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(What professional musicians intuitively know, but what music educators reject, scorn or characterize as mean-hearted!)

No one can arrive from being talented alone. God gives talent; work transforms talent into genius.
Anna Pavlova (Russian ballerina, 1881-1931)

By Dr. Gordon (Gordo) C. Bobbett

Please mail any comments to: gbobbett@charter.net

Instrumental "skills" are often mistakenly identified as "talent". All aspects of instrumental musicianship can be communicated by the teacher to the student through a disciplined yet caring mentoring process that passes on timeless musical values and skills from one generation to another.

Incompetent instrumental instructors often turn the teaching process into an excruciatingly convoluted, artistically perverted and insidiously complicated experience. Such teachers use vague, ambiguous or capricious comments during a lesson, such as "make this note louder, take a breath here, tongue this note shorter, crescendo here, play with feeling," etc. After teaching a piece of music in this manner (i.e., the random micro-management of details rather than a clear expression of the overall form through the tasteful application of inviolable musical principles), the next piece is assigned and the "spoon-feeding" process begins again.

The principles below should be considered analogous to the architectural principles of a building: the stronger the foundation, the more stable the structure becomes as it rises in height and character.


To play any instrument, one must learn the musical skills it takes to play that instrument. "Musical skills" are the things one does "technically" with the instrument in order to make the music beautiful.

  1. Air. One of the most important aspects of playing a wind instrument is air. The proper amount of air must be used efficiently at all times. Metaphorically, this concept can be learned by turning on a faucet and listening to the fast and steady flow of the water. Now turn the faucet off and on several times, slowly and/or quickly. This inconsistency in the water flow is the way in which amateur musicians blow into their instruments.

  2. Evenness. During "fast" passages with 16th and 32nd notes, all the notes must be even, precise and audible. The evenness in a passage is visually comparable to the white notes on a piano keyboard: each white key is exactly the same length and width. Unevenness is not the result of sloppy fingers or lack of talent. Unevenness is a reflection of poor training by the teacher and/or undisciplined preparation by the student. Metronomic discipline produces evenness.

  3. Every Note Is Important. The clarity and detail of every note is important whether it is a fast or slow note. During fast passages or ornamentation (trills, grace notes, etc.), the listener should be able to hear every single note. The notes should never be so fast that every note is not clearly heard. Simply, a blur of notes or a "smear" is an offensive, amateurish gesture.

  4. "Roller Coaster". Never surprise the listener; prepare the listener for a change. The ear should be prepared for the change to every note by the note preceding it. In a fast passage, especially during an orchestral solo or a cadenza, start the passage ever-so-slightly slower and then subtly accelerate within the tempo. Likewise, at the end of the passage gradually slow down before playing the final (and usually) long note. The mastery of this concept is conditional upon mastery of the previous three skills.

  5. Phrase. The basic unit of composition is the four- and eight-measure phrase and not the measure, and certainly not the beat. Two basic methods by which to build a phrase are: (a) increasing tension of the dynamics to the cadence, and (b) rhythmically stretching the leading tone(s) prior to the cadence (the Dominant/V or Tonic/I chord at the end of the 4th and 8th measure). Avoid extreme subtleties; even untrained listeners should easily and comfortably recognize the musical statement as they would recognize a period at the end of a sentence. Equally, avoid grotesque exaggerations. Remember, the first syllable of "classical" music is "class!"

  6. Direction (Musical Curve). A musical phrase is like the plot of a book: there is an introduction, the actual story, the climax, and then the resolution. It is always interesting to hear a musical phrase that tells a story.

  7. Diversity. No two measures should ever be played exactly the same, especially if they have exactly the same notes. In some music, an "echo" effect is employed; in other genres, there should be a continuous organic growth in every note that builds every phrase that builds every movement that builds every opus. Popular music is rather boring for it thrives on repetition and similarity. Classical music promotes subtleties, differences and unity through diversity.

  8. "Bell" Effect. After a bell or gong has been struck, the tone naturally grows, changes, and diminishes in texture, sonority and timbre. Instrumental musicianship should never sound like an electronically-generated tone that has no warmth, feeling or direction.

  9. Connection. A musical line should have direction without interruption. For example, think about how annoying it is to listen to a person who rambles, or, in the middle of a sentence, becomes silent or pauses for several seconds. Never let this same "stutter" appear in a musical statement. Professional musicians have a passion for smooth, beautiful transitions from note to note, phrase to phrase.

  10. "Rosebud" (Growth). This is the nickname for the growth of a long tone. Long tones should never be played as an unvarying, colorless monotone. Those who lack imagination, artistry or a passion for beauty often ponderously squat on a boring, dead tone. As in timed-lapse photography, visualize a rosebud opening and maturing into a full, beautiful rose. This is one of the most difficult skills to master.

  11. "Cheesecake" (Closure). Dessert is the final taste in your mouth after a meal. Imagine eating a delicious dinner and then finishing it with a plate of sawdust! Likewise, never forget to make the last note of a phrase beautiful. This holds true even if you are tired, out of breath or as you mentally prepare for the next phrase.

  12. Don't Be a Sneak. Other than some rare instances in contemporary music, the listener should never have to guess when the instrumentalist's sound begins or ends. Relax the listeners by never making them strain to hear what is performed.


The right mental perspective or frame of mind is essential in developing musicianship. This philosophy can be applied to all of life's endeavors.

  1. Food's Good. By this principle all other principles are understood. We all enjoy eating a delicious meal with our friends that has been affectionately prepared and attractively served in a beautiful environment. Hearing music should be as wonderful an experience.

  2. Discipline. Discipline is one of the most important cornerstones in the development of great musicianship. Precision and "inner rhythm" are established by using a metronome faithfully and correctly in the practice of scales, thirds, arpeggios, etc. Professionals, who are always flexibly prepared for any contingency, work with the metronome every day. Amateurs leave their success up to luck, chance, talent or astrology.

  3. High Expectations. You will only obtain 50 to 70 percent of what you expect to obtain. If professionals need to consistently "lift 100 pounds" of music, they practice lifting 150 to 200 pounds. Amateurs practice lifting 20 to 50 pounds and then hope, by some miracle, to lift the 100 pounds during a performance.

  4. Consistency. Any amateur, by accident, can play a passage correctly. As a professional instrumentalist, you must prepare yourself to play a passage 10 times in a row correctly in the rehearsal hall if you expect to play it correctly the first and only time on stage. Amateurs are happy to perform the passage correctly every now and then. If their performance goes poorly, they hide behind a variety of excuses such as: "I do not have the talent" or "my instrument is broken," or "I do not have a good reed" or "I didn't have time to practice" or "the judge/conductor/teacher didn't like me" or "I did not have a good teacher." It is time to grow up and take responsibility for your actions.

  5. Magic Dust. Amateurs believe that some people are born with talent (magic dust at birth) and others are not. Professionals know that success is built on hard work, adequate preparation, and valuing the right things. Simply, there are no short cuts to success.

  6. If you are dumb, you have to be tough. If you choose the wrong people to listen to, do not practice adequately, or practice the wrong things, you have to be tough enough to experience the pains of failure!

  7. 50% to 99% Rule. Generally, in all aspects of education and "music education" in particular, 50 to 99 percent of what one hears, reads or listens to is disinformation. Learn to discriminate; wise people know how to listen to the right things and ignore the remainder.

A True Story

Some high school instrumentalists never won solo-chair at the local or regional band festival, but always won solo-chair at the state level. These judges at the regional level later heard that these students won full scholarships at top conservatories and universities, went on to play in major orchestras, gave recitals in the world's major concert halls (Carnegie, Kennedy Center, etc.) and made solo compact disc recordings. Yet these judges never contacted these musicians or their teachers to ask "How?" or "Why?" Why do things never seem to change from year to year?

Musical IQ Test: Answer the questions below:

  1. Has the above scenario happened to you or someone you know? How and why does this happen?
  2. Are local standards of musical judgement different from professional standards of excellence?
  3. Is the mastering of musicianship a white-collar or blue-collar activity? Can musicianship be actually developed by practicing one to two hours a day? Who is fooling whom?
  4. Who should be held accountable or responsible for the results in the story? The student? The judges? The instrumental teacher?
  5. Do you know music educators like this?

Article (Discussion) used for a clarinet master class and later converted into an article by Dr. G. C. Bobbett, gbobbett@chartertn.net

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