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.