Meri’s Musical Musings

It sure seems that way, based on the things I’ve experienced in recent years for positions in them and instrument clinics.

I am primarily a clarinetist, and do not play saxophone. In fact, I have never been comfortable with the weight of even an alto sax, and wanted to play tenor for jazz band in high school. A regular neckstrap never worked from the beginning, and I doubt that the newer style sax braces would help me that much. And it appears that I may never be able to play a saxophone, because of recent shoulder injury which I am currently getting physiotherapy for at time of writing, not only due to the weight of holding the instrument while playing, but also carrying one, along with a pair of clarinets for gigs that call for both, especially when you cannot afford a vehicle and no-one in your household has a vehicle or drives.

I CAN play flute and oboe though, although I haven’t done so since my final year of high school or so, and those are much lighter instruments even together than even the lightest saxophone in its case. And both are quite manageable in terms of the weight, especially oboe.

One thing I have noticed about doublers or people who claim to play all woodwinds, especially those who didn’t start on clarinet or started on it and didn’t reach a relatively high standard (say around early advanced level certificates in an examining board or a spot on a quality student, amateur, or semi-professional orchestra), especially outside of a school music program, is that they extremely rarely have a seat in a symphony orchestra on clarinet, not even as a utility players or the rare pieces that call for the soprano E flat clarinet, bass clarinet, or saxophone. Those doublers/multi-woodwind players can and do get by in pit orchestras, such as those for stage musicals, but very few play to a high enough standard to be accepted in even amateur and community orchestras, which in wind sections, are often extremely competitive, particularly in large cities, let alone the semi-professional and professional orchestras. This is because many woodwind multi-instrumentalists who didn’t start on clarinet have an improper sound on clarinet that does not carry over a large orchestra in important solos, plus the technical demands in many orchestras on clarinet increasingly go well beyond what many woodwind multi-instrumentalists who are not primarily clarinetists can handle. The clarinet cadenzas of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scherezade are much harder than in sounds, and so is the clarinet parts of the Scherzo from Mendellsohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both of which regularly appear on the highest levels of clarinet music exams. Another example of very challenging clarinet orchestral parts but does not often appear on exams, is Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which ALL three clarinet parts (1st, 2nd, and bass clarinet) are challenging in range (written double high A in the first clarinet part a number of times, for example) and technical demands—usually only the strongest orchestral clarinetists can handle this piece, and they are almost never doublers or multi-woodwind players.

In addition, of all the people in the Greater Toronto area I know personally who play more than one woodwind instrument, including the so-called 905 areas east, west, and north of the city proper, I know only TWO clarinet/saxophone doublers who play both EXTREMELY well, who both started on clarinet and studied it seriously for a long time before picking up the other woodwinds, and neither needs the jobs of music schools that call for a teacher who teaches both clarinet and saxophone, and sometimes all woodwinds, or instrument clinics in schools and community bands that call for someone to work with both clarinets and saxophones in the same clinic. One is a very busy performer and teacher, usually on clarinet, rarely saxophone, as a soloist, chamber musician, and orchestra member, as well as a university clarinet instructor. The other is a custom clarinet maker, repairer, orchestra member, and private teacher. Both have quite a bit more than enough to make a comfortable living, including travelling the world at least a couple times a year. The latter has a long-mortgage free home.

I’ve noticed too that clarinet teachers who are not woodwind doublers/multi-instrumentalists tend to produce significantly better clarinet students in terms of playing standard and achievements on music exams and competitions for example. Only a very small percentage of candidates earning 90% or better on the elementary to intermediate levels of Royal Conservatory exams were taught by woodwind majors who were not clarinet specialists. Or at those whose primary woodwind instrument is not clarinet.

But most community schools, in big cities, but especially small towns, want teachers who can teach clarinet and saxophone or even all woodwinds, just to save money? Not at the expense of quality. Same thing in school and community bands. It’s much harder than you think to do the two most closely related of the woodwinds, clarinet and saxophone, especially when the clarinetist has never played saxophone clinician for a school a significant distance away cancelled the day before or the day of the clinic, didn’t provide a sub, and the school teacher asked me to do saxophones as well, while I already had a detailed plan to cover a bunch of things only for clarinet in the hour or so for the clinic I had, I had to revise my plan extensively with only a few hours notice! I had someone too that might have been able to take over the saxophones, since I had talked to them already but then had the original person who cancelled, and I could not reach them. I have taught a LITTLE sax privately but one-one-one, based on what I know about clarinet blowing technique, air use, and the fingering being very similar to flute and recorder in the very beginning to beginning stages, and that was barely manageable although somehow the kid liked me and did make better than expected progress, considering he usually resisted adults, and really thought the combo sax/clarinet clinic was a failure for me personally due to some major differences, last minute changes, and a lot of nerves/stumbling. After kids start learning notes beyond the basic fingerings for saxophones, I’m totally lost. Would never do a combo saxophone/clarinet clinic again.

It’s not worth the cost savings in hiring one person for two or more woodwind instruments if it results in lower quality playing students, and many community music schools are suffering from poor reputations in part perhaps because of such practices, to save money and time on scheduling and payroll. If you have a cancellation by clinician, try to coax out potential substitutes from first the initial one who you had hired, and next from the others, because I had at least one maybe two or three possible back up people for the saxes in her school, but who couldn’t do it or didn’t notify me, because of the very short notice of cancellation. There are too many differences between woodwinds to make a multi-instrument clinic where students learn new techniques and special fingerings for example feasible.

Yes, especially if the musician is mainly or exclusively walking or taking public transit with their instrument.

I recently was diagnosed with tendonitis in my left shoulder. I think what happened was that in my younger days, especially in the all city symphony orchestra, I regularly carried a regular B flat instrument, a bass clarinet, and a soprano E flat clarinet to rehearsals most Wednesday evenings during the school year on public transit, since my parents were at work when I had to leave for rehearsals most of the time.

However, the weight issue gets way more important when you add a B flat with an A in a double case, along with the bass clarinet and E flat soprano in some cases, even occasionally an alto or tenor saxophone for the rare orchestral piece that requires one, such as Ravel’s Bolero. And pit orchestra musicians (for musicals) require these instruments, and sometimes an oboe, bassoon, or flute on top of that! Double cases for clarinets are somewhat more than double the weight of a single case, although the lightest one I’ve found that is affordable and that I like is the Allora double case.

Many instrument case designers only include a regular shoulder strap for carrying the instrument, and often an option to convert to a backpack-style case is possible, but it’s usually hard to find or expensive. Perhaps it should be standard equipment. In addition, especially for heavier instruments, but even in the case of double clarinet cases, the option to wheel the cart like a piece of regular luggage should be available, especially to those of us with back and shoulder problems.

Lighter cases are important for children or smaller individuals learning to play instruments, especially larger and/or heavier instruments, because more and more children are developing back and shoulder problems for a variety of reasons.

Finally students and professionals of all instruments, but mainly piano, woodwinds, and upper strings, have to watch for the issue of lifting their shoulders while they play, which may be part of the reason besides carrying multiple instruments and heavy school backpacks leading to my recent shoulder injury.



“Music is the space between the notes.”

By this they mean the rests in printed music, which are the places each musician does not play. Yet many musicians, even those past the beginning stages, frequently don’t count or miscount rests. This is most common with pianists, but it regularly occurs with singers and students on other instruments, even to the late intermediate level.

Some years ago I and my husband hosted a student recital in which one student, who had the piece in fine shape a few days before at the lesson, made the tune completely unrecognizable at the concert. (the others, including his two siblings who also studied with me, played a lot better). Another time, for a couple months before she quit, a clarinet student, even with considerable help on the timing of a canonic section of an upper intermediate clarinet piece, could only occasionally get that section right; she did not seem to understand that her musical skills were not up to the demands of the level she wanted to do for her first exam, and that her rhythmic insecurity was the reason I wanted her to do the exam one level lower than she wanted to do.

Choirs frequently have several individuals or entire sections whose rhythmic counting skills are poor. Not only is it important to have precise timing generally in choirs, but it’s especially important when the choir is regularly doing music with canonic or fugal sections, which if even one person messes up, the piece becomes a train wreck. Fortunately the problems almost never occur in performances, but there was one performance at a service about two years ago which several members were absent the previous 3 weeks, some multiple times, and the ensemble leader was very upset about the poor performance of those members who missed rehearsals and didn’t count their rests and notes properly.

Disclaimer: I am not a dentist or orthodontist, nor do I work for one, and never have. Please consult one on the specifics of your situation.

A reason I never considered traditional metal braces when I was younger, besides my parents either not caring or couldn’t afford it, was that I was a serious clarinetist and had heard horror stories of traditional braces and playing wind instruments, especially about the metal cutting through the lips and gums.

However, some weeks ago I saw an option called Invisalign at my dentist that intrigued me, I probably won’t be beginning treatment for another year or two, that I’ve read that is much better for most people in terms of comfort and health risks, but especially for professional players and advanced wind instrument students. Yes, they are somewhat to significantly more expensive than traditional braces, but the way I see it, you save on the cost of the painkillers and wax on traditional braces which can add up, which you need minimal to none with Invisalign. As demand and competition increases however, the prices have been and will be coming down.

Basically it’s a series of progressive retainers that you wear for 22 out of 24 hours, only taking them out to eat. (yes, you wear them when sleeping and playing your instruments). Especially for someone who has metal allergies or is prone to cold sores, the material used in making the retainers are much less likely to cause an allergic reaction or even an infection that need hospitalization that can and does happen with traditional braces.

I have seen clarinet students, even good ones, who have had to cut way back on their practicing or quit altogether because of metal braces, because they were experiencing way too much pain and discomfort to be okay with playing and practicing, even minimally, even after the so-called adjustment period. With advanced students and professionals typically playing 2-3 hours a day minimum, especially if they are music majors after high school, Invisalign should be seriously considered if your wind playing musician is doing a lot of practicing or planning to be a music major. Pain, infection, and injury from traditional braces is not worth it for anyone, but especially wind instrument playing musicians.

One of the reasons I became quite a good player despite a lack of private lessons while in high school to the present day, was because I was exploring new ways of playing and new ways of playing various notes and combinations, especially in the altissimo register of the clarinet, but to some extent, alternate ways of playing different passages on the piano because of my somewhat smaller than average hands. (an octave in my right and a ninth in my left, plus certain types of four note chords are very difficult if not impossible to play, which limits my choices of pieces in the early advanced level and beyond on piano.

Some of my earliest discoveries were actually when I was only in my second year of playing clarinet, in grade 8, at a middle school with a first rate music program then and still now. I was trying to pick out the opening theme of Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony, which helped me learn a bunch of notes, only later learning that symphony is for clarinets in A. I used to play a tape of that almost every night on my radio I had at the time, which the tape was my first classical recording I had ever bought in my life, which I originally bought for the 1812 Overture which our school band was playing an arrangement that was more challenging than what many high school bands in my area currently playing—and this was a middle school band!

My next set of discoveries were the fingerings for the notes beyond high C two lines above the staff in Grade 9, from a book I borrowed from the library, which I decided to purchase in the end. Not only did I learn those notes up to G four lines above the staff, I figured out some fingerings that were not only not listed in the fingering charts, but sometimes not even in the comprehensive clarinet fingering guides, like a high C to D trill that on my instrument was much more reliable than the standard trill fingering for that trill.

My third set of discoveries was around the time I finally started taking clarinet lessons from a fun, amazing, but demanding teacher. One day in my own practicing I cut up some pencil grips to put over the thumb rest of the clarinet. Seeing it wasn’t quite fitting my instrument, I made a slit on some of the pencil grips. However, I had cut a couple of them all the way by mistake. Then, I don’t know how this happened, but a good sized wad of sticky tack got on the pencil grips that were cut all the way through, and then I saw a possible use for it, as a pad for the thumb to ease the tension I was having on the palm side of my thumb at the time because I was practicing about 2 hours a day total. The next lesson with my teacher, I showed it to him, he thought it was a great idea, so I continued work on it making other modifications, to the point that one of the music stores in the city, a woodwind specialty shop, decided to stock them, which sold completely within the first month. The following September, I joined a community band in addition to a college band I was also a part of, and several clarinet players bought one for themselves plus a couple of oboists. I even had requests from the flute section to make a version for them, which wasn’t spectacular looking, but did the job, and increased my sales. However, despite the decent money I was making from this product, I could not afford to get a patent on it, and pretty soon the product was discontinued except for my clarinet students and a few close clarinet friends and colleagues because I couldn’t keep up with demand.

My final set of discoveries is reminding myself of things my teachers told me the last time I took clarinet lessons, which was 12-15 years ago, and piano lessons about 7 years ago. I have recently begum working seriously on my Level 10 RCM clarinet exam, and one of the required orchestral excerpts often gave me problems trying to play it beyond a moderate tempo. The coordination between fingers and tongue is difficult in this passage. Then, a few weeks ago, I discovered that the passages I was consistently having problems with, my little fingers were in the wrong place, since it involved the little finger keys on the clarinet! After working for about 20 minutes a day on that passage for several days, I can finally play it at about a fairly standard tempo of most recordings of this piece.

Moral of the stories: don’t be afraid to try things beyond what your teachers tell you, even if those teachers are good ones.

I am in no way an accompanist, but my husband fairly regularly gets work in that area. I have too often heard that there is only one, perhaps two, ways of charging for accompanying services for orchestral instruments, but with the varied types of jobs my husband has had to do, there are probably at least four ways of charging for that, depending on the type of service, the length of the sessions, the levels of the students, the number of rehearsals, and the number of students involved.

One of the standard ways of charging for accompanying services is by the hour, although increasingly because sometimes the accompaniment is for elementary level pieces, charging for the first half hour at a certain rate, and then in additional 15 to 30 min increments.

Another method is a slight variation: the hourly rate times the number of rehearsals, plus double the hourly rate for the performance itself. Most good accompanists seem to charge a travel fee if the location of the performance is more than 20-30 min away.

A third method is to simply charge a flat fee, especially if you already know the pieces from having played them a few times. This might be used if you have a musician from out of town who is visiting for the day and wants to play for half to a full day, or if it’s a student who you know well from one of your teaching colleagues, or if there are several to many students that need piano accompaniment, such as a private studio or a school.

Finally, and this would be suitable when you have a group of students from a teacher’s private studio or from a school (not necessarily a music school, BTW), is to charge a group rate that is about 10-20% less than if each student were approaching you individually for work.

Sometimes advanced student pianists are approached by a friend or fellow classmate to play the piano part for a piece, and are offered money to do it. The advanced student, however, is often shocked at the difficulty of their friend’s or classmates piano parts, sometimes to the point which the piano student gives up on the idea of accompanying for good or the friend or classmate has to hire a professional accompanist at the last minute, because they cannot sight read it or it takes too much time to practice outside of their other pieces.

Generally, I feel that there should be an approximately inverse relationship between how well a pianist can sight read difficult to very difficult piano parts (eg: Sibelius or Tchaikovsky violin concerto reductions, or Malcolm Arnold’s Sonatina for clarinet and piano) and their experience to how much time they need to practice to make it perfect. Student pianists who already happen to be good sight readers with moderate-level accompaniments and can sight read at tempo or near tempo with only a few mistakes that still need a modest amount of practice should be charging probably around $25-30 in most areas, while an experienced accompanist who can play just about anything at first sight reasonably should be getting around $75-$80/h, and some command $125-$150 or more depending on the cost of living and how far in advance the request was for accompaniment. If an accompanist has incredible sight reading skills, it means that they can take jobs if they happen to be available on a week’s notice or even on 24 hours notice or less (which my husband had to do at least once, and one of the pieces was quite difficult), and charge substantially more for it, double to triple the normal rate than if they had at least two weeks to a month’s notice. In this case it was for an audition in a music program after high school, because the student’s original accompanist couldn’t play one of the parts well enough. (the student got in with substantial music scholarships!)

  • V V: Wish I had read this before I fell for their scheme ! Oh well - have posted my experience on Yelp and N49 and hoping others can avoid the pain of fal
  • clariniano: Thanks for the additional information. It was actually Yelp that deleted my reviews, because of so-called bias. I too have seen the horrible technique
  • No Thanks: Former Teacher at the Ontario Conservatory of Music I took lessons at the Ontario Conservatory and when I left for private lessons from another tea