Using Solo Literature To Improve Musicianship

Vanessa Davis | October 2018

    After a number of years teaching private lessons in Texas, it has become clear that to give students what they need to succeed in band while also teaching them to be the best instrumentalists they can, pedagogy must be streamlined to get the maximum from each minute of a 30-minute (or shorter) lesson. In this spirit of efficiency, I began researching alternative methodologies and came across concept-based pedagogy. Although not often used in music, this pedagogy has been successfully applied in such fields as nursing and language learning. By combining it with Comprehensive      Musicianship Through Performance, it is possible to develop a method by which teachers can address key aspects of instrumental pedagogy while also preparing music for contests and other assessments. 

    What follows is an example of how this pedagogy could be applied to Elliot Del Borgo’s Elegy for Solo Clarinet, a middle school level unaccompanied clarinet piece. Although solutions proposed are clarinet-based, they could easily be adapted to suit other instruments as well on different repertoire.
    Elegy for Solo Clarinet presents many different challenges. Large leaps pervade the work, making it an optimal vehicle for addressing tonal production and consistency. Extended sections of passagework create sizeable technical problems to be solved. Juxtaposition of duple and triple subdivision add an additional layer of difficulty. Ad­ditionally, students will be challenged by the demands of the phrase lengths and dynamic requirements. 

Tone: Large Leap Precision
    Students rarely see large leaps or wider melodic intervals in their band parts or method books until high school. This is a lost opportunity, because practicing such intervals directly benefits clarinet tone production, as control of the air support, embouchure structure, and tongue position are required for effective production. By isolating these larger intervals and drilling them in a similar way to register slurs, students will develop tone quality while practicing key trouble spots in the work. 

Del Borgo, Elegy measures 1 and 2:

Exercise for improving tone quality in large leaps:

    Students should play the exercise as written but also vary it according to the needs at hand, which can include transposing it to a different key or changing the tempo. I recommend starting at 50 bpm and increasing to as fast as 200 bpm, although students should be careful not to increase tempo too quickly. Using a tuner will also increase the effectiveness of this exercise by forcing student to also focus on healthy tone production, which directly correlates to pitch accuracy. Finally, students should perform this exercise at several different dynamic levels beginning at mezzo forte, then moving to forte, mezzo piano, fortissimo, piano, and pianissimo.

Technique: Note-Grouping
    The melodic content of the work consists primarily of steps and small intervals, making it possible for students with undeveloped or underdeveloped pattern-reading or note-grouping skills to practice these. In his book Note Grouping: A Method for Achieving Expression and Style in Musical Performance, Thurmond discusses this concept in detail but does not use examples specific to actual pieces of music. Del Borgo’s composition presents an ideal situation in which note-grouping can be ex­plained and applied to technical practice.

Passagework example from measures 1-12 of Elegy:

    The bracketed passages above may not appear to resemble any pattern a student has yet encountered.  However, upon closer inspection, common scale and arpeggio patterns are present. Through this passagework, students can be taught to recognize note groupings of stepwise passages that are approached from larger interval leaps within the key center.
    The exercise below features elements of the passage above, isolating stepwise motives within the key and placing them adjacently in a fashion similar to the original passagework. Because Elegy for Solo Clarinet moves to a C major tonal center, this exercise does the same to relate to the harmonic demands of the repertoire, but the exercise can be transposed into any key.

Exercise for developing note-grouping skills in tonic and dominant:

    As with the previous exercise, the metronome marking should be varied, starting at 50 and moving as high as 200. Articulating all subdivisions may be difficult for some students, so the exercise should be practiced with different articulation markings including slurring an entire measure, slurring two beats, slurring one beat, slurring two beats and articulating two beats, and any other variation deemed appropriate by the instructor. Using a tuner could help students be aware of their general tendencies as they are playing. Practice this exercise at mezzo forte first, and expand dynamics up and down in both directions after mezzo forte sounds good.

Rhythm: Duple and Triple Subdivision
    The rhythmic elements of Elegy accentuate the difference between duple and triple subdivision, challenging students to develop that skill. There are several rhythms here that may pose problems. 

Duple and triple subdivision in measures 18-19:

    The difficulty of this passage is the rhythm of the subdivision combined with pitches required. Neglected is the idea that the root of playing rhythmically is rhythmic finger motion rooted in ergonomic, healthy hand position. Proper hand placement is critical for success in playing the throat tones in this group’s sequence. 
Exercise for improving rhythmic finger motion:

    To increase the conceptual nature of this exercise students should vary it in ways deemed appropriate by the instructor. Because rhythm is the most important concept here, students should use a metronome faithfully while practicing. As with other exercises, tempo can be increased, the key can be changed, and dynamics should expand in both directions from mezzo forte.
    Finally, students should take care to move fingers from back knuckles only, keeping the palm relaxed and using finger motion to create the rhythm. Proper hand placement is essential for finger rhythm success. By practicing the motion from A4 to Bb4 in duple and triple subdivisions sequentially, students will train their hands to move in rhythm regardless of speed. This exercise can be used with any troublesome interval in a series of passagework. 

Phrasing: Using the Air
Elegy for Solo Clarinet is in a basic ternary ABA form. Phrases are primarily in sentence structure consisting of a microphrase, followed by another microphrase, and finished with a longer consequent phrase. Within these phrases, printed dynamic markings indicate the specific required shape. 

Elegy for Solo Clarinet, opening phrase:

    Alhough phrase shaping is clearly notated, it is often difficult for students to learn to move air through a phrase to its high point, hold the harmonic tension, then release the phrase. Notating subdivision above pitches and numbering each subdivision provides a framework over which students can overlay a dynamic map. In this way, they can see what the most intense moment of the phrase should be and understand how to reach it effectively. In the example below, the subdivisions have been inserted above the music. Above that, numbers indicating the movement of the dynamic volume have been indicated so that students can directly correlate the subdivision to the growth and decline in intensity. 

Exercise for developing phrasing:

    To increase the conceptual nature of this exercise, students could use the technological tools available to them. Recording several different interpretations of the passage is one option to vary this exercise. Using a decibel meter app is a good way for students to attain a visual representation of how loud they are playing, as well as a measurement of their dynamic level. Combining recording with the use of a decibel meter can help students to more accurately perceive how loud they are when they play. These steps should be done in consultation with a teacher. 
    Although the exercise above is specific to the Elegy, the concept of using a small portion of an unaccompanied work to experiment with phrasing is not. Thus, phrases of other works should be substituted when a student progresses from the Elegy. The process of writing in the subdivisions and shaping markings to make decisions about where the shapes lie rhythmically remains the same. 
   The exercise above illustrates how a dynamic roadmap might look. Additionally, a student may be asked to provide three different alternatives that adhere to the same phrase shape to demonstrate places where the dynamic might suddenly rise more specifically. In this way students may explore different phrasing options while listening for which might be most effective in conveying the information on the page. 

    Although concept-based pedagogy may not be new or revolutionary, giving music students the tools to be independently successful via concept-based pedagogy rather than holding on to the power through the current content-based system of private instruction is new. The hope is that, through the exercises above, teachers may begin to explore this pedagogy with their students and ensembles.    

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Composer Background

    Composer Elliot Del Borgo (1938 – 2013) is best known for his prolific output for band consisting of over 600 compositions. He received a B.S. from the State University of New York, an Ed.M from Temple University, and an M.M. from the Philadelphia Con­servatory of Music. Del Borgo also garnered international fame as a clinician and conductor. Before his death, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the State University of New York at Potsdam, where he taught composition and theory for nearly 30 years. 
    Del Borgo wrote Elegy for Solo Clarinet in 2010 for his friend the famed clarinet pedagogue David Etheridge, who passed away in the same year. Etheridge was David Ross Boyd Professor of Clarinet at the University of Oklahoma, where he taught for 34 years. He met Del Borgo working together at SUNY Potsdam, where Etheridge taught prior to Oklahoma. As a former student of Stanley Hasty, Etheridge placed a premium on teaching the next generation of clarinetists while also maintaining an active career as a performer.