Creative Musicianship Experiences in the Private Studio
By Eric Papa
When I was an undergraduate student, and even a graduate student, one aspect of performance that my colleagues and I had a hard time with wasn’t technique, and it most certainly wasn’t spending late nights in the practice room repeating our mistakes over and over again thinking that would make a difference (we were masters at that!). What we had a hard time with was musicianship and being creative. Coming up from the United States public school system, we were trained to look for a “correct” answer all the time. Those many years of standardized testing had taken their toll. Technical work (including the many hours in the practice room working on scales, broken chords, thirds, and,…well you get the idea) was more comfortable for us to devote practice time to because it was the one concrete thing that we could latch on to where we had a clear “correct” or “incorrect” answer. From a teacher’s perspective, it’s also easier to grade and when you have an administrator breathing down your neck, that can be quite relieving. However, all of that technical work doesn’t necessarily help students build their creativity and only focuses on a very small aspect of what musicianship actually is.
It’s crucial to define musicianship as it’s quite multifaceted. According to Michael Kaulkin, Musicianship and Composition faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory’s Pre-College Division, musicianship is the combination of music theory knowledge and inner hearing. Mr. Kaulkin outlines that instrumentalists build their musicianship best when the instrument is taken away and priority is given to audiation. Chad West, formerly Associate Professor of Music Education at Ithaca College, divides musicianship into 5 categories: rhythmic, tonal, executive, notation, and creativity. Rhythmic, tonal and creativity get priority treatment. Musicianship is the combination of these three categories. This article delves further into the concept of creative development. The strategies outlined will be useful to students who have worked on rhythmic and tonal development in either the private study or in school music classes.
What creative skills can students develop in standard clarinet repertoire? Examine this section of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, K. 622 (mm. 134-139):
One could simply play it evenly and at a static dynamic, but a great musician will treat the lowest notes in a melodic way.
Another example is the second movement of Carl Maria von Weber’s Clarinet Quintet, Op. 34 (mm. 1-25). A clarinetist working solely toward accuracy might play this with a vertical and mechanical approach. Rather, this movement must breathe and have a more horizontal line, so the clarinetist should discuss with string quartet colleagues where to add rubato in the music.
These creative and interpretive skills are not learned in the same formal manner as the rhythmic and tonal. Rather, the teacher must create opportunities for their students to develop them in the studio, while experimenting in the practice room as a lifelong endeavor. Students cannot rely on their technical prowess alone in auditions, regardless of their career path. There is more to Felix Mendelssohn’s “Scherzo” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream than the speed of the articulated 16th notes. Rather, the articulation is part of the music, which requires expression in the performance.
How does one go about incorporating creation experiences in the private studio, thus aiding a student in their development of musicianship? Here are some ideas:
- Call and Response – Perhaps a student is working on a B-flat Major scale. Instead of only assigning the scale, include a call and response activity with this material. Keep it simple to start. Stick with maybe three notes of the scale (B-flat, C, and D for example) and play them in various combinations. Change the rhythms, change the order, make patterns increasingly more complex, etc. The teacher can act as a guide for the student in their discovery of different melodic ideas from simple to complex.
- Improvise melodies around rhythm exercises – I typically use both Basic Rhythmic Training and Rhythmic Training by Robert Starer, but any similar text will suffice. These traditional exercises are like blank canvases awaiting paint. Since they only consist of rhythms, any assortment of pitches can be used. Assign an exercise to a student and have them clap the rhythms, then improvise a melody using the rhythms. It allows the student to create a melody on their own terms and experiment with elements such as adding rubato when appropriate and using dynamics to highlight parts of their melody. Part of the assignment could be to write out the melody prior to the lesson so the focus is purely on musical expression. For less experienced students, perhaps set starting and ending pitches to aid them in the process. Encourage them to experiment with dynamics and making the melody their own. Once they perform their melody, engage them with questions such as: “Why did you decide to add a crescendo there?”; “What note are you leading to with your crescendo?”, or “If the phrase ends here, how might you add rubato?” Ensure that questions are open-ended to allow the student to develop their own voice in the process.
- Write a counter melody to a known piece – This is a great stepping stone activity once students demonstrate creativity and an understanding of melody in improvisation. Assign a familiar melody and task them with writing a brand new counter-melody. It will help to provide a demonstration of the process. Some students may feel more comfortable with set guidelines, which could include a starting and/or ending pitch or a set number of measures. This activity can solidify rhythmic, tonal, and creative concepts in the later stages of musicianship training.
- Compose a cadenza to a known piece – This is a skill that could be explored by all students working on a solo piece from the classical period such as the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. This is essentially a much more advanced version of the previous strategy. It is a great opportunity to have students practice improvising music for lessons while also prompting them to research and understand performance practice. The performance of the cadenza is a point of departure for feedback, discussion, and further exploration.
- Take away the dynamics – Provide a photocopy of an etude or short piece to your student without any dynamic markings. Students have the opportunity to examine melodic line, cadence points, and phrasing. It also lets you know what they need to work on the most. Is the student able to see the structure of the melodic lines?
- Sight-read duets at every lesson – This technique provides students with the experience of hearing expressive performance and to keep going regardless of any errors they may make. This is also a great opportunity to practice making musical decisions in real time. This is a time to encourage experimentation and to discuss the performance. Rubank Intermediate and Advanced Methods, as well as the Klosé Complete Method are books with a large assortment of duets.
Kaulkin, Michael. “What is Musichanship?” Michael Kaulkin (blog), December 4, 2009. https://medium.com/@michaelkaulkin/what-is-musicianship-49b40031476a
West, Chad. “Developing Internal Musicianship in Beginning Band by Teaching the ‘Big 5’”, Music Educators Journal Volume 101, No. 3 (2015): 101-106. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24755570?read-now=1&refreqid=excelsior%3A59382bf6b85da341f5cb38a4c33576f2&seq=2#page_scan_tab_contents
Eric Papa, Clarinet: Teaching Resources Page – Here, you will find sample duets your students can play along with a clarinet bibliography that includes clarinet texts and music choices. https://ericpapa1996.wixsite.com/ericpapaclarinetist/teaching-resources
Eric Papa enjoys a career as a music teacher in both private studio and public school settings. He has taught woodwind methods at the collegiate level and currently serves as the Teacher and Student Events Coordinator with the non-profit organization Through the Staff, which provides private lessons and music education resources to students from 2nd -12th grade.