What does a musician get out of going to a weeklong ICA convention with hundreds of other people who play the same instrument? New friends, new colleagues, new equipment, ideas for repertoire, ideas for teaching. Much more than that, however, one comes away uplifted and musically energized in a way that cannot be achieved through any other means.
ClarinetFest2018, held in Ostend, Belgium, was an absolutely fantastic experience for me:
Day One - began with meeting friends and colleagues while waiting in line to register, some of whom I hadn't seen in almost 40 years. I was fortunate to have two of my best friends with me, Nancy Braithwaite (pictured left), and John Reeks who is a veteran of many ICA conventions and has even hosted them a few times in his home city of New Orleans. He introduced me to scores of people while we also soft-pedaled our presentation that was to take place a few days later. A walk on the beach (Ostend is a harbor city with a great boardwalk), a dinner of steamed mussels (moules nature), and an early bedtime in order to get started bright and early the next day.
Day Two - began with a visit to the Exhibition Room. It's both a clarinetist's dream and nightmare! You can try anything and everything from reeds, mouthpieces, thumb rests, barrels, bells, and teeth guards to, of course, clarinets. The cacophony of clarinet noodling, orchestral excerpts and the opening phrases of the Mozart Concerto can be a little overwhelming. Restraint is also necessary so as not to make too many impulse purchases. Later that morning John Reeks and I made our way over to the Conservatory to try out the acoustics and computer/tech aspects of our lecture/performance in the room where we would be presenting the following day. Our presentation on the musical contributions to the clarinet world by my father, Harold Seletsky, included a Power Point, live and recorded demos and a full performance of one of his quarter-tone compositions. There were a few glitches getting all of the moving parts to work properly (ITunes,Google Slides, microphone, etc) but I left fairly confident that it would go smoothly the next day. After a light lunch of smoked herring at a great nearby cafe I went back to the lecture hall. The schedule listed a presentation taking place at 3:00 pm but I knew that the person giving the lecture was not, in fact, in Ostend. I thought I could use the time for more computer practice. This wound up being very fortuitous because the 10 people or so in the room waiting to hear the scheduled lecture wound up getting a sneak preview of mine and most of them came the next day to hear my presentation in full! From there I went to a performance by a Peruvian Clarinet Quartet followed by a wonderful recital by John Yeh who has been in the Chicago Symphony since shortly after I met him at a summer music festival in 1977. Then to the Thermae Palace Hotel for some schmoozing at the Buffet Crampon Happy Hour.
Day Three - began with a master class given by a true klezmer master - the great Giora Feidman. The room was packed with devoted followers who hung on his every word - most of which was about playing music and not the clarinet. Some other offerings from him were that the breath is the connection to the inner still voice, and that applause is poisonous to the performer (although in his concert performance that evening he generated lots of applause). He is a kley zemer in the truest sense - a vessel or conduit for inspiration. At 1:00, the lecture/performance John and I worked so hard on, came off without a hitch. Those in attendance seemed fully engaged throughout and appeared to really appreciate it. We sold out of our CD's and generated interest in the music of my Dad, which was our ultimate goal. That evening I enjoyed another dinner of mussels when taken to dinner by company executives for Uebel Clarinets; My friend from Holland, Nancy Braithwaite, is their clarinet rep and she invited me along. This was followed by one of the highlights of the entire festival: the evening concert which featured Giora Feidman followed by Anat Cohen. Giora's backup group has the same instrumentation as my klezmer ensemble - violin, guitar, acoustic bass and accordion - and hearing their arrangements gave me many ideas for modulating textural and rhythmic accompaniments so as to make, what is essentially very simple folk music, into a musical experience that holds the audience at every moment. Anat Cohen's performance after the intermission blew my mind - her playing is so imaginative and colored and absolutely unique. She has a jazz sound but it's warm and rich, her pitch and technique are flawless and her inflections are such like I've never heard before. I stood in line to buy her album after the show.
Day Four - now that I was free from the pressure of my presentation I could really just enjoy everything. I went back to the Exhibition Hall where I was introduced to the makers of Ligaphone Paris, Ligatures It's a husband and wife team who make fantastic ligatures. I'm really not an equipment maven and, in fact, haven't changed my ligature in probably 15 years.
But the minute I put one of their ligatures on my mouthpiece I heard an immediate difference in m tone - clarity and warmth without spread. Always a goal for clarinetists. I could still chirp and gliss and krekht for my klezmer playing too. I agreed immediately to promote the product to my students, colleagues, local music stores, etc. I'm a convert!
Day Five - began with an early morning presentation by Stephen Fox and Nora Muller on their collaborative venture of creating the Bohlen Pierce clarinets which use a 13-tone tuning system over a 12th instead our familiar 12-tone system over an octave. It was fascinating to hear the instruments and the compositions written for them. Back to the Exhibition Hall where I took part in a spontaneous klezmer jam. Very fun. But perhaps the most exciting highlights of the final day included a personal introduction to Karl Leister, principal clarinetist of the Berlin Philharmonic from 1959-1993 and one of my idols during the formative years of my training. I basically wore out the LP of his performance of Weber's Concerto in F minor when I was preparing to perform the piece for the first time in 1982. That evening brought another experience that was more than just a concert - Anthony McGill performed the Copland Concerto with the Brussels Philharmonic and, honestly, words can't describe it. It was like hearing an angel playing the instrument. It wasn't about his perfect fingers, pitch, articulation (which of course they were). Rather, it was his sound and musicality. His tone is so warm and uniform and the way it was animated by his breath was above and beyond anything I'd ever heard before - and this was after a week of hearing some of the greatest clarinetists in the world! Following the concert there was a jazz combo playing in the main hotel with attendees sitting in on clarinet. The crowd went wild when the legendary Paquito D'Rivera came down from his room and joined the combo.
If you're fortunate enough to attend or present at a conference such as this, take every opportunity to make the most of it. If you're giving a Power Point be sure to bring anything and everything you may need such as:
--Outlet convertor (if in Europe)
--HDMI cable in case they don't provide one
--Backup PDF of the file on a thumb drive
--JBL speaker in case there are audio issues
--IPhone to receive text code if logging into Google Drive from an unrecognized computer
--Make sure you're laptop is set to avoid going to sleep during the duration of your presentation
--Do a dry run in the actual room of your presentation
--Get the name and number of the tech people ahead of time. Make sure you can text them in case a tech problem comes up in the middle of your presentation.
And, of course, don't forget your horns, reeds and mouthpiece - although at ClarinetFest there's ample supply of those at every turn!
Harold Seletsky –Prolific, Versatile Composer and Performer of Clarinet Music
Although his contribution to the clarinet world is not well known outside his hometown of New York City, the composer and clarinetist Harold Seletsky (1927-2010) wrote hundreds of works for the instrument in styles ranging from avant-garde to klezmer. His haunting unaccompanied quarter-tone solos showcase his idiosyncratic use of a 24-tone scale and his Concertino for Klezmer Clarinet and String Quartet won first prize in the American Society for Jewish Music's 1998 International New Music Competition.
Harold studied composition with Josef Schmidt, a prize student of Alban Berg, who came to this country to escape the Nazi's. In the Old World tradition of apprenticeship learning (vs the university system) the dozen or so students in Schmidt's studio learned the craft of composition using Arnold Schoenberg's meticulous pedagogical system. By the late 1950's Harold was writing multi-movement works in the 12-tone system including his Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, recorded here at Symphony Space in 2010. Seletsky Sonata. He eventually abandoned Schoenberg's 12-tone system in favor of the 24-tone scale. His love of quarter-tones informed many of his compositions from avant-garde chamber works to klezmer freylekhs (Robin's Piece) Here is the first of four tutorials I created showing every quarter-tone fingering available on the clarinet based on what he taught me Learn Clarinet Quarter-Tones #1
By the mid-1960's, with a family to support, Harold pursued a career on Madison Ave working for advertising agencies writing commercial jingles and film music. Most notable in this arena was the theme for the long running TV news program "Issues and Answers" and campaigns for US Steel, Air France, Gimbels, Royal Jordanian Airlines and Royal Air Maroc. As a little kid, it was always a thrill to be watching TV and hear his music during a commercial break! Despite his success, however, he was never fulfilled by this turn his career had taken. He very much felt as if he had "sold out". Jingles and commercial work was the antithesis of the music of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms - the deep and profound music that spoke to him so passionately. By his later years he was finally able to be free of the need to compose solely for money and got out of the commercial world once and for all.
There was so much more to Harold's musical life, however, than formal composition. Having grown up dirt poor in Williamsburg, Brooklyn during the Depression, his first paying jobs were playing "club dates" in the Borscht Belt hotels in the Catskill Mountains. He, of course, respected the musicianship of Benny Goodman but it was Artie Shaw's style that had the bigger influence on him. In addition to being steeped in the 1940's swing style, Harold was shaped first and foremost by the music he heard growing up - Yiddish folk music now referred to as Klezmer but simply called back then "Jewish". If you were "Playing Jewish" on a club date it meant the portion of the gig where the familiar shers, bulgars and freylekhs were performed to the delight of the Yiddish speaking guests at a wedding or show. During the klezmer revival begun in the 1990's, Harold revisited that genre but with a newly formed ensemble, The West End Klezmorim, so named because they had a standing gig at Art Lugoff's West End Gate. Coming full circle, Harold now wrote scores of Jewish inspired compositions including klezmer tunes, songs, nigunim, a full Shabbat service and more.
Last but not least, he was not content to limit his jazz playing to the Big Band style of the '40's. He was tireless in his quest to grow as an instrumentalist, incorporating progressive harmonies into his clarinet improvisations and always trying to learn from the young and adventurous players with whom he surrounded himself.
This tribute to my Dad's musical life barely scratches the surface. I've left out his years of "legit" clarinet playing: his studies with Gino Cioffi of the Boston Symphony (searching for the most beautiful sound possible), playing Eb Clarinet in the Houston Symphony under Leopold Stokowski, his transcriptions for clarinet and string quartet of the Schumann Fantasy Pieces, Bach Chaconne, both clarinet sonatas by Brahms - all pieces he not only loved but loved the idea of the expressive possibilities inherent in his arrangements. His legacy lives on in his students and it, of course, informs all of my music making to this day.
Many years ago, while playing Assistant Principal and Eb clarinet in a major orchestra, I developed a very serious repetitive stress injury that threatened my career as a clarinet player. I took some time off from the job but ultimately decided to resign--I wanted to make sure that I'd be able to play in some capacity for the rest of my life and not sacrifice my long term ability just to keep my current orchestra position. This was a hard decision because, really, all I'd ever wanted from the time I was in high school (and through my conservatory years) was a professional orchestra gig. However, as is so often the case, not only was it the right decision but I truly came to see my injury as a great gift.
I was diagnosed with dystonia of the right hand when the field of music medicine was just beginning. A focal dystonia is what used to be called Writer's Cramp where, in my case, the fourth and fifth fingers of my right hand neither worked independently of each other nor worked together. Unlike tendonitis there is often nothing physically "wrong"-- no inflammation that ibuprofen would knock out, no weakness that physical therapy would strengthen, etc. Without getting too technical, it's a neurological disorder where the message to move a particular muscle gets short-circuited from the brain to the finger. I was devastated.
I went to one of the very first clinics for performing artists called The Miller Institute. It was in NYC and was affiliated with St. Lukes Roosevelt Hospital. In addition to learning how to avoid future injuries--stretching, frequent breaks while practicing, varying practice routines, proper posture and alignment, etc (all strategies that are now commonly known and widely disseminated)--they encouraged the practice of modifying the instrument to fit the hand. This is the exact opposite of how we're taught from the very beginning which is to force our hands and body over time to fit the permanently fixed instrument. Try this:
---Put your right arm at your side. Now raise it up from the elbow without moving your wrist or fingers. You'll notice that your wrist is pretty straight and your fingers are slightly curved. This is the most natural position for your clarinet playing hand.
You can look at the photo of my clarinet to see how I made the adaptations: extensions were put on all the pinky keys so that the pinky, which is shorter and weaker than the other fingers, doesn't have to reach out so far; a cup with a pad was put over the G/D tone hole so that the ring finger doesn't have to reach out as far as the middle finger. I also had a left hand Ab/Eb key added so that my left pinky could share that burden. Many clarinets now routinely come with that key.
The upshot? My fingers adapted almost immediately to the modifications and, because of the resulting new position of my hand, the dystonic response was almost completely mitigated. I played principal clarinet for the next 25 years in orchestras and opera festivals, played chamber music, taught, began my solo klezmer career--all without anyone knowing there had ever been a problem. And what was the gift? If I had been locked into a full-time orchestra job I never would've begun playing klezmer and, hence, never would have experienced the unfathomable creative outlet it became for me. This is a lesson I live every day--what seems like a curse can actually be a wonderful blessing.
Here are some links that may be helpful as you navigate your way through an injury:
National Dystonia Foundation:http://www.dystonia.org.uk/index.php/about-dystonia
Musicians Health.com: http://www.musicianshealth.com/whyrsi.htm
Stephen Fox--custom clarinet repairs: http://www.sfoxclarinets.com/Woodwind_Repair.html
As an instrumentalist we often face many physical challenges that, over time, can lead to chronic physical discomfort, pain, or worse. I have found that dealing with discomfort--even slight discomfort--as soon as the sensations arise is better than waiting to see if they go away on their own. I am a big proponent of holistic healing methods and, while my suggestions here may cost you some money, the amount pales in comparison to the cost of mainstream medical doctor's visits and the loss of income from not being able to play. So, here goes:
MASSAGE - for neck/arm tension and tightness. Good also as a way to reduce emotional stress before an upcoming concert. i like to have a massage two days before a concert, if possible. The day before is also okay but never on the day of. It can make you tired or lightheaded.
ACCUPUNCTURE - for any type of localized pain. This ancient Chinese healing method will relieve pain, speed up the healing process and make you feel both calm and revitalized simultaneously. Better yet, there are virtually no side effects other than perhaps a slight discomfort for some people when the sterilized needles are inserted.
CHIROPRACTIC ADJUSTMENT - in the hands of a skilled practitioner, this method of adjusting your neck and spine can relieve both sharp pain, dull aches, and tingling that are either localized or that radiate down your arms. The thought of it can be a bit scary the first time but, really, it's not painful and it can work wonders.
Other modalities that you may want to try are the Alexander Technique and the Feldenkreis Method. They focus on posture and freedom of movement and can make one realize just how much the habitual ways of using our bodies can interfere with breathing and movement.
I find that heat makes my fingers and arms more flexible but if I feel sore in a particular spot I will try and ice it to reduce the inflammation. Over-the-counter medications, such as ibuprofin, can be of help if you find it is really necessary but I try to avoid them as much as possible. A good natural alternative is a topical ointment called arnica gel--it can be found in health food stores and has none of the chemical drawbacks (or odors) that are found in products such as BenGay. And, of course, your grandmother's method of soaking in epsom salts is not only soothing but is a tried and true way to naturally reduce inflammation.
In short, don't be afraid to try any or all of the above. As players we need to keep our bodies happy and healthy. It may feel like you're pampering yourself too much but addressing--immediately--even the slightest discomfort in these ways is insurance against long-term disabilities (and costs). So, yes, do go ahead and "pamper" yourself. You and your music making are worth it!
My first article on playing double high C's on the clarinet dealt with the mechanics of getting out notes in that range - the fingerings, using a hard reed and taking in a lot of mouthpiece. But making music is much more than technique - in fact, the mechanics are only tools to work through in order to actually make music -- in order to inspire people. And boy, when these high notes are played right, they really can inspire! Like a singer going for it on American Idol or Pavarotti at the climax of a great aria, the audience can be moved, quite literally, to tears.
So, here are some suggestions on how to do that:
1. If you're improvising try to build up to the note. Create anticipation in the listener's ear by the melodic and rhythmic motion just prior to hitting the high note.
2. Be as expressive as possible - on the clarinet you can not only hold a double high C but you can play it with vibrato. You can also make a crescendo just before you're about to leave the note.
3. Regardless of the style of music try to hold the note as long as possible. If your music is strictly notated your pianist or conductor will wait for you. If you're improvising you obviously have much more leeway.
In this recording listen for the double high C at 1:22. All of the suggestions listed above can be heard in this very short klezmer tune: there's a wonderful sense of tension as the music builds to it's climax, the note itself is very expressive, and it's held for almost 22 seconds! The clarinetist by the way is my Dad, Harold Seletsky. He wrote this klezmer freylekh and specifically included a section where he could improvise and highlight his ability to circular breath on this extremely high note. Enjoy!