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Mailbag: The Secret Sauce of Improvement

One of the great things about putting content into the endless plains of the internet is that–occasionally–people read it! And sometimes, people send me emails saying nice things, which is embarrassingly feel-good. But other times, readers send in questions for advice, and I do my best to respond in kind.

A reader last week presented a question that touched on a lot of themes I’ve been wanting to write about for a while anyway–and sharing is caring.

Hey John. I have been a fan of your blog for about a year and a half now and I love what you are doing. I was wondering if you could give me some tips on clarinet. I have been playing for about 5 years now and I am a sophomore in high school. I was wondering how do I get better air support? How do I perfect note starts (high notes and low notes) that are seamless with no squeaks? Do you have any tips for a “perfect” embouchure or any general guidelines? Is the oral cavity in the mouth open? If so, how do I achieve this? How do I get a better tone?

Thanks for any help and keep up the good work!

Eric from Austin, Texas

Readers in far away places! Saying nice things!

I wanted to respond to Eric on the blog (rather than directly through email, as I usually do) because I find it valuable to talk not about how to improve X clarinet skill 1 but the approach that I’ve found the most helpful (and least frustrating) when developing any skill.

The things you list–better air support, perfect note starts, a perfect embouchure, an open oral cavity–sound like tips or focus points that some authority figure has told you. Hell, maybe you’re reaching above and beyond and have been watching master classes on YouTube or are on the clarinet bboard. Cool! No doubt you’re learning all about things like keeping your chin flat or tight corners or “imagine that you’re sucking in a bowling ball, and then do the opposite.” 2

This info is significantly less useful than you think it is. I don’t care if Ricardo Morales says to do it or if Benny Goodman wrote it in some obscure manuscript somewhere.

Let me paint the picture for you. I struggled with dating for a long time. I had trouble understanding why, because I adhered strictly to all of the expert advice I had read 3, or been told by my friends. Some of it was genuinely good advice (see: eye contact, asking questions) and some of the advice still makes me want to vomit (see: act like you don’t care at all about her, give her backhanded compliments to make her feel insecure). But I found that my results wouldn’t improve even when I took the objectively good advice–I still felt awkward around girls and had numerous rejections and too many horrific stories to count. 4

I was so damn confused–why wasn’t advice that was working for others, even the best in the business, not working for me? Was I just doomed to a life of inadequacy and this meme?

forever_alone_by_foreveraloneplz

 

Thankfully not. Eventually, I went to a dating coach and gradually understood the deep flaws in how I tried to improve my success with women. It wasn’t the behaviors themselves that were necessarily bad–eye contact is a staple of any relationship I have with people now–but my approach in implementing the behaviors that was causing me frustration.

My approach was:

Learn AWESOME GURU SKILL
|
Apply skill several times with no variation
|
Find no success whatsoever
|
“Why am I so bad at this? I can’t even get girls when I do what the gurus say.”
|
Self Loathing
|
Learn BETTER GURU SKILL
|
Repeat

When it should have been:

Learn AWESOME GURU SKILL
|
Consider how skill contextualizes in my life
|
Try AWESOME GURU SKILL a few times
|
“This isn’t working for me. I should try this in a different way, or try something new. Hell, maybe the opposite could work.”
|
Try several different variations on AWESOME GURU SKILL
|
Find better success
|
Continue tweaking and improving skills through repetition and change
|
John gets the girl! 5 Awesome!

In other words:

STOP TREATING ADVICE FROM SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE AS GOSPEL.

This is especially true in the music world–too many do exactly as their teacher, or someone mega-famous in a masterclass told them to do. They mistake the guru’s pathway to excellence to everyone’s pathway to excellence, which is simply not the case. Eric, you mentioned the oral cavity. I’ve probably seen dozens of different opinions on what to do with your face. Thing is, those things worked for them. That doesn’t mean they will work for you.

Look, just because Ricardo Morales shapes his lips and face and chin one way doesn’t mean that you shaping your face in those ways will produce the same sound.

So what to do instead?

To be successful at what you do, I pare down the process as much as possible.

  1. Have an idea of what and how you want to improve. (Maybe that means flawless entrances on high notes on the clarinet.)
  2. Understand where you are at now, preferably by trying it yourself a couple times. (Okay, I’m squeaking on my entrances doing what I’ve been doing.)
  3. DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT. (Hmm, maybe I won’t tighten up my face as much.)
  4. Observe the results. (Oh cool, I didn’t squeak on my entrance, but now my attack response isn’t very good…)
  5. Repeat Steps 3 and 4. (Maybe something in between will work.)

The role of the mentor as best used is AFTER experimentation. But we, under pressure to be absolute masters of our craft as soon as possible, try to take shortcuts and assume that if we do it the same way as a guru, we will get the same results. So we try to just emulate the mentor, thinking that “it totally works that way” and assume that following the blueprint of another human will lead us to that human’s path. Unfortunately, pure imitation rarely produces sustained success.

To get better without wanting to pull your hair out, just remember this: any advice from any successful person is merely a suggestion. 6 Try stuff yourself to improve first. When you do that and hit a wall, then the mentor can suggest other things for you to experiment with.

Change up your approach over and over and over again, even if it directly conflicts with something your teacher or band director has told you. You may be surprised at the results!


Thanks for reading. As I take care of making sure my April 15th recital and April 29th jury are not total shitshows, epic posting will be on hold for a while. If you’d like me to answer a question on the blog, feel free to contact me here.

Notes:

  1. But if you’re wondering, for an optimal sound quality with the most minimized shrillness in the overtones, you simply need to shape the aperture in such a way that–hey! Wake up!
  2. That is real advice I saw in a clarinet forum, folks.
  3. You don’t want to know how many of Yahoo’s Eleven Best Things To Say on a First Date articles I’d torn through between the ages of 9-15
  4. Seriously, don’t make me.
  5. True story!
  6. Even/especially when said successful person tries to present it as fact.

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