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Clarinet: Middle Aged Woman Dares To Learn New Musical Instrument

eebee's picture
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. 
Brief History
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. 
Reading ahead
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?
Brain Fog
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:
Note/staff testing:
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.


timv's picture

Thanks for posting that,

Thanks for posting that, Elizabeth! There's lots of interesting stuff to think about in there. My reply would be longer than your post if I tried to write up all the comments that came to mind while reading, but basically I'll just say big congratulations if even for taking that on, let alone for sticking with it this far.

After watching The Wrecking Crew several times, something that stuck with me (besides Carol Kaye's awesome hairdos, I mean) was how soon after picking up an instrument most of them said they started play to more-or-less professionally. Some of that might be because they were really, really musically talented--they made a movie about them after all!--but also, they were probably of the last generation to start playing when recordings didn't compete with live music. If you could play even a little, you could get paid for playing; maybe not much but it was probably enough to pay for your next meal, and also enough to make you think about how getting better and getting more and better work and getting paid more.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that your musical heroes had a lot more immediate motivation to practice and improve, and far more chances to learn on the job by playing out, without the incredibly high barrier that exists now. If you play in a house band for singers who come through every week accompanied maybe by a pianist/accompanist and a stack of music books, and you're expected to sightread these arrangements cold, you'll get very good at reading music very quickly.

I remember you telling me about practicing juggling 5 balls so that 3 would seem really easy. And as I said then, I learned to juggle by practicing "juggling" one ball--just throwing it up, trying to get it the same height every time and catch it without having to move the other hand. Because if I couldn't juggle 3 balls at all, what was I going to do with 5? Working out the mechanics of tossing a single ball first helped a lot and I was able to work up to two and then three. And when I learned to read for guitar, and mandolin and banjo after that, I'm pretty sure I paid special attention to the open strings first. With those four, five, or six well-spaced anchors down, I could always figure out the other notes by working up or down from the ones I knew better, until eventually they were all familiar. The graphical layout of notes on a fretboard or piano keyboard probably makes that easier, along wiht the ability to lay chords shapes across them and recognize intervals based on knowing those, but I wonder if there are certain notes on a clarinet, maybe the ones with only a key or two down, that could work like that as anchors.

And don't underestimate "Every good boy does fine" (deserves favour, digs football, develops film, despises fungus, whatever suits ya...) and "F-A-C-E" for the lines and space. People keep using them because they work.

As for the reading vs. memorizing thing, you sure do see comments that "if you learn to play by ear, you'll never be a good reader," and also, "if you learn to read music, it'll hurt you as an improviser." I couldn't say if there's any truth to either of them but players do tend to fall on one side or another. I think at least that developing a good ear for memorizing music makes it hard to practice reading, just because you remember how it goes after a couple of times through and then it's hard to make yourself look at the notation.

"Reading ahead": What I've noticed at times when I'm doing a lot of reading and getting back in the swing of it is that I pick up--more or less "hear"--the rhythms of groups of notes that are coming up. I don't know about reading measures ahead, but at least as far ahead as I would plan a phrase when I'm improvising, if it helps to think about it that way.


I had a chuckle at your description of practicing in the closet. I like your teacher's suggestion to go ahead and play and see if anyone complains. How bothered is anyone likely to get about the nice lady next door who likes to practice her clarinet?

It sounds like you're doing well at thinking about your practice routine and schedule. It struck me a while ago that I started taking guitar lessons when I was 8 years old, and never then or in the intervening decades did any teacher or other responsible adult tell me anything about practicing or how to do it, except maybe, "Why don't you do it more?" In retrospect It seems remarkable, and way beyond optimistic, to expect a preteen to figure that out on his or her own. These days, on the other hand, I seem to come up with a new practice plan every month or two. I don't know whether that means I've gotten a handle on it or not.

I could go on but better not. Please do keep posting. And I'm looking forward to hearing you play somewhere down the road.

eebee's picture

Many good points!

Yes! That's the other thing I shortchanged myself on with guitar...not performing anywhere ever (thinking I wasn't good enough, which now I know was not true when I see what counted as 'good enough' for some acts), and not really ever playing much with others in an organized or semi-serious capacity. I'm going to admit that I do envy those poor old NOLA guys from the 1920s, since performing music was often their only means of income. There was no Plan B, much less food if they didn't work somehow, at something. Their instruments weren't fancy, either. Nothing to lose!

Great tip about anchor notes. I do have a few but hadn't realized it. I can extend that up the register. 

Yes I do still use Every Good Boy Deserves Football, and FACE, plus dealing with the upper and lower ledger lines. I'm impatient to get to the point of not needing those so much. 

That's a useful tip also to think in terms of rhythm for upcoming notes. I will try that! It might help patch a few holes in my head where music theory & proficiency are waiting to fit. This entire experience reminds me of the Wikipedia globe but with tinier puzzle pieces and way more of them missing.

Regarding how to practice, my tutor mentioned taking smaller segments and playing those through until I get them. I do that when starting something new, but after I've been able to play the segments separately a few times, I then expect to be able to put them all together perfectly. But it never works out that way! 

The biggest problem with my practices is doing them while being exhausted and basically good for nothing. Talent & ears aside, I guess we are really only as good as our memory power. Or drugs.

As long as I'm playing this thing in any way at all, my life is enriched (although perhaps not my neighbors'). 

Juggling is actually still a struggle since I can't pronate/supinate my left arm 180 degrees yet. I've got about 90, which is better than where I was in January, but I can't turn my hand up to catch a falling ball. While in the cast, I tried juggling 3 in one hand. I looked up the technique and practiced with one, then two, but I can't translate that to 3! And somehow I always manage to throw one of the balls across to whack me right in the left wrist! I can't get my left arm behind my back to protect it! Calamity.

Thanks for reading the whole thing, Tim! I will update with any breakthroughs or techniques that work for me. 


eebee's picture

Helpful Article on Practicing Without the Instrument

I came across this article today: Practising Without The Piano by Melanie Spanswick.

Before I highlight the parts of the article that resonated with me, I'd like to just admit that if the myth that people 'can't learn foreign languages as easily past the age of 14' is true, I'm in complete denial of it. Ok sure, perhaps neuroplasticity does decrease with age, but what's to say a person wasn't fully engaged in their youth but was plenty capable, and still had a decent amount of mental function left forty years later? Should they just give up because they're not what they used to be? I know I'm repeating myself on this but these tired claims don't appear to make young kids hurry up and learn things while they can (any more than they or their parents would have ensured anyway), but they do serve as excuses for adults not to even try any more.

When you consider what an average 30, 40 or 50 year old person has to keep up with in everyday life just to survive (and often to provide for dependents too), perhaps all their precious plasticity is being spent on occupational & situational noise. They don't have the time or peace to sit around attempting different ways to translate, speak or practice foreign phrases. Did anybody ever release these mentally-declining adults from all of their responsibilities indefinitely, and then study their performance trying to learn a new language? 

This relates to my clarinet/music endeavors in that I'm not sure why I thought 40 sluggish minutes at the end of each day would be enough for me to gallop ahead on learning to read music. When I was learning my foreign languages during adolescence, I lived and breathed those languages and cultures. It was on my mind constantly. I was translating everything I saw or thought, and what I didn't know, I looked up in the dictionary or asked someone. I was anything but attentive in class but still got high grades on the exams, because I coincidentally built a more rounded education beyond the text books. So whenever people used to say "You have a talent for languages", I just used to think "Naah. I'm just happily obsessed". 

Stressed out middle aged employees headed for nervous breakdowns can be happily obsessed too.

Melanie Spanswick's article really hit home for me. She answers the question of 'to memorize, or not to memorize', and suggests transcribing, visualization, being in a good mood (ahem) and starting off practice as stress-free and as relaxed as you can get. That last one might be painfully obvious, but it's a crucial point for many maxed-out adults one step away from completely giving up. 

She writes "Four types of memorisation dominate; auditory or aural (how the music sounds), visual (how it looks on the page), kinesthetic or muscular (the physical sensation of playing), and intellectual memory (the analytical process). Aural and visual memorisation play a vital role in working away from the keyboard, as does the intellectual side of memorisation. It’s possible to incorporate all three during the thinking process."

What I get from this is that memorization isn't the root of all evil, rather just another way to incorporate more thought processes to help fill in when you lose your concentration. 

As the article is written for piano students, there's much that doesn't apply to me, such as singing while playing, or watching my hands (cross-eyed). But tonight I tried transcribing this piece of music that I am going to beat into submission once and for all. I've been trying this one for months - although three of those months don't count due to injury - and I won't feel right abandoning it before being able to play it. The act of transcribing helped me think about the music intervallically, which showed me why I was constantly messing up at the same points in spite of pointing to my head, commanding "Think!". I need a bit more time to get used to the bigger jumps in pitch.

I then set about committing half of it to memory (I'll try the rest of it tomorrow), which was easier than I expected, and afterwards decided to try reading it again. I still messed up on three sections, but I felt a bit more in control of the whole thing, having buoyed my awareness of this piece up a bit. The act of playing from memory helped me visualize the finger placings, which I miss when purely reading the music.

After my practice today I felt like I had actually accomplished something in the same space of time I usually just take a wild shot at sight reading, and this time I know what I have learned. Playing aimlessly for 45 minutes is good perhaps only for the embouchure. The article discusses practice away from the piano (dryland piano training?) but the study suggestions made a remarkable difference during my actual practice.

The more mental safety-nets I have in place to catch a lapse in concentration, the better progress I will make. 

I need to schedule in some air-clarinet breaks during the daytime, using some of these wonderfully detailed techniques to maximize what little time and attention I have to spend on this. 

eebee's picture

Music Practice & Memorization

Here's another very helpful article on the subject of music practice and memorization. This one is by Bulletproofmusician.com, and I think Mr. Proof could've peeked in on one of my practices, or perhaps directly inside my head:


"...when it comes to memorization, simply playing through pieces over and over on autopilot is an inefficient use of time. And, that how we practice lays the groundwork for how we will perform.

More specifically, that what we think about in practice, will influence what we think about when performing. So if we’ve not created or practiced a mental script in advance, our mind will create one for us – one that is probably much more based in fear and anxiety than related to the nuances and musical elements that would make for a more engaged and compelling (and worry-free) performance."





eebee's picture

On Not Practicing Mindlessly

It might seem obvious that mindless practice isn't going to help, and yet that is essentially what I've been doing for the past year, since I have only just now taken the time to analyse why I don't feel my practice is working so well, or why I am not progressing as quickly as I could. 

Again, from Bulletproofmusician.com, asking how many hours a day you should practice:

"We tend to practice unconsciously, and then end up trying to perform consciously — not a great formula for success. Recall from this article that you have a tendency to shift over into hyper-analytical left brain mode when you walk out on stage. Well, if you have done most of your practicing unconsciously, you really don’t know how to play your piece perfectly on demand. When your brain suddenly goes into full-conscious mode, you end up freaking out, because you don’t know what instructions to give your brain."

Yes. This is exactly what happens to me. The stage in my case being a tiny classroom in the local Music and Arts store. 

I like the tip of keeping a practice notebook and writing down your discoveries during practice. I have kept a very disorganized notebook of learning the clarinet in general, but it could use some focus.

timv's picture

More good stuff! About

More good stuff! About freaking out on stage, you might have noticed as I have that musicians tend to have fatalistic attitudes and enjoy dark humor. Everything in This is Spinal Tap did more or less happen to someone sometime, and far worse has happened. The trick might be to understand that a live performance can go totally to hell in an instant and to accept that, and find a way to enjoy playing anyway. But a lot of times anxiety comes from being under-prepared and knowing it--which you probably will be when playing for your instructor, who ought to understand this.

I like the ideas about "dryland" practice. I need to think about ways to do more (some?) of that.

I do take issue with the one author's use of "inefficient" for practice that doesn't meet with his approval. Looking at ratios of cost-to-benefit and return-on-investment and percent utilization of resources are fine for businesses and things we do that make measurable changes to our standard of living. We bother with them so that we can enjoy the other part of our lives. By that standard, your language classmates who never cracked open their textbooks out of class, let alone sought out other learning resources, might have learned a tenth as much as you and only spent a twentieth of the time. So yay for them, they were more efficient.

Your comments about fun hit closer to the mark for me. If you're having fun and you play for 12 hour total per week instead of 10, for example, you might or might not get 20% more improvement because of it. But that's only a problem if you think of your playing time as something you "spend" and not as time when you get to play your clarinet and enjoy doing what you're doing.

Something I've learned from having lots of hobbies and trying to get better at various activities, and sometimes succeeding, is that we'll always be somewhere in the middle. We know there are some people who are a lot better than us, and many more who are a lot worse--including at the least the billions who've never even tried it. If you're a local champion at something, you're trying to figure out how to catch up to the national champion, who's looking up the road at the world champion, who's comparing his or her achievements to Hall of Famers, who are mostly dead. Wherever you go, there you are.

Thanks for sticking with the updates. I hope it's still going well.

eebee's picture

I forgot about fun

My tutor is trying to remind me. When it comes to music, fun is essential, but still it's easy to should all over yourself. 

During a recent long drive I decided to run through my scales in my mind for a few hours. I couldn't do it without visualizing actually playing them at the same time, which in the end made me car sick. After a good 30 minutes of forcing myself to remember a few octaves of the D Major scale, I thought I had it. The next evening my workday-ragged self could not recall it. So I just decided to try to figure out some more traditional jazz tunes instead.

In wanting to avoid my previous (guitar) mistakes, I forgot to include the fun. Practical tips have their place, but this whole endeavour is nothing without fun! It's why I started it in the first place. 



eebee's picture

Immerse yourself in the 'as yet'

This article initially had me at the cheeky artwork by Olivier Schrauwen. But then writer Gerald Marzorati grabbed me by the throat in the first paragraph. 

Better Aging Through Practice, Practice, Practice. NY times.

The author echoes much what I've described above, just better. 

I came here for a plaintive whine to the tune of "Why can't I learn scales?!", but on the way got sidetracked by the NY Times. I appreciate Marzorati putting into words the ever-growing Pig-Penesque billows of hopelessness that are dogging me about my clarinet habit.

Bolding mine:

"Motivated to continue to develop, you will also learn to face and cope with all manner of frustration. One in particular is that continued improvement is not steady improvement. Back in the 1970s, an M.I.T. graduate student named Howard Austin was awarded his doctoral degree for writing a mechanical analysis of the act of juggling (which, I guess, is not a bad activity to take up in late middle age). He found that learning and improving motor skills happens episodically.You get a little better, then regress. You have a sudden breakthrough, then backslide. If you are my age, with my personality, this can be a recipe for despair. There just isn’t the time to be righting reversals. Time is the province of the young, yes?

Which brings us to the beauty of a disciplined effort at improvement and, I think, the only guaranteed benefit of finding something, as I found in tennis, to learn and commit to: You seize time and you make it yours. You counter the narrative of diminishment and loss with one of progress and bettering. You spend hours removed from the past (there is so much of it now) and, in a sense, the present (and all its attendant responsibilities and aches), and immerse yourself in the as yet. In this new pursuit of yours, practice is your practice: It comes to determine the way you eat and sleep and shape your days. It is not your life, but one of the lives that make up your life, and the only one for which looking ahead, at least for a little while longer, is something done without wistfulness or a flinch."


But Schrauwen's artwork is enchanting! It reminds me of the doodles in my Dad's old 1940s Public School physics text books. 

timv's picture

Suffering is optional

Good to see another update from you! I hadn't checked in here for longer than I realized. I hope the lessons are still going however they're going. No obligation to do well, just keep chugging along.

The NYT piece reminds me of the (Buddhist?) proverb, "Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional." Yeah, some things take a long time to learn. Sometimes we forget the same thing or make the same mistakes over and over. There will always be people who are a lot better at the thing we're learning than we'll ever be. But suffering and despair are editorial content that we add to the situation. Strictly speaking, we don't actually have to get on the trip of "I should be better by now" or "I shouldn't still be making that mistake" or "I'm hopeless."

William S. Burroughs:

I had the experience of say writing something that I thought was just great and I read it the next day and said for God's sakes tear into very small pieces and throw it into somebody else's garbage can. It's awful. And that is one of the deterrents to writing - the amount of bad writing you're going to have to do before you do any good writing.

But, you know, if you never try to do anything, you'll never be disappointed.

eebee's picture


Thanks Tim. Those are good reminders to think about and perhaps redirect my thoughts during the next blind rage. Or how about "What I think of me is none of my business"? I have had a pretty good learning curve going for handling other people's strangeness and moods, but I still put up with a lot of crap from myself. 

The lessons are always wonderful, in spite of the occasional meltdown. And anyway, meltdowns lend themselves to lyrics here and there, a collection of which I titled Monday Night Dysfunction, for example. 

I decided to take it easy on myself after Roadskater pointed out scales on a guitar fretboard, which I started practicing for left hand rehabilitation. I realized that even though those clarinet notes don't change, none of the scales I've attempted repeat, as they do on the guitar, so I decided to give myself a break on that one. 

I was happy to be able to play a few remnants of (non-bar/barre) chords like E, E7, E9, A, Am7, Am, A9, D7 and G at an absolute stretch. It's a long road to recovery. 

eebee's picture

The Missing Key (Signatures)

Time on the instrument, hours spent practicing, repetition and trying to get the right sounds might work well for some, but I'm pretty useless if I don't understand why. I know teachers have to stick to a schedule and can't have all the kids in the class keep asking "Why?!", but really, I can't remember anything unless I know the reasons. It sounds like a lame excuse, but I remember things that have a solid (to me) foundation, and not if they don't. While 10% of me is trying to memorize an apparently random list, the other 90% is yelling "This is a load of meaningless crap and you're wasting your energy!". I know it's futile to be stuck on an endless 'why', and no I don't know what life is or if it even really exists in the first place, or what I mean by 'exists'.

I have spent a good part of 17 months trying to make headway here with the clarinet. I have made some progress, yes, but not as much as I think I could have. To be fair to my tutor, 30 minutes a week is not nearly long enough to make great strides either in teaching or learning. I have always understood that the other 167.5 hours in the week were mine to go out and find answers and/or practice furiously. But I got so lost trying to look up the answers to all my questions, and it has taken me this long, frankly, to find a set of tutorials that actually helped me and didn't leave me with yet more questions. I don't have all day to sit and unravel etymology and terminology mixed with the practical whys and wherefores of music theory and practice. Watching a video of someone pointing with a stick on a whiteboard and distracting me with their hair or accent, throwing terminology at me with zero explanation is just not helpful. Sure, it's perfectly clear...IF YOU ALREADY KNOW ALL OF IT.
But now I have found some very helpful videos on Youtube. 
This guy doesn't show himself very much so I am not distracted by hair type, glasses choice, eye color, nose shape, skin tone, mouth, teeth, ears, or anything in the background. He speaks nice and slowly, clearly, directly. This video style is what I need to cut through the distractions via the tiny channel of focus and into the part of my brain that is trying to comprehend music theory. Lots of the right kind of visuals.
I believe I have had a major breakthrough this week. This guy, Ray Melograne, teaches band in NY somewhere, so he is used to having to explain things clearly and slowly, and lucky for his students, appears to respect and help those who ask 'why'. I found his video series by googling 'memorizing scales', and in that particular video he explains why simply memorizing letters or using muscle memory won't work for long. This is exactly what I needed. My knowledge has expanded from there and I have even made myself a quiz to try to remember all the satisfying answers to all my whys. I have had many ahah moments this week from his videos. I still need to match up the circle of fifths & key signatures in my head to the clarinet fingerings in reality, but now I feel I can work on that and actually make some progress. Now it's just a matter of me remembering these correlations. This I can do.
Yes my tutor explained all of this to me, and yes so has Roadskater, who is probably slapping his forehead reading this. But I can't pause, take 5 minutes silence, write myself a quiz question and answer, let it sink in, and hit play on real people and their pleasantly distracting presence.
Ray has taken the time over a few videos (which I also listen to now during my commute) to thoroughly break down the pitches, key signatures, scales, circle of fifths, etc., with plenty of explanation of the terminology used and WHY. He isn't just pointing to the circle of fifths like most other videos I've seen, and just said 'Count five and there's your next note in the circle' ("okay...but why?"). 
When I'm not thinking about anything else more important, now, I'm thinking about this! So this is the immersion I needed, and besides, it beats worrying about things I can't change. I can now look at the circle of fifths and see so many things in clarinet reality. It's starting to take on a 3D image in my mind. So here at last is a starting point to hang it all on, and may it snowball from here. 
We looked at blues improvisation last week in my lesson, providing the impetus for my "memorize scales" google search. I was thinking if I couldn't intellectualize what the heck a flatted third was, I'd better try to find a way at all costs to memorize my scales before the next lesson, including brainwashing or hypnosis. 
I sorted Ray's videos by oldest first and am going from there. I think he may have started these videos as a way to help his band students. So he's going about these from a teaching perspective, explaining concepts in as many ways as he can, knowing different approaches work for different students. During every video of his I've watched so far, I have let out a long, loud 'Oaaahhhhohhhhhh' epiphany-sound at least twice.
timv's picture


It's cool that you've found a trove of videos that work for you, eebee. Actually cool that you're still going at it one way or another.

I browsed the list of videos and there are some interesting looking ones there. And I know what you mean about YouTubers finding one way or another to make their videos annoying and distracting and less effective somehow than they could be. I've spent enough time in New York and around New Yorkers to be a little distracted by Ray's accent, but if it doesn't bother you...

The much-missed John McGann, late of the Berklee College of Music, the acoustic supergroup The Wayfaring Strangers, and just about every music forum on the net, famously said, "Theory only seems like rocket science until you know it. Then, it's more like plumbing!"

Aside from the minor point that plumbing is a pretty important part of rocket science, it seems a lot of people have had the Peggy Lee "Is That All There Is?" experience, finding out that "learning theory" didn't really open up any new musical worlds so much as it gave names to things that they already had a pretty good idea about. Actually I guess playing plucked string instruments could have something to do with that, since it's all laid out pretty well for you on a guitar or mandolin neck where a fret is a half-step and you go through the circle of fifths by moving up or down one string.

As for the "why" of it, my first thought was that I need to resist going there as often as I'm inclined to. If I want to learn how to write the Chinese character 我 ("wŏ", the first-person singular pronoun) I won't get there by asking why it has 7 strokes instead of 6 or 8, or why that particular stroke goes from lower left to upper right and not from upper left to lower right. You do it that way because that's how it's done. And I wonder if some of the difficulty adults have in learning languages and other things kids get more easily comes from us wanting some clever way to avoid those tedious drills and the rote memorization. I know that I learned to play C, G, F, and D chords etc on the guitar by being shown them or seeing diagrams of what they were, and then playing them until I could remember each one without needing a reminder. Only years later did I come to understand why each note is where it is, and then I could use that understanding to figure out tasty things like F#m7b5 and C6add9 on my own. But I still needed to practice making those chords until I could do them on the spot from memory. Maybe others are more mentally agile than I am, but I find that at full real-time speed, in the heat of battle so to speak, there isn't time to compose chords and work out voicings from bare theory. I have to just know them and having them "in my fingers" already.

In any case, here's a "why" question for you: Given two musical keys separated by an interval of a fifth (say A major and E major, for example) why does the key signature of the higher key always have either one more sharp or one less flat than the lower one?

I learned this stuff in the typical patchy and haphazard way of the self-taught. So while I think I know the answer, or perhaps at least an answer good enough to suit myself, I wonder if you'd think it was correct, or helpful even, and what a correct and satisfactory answer would be for you.

eebee's picture

Relatively Specific

Thanks, Timv! To be more specific about my 'whys'...for me, the answers need to represent some practical application. Why do I need to know how many sharps or flats are in a key? To know my scales better. Why do I need to know my scales inside out? For improvisation and to hopefully one day become fluent in reading many levels of music. Why? To be able to play with others, for joy, living, etc. So it's not really all that deep, it's just more specific than "Reading music is better". However, I'll happily collect as many reasons as anybody wants to throw at me, especially if meaningful to them too. 
Memorizing our times tables, foreign language vocabulary and verb conjugations is quicker than doing mental gymnastics, as you mentioned. But I never was any good at that and my mind always just wandered off. I've never been a stellar pupil. It's a struggle for me now to remember what scale I just started doing as my mind wanders by the time I get to the second octave.
Yes, I'm still going at it! Failure is not an option (just a regular event). As long as I am alive and have thumbs I will keep doing this. 
At first I wasn't trying to find a way to sneak around memorizing scales, and I wanted to commit them to memory! I thought it'd be faster than reasoning and studying the whys and wherefores. I'll go ahead and admit here that I spent a good 16 months trying to memorize them, thus proving you really can't teach an old dog new tricks after a full day at work. The only thing I didn't try was getting up an hour earlier, driving somewhere while my brain was still fresh, parking, and practicing trying to memorize scales or pieces of music in my car (there's no way I can get up an hour earlier!). 
I agree - I don't think it's realistic to expect me or anybody else to run through all the steps first, on the spur of the moment, to be able to remember a scale or know which notes to play according to a key signature. But for some reason I have to go this route first at home, now, to be able to order it in my mind. Once that's done, I'll just take the shortcuts. This is the flowchart I kept looking for in the very beginning. The problem I run into if using my ear to pick out pitches, plus my moth-eaten memory for fingerings, is I have no agility from there on. I'd be lost in another key, or if anything changed. And I could just forget all about improvisation. 
There are something like forty different places on the staff relating to the clarinet, for which I need to know individual fingerings (counting either flats or sharps, not both). I never committed that many guitar chords to memory. Additionally, some of the 'notes' have a couple of alternate fingerings for smoother transitions. I'm also currently full steam ahead on trying to drill into my head where all the enharmonics are, since much of the sheet music I've been using so far seems to like throwing in things like A#. In the eighties I remember hearing non-professional guitar players saying "Ooh no...it's not A SHARP! It's B FLAT! Don't ever say A sharp or we will laugh you out of town". Now that I know it's not a crime to call it A#, I can get wild and start bandying terms like C flat around.
Oddly enough, you kicked off a series of three separate references to Peggy Lee's Is That All There Is. I had not heard this song before. Roadskater then mentioned it yesterday in an unrelated conversation, not having read these posts, and I just heard it mentioned on a Public Radio story repeat, about David Rakoff fasting. I took the cosmic hint and gave it a whirl. I'm not sure I understand the sentiment, but I enjoyed it musically. Perhaps the message is 'Don't take life too seriously and just have fun'. 
And I saved my anticlimactic bit for last! 
"why does the key signature of the higher key always have either one more sharp or one less flat than the lower one?"

Do you mean there's never a bigger difference than +/- one of either sharp or flat between 2 keys next to each other on the wheel? As far as I can tell, they're either one sharp or flat higher or lower in the higher key. I have absolutely no idea why. The only answer I can offer up is that 'it's much less cluttered that way' or easier to remember.  Also if it's true that going anti-clockwise in a circle of fourths presents the order of flat keys as they're likely to occur in real life music playing, perhaps it's easier to put into practice. I'm sure your answer is a good one and I will add it to my list of notes, so please do tell. I don't have a satisfactory answer for it yet for myself, but once I do it'll probably include some situational example common enough to be useful/memorable, related to playing music somehow. I still have so much to learn and am only at the beginning. 
timv's picture

Clever hacks

Only recently did I learn that "Is That All There Is" was written by Leiber and Stoller, and it made more sense then. They were clever hacks--sometimes very clever even, but hacks--and, for me at least, it works better understanding that it's a mock-profound fake cabaret song from the "You ain't nothing but a hound dog" and "Charlie Brown, he's a clown, that Charlie Brown" guys that appeared suspiciously soon after the musical Cabaret opened on Broadway.

As for the key signatures, what you said sounds right to me. One particular thing I had in mind was for example (using keys without sharps--sorry, I forgot, horn players!) that the key of F major contains the F, Bb, and C major chords, while C major contains C, F, and G. F and C are held in common, so the difference is having a Bb versus a G major chord. The Bb note is the 4th degree of the F major scale, which gets "raised" to a B natural, the 7th scale degree of C major, when you move over one step "clockwise," as you put it, on the circle. That's all that changes: the Bb major chord that's in the key of F, and a G major chord that needs the B natural in the key of C. (Same deal with minor triads--Gm in the one case, Em in the other. The Dm and Am chords are common between those keys.)

And scale-wise, B natural--the natural 7th in C--is a sharp ("augmented") 4th when it's used in the key of F. Raising that one tone and leaving the rest of F major alone gives you the "lydian mode". From the other point of view, B flat is the flat 7th ("minor seventh" or "subtonic") when used in the key of C, and a melody in C with that tone lowered and no other changes is in the "mixolydian mode." Those get used a fair bit in pop and jazz, and it helped me to make the connection between adjacent major keys and have that as another way of looking at them.

... if I got all of that right.

eebee's picture


I may well understand this years from now (or perhaps a little, right now)! Thanks for explaining. I'm as yet unfamiliar with those modes you mentioned. 


That the song was parodying another theme or style makes sense, and explains why I didn't really understand it. 

eebee's picture


I've been meaning to post an update here but just have not had time since getting an interesting new job last year and commuting 80 miles a day (3-4 hours) before being able to move closer to work. My practice time suffered over those 5 months but I have recovered it again. 
I skimmed my previous posts to check for redundancy, stupidity and contradictions. tl;dr - I'm sure there will be many!
I think I have gotten a little bit closer to answering some of the questions I had 18 months ago with my first post here. Some of the gaps are starting to fill in. I realize now how I should have been practicing each skill as I came upon them, as the goals have been not only to be able to play the instrument but to read music. 
I'm starting to think that for the clarinet, 'scales are the key to all improvisation' makes about as much sense as 'everything happens for a reason' or 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger'. When you're in the thick of it the answers all float in ridicule over your head, but you'll be able to draw the pathways and correlations back to them later. Most musicians and tutors have already come out the other side and therefore think it's obvious.
My relationship with my own memory has evolved over 3 years, and I've learned to hack into it whichever ways I can to improve my clarinet playing and music reading. At my age, anything I learn parrot-fashion flies away in my sleep overnight or is otherwise long gone after a full day at work, and muscle memory is a coward that flees at the first sight of stage fright. Logic and reasoning have their feet firmly on the ground and set me off on the right footing, but fade into the distance and out of earshot when I'm already several measures into a journey. I'm at the point right now of looking for anything else that works, but it's important to separate mastering (even just the) major scales with learning a piece of music in an ensemble. 
I'll start with the easy one! I found a crazy band to play with that doesn't care whether I play anything at all during rehearsal (but dressing up in outrageous costumes is a must). Many of them couldn't play a single note on a particular instrument when they started and learned it as they went along: "This week I'm going to play all the G notes. Next week I'll throw in the A's too". I love this band. I guess it's a common thing when you join a club or take up a new activity to assess whether you belong or not, or whether it'll be worth your time to continue. I spent the first five weeks thinking I would be forever inadequate and was perhaps the only person in the room who had never played decades before at school, but knew it would be worth my time to keep going back. If I learned anything new each time, it's surely not a bad thing and the other band members didn't seem to mind. I recorded each song on my phone to be able to practice at home - I've got recordings and sheet music to about 40 out of 50 in their regular playlist so far, and there are about 95 songs total, counting retired and special occasion pieces. I started listening and reading along on the train in the morning and evening and couldn't wait to try to play along. Earworms are inevitable and make learning a piece much easier. I can't say I'm up to recognizing any patterns or phrases yet but I do remember whole chunks of sheet music and see them in my mind's eye during the earworm, which is a handy memory-crash workaround. Spreadsheets are also inevitable, and I think I've checked off about 5 pieces in the Can Read column. They're the easiest tunes (to me) out of the bunch so the next column is Memorize, which I think will happen naturally. I know I'm still cheating in hearing the whole in my head and joining in the ensemble conversation from ear instead of reading my part, but after about 20 minutes of reading the same 40 bars or so over and over, I'm no longer reading it anyway. This brings me back to what I should've been doing the whole time since I started in the year two-thousand-and-whatever-it-was. 
I should've put most of my preparation efforts into seeking out new-to-me sheet music appropriate to my level at the time, and practiced playing those as often as possible for a few minutes at a time. Much longer than 5 minutes even at the right level for me is counter productive. Instead, I worked on anywhere from 3 to 5 pieces each week, trying to 'perform' them perfectly for my tutor instead of practicing reading them. In entirely the wrong way, I would figure out how these pieces were supposed to sound, hear it in my head and then just mimic that whenever I played it later instead of reading it each time. Granted, I still needed to practice reading rhythms, note values, pitches and key signatures to be able to figure out how it should sound in the first place, but then I'd ditch those aspects of reading and use my internal playback from then on. Consequently, I'm still stuck at "Urgh! Dotted eighth! Think. Think. Think." And nothing happens. 
Roadskater went on a clarinet used-book buying spree a few years back and handed them all to me. These are high school band books I'm currently using to practice what I should've 2 years ago. I use the metronome and read the simplest pieces of music. It's painstaking but there really is no other way for me to do this. What I have learned from this exercise (thanks to a great Reddit piano thread) is that I tend to space out and drift off, as is written on all my high school reports. No surprise there. It's essential to my progress to go back to the beginning and figure out what I'm doing wrong. I can't do that when trying to read way above my level. 
Following along with my eyes only to the grown up band sheet music during rehearsal is not difficult for me. But playing it is! So my interim goal is to narrow that gap asap. Perhaps the ensemble-playing part of my brain will be able to communicate with the elementary music-reading part and point out how to recognize phrases and patterns. I'm really no good at abstract.
Which brings me to scales. I've never read my scales but only ever practiced from memory. Perhaps this is why I still cannot play them straight up perfectly for my tutor every week. It's come to my attention while searching for help and advice on this that many people only ever read them and have no idea why anybody would want to memorize them. My tutor wants me to reach my goals of being able to improvise, so I'm sure that's why. Again, with hindsight, I should perhaps have started out reading them. 'Music With Ray' showed me last year why muscle memory alone would not work, but I didn't practice the way he suggested until now. Right now all I have is a vague idea of the key signatures plus muscle memory. The internet here is not much help: "Just take a few weeks and memorize them!". Ok how about a few YEARS? If I set out playing a scale, I can think ahead of time how many sharps or flats there are in it, but by the time I get to said sharp or flat I lost track of which scale I was on, or where the pitch is on the clarinet. This makes me wonder if I know 100% where all the pitches are on the clarinet and that solving one problem would solve the other. It also makes me wonder whether I really know anything at all. 
In rereading the above paragraphs I can see plainly that I need to read the scales for a while  - accidentals and all - and take a mind's eye snapshot to refer back to when performing them for my tutor. 
There are some apps that show you unfamiliar music for you to play and grade you on your performance, but are for piano only. I wish there were one for clarinet. Maybe this'll be something available in about 5 years that'll revolutionize learning to read music. 
I need to remember also that I started a new career in a specific industry just over a year ago and have been on a huge learning curve there which is now just starting to level out a bit. Personal hobbies and enrichment take a backseat to food and shelter. 
Here's an attempt for me to answer some of my questions of 18 months ago:
Is it better to just memorize whole sections of the music? No, not if the goal is to be able to read music. You'll be able to remember it as a natural progression later but it's better to get the reading skills down, if reading is your goal. 
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? Shapes and paintings are good if they help you remember the clarinet fingerings but you'll have to separate any enthusiasm for the actual sound while you're focusing on learning reading skills. 
Do I identify the first note and be so familiar with the instrument that I play it from there? At some point that will help when playing phrases rather than note-by-note, but to get to that point you have to do the hard slog, boring donkey work. 
If I only 'read' the music while playing it, what good is that if it all vaporizes when the sheet music is taken away? You can go on to memorize the stuff you like, and leave the rest. 
Does that mean I haven't really learned anything? No. It means you've given yourself a leg up to live life on a whole other level you didn't have before you learned how to read music. 
What do the anonymous internet people say about all this? Keep digging until you find advice that specifically addresses your problem. It takes a lot of digging. 
I've written about this for long enough now and need to go practice!

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