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.
If music is your passion and you would love to actually have a career as a musician but are afraid it's too risky, I'm here to tell you that it's absolutely possible and, in fact, is the path to pursue if your heart is speaking to you. You can make a living and whole worlds you never knew about will open up to you.
First, get really really good at playing your instrument. That's actually the easy part. Then, realize that wherever you are--in a small or medium-sized town, small or large city--there is a need for musicians. I'll say it again. There is a need for musicians. Everywhere. Here is just a short list:
1. Community/Regional Orchestras - contact the conductor and play for him/her. If there's a formal audition, take it. Even if you don't win you will get your name out there.
2. Orchestra Personnel Managing or Librarian--if you're in a regional orchestra this is an extra way to make money to supplement your instrumental playing wages.
3. Choral Societies - they usually give a concert once or twice a year with small orchestra or chamber group.
4. College Theater Productions - often need "ringers" for their musical productions. Contact the music/theater department at your local college and get to know the faculty.
5. Adjunct Teaching at the College Level - you don't need a doctorate to teach as an adjunct. And you'd be amazed at how easily teaching music appreciation or music theory comes to you even with just a Bachelor's degree in music. Lecturing in front of a class is very much like performing. in fact, it is performing.
6. Weddings - let hotels, bridal shops, churches and synagogues know of you. Form a small ensemble and put together a book of easy repertoire. Be ready to be flexible in every way and figure out ways to accommodate most musical requests.
7. Church or Synagogue Music Director--even if you have no background in choral music you can figure out how to rehearse and conduct a choir, choose appropriate music and participate in services.
8. Private Lessons - you can do this out of your home, out of a local music store, or at a local college.
9. Concertize Locally - writing grants is not that difficult (although it can be time consuming). Find out what grants are available through your local arts council (or through a college if you're affiliated with one) and use the money to fund a solo or chamber performance. You'll quickly learn all the basics, such as sending in press releases and how to handle ticket sales.
None of what I've written here breaks new ground. And all of the above are just ways to get started at a local level. From there, the sky's the limit because you'llrealize that it's all possible. For example, once you've auditioned for a local orchestra it's not a big leap to audition for a regional orchestra; once you've written a grant to self-fund a local performance of your ensemble you can write a grant to fund a tour for your ensemble.....you get the idea. Is it hard work? Yes. Does it require a tremendous amount of self-motivation? Yes. But I guarantee you will never be bored, you will never ever feel like you're in a mind-numbing, soul-depleting job situation and you will never be "waiting to retire" in order to pursue your dream. You will be living your dream.
All clarinetists know the high G's in Beethoven's 8th Symphony. Those notes are challenging not just because they're in the high register but because they're exposed and must be played with great control and refinement. However, the clarinet can actually play up to a fourth or even a fifth higher than those notorious G's. Check out my tutorial that gives tips as well as fingerings to get up to a double high C.
You will probably need to take in a bit more mouthpiece than usual and use a slightly harder than you may be used to. If you can get up to a double C and want to go even higher (!) you can play a double high C# and a double high D simply by overblowing the usual fingerings for those notes. Seems crazy but those notes are there. (You will have to take in LOTS of mouthpiece for those). The first time I was ever required to try and execute those notes in a piece--and "execute" might be right term here :) -- was when I was a student at Tanglewood. The year was 1980 and Gunther Schuller was the director. Towards the end of every summer there was something called the Fromm Festival--a weeklong celebration of contemporary music. I was assigned the clarinet part in Ralph Shapey's Woodwind Quintet and when I saw those double high C#'s and D's I panicked. Fortunately, however, my teacher from NEC, Peter Hadcock, was right there as a member of the Boston Symphony and gave me a quick lesson on how to meet this challenge. In his very matter-of-fact way he told me to find an incredibly hard reed, take a huge amount of mouthpiece, and basically blow the bejesus out of those notes. Which I did. And still do.
After 32 summers of playing principal clarinet in the Glimmerglass Opera Festival near Cooperstown NY I recently decided to step down--a hard decision but the right one at the right time. One of the many good things to have come from that choice was the opportunity to attend the annual International Clarinet Association's annual conference--since they're scheduled to take place during the summer months I had never been able to go. Although I have been a member of ICA for many years I really had no idea what to expect at the convention and thought that, at best, I would tire of it rather quickly and wind up making forays into the downtown district to get away from the intensity of All-Clarinet-All-The-Time. Well, I couldn't have been more wrong. I absolutely loved it. The International Clarinet Association Convention, aka ClarinetFest, was held this year at the Universitiy of Kansas, August 3-7. What struck memost was how everyone--amateurs, beginner students, advanced students, professionals--was welcomed as equals, and how the structure of the overall event supported and encouraged this sense of equality. There were clarinet choirs in which everyone could participate as well as lectures and recitals to meet everyone's particular musical/technical interest.
Most memorable for me, however, were the evening concerts. I consider myself something of a hardened professional but I was completely and utterly blown away by the playing of Ricardo Morales, Benjamin Lulich (whose rendition of Weber's Eb Concerto was absolutely astonishing) and Jonathan Gunn. At the master class given by Oberlin's Richard Hawkins I was reminded of how great teachers can really connect with students and alter their playing for the better with just one perfectly phrased suggestion.
Last but not least were the exhibition rooms. Display upon display contained every conceivable piece of equipment from the top of the line clarinet to the tiniest accessory. Buffet, Bakun, D'Addario, and Vandoren representatives were all there as well as smaller independent dealers. The cacophony of orchestral excerpts, Mozart concerto phrases, and "noodling" created a (surprisingly) not unpleasant sheet of white noise that only ceased when those rooms closed down for the night.
I saw old friends and made new friends. And at next year's convention I will know just what to expect. Maybe I'll see you there?
Have you ever wanted to learn multiphonics on the clarinet? Is there a contemporary piece you'd like to play but it requires multiple tones at once? I was afraid of all but the simplest multiphonics for the longest time but once I got the hang of them they were a blast. This video shows you the fingerings for the four easiest multiphonics on the clarinet. In addition to the fingerings you may need a soft reed at first, a somewhat loose embouchure, and steady--but not forced--air. The notion of playing chords on a single melody-line instrument may seem counter-intuitive but is totally mainstream these days. Check out "Song for Timisoara" (below) by Carlos Delgado to see how musically expressive multiphonics (and other contemporary techniques on the clarinet) can be when written into in a composition. In the next few months I will be posting more complete tutorials on extended clarinet techniques which will include fingering charts and step-by-step suggestions on how to achieve these techniques. For now, though, I hope this introduction will be useful to you (or at least pique your interest!).