The Windplayer Magazine - February 1994

I was giving a master class and the students played well. But when I asked, "What did you have in mind for the phrasing of this?" —most of them had very little in mind. And if they did, it wasn't coming out of the clarinet. It didn't sound sincere. It's so tempting to concentrate on the fingering, that's all some students think about.

Well, that's like going to the one-yard line (in football) and not going over. Learning to phrase in a convincing way is crucial. Otherwise, the audience is not getting anything personal from you and you're not getting the benefit of the art form. If I sit through a whole evening listening to someone playing a master's recital, and at the end I feel I don't know their insides at all, it's been a waste of time.

I have my students decide how the music should be phrased as soon as possible. Sometimes, to make the point, I tease them. I'll ask, "When you go to the ballpark, have you ever heard any singer do this, where they go 'Oh, say can you (long pause). See by the dawn's (gasp) ear—r—rly...' " Of course, the younger students giggle and say, "Nobody does that." I say, "Well, you just did that on the clarinet." You lose the meaning when you chop things up in the wrong places. The structure has to be logical."

A great book to practice phrasing is the Rose "32 Etudes" book. It's almost completely blank of phrase markings and dynamics, so it's like working with a chalkboard. On general hint is that you lead a phrase upward toward its highest point with a crescendo. Phrases are tapered They start softer, grow toward the middle and refine themselves toward the end, taking on a diamond shape. Of course, not every phrase is like this.

gg_closeupIf you're uncertain about a piece, take the clarinet out of our mouth and sing it. The natural way to phrase it is already in your consciousness. We forget we've been listening to music since mother sent us to church or synagogue. I've always found that when I'm really getting a reaction out of people, I've stayed the simplest, the purest and I'm really going back to my roots singing in a church choir and phrasing according to how the voice would do it.

Another thing the voice does naturally is linger on certain words or important notes. That's called rubato. It is what Pavarotti does when he get to a high note or he gets to the important note leading to it. We talked about crescendos into the middle of the phrase. That's where you're going to end up taking a little more time. Arthur Rubenstein, the pianist, was a master of that with Chopin. He would break your heart with that lingering on certain notes.

A student will ask me, "When do I do that?" Well, it gets to be a matter of taste. If you linger too long, it sounds distorted, like you're not respecting Mr. Chopin at all. You have to learn how much.

Now you may think, "What if I play Tchaikovsky; he's got everything written in. It should be easy for me to do it, just filling in what he said to do." Then it's more subtle. Then its how much crescendo do you do? He didn't give you the exact decibel to go to did he? He just said piano to mezzo forte. That's where your experience of knowing Tchaikovsky comes in. In fact, as soon as you get the style in mind, whether the Romantic period, 20th century or whatever, you should be able to tell from the first three intervals. You start to adjust accordingly. The trick is to make it yours, while staying true to the piece.

For more on phrasing, you can also check "The Art of Clarinet Playing" by Keith Stein. I still have not seen any book that's a better how-to. Jack Brymer has also put out a new video. These are two world class experts and both get to talking about how to phrase music. •••

Gary Gray manages to keep active with record, TV and film projects in addition to teaching clarinet at UCLA and playing principal clarinet for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. You can hear him on "The Simpsons," Murder, She Wrote," and in the feature film "Paradise." Next on his calendar is a recording session with jazz great Clare Fischer.

He plays the new silver-key Buffet R-13 B-flat and A clarinets. His mouthpiece is a Borbeck, refaced by Evertt Matson. He also uses Vandoren #5 reeds though, "I'm toying with the new Vandoren V12 #4 1/2."