Baermann Bootcamp…the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

I did it! I completed all 31 days of the Baermann Bootcamp! I’ll be honest, it turned out to be a long, and at times, annoying challenge, but in general I’m happy I did it and proud of the accomplishment.

So here’s some background on why I decided to subject myself to this torture…by mid-April, it was pretty apparent that I wouldn’t be going back to “normal” work any time soon.  All upcoming gigs were cancelled, and the audition that I was preparing for had been postponed with no hope of rescheduling any time soon.  I literally had nothing to practice.  I had been working on some woodwind quintet stuff, but it looked like that was beginning to be a lost cause as well. So I decided to go back to basics and focus on fundamentals for awhile.  That’s when my Navy colleague Ashley clued me in to this “Baermann Bootcamp”, developed by Jenny Maclay.  So I was like, why not?  I have the time, lets do this!  May 1st was day one of what ended up being a 49 day journey.

First of all, I’d like to talk about the things that I had hoped to get out of it from the beginning:

  • Better technical facility. This is an obvious one. Isn’t this the reason we play scales anyway? But I still wanted to challenge myself, even with the easy exercises. One of my tendencies as a player is to settle into comfortable tempos, especially with scales.  I wanted to push my comfort level with tempos, and explore the edge of control.  Because we don’t always get to play things at a tempo that we’re comfortable with! I also explored taking away metronome beats and increasing the amount of time between clicks.
  • Another pretty obvious one: endurance.  The way the bootcamp was arranged, it gradually increased the time spent on it, and there’s even one day where you basically play the entire book.  Having a structured practice plan would help me keep my endurance up and not get bored, even though I wasn’t really playing anything for work.
  • Better focus.  This goes hand in hand with the first goal. My mind tends to wander while playing.  I lose focus on the immediate task at hand, and that’s when I make mistakes.  This really shows up when I’m sight reading, but also rears its head when I’m playing something I know.  My brain also tends to give up and check out when things get too hard. My goal here was to be 100% present, in the moment. (Its harder than it seems!)

I would also like to talk about the things that I didn’t like (beyond the scales themselves), or things that just didn’t work for my practice habits. I’m not trying to rag on the person who developed the bootcamp – it’s really awesome and most parts of it were really beneficial! But we’re different people, different clarinet players, so things that work for her, may not work for me.

  • Length/pacing. For me, I need to incorporate rest days.  I am not a seven day a week practicer, but I totally understand that some people are.  I just need that time off both physically and mentally.  When I was at the Naval School of Music after boot camp, I was literally forced through mandatory practice logs to practice at least 2 hours a day, 7 days a week.  It was terrible and I got a little burned out.  I was able to maintain a six day a week practice routine for a couple months one time while I was prepping for an audition.  But that was before I had a kid.  I’ve found a good balance of four or five day a week practice routine…I basically mirror my work schedule.  Days off work also mean days off clarinet.  So that’s how this month-long bootcamp became seven weeks long.  UGH.  Honestly, the last few weeks and especially the last week it got super old and all I wanted to do was get through it.  I didn’t want to stop, because when I start something I like to finish, but I’m not sure how much I got from the last two weeks.
  • Priority of the exercises.  I thought it was interesting how the exercises were scheduled throughout the bootcamp. It seemed logical to group them the way they were, but it also resulted in disproportionate time spent spent on each one. I really felt like this on the last three exercises, (octave exercise, staccato and trill exercise, and triplet exercise), I wish the schedule allowed for more time with them.  And the way they are organized is also very uneven.  For example, with the octave exercise, I played the last section (measure 69-end) through only 3 times over the 7 weeks, while I played the first section (first 8 bars) every day the octave exercise was assigned.  Didn’t seem right or useful, especially because the beginning is the easiest part.  It might be better to arrange the schedule by exercise, not necessarily by key or type, and to take into account the difficulty of each one.

And of course I got a lot out of pushing through the challenge. Some were things that I had hoped to achieve from the beginning, but some of my weaknesses came to the forefront.

  • I realized I need to slow down. And I’m not talking about tempo. I need to slow down my brain, and begin with intent and purpose.  I have this tendency to start playing before I’m actually ready, and also to “go through the motions” just to get through something.  This is where my focus tends to falter. I constantly had to remind myself that I’m doing this bootcamp in order to get better, not just to get through it.
  • I was pushed out of my comfort zone.  Especially the long days (12+ keys). Playing scales for 2+ hours is not exactly my cup of tea. I’m not going to lie, I did consider splitting the 24 key day into two days. But in the end, I didn’t. I pushed through, and I’m so glad I did.
  • I gained some technical facility. Or at least I hope I did. I guess I won’t really know until I start playing other things again. I do wish that I had taken a little more time in the beginning, during the two-key-a-day period, to work out some of the technical issues. As the bootcamp wore on, the sheer volume of stuff to play made it almost impossible to woodshed. One thing that I struggled with over and over was the “turnarounds” at the top (or bottom) of the exercises. If there’s a next time, I will be isolating those sections and really try to perfect it.

Am I glad I pushed through and completed it?  Yes.  Will I ever do this again?  Probably not.  At least not this version of it. It was just too much towards the end.  I don’t like that I was getting so tired of it so I would often just rush through…defeats the purpose. I’m thinking a 40-day challenge with rest days worked in would be much better for me. Maybe someday!

Now on to the next challenge! Stay tuned. And don’t forget to follow me on Instagram (if you don’t already) at sandytheclarinerd!

#100daypractice challenge, day…whatever

I think today is day 48, actually.  And I didn’t practice today because I was scheduled to get a filling at dental, and I didn’t want to try to play after having local anesthetic.  So I’m not doing so great at this challenge, but…

…its official, I’m taking the D.C. audition in November (uh, next month…uh, three weeks!).  I honestly didn’t need the practice challenge to keep me motivated because I had an audition date to work towards!  I am going to continue counting the days though, just because it will extend past the audition date into December, and I know I will need the motivation then!

Last week was the first week that I have felt “in the groove” with my routine.  And I got 6 days in!  Felt really good.  In fact, everything is feeling really good right now.  I hope that lasts…

I’ve spent the last 3 (or 4? don’t really know…) weeks “in the shed” with my excerpts.  Most of them I know already, but I like to start from scratch when preparing for auditions.  So that means bumping the tempo down to half, and starting from there.  I also focus on the technical excerpts, giving more time to my weaker ones, or ones that I have never played before (only one this time!).  That means lots of mind-numbing practice.  Here’s a lovely video of me working the trills this past Sunday in the Mendelssohn Scherzo:

Don’t mind the mess, the doggies curled up in various places, and the giant crayon in the corner.  And my struggle with the F to G trill.  Ha.

This week, I’ve started my “polish” phase of my audition prep.  I can play everything at tempo now, but now I need to work on smoothing things out, making it musical, things like that.  Recording is the name of the game.  My routine is to work on an excerpt, then record a performance of it.  Then I listen to the recording, figure out what can be improved, make a plan for the next practice session, and repeat.  For now I’m just using the voice memo app on my iPhone, its good enough for this purpose.  I’m also trying to practice in different environments (big room, small room, etc.) to get a feel for different sounds.

In a week or so, I’ll switch to the final phase of my audition prep, which is performance practice!  Or in other words, mock auditions.  Every. Single. Day.  Woo!  And of course any other final adjustments.  Also making sure my reed game is strong.  My reeds quite literally broke my last audition so I want to make sure that doesn’t happen this time.

For now, I’m going to ride this good practice wave that I’m on.  I hope I can keep on it for the next three weeks!

I have no talent.

Seriously. I don’t. This has been a topic that I’ve been thinking about a lot the past few months. In the Navy, I have worked with all levels of musicians, from people barely able to play their instruments (thank goodness not at the band right now!) to people who have advanced degrees from major music schools. The point I want to make is that there is no difference in talent base between these people. Really. The difference comes from the amount of work we put in, and the knowledge and tools to make that work, well, work.

I recently attended a masterclass given by Frank Cohen, in which he said something that really stuck with me.  Speaking to one of the performers in the class, he said, “the only difference between you and me is that I know what to listen for.”  Wow, I thought, that is so true!!  The biggest difference between me now and me 10 years ago is that I now have the proper tools to get to where I want to be as a clarinetist.

A good teacher is one that prepares a student for life after school.  I was lucky to have teachers who embodied this philosophy.  It is important to not only teach a student to be a better musician, but also teach them to make themselves better musicians.  I haven’t had a proper clarinet lesson in over four years, but I have never stopped trying to make myself better.  And I am  a much better musician than I was when I graduated from Eastman five years ago.

As far as talent goes, I do think that music and playing an instrument comes easier for some than for others.  But I would hardly count that as true talent.   I think I stopped “riding on my talent” (aka being able to stay afloat with little practice and effort) sometime in the first semester of my freshman year of college. Yep. Since then, I’ve had to bust my butt. I’m telling you, its hard work and dedication, not talent, that gets you success in this business.

Many ask me how I got to be so good at the clarinet. Here it is: I commit to daily practice (well, 6ish days a week), I work on fundamentals 50% of the time. So, yes, that clarinetist playing long tones for 15 minutes or more per day? That’s me. That clarinetist that works on scales (still!) daily even though she hates them with a passion? That’s me. That clarinetist working on articulation until her tongue is calloused? That’s me. It sucks, its not fun. But it is necessary, and its a sacrifice I’m willing to make because in the end, being a good clarinetist is SUPER FUN!

Government shutdown and humidity

As of my last post, my schedule was pretty ridiculous…I was not looking forward to being so busy.  Well, since my last post, our awesome congress decided to let the government shut down.  Luckily, we are still being paid, but there’s no money for gas for our vehicles to get to gigs!  So we are not allowed to do any community relations gigs…so not wind ensemble concerts, etc.  Military gigs only.  So my calendar opened up quite a bit because probably half of our gigs got the ax.  It was interesting looking at our gig board and seeing red X’s all over the place.  I have still been very busy though…we’ve been having tons of WWQ rehearsal (we actually had a gig on Saturday night).  We just changed up personnel, and we have a new unit leader.  I am really enjoying it, everyone is really good – there are no weak links.  It makes rehearsals super fun!  I missed having a group to play in like that.

So for the last couple months I have been playing in my scale books at least an hour a day (or trying to anyway). I went through my Didier “Le Gammes du Clarinetiste” book, and now I’m going through my Baermann volume 3.  I do a key per day, and I do each exercise several times with different articulations (at least 5 times).  I have really noticed a difference!  It takes a little time, but I feel like my fingers are more relaxed and I can play fast things easier.  I’ve also incorporated the President’s Own audition excerpts into my daily routine, playing them extremely slow (half tempo).  I’ve even been playing the Mozart Concerto at half tempo!  It’s really tough, but I think its making me better.  I want to be able to play that stuff in my sleep!

This is as far as my upper and lower joints will fit together…there’s at least a 1mm gap!

Anyway, what else is going on…oh my A clarinet got stuck together again…but I found a solution.  If I leave the clarinet right in front of the A/C vent and turn it on, it will shrink the wood enough to get it apart.  Probably not the best thing for it, but neither is being stuck together.  Speaking of that, I’m super frustrated with my A clarinet, the tuning is all jacked up because I can’t fit the upper and lower joints together completely without risking them being stuck together.  I really don’t want to, but I might have to go and get the joint fitted a little better if the wood doesn’t shrink down in the next month or so.  It is making all my “lower joint” notes flatter than the notes that I only use my left hand for.  The difference is quite staggering actually, at least a 10-20 cent difference on the tuner.  I’m just afraid that if I do get it fitted, once the humidity goes down, will it become wobbly?  Ugh.  Not quite sure of what to do, especially with that Marine Band audition coming up.

My Daily Routine, Part Three: Articulation

And continuing on to the third part of my warm-up routine!  Articulation is an important fundamental every clarinetist needs to become proficient at.  For this part of my routine, I actually do a couple different things.  I usually switch it up when I get bored with doing one or the other.

For the first routine, I choose a scale or pattern “of the day” (for example, I will usually start with a pattern – such as a major scale – on low E, and move up a half step each day, until I get to Eb, then I will start at the bottom again).  I do two different things with it.  First, I start with an articulation pattern on only the starting note of my selected scale, in all octaves possible (I used C as an example).  I would play this pattern as written, then an octave higher, then two octaves higher, then if I’m feeling saucy, 3 octaves higher:articulation

I try to get the speed as close to 60 as possible.  That’s really fast when you get to the sixteenths!  Right now, I can do it cleanly at quarter = 58.  Only duple vs. tripleplay as fast as you can get it all clean, including the sixteenths.  You are not helping yourself if the sixteenths are a sloppy mess.  Next, I take my pattern and use the “scrubber” on it.  I’ve mentioned it before in a post when I was talking about playing duple vs. triple.  The exercise has so many uses!  I play it the way it is prescribed, except I articulate everything!  Once again, I recommend playing it at quarter = 50-60 (or faster if you can manage it!), and in all possible octaves.  I do that because articulating in the chalumeau register is quite different from articulating in the altissimo register!  I focus on shortness of the notes for the slower rhythms, and the faster the rhythms are, the more legato my articulation becomes.  If you try playing staccato at a fast tempo, you will not get very far!

I often use this to practice patterns that are in the music I am learning.  For example, in a piece that the VWS played at Midwest last month, there was a section full of whole tone scales.  So I used whole tone scale as my pattern for articulation, and switched up the starting note each day.  Two birds with one stone!

The other routine I do to practice articulation is something I got from my Navy SOM clarinet teacher.  It consists of three articulation exercises from the Langenus method book (#11, #12, and #22).  I don’t play the entirety of each exercise, I think I would drive myself crazy if I did!  I work each one until I feel satisfied I’ve gotten what I need from each.  It usually comes out to a few lines of each.

#11 from the Langenus method
#11 from the Langenus method

For #11, I play it super, super slow… at eighth note = 40, and as short as possible!  This gives me a chance to really focus on the technique of articulation.  I also focus on making each note exactly the same length.  For #12, I put the metronome on 50, also for the eighth note (six clicks per measure), so we’re still pretty slow.  Once again, I focus on making each note exactly the same length.  For #22, I actually play it at the tempo marked (quarter=66), or sometimes a bit faster if I’m feeling

#12 and #22 of the Langenus method
#12 and #22 of the Langenus method

up to it.  Here I focus on having a more legato tongue, and keeping it light.  You would be amazed how short a legato tongue can sound at fast speeds!

So that’s what I do to practice articulation.  I’m so relieved after I’m done, because I hate practicing it!  But it is essential to good clarinet playing.  Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of being able to easily double tongue like other instruments, so learning how to single tongue at fast tempos is very important.  Daily practice of it will get you there.  Start slow, and don’t get discouraged!

On a completely different note, today is Mozart‘s birthday!  Hope you all take a moment to pay tribute to a man who gave us so much great music in his short life.  He has been a part of my life in more ways than I can count.  Thanks Mozart!  (or no thanks…LOL!)

Also, today marks 7 years since my first graduate audition at Eastman.  It was my first audition outside my home state of Colorado too.  I learned a lot that day, and although it sucked at the time, I’m thankful for the harsh lesson it taught me…that I wasn’t nearly as good as I thought I was.  I worked so hard in that year after because of it.

And look at me now!