Being A Novice Musician

Mainly due to a life time curiosity to learn how to play a particular instrument and slightly because I wanted to understand music from a jazz musicians perspective, for about a little over a month I have slowly been learning how to play clarinet. Just last night I managed to play for the first time an entire scale (Bb major) without making a horrible noise or getting off time.

Clarinet the source of my joy and frustration as of late.

For a novice clarinet player this is difficult for several reasons. First is learning embouchure, which is ones ability to control facial muscles and shape lips to produce a good tone out of the clarinet. Second is just remembering the key fingerings for each note. Third is something referred to as “crossing the break”, if you want a detailed explanation you can find it here. However basically it requires you to have solid embouchure and key fingering. Until you put in consistent practice to gain the technique to do it well, often attempting to “cross the break” induces horrible noises and out of breath swearing.

Basketball and Jazz

Recently through a blog post featured at I was linked to a Wired article that touches on several important points such as how due to the spontaneous and improvisational nature of Basketball and Jazz they are misconceived as simple and the importance of practice to developing the skills required by both subjects to be good at improvisation.

The Wired article writes,

The problem with our bias against improv, both in jazz and basketball, is that it fails to recognize all the mental labor behind these forms of entertainment. That jazz quartet might make their music look easy – the players are just playing – but that ease is an illusion. In reality, those musicians are relying on an intricate set of musical patterns, which allow them to invent beauty in real time.

With about 20-30 minutes of practice, for 4 to 5 days out of a week, after slightly over a month, and with one lesson from someone who was a trained clarinetist I was able to play one scale. Any of the songs in the jazz fakebooks I have, I can’t even think about touching at my skill level. Besides gaining immense respect for my jazz musician friends like Chloe Feoranzo, it reinforced my belief that creativity stems from having a foundation to draw upon for it.

The control of certain factors allows one to open themselves up for creative choices. Having good embouchure allows a clarinetist to choose what notes to play. A dancer who has a foundation in the ability to keep their weight over their feet will have the ability to vary their footwork. In contrast when a clarinetist has bad embouchure, they do not get the choice of what tone they want to make (often its none or an ear piercing one). A dancer who cannot keep weight over their feet is forced to either choose a position and footwork pattern to keep balance or to plummet to the floor.

One thing the Wired article writes that is important to take note is how consistent practice allows basketball players and jazz musicians to make split second decisions that are far more successful then people without their backgrounds. Ever notice a lead who seems to take any possible slip-up a follow gives and turns it into a move? Or ever notice a follow that no matter who the lead is, the leads ability seems to be improved much more then usual? Like musicians and basketball players, I think dancers through deliberate practice and experience on the social dance floor start through patterns gain the ability to improvise to new situations.

Common Misconception

Too often I hear this blanket statement, “Well X has been dancing for Y time. So that is why he/she is good if you danced for that long you would be that good as well.”

Garbage, I know people who have been dancing for almost 6-10 years and can get smoked by some people who have danced under a year. The ability to dance well and to have creativity does not come to one suddenly at a certain date like legal drinking rights. It comes with a serious investment in, quality practice on technique and improving ones dancing ability.

If you have any comments or opinions on the subject, please post them here. I find personally the more things I discover through the learning process as a novice, I realize how important it is to drill in fundamentals versus the immediate gratification of going for fun but more difficult stuff such as songs for musicians or flashy moves for dancers.

5 thoughts on “Laying Down A Foundation: Tool to Creativity

  1. I very much agree with this. The overall concept of what you’re saying reminds me much of Jon Tigert’s post about the value of solo dancing ( Practice really is the thing that makes perfect. You have to “just dance” before you can be great.

    I do have a few reservations from fully agreeing with what you’ve said, but I think you would agree. Some people are just naturally more talented than others or have experience with similar things that help them improve in the dance (or the music). Someone just starting to play clarinet, but having a history playing another instrument, will likely improve much faster than one who is starting with no experience. Someone with a sports background may excel faster at dancing than one without because they have a greater awareness of their own body. But even with both of these examples, you could say they still had to practice those previous things to give them a greater understanding of the basics/foundation of the thing they are just starting now. They still had to work at it. Now, they simply have the leg up in the new thing. But to continue to get better, I guess even they still have to practice, practice, practice those foundational pieces to learn how to excel, exceed, and improvise.

    1. I completely agree with your sentiment that previous related experience will help out. I actually played piano for several years when I was younger and it gives me a definite edge of not having to learn how to read music and learn the order of the notes for several scales in my clarinet studies.

      But to play the devils advocate sometimes those backgrounds can be a double edged sword. Often the most difficult issue I have to tackle when teaching follows with a ballet background is letting themselves be turned versus using the lead as a prop to turn off of.

  2. While I agree with you it is important to practice your art, there are some things/concepts, dance or music, that do take time to sync in. I also really like how you stated “quality” practice time. I can’t tell you how many clarinet students I have had to drill that thought into!

    Anyway, just wait until you start caring about the quality of your reeds. Keep up the work on your scales, those are your foundation for improv and sight reading 🙂

  3. This is reminiscent of that adage “You can’t break the rules until you know the rules”… or something like that, haha.

    A great read; I always enjoy yours blogposts. 🙂

    And I highly encourage you in your clarinet practice! I played clarinet since third grade and am sad to have shirked it upon entering college life and (ahem) discovering swing dancing. I hope to be able to pick it up again soon. Something I found particularly insightful from my instructors was the supreme importance of drawing in full breaths before even playing. You need that to get the full power a note can hold. Anywho, I’m sure you are getting great guidance from your friend. 😛

    Are you learning from Phillip, by chance?

    1. Thanks for the compliment and the advice. While my friends Phillip and Sangdi have given me a few pointers, its actually Grittney who has given me my only very informal lesson.

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