in-the-sky, New-Age self-help. Well, maybe it is a bit New-Agey but I can tell you, unequivocally and from years of personal experience, THIS WORKS. Just remember, you can't feel fear and inspiration at the same time. So, keep feeling those chills up and down your spine as much and as often as possible. Let them lift you and free you.
Have a great concert!
Many in the clarinet world feel that there is an inherent advantage to playing with a double lip embouchure. While I’m not sure that’s necessarily true I can say unequivocally that playing double lip has worked well for me. I was fortunate in that I always played with my top lip over my top teeth—from the very first notes I ever blew into the instrument. My father was my clarinet teacher and prized both a beautiful liquid sound and expansive expressive phrasing above all else. He felt that a double lip embouchure was one way to achieve these musical ideals.
There are clarinetists who sound gorgeous using single lip (top teeth on the mouthpiece) which is why it is not for me to say that one method is better than the other. However, I have generally always felt that my legato has been smooth and my sound warm—both general characteristics of using double lip.
Now to dispel the myth that one cannot play standing up using this method. It is true that Harold Wright always sat when playing a solo—even a concerto with the orchestra. It is also true that for many years I was afraid of playing standing up. Things changed when I began playing klezmer. The joy and exuberance in that style of music was beyond anything that could be expressed while sitting down. And once I stood up….well, there was no going back down.
I find that I have to be alert to the warning of signs of fatigue in the facial muscles if I play standing up for too long. The muscles around the mouth can get very tight and even shake when pushed beyond their limit. However, that has only happened to me once or twice in many many years. As long as I am practicing regularly so as to be in good shape I can play a two-hour klezmer concert without any problem at all.
So, if you’re thinking about starting a beginning student with the double lip embouchure or are considering making the switch yourself from single to double lip, I say go for it!
This is my first blog on my new website. It is my hope that I can share something that will be of value to you and that will make a contribution to the world of music. My years of professional performing, teaching, lecturing (and even some composing) have led me to this point.
Growing up with a father who was both a clarinetist and an avant-garde composer gave me many opportunities to learn techniques such as quarter-tone fingerings, multiphonics, growling through the instrument, etc. I premiered many of my Dad's pieces and recently archived his works for clarinet (solo and chamber) with the American Composers Alliance. The ACA will loan them out (with only a small processing fee) if you're interested in performing his expressive and unique sounding music. http://composers.com
Topics for future blogs include: tools and strategies to deal with performance anxiety, how to avoid overuse syndrome, suggestions that may help you if you do wind up having playing-related injuries. I will also share what I know about the double-lip embouchure for clarinet--my Dad started me on double-lip and I've played that way my entire life. My father had studied with Gino Cioffi of the Boston Symphony and LOVED his warm sound quality achieved by the double-lip embouchure.
And since klezmer playing has become such a huge part of my professional life in the last 20 years I will, of course, write many blogs on that topic. For now, though, I would just like to close with this thought--whenever you play try and feel that you are just giving and offering your gift of music. Be filled with humility--the sense that you are one small part of a larger whole--and try to put service to the music (and to the audience ) first. This will make you One with the music and can profoundly deep your experience of performing.
With all good thoughts--