One Time, At Band Rehearsal

This past Tuesday, after 3 weeks absence for a number of professional and personal reasons, I went to my community bands rehearsal. A number of interesting things that happened. During my absence, I had been working diligently on my on getting my warm up to a good shape and I strongly feel that my playing has significantly improved due to this. And yet, when I started the rehearsal I was struggling. One thing that I notice immediately was that I was playing sharp which almost never happened. I was also struggling to get my sound out. It took me awhile but I finally realized what was wrong. I guess being back in that environment, I was playing the way that I was used to play before my intense scales arpeggios Etc regimen. One’s mind can be quite powerful and weak at the same time. I was unwillingly taken to some place due to the environment that I was in and it made me play in the way that I was used to playing before I fixed those bad habits. I was shocked at how much just being in a certain place that had a past association with could drastically affect me and my playing in my thoughts.

In another instance during the rehearsal, I played a piece that I played back when I was a freshman in high school. Not necessarily a tough piece, but what ended up happening was that I was making a lot of same mistakes that I made early on when I was learning that piece. Again, being taken to an earlier place and in one way, we living past traumas. Now my meditation practice has been quite strong this year, the strongest it’s been since my college days. I am now up to meditating at least an hour a day. One would think that my mind has become a lot stronger more present and more mindful but situations like these show that I still have a long way to go. I know it was a cliché but today was quite humbling and I’m going to try to take it as a great learning experience and feel grateful for that and learn from it and move on accordingly and positively.

It wasn’t all negative. I unwittingly had exercised the 4th precept and it seemed to just flow effortlessly. There was one person in the band that I had seen at a clarinet symposium recently. There, he noticed that I was quite close to a number of the prominent clarinet players and teachers that were at that conference. I was well-connected in his words and he wanted to know my story. Normally, this alone would make my day and I would feel flattered, sometimes even fish for more compliments but this time I didn’t. I said sure that I would love to tell him my story but one thing I can say right now is that the reasons why I am good friends with them are not as clarinet related as you might think they would be you gave me a puzzle look and then he nodded. So had I not said anything or fish for compliments I wouldn’t have been lying which the fourth precept is about but there are other layers to the fourth precept. False speech also includes a number things like boasting or speaking ill of someone because they our actions that only reveal small part of the truth of what one is saying. If you’re using speech to are officially employed yourself or to denigrate someone else, that is a violation of the fourth precept. In this instance, I felt compelled to tell him that, yeah yeah there’s an interesting story there but it’s not because I’m great clarinet player or something. I am quite content with how I handled myself in this interaction in the context of the fourth precept and I look forward to more opportunities throughout this week and of course throughout the rest of my life.

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Taking the Black…I Mean the Grey…OK, the Five Precepts

This past weekend, I have decided to take a major step in my devotion to my Buddhist practice. I have decided to take the five precepts. In Buddhism, there are five precepts that one should use to guide their ethical aspect of their practice. Here are the exact precepts I will be taking:

  1. I resolve to abstain from doing harm, but to cherish all life.
  2. I resolve to abstain from taking what is not given,
    but to respect the things of others.
  3. I resolve to abstain from engaging in sexual misconduct,
    but to practice purity of mind and self-restraint.
  4. I resolve to abstain from lying, but to speak the truth.
  5. I resolve to abstain from partaking in the production and trading
    of firearms and chemical poisons.

This is supposed to be the foundation of one’s spiritual practice before they can work on gaining wisdom and ultimately enlightenment. They are known in the original language of the Buddha’s time, Pali, as sila, samadhi and panna (prajna in Sanskrit). I have taken the precepts before but that was as part of Meditation Retreat I took for vipassana meditation.

So why am I taking the precepts again? Even though I had learned this different form of meditation, at least one that is fairly different from Zen meditation, I never really left my Korean Zen tradition. I have incorporated aspects of what I learned in my Meditation Retreat but I remain a Korean Son (Zen) Buddhist. I have always considered taking the precepts under my own tradition. Heck, I even considered becoming ordained as a monk. For a number of reasons, I never got around to taking them.

This year, I started going to a temple in Chicago that is based on the Korean tradition. I had done a temple stay here about 9 years ago and coincidentally ended up doing the temple stay while founder of this Temple movement was in Residence. I got to spend a tremendous amount of time with him throughout that weekend. The temple and the temple movement has a very generic name, the Zen Buddhist temple. The founder is a Korean monk by the name of Samu Sunim and he was brought up in the same tradition that I was brought up in, the Chogye Order. I felt so at ease with him. When I interact with or am in the presence of a Korean Monk, I admit that there is a fair amount of baggage that I bring to the experience. Not so around Samu Sunim.

Although he has left the order, he is extremely well regarded and respected within the order. From my experience, this is exceedingly rare. This has allowed me to get over a hang up of insisting that I get take the precepts within my order. Also, the precept ceremony will be happening at the Chicago Temple with Samu Sunim presiding. I took that as a sign even though I don’t really believe in such things. Both Samu Sunim and the head teacher of this Temple have agreed to take me on even though it is fairly late in the process. They have already done three classes on each of the precepts so I was giving some homework to catch up on. As part of the devotional practice, I have to do 3,000 prostrations and chant one’s devotion to the three jewels of Buddhism (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) 33 times a day. This week, we are on the 4th precept which covers lying and false speech. Each week we are supposed to pay special attention to the precept that we have just covered and that has already yielded a couple interesting experiences for me.

My Playing Warm Up aka It’s Time for a Montage!

So first, I do the body warm up. Then, I play my long tones. Now I have to consider how to do the rest of my playing warm up. My main teacher has come up with 2 specific warm ups: one that he teaches his students initially and another which is his personal warm up which he teaches to his students once they’re ready. And here they are:

  1. Student Warmup
    1. Breathing/Reading Exercise – 5 minutes
      1. Grab some reading material for your music stand.
      2. Put your right hand on your belly and your left hand on your left love handle.
      3. Take a deep breath making sure that both hands expand out when you do and read aloud as you’re trying to keep your stomach and side expanded out as much as possible.
      4. By doing this properly, your voice should have a much more resonant quality to it than your normal speaking voice.
    2. Playing warm up – 45 minutes (Play one of the following)
      1. Play through the Klose scales, thirds, arpeggios and broken chords. Pages 123 – 129 in the Klose Celebrated Method for Clarinet
      2. The crazy ass Big Kahuna – play through the Stark arpeggio studies ( yup, the whole damn book!) 3 times(!!) each time playing it twice as fast (!!!) as the time before. It should take about 45 minutes.

So I never got to the point where I was able to do the same warm up in my teacher did. Maybe that could be a long-term goal for me. Hmm… Anyways, this time around, I decided to get a few other ideas regarding how to warm up. From my research on the interwebs, the Robert Spring warm-up seems to be quite popular and well-regarded one so I have decided to take that one and measure with my teacher’s old student warm up:

  1. Breathing / reading exercise
  2. Long tones starting on low-e going all the way up to double high c as laid out in the Robert Spring warm-up.
  3. Klose scales at 60 BPM.
  4. Langenus arpeggio sheet at 60 BPM.
  5. 3 octave chromatic scale at 120 BPM
  6. Klose 3rds at 60 BPM.
  7. Langenus staccato study at 120 BPM.

Now Spring has you go through some of these exercises at much faster tempos but I’m nowhere near ready for that. It’s actually taking me quite a while just to get everything up to the temples I’ve listed above. So as you can see there are some commonalities between the two warm ups. Another common trait is both warm ups, meaning the original Spring and my teacher’s warm ups are supposed to take 45 minutes. That’s a bit much for me so when I break up my practice sessions, I have also been splitting up by warm-up for each practice session. Maybe I’ll post about that in more detail in the near future.

  1. After doing this for a month or two, I have come to a few conclusions:
    Maybe like my old teacher has said I can drop the long tones at some point. I will do so when I finally feel completely comfortable with how relaxed my hands are on the instrument. I think this has helped me greatly but I’m not quite there yet because there are still times when I forget and I definitely tense up my hands.
  2. Playing scales arpeggios and thirds slowly at 60 BPM pretty much the dynamic stretching for the fingers. Again both teachers seem to recognize the necessity to get your fingers going gradually through some of the most common patterns you’ll approach in music.
  3. The chromatic scales laid out in the Klose book seems unnecessarily wasteful – basically going through all 24 tonalities via the chromatic scale. I’ve decided to just do one three octave chromatic scale as kind of a sprint drill.
  4. There definitely is a meditative and mindfulness component of warming up. At least for me, even though these have somewhat become rote and memorized, if my mind slips or gets distracted, mistakes usually occur. Also, if I’m pushing the breath past the point of comfort, I start making mistakes then also.
  5. One final and related note, I can really feel when things are honing in. I can feel my fingers loosening up, I can feel my sound getting locked in and consequently my embouchure getting dialed in.

Post Playing stretching

Previously, I covered a physical warm up routine. Now, I need to find a post playing routine. Here is the most promising one that I found:

http://www.thestrad.com/11-stretching-exercises-for-musicians/

This was developed by a Pilates person. It also blends movement with static stretches and seems well thought out. Numbers 1, 3, 4, 5, 8, 10, 11 are clearly static stretches. 2 and 6 definitely are focused on movement. I’m not so sure how to interpret 7 and 9. I’ll err on the side of static for now.

Getting in the Mood

After my wrist and forearm issues started flaring up again, I decided to take a closer look at how to get my body ready for playing. I knew immediately that I wasn’t going to stretch in the traditional sense. It was never effective for me. In fact, I feel like it made things worse. I now have a sense why.

A few years ago, I had a personal trainer and got in the best shape of my life. Also, I learned what I had been doing wrong in previous attempts to work out. The most relevant revelation had to do with warming up.

My trainer taught me a dynamic stretching routine at the very outset of these sessions. I didn’t even question it but he gave me a whole spiel about why one should do dynamic stretches before a workout and static stretches afterwards. As we progressed and started adding some serious strength training to my regimen, he added some preworkout static stretches.

Fast forward to when I started playing again, I looked back at my old preplaying stretching routine and realized that it would sometimes make me play worse. No wonder why I abandoned it.

I began thinking about how to come up with a new way of preparing my body for playing. I googled “stretches for musicians” and “stretching before practicing” which yielded some disappointing results. The same shit I basically saw 20 years ago, written by musicians, not trainers, PT’s, kinesiologists.

I then tried “dynamic stretches for musicians” which yielded better results. I still had trouble finding what I needed. I got impatient and just started watching the YouTube videos that came up for this search. Eventually, I was drawn to the following two:

 

The first video took a very holistic and Alexander technique (I’m being somewhat redundant here) approach. This one really made me realize that I am holding my body in a tense and unnatural position most of the time, especially while playing.

The second one was annoying as hell but the actual stretches are fantastic since they focus on the fingers and how they interact with the arm. This one relied on qigong and yoga methods.

I saw a dramatic improvement in my playing after I started these. I don’t hurt as much. There were some tempo thresholds that I was able to cross and I feel like I wasn’t working nearly as hard. Looking back after a couple of weeks using this routine, I’m no longer quite sure that the latter video is specifically for pre-playing. It kind of straddles the line of dynamic and static stretching. Might have to reach out to someone about this. In the coming week, I’m going to try and leaving it out. Let’s see where this takes me.

Long Tones

Two of the most important and influential teachers of my life discouraged me from doing long tones. They had been a staple of my playing from when I first started playing back in third grade until my sophomore year in college, the first time someone told me to stop. Both teachers in question felt that my sound and fundamentals were solid enough that I can just start off with either 12ths or dive right into the Klose scale patterns.

When I started playing again, I felt compelled to start with long tones again. My embouchure needed to get their sea legs again. I also needed to remove all other factors while I focused on getting back my sound. I also decided to approach long tones differently:

  1. Instead of trying to make my sound as consistent as possible from note to note, I focused on finding the center of each note. This was influenced by my friend and historical clarinetist extraordinaire, Marie Ross, who really advocates for the clarinet to let its acoustical freak flag out and let each note sound different based on the acoustical idiosyncrasies of each fingering.
  2. At first, I didn’t even focus on intonation.
  3. Most importantly, I play mindfully. Meaning, I am very conscious of every action, intention and the results of both.

I try to get to the center of each note as quickly as possible. Beyond how good or bad I sound, what is the quality of the overtones I’m getting. How is my instrument resonating and how does that feel in my fingers, mouth, lips, tongue. Am I relaxed or asked in a different way, is my mind or body doing anything to impede the most perfect sound that I can get.

Thanks to this Eddie Daniels video, I even found that long tones can help with technique too:

Now, in addition to the above areas of focus, I also make sure that my fingers are sitting in the most optimal place over the tone holes while exerting the least amount of pressure possible without letting air escape from keys or tone hole. I also experimented with these various factors until I got everything to the point where everything is rote. Not completely there yet.

I’m really enjoying this new approach to long tones. It’s like a grey area between meditation and chanting a mantra such as “om”. Definitely paying dividends right now.

In A Beginning

2017 has been the year of reflection. For the first time in about 15 years, I have resumed my spiritual practice of daily Korean Buddhist chants and meditation. I not only want to have a consistent and serious religious practice but I also want it to pervade every aspect of my life. Over the past two years, I have strayed away from who I was and who I always strove to be.

This has also led me to play the clarinet regularly for the first time since I studied clarinet formally: I got my degree in 2002, had my last lesson in 2005, and my last performance in 2008. Ever since college, my view of the world, especially that influenced by Korean Zen Buddhism, has profoundly intertwined itself with the way I perform, perceive and think about music.

My first year in music school, I even made a deliberate attempt at making music a part of my spiritual practice. Eventually, it became my spiritual practice and the sole purpose of my life at that point. I had convinced myself that that is why I decided to become a musician and in order to succeed, I needed to have that level of devotion to my art. Every action in my life at that point was tied to music. What I ate, my daily grooming habits, the people I hung around with, you name it.

This was all wonderful until I reinjured my wrists. I had to drop out of school very suddenly. I no longer felt that my life had any purpose. It sounds really silly and ridiculous as I write this. It truly was devastating. I don’t think I ever fully recovered.

Fast forward to now, I now see the error of my ways. There is nothing wrong with making music with a spiritual direction. Making it your whole life was the problem. I have now come to the realization that by making playing the clarinet a vehicle for spiritual exploration and practice instead of the sole means, one can have a much healthier and in the Zen parlance, a much more nonattachment approach to music making.

This blog will chronicle my holistic and mindful practice of the clarinet. I will draw upon many different areas beyond Zen, American clarinet pedagogy. My interests, hobbies and work will also inform my playing. I don’t know how often I will post nor do I know which direction this journey will take me. I’m eager to find out.