Never say, “This is Hard.”

I’m not a huge believer in the power of positive thinking in the “Law of Attraction” sense (in fact, I’m currently working my way through The Antidote, by Oliver Burkeman which give some pretty convincing evidence against this philosophy). However, I do believe that how we talk to our students, and ourselves (we are our own best teacher, after all), has a direct impact on how we learn, and our attitudes toward music and the learning process.

Many therapists and self-help books discuss the influence of our “self-talk,” or the language we use when we talk to ourselves. In the most simplistic sense, it is healthier to change the negative words we use when talking to ourselves–words like: “bad,” or “ugly,” or “stupid,”–to “good,” “beautiful,” or “smart.”

It doesn’t have to be a black-or-white 180 like this. During my time at the Manhattan School of Music, I took a course on teaching from Dr. Carol Ann Aicher. One of the things she mentioned is to never say something is “hard,” to yourself or your students. If something is “hard,” I don’t want to do it. I don’t even want to try. Hard is impossible. Hard is painful and time-consuming, and I’m likely to fail. She suggested using the word “challenging” instead. I want to live up to a challenge. A challenge is possible. A challenge is something that you will eventually be successful at if you work at it.

I’ve taken this one step further. I’ve realized that we often tell our beginning students (5th-6th grade in Texas), “Crossing the break is hard,” “High notes are hard to get out,” “6/8 time, triplets, sixteenth notes, and dotted notes are hard to count, so let’s wait on that.” We do it almost without thinking, and not without compassion: we want to let them know that if they fail, it’s okay. The problem rears its head, however, whenever I start teaching at a new high school, and I have students who have come up with all kinds of tricks and crutches for crossing the break, they bite high notes out, they’re scared to death of any notes with more than one beam, and can only play dotted rhythms or things in 6/8 if you sing it for them first so they can memorize how it goes.

So I approach all of my beginners with a “this is easy” attitude. This puts the challenge onto my shoulders as a teacher to make sure that I set them up for success for all of these “easy” things. As soon as a student can play a chalumeau C with a good sound, embouchure and air, I bump the register key and a beautiful high G inevitably comes out. Then I have them do it with theirthumb. All I say is, “That’s how you play one of the higher notes.” I don’t say, “…and they only get harder from there, so DON’T try to go higher, yet!” I also don’t give them praise, like, “Oh my gosh! You just played in the high register and this is only your third lesson! Do you know how hard that is??” I don’t even call it a “high note,” or the “high register,” I simply say, “That’s how you play one of the higher notes. Easy, right?”

Before they even learn how to put their clarinet together, I put a metronome on something moderate like 80. Then I ask them to say “Ta” for every click. Then I tell them to “Ta” every other click. Then every four. Then I ask them to say two “Ta’s” for every click. Then three. Then four. Sometimes I have to do a little work like giving them a three- or four-syllable word to say with the the best first, or putting the metronome on eighths to help even things out a little bit. But once they’ve got the hang of it, I write down what a whole note looks like and say, “That’s a ‘ta’ that lasts four beats.” I repeat with half notes and quarter notes, then eighths, triplets, and sixteenths. “Easy, right?” And so far, they all say, “Yeah!” Then we move on to something else. When we get to dotted rhythms, I explain in a very mathematical way what a dot is. We don’t even bother counting it right away, I just make sure they understand the concept. I even played a game with a student this year after he recognized the pattern dotted notes follow, culminating in me asking him, “So what is a dotted 64th note?” This eleven-year-old responded: “Um…a 64th tied to a 128th note?” “You’ve got it. Easy, right?” (I say this calmly as MY self-talk is screaming, “WHAT?? THAT’S AMAZING!!!”)

For the first few months with beginners, I repeat these exercises every couple of weeks, always saying, “Remember this? I know it was easy for you, but I just want to make sure you still remember how to do it.” Then they do it, and I might add a tiny challenge, but nothing they can’t do. Then we move on. This way, I have all of these sixth graders who can play in the clarion register right away, who aren’t afraid of sixteenth notes, and know what a dot does, and none of them know how spectacular that is. They just know that it is.

High Schoolers are harder to crack, you have to spend time undoing the “this is hard” conditioning they’ve had for years. I’ve found, however, that if you take a step (or ten) back and re-teach some of the basic concepts as if they are easy, students–the ones who have the patience to stick with it–will truly appreciate it. I recently spent a whole lesson going over the basics of rhythm with a high school junior who had unfortunately never fully learned what whole notes or 4/4 time were, but by the end of the lesson he was counting 32nd notes and dotted eighths in compound meter with an eighth-note pulse. His response at the end of this lesson was, “Oh man. You just clarified EVERYTHING for me. Thank you so much.”

This isn’t to say that you should tell a student that everything is easy all of the time. I just don’t pre-empt what they’re about to do by telling them something is hard OR easy. They try something first, and if they get it, I point out how simple it is and move on. If they struggle, I might say, “No problem. This is challenging, and here are some ways to work on it.”

I know some teachers and band directors who play videos of clarinetist Han Kim performing grad-school-level music when he was 11 years old, and when their students say, “How did he get to be so good??” their teachers say, “He practiced.” Okay, that is true, but I’m also guessing that no one ever told him something was too hard.

Easy, right?

New Clarinet? Read This First!

In what is quickly becoming a series on moisture control and crack prevention, I thought I would add a post on how to handle a new clarinet. A brand-new clarinet and even used clarinets that haven’t been played for a long time need to be broken in before they are regularly played. The reasons are twofold: 1) Breaking in helps to prevent—you guessed it—cracking! At this “young” stage where it is apt to soak up a little more moisture and be a little less stable, the gradual introduction of heat and moisture to the clarinet will reduce the extreme changes a clarinet goes through when it is played. 2) Breaking in helps prevent the bore from changing shape. Think of it like this: if you spray a mist of water on a book, and you wipe it up quickly and let it sit to air-dry, only a few pages might get wavy on the outside. However, if you pour water in a stream on the book for several minutes, then just let it sit, until it dries, the pages will bend and wrinkle to the point where the book won’t even stay closed or fit on a bookshelf. The more gradually you introduce moisture into a new instrument, the more minimal the changes (if any) in the shape of the wood. As I mentioned in my post on moisture removal, it is these small changes that often cause a clarinet to “blow out.”

First, start by checking out these pages:

I will add a process sent to me by Mark Sloss with Professional Wind Instrument Consultants of New Jersey (, amazing company where I have gotten my last three clarinets, all hand-selected by Mark Nuccio from the New York Philharmonic).

“Every time of year and part of the country is a little different and poses unique challenges. I would say the following as a general rule — the clarinet is primarily an organic object. Treat it as such. For the first couple months don’t play your clarinet more than about 20 minutes at a time, and swab regularly. I think you could comfortably do a morning and evening ritual to get twice a day in, but I believe it is  important for them to “rest” and cool down and dry off before continuing to play them. After the first couple months, you can take that up to a half-hour to 40 minutes at a pop, again swabbing regularly. I would say after the first 100 days or so you can play them steady, just being mindful of moisture. Don’t leave them assembled either. Take them apart and let them breathe when you are done. (Also if you find a tenon has swelled, don’t force the joints together or apart. That’s a recipe for trouble.)

“Second general rule — It is particularly important to keep the ends of the tenons and the sockets clean and dry. If you remember your high school biology you probably recall how plants draw water through basically a wicking process. The end grain of the clarinet is the most vulnerable because it is the thinnest point on the clarinet, under the greatest stress from the joint connections, and where moisture gets wicked up. It is harder to do but I would also say similarly be mindful of water accumulation in tone holes [BG: Remember the video of me blowing water out of my tone holes when I pack up my clarinet?].”

Much of this may sound familiar to my previous two posts, but it bears repeating. Common points in all of these break-in procedures:

  • Start slow, increase the time you play the instrument gradually over the course of several months.
  • Have patience, and a backup instrument.
  • Get that moisture out of there!
  • Try to play the clarinet every day. I read one procedure that said if you skip a day, you have to add a week to your break-in period!
  • Be observant! Observe the temperature of your environment, observe the temperature of your clarinet, observe the fit of the joints, observe the rings, check for cracks, check for moisture hiding from you.

One note about oiling: Some people swear by oiling their clarinets regularly, others think it deadens the sound. I never quite understood the argument, since most wood instruments come from the factory oiled. I typically don’t oil often, and if I do, it’s only a tiny layer. It’s best to oil your clarinet without any keys on, so it might be best to leave this to a professional. There are also a lot of bad bore oils out there, so again, ask a qualified technician. Oiling may prevent cracking to some degree by preventing moisture from absorbing into the wood. It can also help the condensation to stream down the bore and out the bell, instead of making unwanted paths into tone holes.

‘Tis the Season (for Cracking)

Having your clarinet crack is a difficult, frustrating, and scary situation, but before you yell at your repair technician or demand your money back from the person who sold it to you, know that it’s not the end of the world. The good news is, once the crack is repaired, if repaired well, the tone of the clarinet may not be affected at all (in rare cases, it is improved!). The clarinet I had in my undergraduate degree cracked (before I used the process outlined above), and I was still able to play on it for several years, getting into several competitive summer festivals and grad schools.

Depending on where you are living, now is the season for cracking. Continue reading

The Long-Awaited Transcription

A few years ago, I posted a video on YouTube titled “Greatest jazz clarinet solo ever!” I expected it to get a couple of hundred views, and was shocked recently to realize that is has close to 100,000 views! One of the most requested things in the “Comments” section is a transcription of the solo, and while I have been reluctant to put my hard work out there for free, I also don’t think you can charge money for a transcription of someone else’s creative ideas. So here, for the first time, is John Graham’s solo from the Itchy Fingers track, Dakhut:

Dakhut Solo – Clarinet in Bb

Cleaning Out the Moisture

I am a fairly obsessive person when it comes to caring for my clarinet. This will be particularly evident in a future post on preventing cracking in wooden clarinets, but for now, I just want to talk about keeping things clean and dry. The reason? Moisture can carry with it some nasty stuff like particles from your mouth (though you should be brushing your teeth beforehand, right?), cause the instrument to mold if left there too long, and on wood clarinets can increase the likelihood of cracking or warping. I take a little extra time when I pack up to make sure all of the moisture is gone. Some may think it’s overkill, but my clarinets look and play great, and my pads last for a very long time.

Continue reading

Joan Rivers’ Advice

Right around the time I was working with Dave Gnojek at Designojek on this website, which was also right after I moved to New York, I happened to see an episode of the TV Show “Louie,” written, directed, edited, produced, and starring the amazing comedian Louis C.K. This particular episode had an exchange between Louis and the comedienne Joan Rivers, who gave some strikingly candid and relevant advice for comedians, but also any artist or freelancer. I’m not sure how much of it was from Joan’s brain, and how much was written for her to say by Louis; either way it’s wonderful. I have written a transcript (slightly edited for younger audiences) as my first blog post. Continue reading