Martin Frost: Emerald
Annelien Van Wawue: Amber
Anat Cohen: Midnight Blue
These three clarinetists sound strikingly different from one another. Why? They are from different parts of the world, they have different setups, they had different teachers: the list goes on and on. But these things are true of any musician. So, what else could it be that makes them stand out so much? Their setup? There are plenty of people copying Martin Frost's set up like it is the bible truth, and they still don't sound like him. So, what else could it be?
Today's article isn't a "here is the end-all-be-all," but it is a strong argument that countless professionals make, that I stand by.
My answer to creating your own sound is twofold: technique and listening.
Technique gives you options. The more limited your technique, the less you are able to consciously mold your sound. You often hear people describe someone's tone as dark or bright, for example, but what does that mean exactly? In clarinet, the player is altering things like their velocity or speed of air, their embouchure, etc. Hearing about technique gets old fast, but the reality is that you might spend more time complaining and procrastinating than actually doing these things, so why not set aside some time and embrace it?
Professional athletes warm up their bodies. Professional athletes have workouts that they do separately from their actual sport to improve their performance. Why is that? Being able to isolate an issue and problem solve lets your brain focus on significantly fewer things, thereby allowing it to grow in that area that you lack. The truth is, you are only going to be as good as your worst fundamental. Sorry. I hate it too. I am over here realizing this after nine years of studying music in college. I loved listening to clarinetists, and I wanted to sound beautiful, but I didn't want to play those exercises because I wanted to sound good. So, I turned to pieces of music I loved (that were way out of my ability) and played them, thinking my issues were going to somehow disappear because love conquers all. If I love it enough I can play it, right?
Just stick with me while we break down the "vitamins" of creating your own sound through the following fundamentals: Scales, Long tones, Articulation exercises, Etudes, and Sightreading.
Why bother doing these things when we are basically doing them when we play pieces of music?
What a waste of time... You could have already learned your music, right? You barely have time as it is: you have school assignments, work, family stuff, recital rep, etc.
Let's break down these "vitamins" and see what value they provide a growing musician:
Scales: Finger technique and ear training.
Long tones: Ear training and embouchure flexibility and strength.
Articulation exercises: Learning the importance of air and tongue control, allowing for increased speed and variety in your articulation.
Etudes: Isolating specific playing techniques to allow for finger dexterity and ear training.
Sightreading: This allows your brain an opportunity to apply all of the above in a more fast-paced environment, developing the ability to learn music faster and more accurately and teaching your eyes to read ahead to problem solve.
Each of these offers so much, and by isolating these skills, you are able to really break down where you have issues and treat them through slowing down the tempo and pinpointing the exact problem, be it your internal pulse, pitch issues, embouchure issues, air support, or your physical body.
Another benefit of these exercises is that you get a BREAK from staring at the same music all day long!
The other key part of creating your own sound is active listening.
Your teachers spend all day listening to students, diagnosing, and prescribing. We as students can view those things as "negative," but really they are neutral, as they are just about being aware. You should be using those same three skills -- listening, diagnosing, and prescribing -- to understand how your favorite artists sound the way they do. This isn't about sounding just like Anat Cohen; it is about even knowing what it is you like so that you can have more tools to create your own unique sound.
When you like how someone sounds, ask yourself:
What do you hear that you like? Do you like the clarity?
How are they creating that sound? Is it because of how they approach larger intervals?
Listen, listen, listen.
If you are unable to recreate that sound, you may not have the technique of that person. Without the technique, you are like a painter who has three colors to paint with, while the artist you admire has learned how to create fifty colors from those three colors. They have those tools because of their experience. They worked to have those tools.
I would like to go ahead and say that I am very disappointed when I hear professors tell students to NEVER listen to a particular style of playing: e.g. European oboe sound. I understand their thought process, but it does not outweigh all of the benefits of learning from other people. It does not outweigh being educated about the interests and values of other cultures. We can learn, and should learn, from everyone. End Rant
Creating your own sound takes a long time. Enjoy the road of learning. Realize that taking this step to value your fundamentals is the same as taking better care of your body by eating right and exercising. This will never be a bad thing!
I encourage you to spend time on fundamentals every day, even if it is only five minutes. Practice that has your full attention will always be beneficial. Decide what your ideal sound is and use every moment you pick up your instrument as an opportunity to mold yourself into the musician you want to be. Take your vitamins and take a break to listen.