Arnold Jacobs once said that the focus of teaching should be on training a performer’s brain, not the muscles. With this in mind I use analogies, similes, and visualizations when teaching clarinet; these include phrases I created in addition to those I’ve collected through the years from teachers, masterclass clinicians, and books.
While lessons usually include specific physical directions, such as “sit up straight” or “keep your tongue position high,” teachers can also use mental images to give students a different way of grasping musical concepts. Analogies show a resemblance between things that are otherwise unlike. Similes are figures of speech that compare two unlike things; they are often introduced by the words like or as. Both improve students’ comprehension and can make a concept easier to understand.
Numerous analogies will help wind students to breathe correctly. For example, when beginners are learning to take a deep, relaxed breath, I suggest they pretend to take a step into a freezing cold shower on a hot day. This has proven to be much more successful than a lengthy discussion about diaphragms and external intercostal muscles.
During exhalation, students could think of blowing up a toy balloon or blowing out a candle. The physical motion of blowing out a candle is particularly beneficial for clarinetists because it makes them focus on the air and drawing the corners of the mouth inward to form an embouchure.
Clarinetist David Pino provided this interesting simile regarding air speed:
The playing of low, soft tones on the clarinet is like a large, heavy road roller at work, smoothing out the freshly poured tar onto the roadbed. This machine is doing its job powerfully and yet it is moving slowly indeed….The playing of loud, high notes can be compared to a huge semitrailer truck speeding down a freeway. We could say that it is no more powerful than the road roller is, but in addition to its great power it has tremendous speed.
There are also many ways to visualize correct posture. During marching band rehearsals, directors may create a mental picture telling students to pretend they are puppets and someone is pulling up at a string connected to their heads; the image always helps to elevate the body and eliminate slouching among band members. Furthermore, students could be instructed to “sit as if you are standing from the hips upward,” which creates another image of sitting up straight.
More specific to clarinet pedagogy are many helpful analogies that make teaching embouchure, hand position, and articulation easier. For example, to help young clarinetists keep the corners of their mouth drawn inward, ask them to act as though they were drinking a thick milk shake through a thin straw.
If students need to understand the concept of using equal pressure around the embouchure, I have them imagine that their lips are like the drawstring of a laundry bag. The simile of pulling the drawstring, which closes equally from all sides, helps to eliminate biting the reed. This is also helpful to clarinetists who tend to play with air leaking from the corners of their mouths.
To assist with keeping the chin flat and pointed, students should picture themselves whistling or blowing on the top of a soda bottle. Both of these actions produce the desired result of a pointed chin that will not wrinkle up against the reed.
Teaching correct tongue position is more difficult, particularly because the tongue cannot be seen – by anyone. A garden hose analogy is helpful in getting students to position the tongue high in the mouth, as when you say the e sound in the word tea. I have students think of placing their thumb over the aperture of a garden hose while water runs out; as they make the aperture smaller, the water becomes more focused.
It resembles the focus that is possible with a clarinet tone: as you raise the tongue the air-flow becomes more centered. Deborah Chodacki, clarinet professor at the University of Michigan, once told a masterclass, “The air should ride your tongue like a surf board.”
My teacher Frank Kowalsky was a master at helping students with articulation. To learn how to lightly tongue a passage he suggested students imagine using one cell of their tongue to touch one fiber of the reed. While this is impossible to accomplish literally, the act of trying usually results in a lighter, faster tongue motion.
Stopped tonguing, starting and stopping the note with the tongue, can be awkward for young clarinetists, especially the idea of maintaining air support while the tongue is on the reed. British clarinetist Frederick Thurston related it to pinching the opening of a filled balloon with your fingers and then allowing air to escape in bursts. The fingers correspond to the tongue and the reed, and the elasticity of the balloon corresponds to the diaphragm.
Clarinetist Keith Stein’s creative analogy of a waterwheel emphasizes the importance of maintaining good air support while tonguing:
Imagine the breath as the river and the tongue as the waterwheel. Should the water level fall below the reach of the paddles, regardless of any adjustment in the mechanism of the wheel, there can be no action. The paddles on a freely-moving waterwheel need only to be in the path of the flowing water to make power. Likewise, if the relaxed tongue is positioned well up front in the mouth within the path of the breath-stream, it can be activated with a minimum of self-locomotion, much like the waterwheel.
A variety of analogies and visualizations can help students improve their finger position on the instrument. For a relaxed, natural hand position, it is fun to have beginners gently shake imaginary water from their fingers and then let the hands rest with the imaginary water dripping.
When transferring the relaxed hands to a clarinet, the famous clarinet pedagogue Robert Marcellus always told students to shape their hands as if they were holding a tennis ball. As a result the fingers curve in the correct shape without unnecessary tension. Many clarinet teachers also suggest students place their left-hand thumb in an imaginary position pointing at two o’clock for a more natural hand position.
I teach using two similes that convey the finger motions used in clarinet playing. For quick, fast rhythmic passages tell students to imagine what happens should their finger touch a hot stove: it bounces back quickly and efficiently but still remains curved. For the gentle playing of legato, cantabile passages, students should think of their fingers going through thick honey or syrup; it will help them to connect the notes and at the same time eliminate any unmusical finger popping sounds.
Mental imagery can also be used to teach such concepts as phrasing, dynamics, and mood to more advanced clarinetists. For example, German clarinetist Karl Leister once compared melody to a flower that opened each day and closed at night, and as a wave coming in and out on the shore. In this way, melody always has direction and students can picture these natural scenes as they play each phrase.
Performing rubato can be especially difficult for young musicians, who often end up just slowing down. My teacher Kelly Burke would combat this tendency in students by relating rubato to a bank account: if you take money out, you have to put money back in to balance the account. Thus, a player has to speed up in order to slow down so that there is always a balance within the underlying tempo.
Similarly, students frequently see a ritard in their music and immediately slow the music too much. To help with pacing, Steven Bryant, tuba professor at the University of Texas at Austin, often tells his students to “play the ritard so it is like a ball slowly rolling to a stop.”
Crescendos and Decrescendos
Pacing can also be a problem when performing crescendos and decrescendos. Clarinet teacher Curtis Craver told students to play a crescendo imagining an airplane taking off, not like a helicopter. This creates the mental image of a plane slowly and deliberately rising higher in the sky (just as a crescendo slowly grows fuller) rather than a quick and jerky ascent.
Likewise, clarinetist Christine Damm relates decrescendos to sunsets in the sense that they are so slow-paced, it is difficult to see when they are over. Damm gets students to exaggerate dynamics by mentally comparing an actor’s make-up to everyday make-up. The visual imagery helps students understand the concept of making greater contrasts between dynamic levels.
Like most instrumentalists, clarinetists sometimes have trouble playing high notes softly and gracefully; the altissimo notes tend to pop out with an unintended loud dynamic. One frequent expression of conductor Richard Clary is “don’t kick the kitty, pet the kitty.” In other words, clarinetists should practice playing altissimo notes gently; these notes will naturally come out louder so no extra emphasis is necessary. To help with connecting low notes to high notes, Steven Bryant has students imagine springing up from a trampoline, thus giving more support to the low note and propelling the sound up to the high note.
Character and Mood
Teaching with analogies and similes can be beneficial when encouraging students to interpret the character and mood of a piece. Most music teachers are familiar with the famous line from the film Mr. Holland’s Opus, when Mr. Holland instructs a clarinet student to “play the sunset.”
One of my favorite visualizations to help students play soft, intense passages is having them recall a time when they got into trouble with a parent in the library. Most likely they were sternly reprimanded from someone speaking in an intense whisper so as not to disturb the other patrons. The idea seems to translate well, and students are then able to capture a sense of quiet excitement in their playing.
There are numerous ways to describe a good clarinet tone. Donald Montanaro, a member of the clarinet faculty at the Curtis Institute, often relates it to “a diamond wrapped in velvet.” Keith Stein wrote, “Fine tone glows and radiates like the glowing embers of a campfire; its richness could be compared to the dark plush of a theater curtain, and its intensity has the power of penetrating or projecting like a bullet cutting through the air.” For me, these descriptions truly capture the various elements in an ideal clarinet sound, and they are images to which most students can relate.
Telling a Story
Finally, music that sustains the interest of an audience always seems to tell a story, so I regularly have students create stories for their pieces. If the music was the soundtrack from a film, I ask them to describe the action that is taking place through their playing. This helps them to capture a mood and creatively use their imaginations.
The next time you are teaching, whether the topic is basic performing techniques or musical concepts, consider integrating several analogies and similes into the lesson as a way to explain the subject matter. It will improve the students’ comprehension and make the process of learning more interesting for everyone.