I Get by with a LOT of Help from My Friends: Steps Towards Effective Clarinet Pedagogy
Andrew J. Allen, DMA
This author’s path towards teaching clarinet at the university level was an odd and winding one. From the age of ten, I was trained as a saxophonist, and all of my academic degrees support that. The clarinet was an instrument that I loved, but one that usually came out of the case for doubling in the big band and musical orchestra pit. All of that changed, however, when I received my first job: Teaching all woodwinds at a small college in North Dakota.
Suddenly, this instrument that I loved but had largely neglected became a very large part of my life. Both clarinet and saxophone students and chamber ensembles poured through my office, and I continuously had to change pedagogical hats. Today, I feel nearly as comfortable teaching the clarinet as the saxophone, but this came with considerable work and with the support of a plethora of wonderful clarinetist friends. While this author’s case may be unusual, there are several life lessons picked up that may be of benefit to any young clarinet pedagogue.
We Aren’t All Good at Everything
As much as we may hate to admit it, no one is good at everything. Further, no one is the end-all, be-all of their own instrument. There is a repertoire, or a style of playing, or a tradition of performance that best suits each clarinetist. While these are limits, we and our students are best served when we recognize our limitations. Then, two steps can be followed: As much as possible, try to assuage these shortcomings. Secondarily, expose your students to performers and teachers who have different strengths than you, whether through recordings or masterclasses.
We All Have Our Ruts
We all have our habits and even our “ruts.” Sometimes this is a good thing. A longstanding multi-hour practice routine will always benefit you (and the example will benefit your students). However, other ruts are bad. Assigning students the same “freshman,” “sophomore,” etc. solo and chamber literature is one such bad rut. While all of our students should be led to the masterworks of Brahms, Mozart, and Debussy, we should allow flexibility in our programming, both for ourselves and for our pupils. There is no “formula” for growing clarinetists. Excellent new literature is being produced all of the time, and each of ours students is a very different person. Variety is very often a key to better and more inspired teaching and learning.
No Person Is an Island
This goes hand-in-hand with “We Aren’t All Good at Everything.” Human beings, from our primordial beginnings, are built to rely on each other. As a young professor, this can often seem scary. After 20+ years of school and great achievements, it can seem humiliating to not know the answer to a student’s question or to be stumped by a pedagogical conundrum. The only shame in these situations is in not reaching out to a trusted mentor. The best way to become a better, wiser musician and teacher is by asking for help when necessary.
Another aspect of this is to not become isolated in your own studio. The support and comradery of the clarinet community is vital to any young teacher. Attendance at ClarinetFest® and other events can often rejuvenate and inspire the young professional and help them better serve their students.
So Much About Music is Universal
While it is easy to get caught up in the minutiae of teaching the clarinet (articulation, sound, alternate fingerings, etc., etc., etc.), the young teacher should learn that there are learning opportunities all around them. So much of what we do as clarinet pedagogues is teaching the wider discipline of music. Sit in on lessons taught by trusted colleagues on other instruments. Listen to recordings of great vocalists and string players. Help your students understand that the clarinet is merely a machine; a tool that helps them make art that is far more than them or a bit of grenadilla.
The first steps towards becoming a real clarinet pedagogue can be scary, but they are also incredibly rewarding. The end goal is very simple: Take young people and turn them into the best musicians and best people possible. What a wonderful way to make a living!
Dr. Andrew J. Allen is an assistant professor of woodwinds at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas. In addition, he serves as bass clarinetist of the Wichita Falls Symphony Orchestra.