Clarinet: Middle Aged Woman Dares To Learn New Musical Instrument
I have already let a year pass without chronicling my journey into learning a new musical instrument as a middle aged adult. I'll start now because I'd like to use any extra help I can get, in case anybody has any. It helps to write it all out. I will try to remember my challenges up to this point, in case anybody else out there is having the same troubles I did along the way.
Writing about myself makes me cringe, and this is long-winded so feel free to skim/skip, but here goes...
At first I merely imagined what it must have been like to be a 1920s jazz clarinetist, and to have been the lucky one responsible for those soaring embellishments that leap around the forthright trumpet and laboring trombone.
Too many adjectives? Right, sorry.
After five years I finally decided I needed to try and join in, as explained by Acker Bilk in this interview -
"We were so interested in Jazz, so keen on it, it waddn't enough really to listen to it, we had to try and play it a bit." If I didn't honor this yearning, my whole life would be sham. Who am I not to try! How dare I not live my life? And what if I actually tried to play a clarinet? I googled things like "older person learn clarinet" and "clarinet middle aged student". There were varying opinions, such as "Anybody can learn anything", and "Some people just can't play the clarinet - you will find out within a few weeks whether you can or not!", the latter being both daunting and nonsense ("I'll never be able to skate. I was born with two left feet." Etc.). Would I be met with help only intended for school kids? Is the privilege of learning brass and woodwinds these days exclusive to American High School Band members?
There are abundant comments online that 'Clarinet is difficult to play/learn'. Broken down, this is a blanket statement mostly linked with learning to play sax, and that higher octave fingerings on the clarinet do not translate from the basic positions in the lower register, so going up a register means you have to learn them all over again. There's a lot of advice advocating taking up clarinet first then sax, rather than the other way around, since the clarinet apparently is so frighteningly hard to learn. The term 'overblows at the twelfth' is thrown around a lot online. Ooh that sounds complicated! Perhaps they're right. Perhaps I should just give up as it sounds difficult.
"Yeah, well, y'know, that's just like, your opinion, man."
Even though I started with classical guitar instruction many years ago, I jumped quickly to chords and picking, playing by ear because it was faster and easier than trying to learn to read music. Ultimately I shortchanged myself with that approach, and I didn't want to make the same mistake again.
My first attempt a year ago at interviewing a clarinet tutor did not go well, and I left the music store feeling disillusioned in musicians. Although I appreciate how encouraging this particular tutor was towards me when I mentioned my being in the wrong demographic to play New Orleans Jazz, he was otherwise somewhat vacant and unresponsive. This was disappointing, as it had taken me five years to work up the guts to take this step. Afterwards I concluded I must've been in the business world for too long, and that the customer service mentality must not extend into the fun professions. In a rare fit of courage six months later I went back to the music store and asked them if they had any other clarinet tutors I could meet. They did, so I set up another meeting and it went wonderfully. This tutor majored in Music/Jazz Studies, knew himself and his subject very well, was engaging, polite, with a full grasp of customer service. I bought a clarinet immediately at the store and said I'd be back for lessons.
Two days later I fell on my face, bashed a few of my teeth in, ripped open my chin and needed 17 stitches and had big scabs above my upper lip. I told the tutor not to worry. I'd be back. In the meantime I had to stare at my brand new unopened clarinet for a month. I had to wait until my front teeth were stable in the gums - necessary for a good embouchure. I believe some of those poor New Orleans clarinetists back in the day were probably missing some teeth, but I figured they already knew how to play before that happened and could compensate.
The store's lesson minimum is thirty minutes, once a week. I'd prefer a 2 hour lesson every 2 weeks, but I don't have that choice. Working full-time and living in an apartment complex where I'm not *supposed* to play any musical instruments, I didn't think I'd be able to practice enough to even warrant paying for lessons. I can't just get up at 6 am and run through my scales as if I were in a house, and I don't practice past 9 pm out of courtesy for the neighbors. None of my neighbors have complained yet. In the beginning I felt so self-conscious, I would sneak out to my cold, dark car and practice there, hoping nobody would hear or see me.
My tutor encouraged me to go ahead and play in the apartment and not worry unless someone complained. And then after that...also not to worry. I settled on the spare bedroom's walk-in closet, buffered by an old twin mattress. I think the clothes hanging up in there also absorb some of the sound.
We started off using a beginner's school band music book, which was suitable for getting used to the notes on the instrument, elementary music theory and the embouchure. If I recall correctly, I was mostly done with the nursery rhymes after 2 months and on to folk songs. After having played guitar, it seemed easy to have to only focus on one note at a time with the clarinet. But this doesn't mean I found reading music and producing a good tone to be a breeze.
It has taken quite some time to organize the various aspects of reading music in my head. The most useful thing I did last year other than practice most days for 30-60 mins, was to make my own note flash cards. However, it's one thing to be able to shout letters with your mouth, and another thing entirely to translate the dots into music upon sight via your instrument. Not sure why, but at one point I concluded the only thing that'd help me would be a flow chart of how and where all of this fits into a person's head and where all the components overlapped, or "If this fails, do this". Is it better to just memorize whole sections of the music? Do I rely on the shapes and paintings in my head of how it sounds, while trying to follow the dots on the page with my eyes? Or is that about as useful as trying to find a Starbucks in a strange town, with one eye looking through the windshield and the other on the GPS, with the sassy robot voice I picked for directions distracting me? Do I identify the first note and be so familiar with the instrument that I play it from there? If I only 'read' the music while playing it, what good is that if it all vaporizes when the sheet music is taken away? Does that mean I haven't really learned anything? What do the anonymous internet people say about all this? Great - they say "Memorize all the music!" and "Whatever you do, don't memorize all the music!".
I resisted my ego's urging that I should memorize whole pieces of music to present my best mini-performance to the tutor and earn a gold star. But out of anger one day I ended up committing to memory a set of particularly challenging intervals that I just could not get right. Once I had drawn the patterns in my mind and created a picture of the sound, it was much easier to play correctly. I can still recall and play that short piece now without needing to look at the music. Perhaps this is what I should've been doing all along, but then I would never have learned to just pick up the instrument and take a shot at playing something I'd never seen before. I really get a kick out of that and can't wait til I'm fluent in (clarinet) music. It's an energy rush to want to grab the clarinet and play now, every time I see sheet music.
It's tempting to believe I'm a useless, slow middle-aged learner because how difficult can it possibly be to remember that this gap is F and that line is E and so on throughout the staff? After a year, I still can't read the notes perfectly in a sequence. Perhaps this will improve once I get better at recognizing musical patterns and intervals.
Reading music is a great way to force your mind to be in the present moment, whatever your level. And I'm still not entirely sure what or how long a 'present moment' is. But it's impossible for me to read a piece of music and for my mind to wander. Rather if my mind does wander, my performance is immediately derailed. In this way my evening practices are like a mini-vacation for my mind - away from harmful thought debris - and I always end up feeling refreshed, no matter how terrible I sound.
I don't want to make the same mistakes I made with the guitar, and skip straight to playing by ear or having to rely on memory, so until now I have purposely not tried to play some of my favorite clarinet pieces or to mimic playing styles, and have tried to focus purely on music theory and good basic tone/technique. But it's hard to stay motivated while wondering what the hell the practice book composer was thinking when he penned a particular duet...and attempting to play said technical piece with a recovering broken left wrist.
After a full and often stressful day at work, I start my evening session in the Practice Closet blinking at the music on the page, waiting for brain activity. Wobbly scales help to get things started, but at this point I usually only have muscle memory/habit to rely on and am not really fully aware of what notes I'm playing. This has been the biggest challenge by far: attempting to both recall and create new memories with an absent brain. Ideally I'd live in a detached house with no need to work a full time job, would sleep a full eight hours, get up and practice in the morning while my brain is naturally at its most efficient. By the evening, however, that window of efficiency has long passed and only a few drops of cognitive ability remain. The dregs of the day are all I have left to spend on my goal of learning to play the clarinet. This is upsetting, but not as upsetting as giving up or never trying.
I could save up all my intent during the week and blow it all on a couple of mammoth weekend sessions when the grey matter is intact and raring to go, but two practice sessions per week would not be enough, especially as I have to pay for one class a week and be ready for the next one so soon.
During Winter and Spring of early 2015, I started to notice that when I was extra-foggy during practice or the lesson, a migraine or some other kind of autoimmune flare-up would happen a few days later. So in some respects it was strong motivation for me to insist on taking care of my own health by getting enough sleep, cutting back on caffeine and making sure I exercised. The optimal situation here would be vigorous cardio for 30 minutes each day plus 30 - 40 minutes of exercises with weights or plyos. It's hard to work full time and fit all of that in, much less everything else I have to do. I'm sure those more energetic could suggest how I should cram in 30 minutes exercise before work or during lunch, but to be frank, I'm just not a Real Go-getter.
Much of this sounds like agonizing and complaining, but many of these initial problems sorted themselves out over my first year of lessons. After taking 3 months off of even attempting to play anything due to breaking my wrist, I hadn't forgotten the notes previously learned once I picked up the clarinet again. My embouchure and dexterity needed rebuilding, though. And if I start to let the Scumbag Brain thoughts back in, such as "You will never remember anything so why bother?", I can pick up the clarinet and play through the Band Book 1 easily. Can't juggle 4 balls? Then practice juggling 5 for a while and when you go back to 4, Bob's your uncle.
A common online tip for reading music is to practice getting in to the habit of reading a few notes or measures ahead, which when I think about it kind of messes with my 'in the moment' vibe. I can't read a few measures ahead consciously, and I'm not sure how to practice that. I have noticed it happen as part of a natural outcome, though. As soon as I start thinking about reading ahead, I've broken the magic of the present moment between myself and the music, and it's very hard to get back into it while keeping time in an unfamiliar piece.
I'd like to be certain that I know all my major scales, but they too disappear from my mind from one evening to the next. Is it better for me to continue to try to play them all through several times, not really acing any of them, or to pick just one to work on until I get it, then go to the next one after a few weeks? This thread helped me somewhat. It has been a year...I should be able to do these by now! They don't change! What is so hard about this?! Although, my mind does wander something terrible when I'm supposed to be playing my scales. Perhaps if I read them I'd be in the moment and may remember them? But then when the music isn't in front of me, they will vaporize again. I tried reciting the note names of the more difficult ones during my morning commute but don't remember it making anything easier. I need a graphic for all the components: aural, finger placement, the notes themselves and the theory behind the scales.
Articles popped up recently on how to practice more efficiently and therefore how to learn something and perform with a better success rate (I can't find any links now). The study revealed faster learning with less mistakes in the control group who slightly modified their subsequent practice run-throughs after feeling like the they had gotten the hang of the task, as opposed to the group who simply repeated the task the same way many times after perfecting it. I couldn't figure out how to apply that to my practice - probably because I never feel like I have perfected my scales! Perhaps I should try playing them staccato or legato? Slurring every 3rd note?
For lack of other options right now, I'm trying to work up to jogging for a sane amount of time and am toying with the idea of going for a quick 'run' (if I ever get to that point) right before practicing to see if this'll help me retain whatever I may gain. I have a mini-trampoline and may try jogging on that until I can get my body asphalt-ready.
I should probably either give up caffeine completely (not possible), or just save an allotted amount for right before practice perhaps.
Time signatures and note values continue to challenge me while transcribing, but it's always fun and mini epiphanies lay solid steps to the next level. We have started transcribing some of my favorite jazz tunes, which is like holding the key to joy, and honestly I can't contain myself.
I am not sure I'm following the fastest path towards some of my musical goals, but I am at least on a path now, and thrilled about that.
This post is an unruly account of the past year, and any future posts about my struggles and experiences should be more cohesive.
For when I needed to 'cheat' to figure out how a tune I'm learning is supposed to sound (Band Book 1 had an online accompaniment with which to totally cheat to hear the time signature & note values). I didn't have a real keyboard at home to use at the time, and the second book has no such cheat tool:
Phone app - android. Good way to spend time while waiting for someone or something:
There are many online video lessons explaining the circle of fifths but in the end it's all just abstract until I can connect the meaning via the music and the instrument.
Currently reading: The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey. Hailed by wind instrumentalists on various discussion boards as essential to dealing with performance anxiety and head games. Supposedly the original 'tennis' version is superior - even for musicians - to the later Inner Game of Tennis for Musicians.