Clarinet, Excerpts, and Warm-Ups

with John Bruce Yeh

Date Posted: March 28, 2018

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Interview conducted by Jenny Maclay 

Do you have different approaches for performing solo repertoire versus orchestral music? 

John Bruce Yeh:  Actually, my approach to all music begins with a vocal concept. I believe all music must be governed by a singing style. If one hears music vocally, it is in its most natural and communicative form. When an instrumentalist has a very strong concept of how a piece, or a phrase, or a note, sounds when it is sung, he or she is able to aim for that vocal sound to create the most musical statement. Whether the repertoire is a solo piece for clarinet, or a clarinet part in an orchestral setting, the vocal aspect must be the guiding principal. For this reason, I sing all music before attempting to play it on the clarinet. I listen carefully to the way the phrasing, breathing, and direction of the music goes. Then I try to match these aspects when playing on the instrument. This is very important because often the clarinet produces sounds quite differently, even opposite from singing. For an example, blowing into the clarinet does not naturally produce a diminuendo on individual notes. It usually produces a crescendo. Often, when singing, a natural diminuendo occurs on single notes. To be vocal, this diminuendo style must be cultivated when playing music on the clarinet.

What advice do you have for clarinetists who are preparing for orchestral auditions? 

Always know the context of all the repertoire you are going to perform. In an audition, always bring the virtual orchestra with you in your mind's ear. Let the texture, dynamic, and harmonic context dictate how you will perform your individual part, so it always fits with the other lines. When practicing, play the various excerpts in different sequences, challenging yourself by putting a fast exciting one like Daphnis right before a slow calm one like Tchaikovsky 6. Take enough time between excerpts to change virtual orchestras, but don't take so much time that the audition committee is distracted or bored.

What is your least favorite orchestral excerpt for clarinet?

Well, I don't really have a least favorite excerpt anymore! When I was a student, I used to think the scherzo from Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream was my most challenging excerpt because I had trouble doing fast staccato. I have since discovered that all I have to do is imagine the first flute player (especially the one in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra!) playing his part, and that is exactly the light effervescent quality that must be produced.

You went to UCLA for premedical studies before attending Juilliard. What influenced your decision for this change?

Well, I had always been interested in performing chamber music during my high school days, and played in the American Youth Symphony, which was conducted by Mehli Mehta, one of my great mentors. Mr. Mehta was the orchestra director at UCLA. I participated in a great many musical activities at UCLA even though I was a pre-med major. The summer after I graduated from high school when I was 15, I attended the Aspen Music festival, where my teacher Gary Gray was on the faculty. That experience opened my eyes to the world of professional music at the highest level. I won the Aspen concerto competition and got to play the Weber Concertino with Herbert Blomstedt conducting. I enjoyed incredible opportunities to play in the Aspen Festival Orchestra with legendary players like bassoonist Leonard Sharrow, flutist Albert Tipton, oboist Ronald Roseman, trumpeter Gerard Schwarz, Horn player John Cerminaro, concertmasters Mischa Mischakoff and Sidney Harth, cellist Laszlo Varga, percussionists Charles Owen and Fred Hinger. I got coached by members of the Juilliard String Quartet, my childhood idols. I got to hear Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, and Lynn Harrell up-close; met Elliott Carter and James Levine for the first time. All of this inspired me beyond belief, yet it took me a good two years to gather up the courage to tell my parents, both music-lovers but professional scientists, that I wanted to pursue music as a career. I can remember the one evening at the dinner table when I announced to my parents that I wanted to transfer to music school. There was a silence for about 20 seconds which seemed forever, and then they said, "We want you to be happy, so do your best, and we will support your decision." I consider this the greatest gift my parents ever gave. I tell this story to students and parents and teachers of young talented musicians as a means to inspire them to allow kids to follow their hearts' desire.

Can you tell us a little about your practice routine? 

My practice routine is free-form. I tailor it to fit the requirements of the repertoire I have to play in my upcoming schedule. When I have to play a concerto, I usually try to learn it well if it is a new piece, getting familiar with the entire orchestral context. If it is a familiar concerto, I try to run through it once or twice each day for about 2 or 3 weeks before the first rehearsal.

How did you decide to play the clarinet? 

When I was 5, I started to take piano lessons. It didn't go very well; maybe the teacher wasn't too good. Anyway, I hated practicing. So at 6, my school offered an orchestra program, and let us pick instruments. Somehow, the clarinet picked me! My parents had the foresight to get me lessons with a good teacher in the neighborhood, and also gently reminded me to practice each day. When I was 10, I made my debut playing the Adagio from the Mozart Concerto with the Mount Saint Mary's College Orchestra under Manuel Compinsky. By the time I was 12, I was practicing on my own without having to be reminded!

Who are your greatest musical inspirations? 

My greatest influence on the clarinet is unquestionably Harold Wright, who became my idol when I first heard his recording of the Brahms Sonatas when I was in Junior High School. His playing formed my concept of clarinet sound and phrasing. Since then I have drawn inspiration from numerous musicians, notably Ray Still, retired principal oboe of the CSO, who remains my musical hero. Ray was my greatest influence from the first day I joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. As I mentioned, Mehli Mehta was a huge influence, as I learned everything there is to know about orchestra playing from him. One of the most important things I learned from Mr. Mehta is to always play chamber music. It enhances orchestral skills immeasurably. Of course, I have been blessed by a number of amazing clarinet teachers, including Harold Wright. Gordon Herritt, my first teacher, had the patience of a saint. Gary Gray, my high-school and college teacher was the best psychologist of any clarinet teacher ever. Michele Zukovsky, now a 50-year veteran of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, my hometown orchestra, taught me invaluable information about playing in an orchestra. Joe Allard, my legendary Juilliard Professor, taught me amazing things about the clarinet. Robert Marcellus put the finishing touches on during my "rookie season" at the CSO. Great singers like Sylvia McNair and Lucy Shelton inspire me with their purity and humanity of expression. Every day I am inspired by my amazing colleagues in the great Chicago Symphony Orchestra.


Joining the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in June of 1977 at the age of 19, John Bruce Yeh is the longest-serving clarinetist in CSO history.  He has served as solo bass clarinet, assistant principal, solo E-flat clarinet, and acting principal clarinet from 2008–2011. Yeh has performed concertos with the CSO on several occasions, including the 1998 American premiere of Elliott Carter’s Clarinet Concerto with Pierre Boulez conducting and the 1993 performance of Carl Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto with Neeme Järvi. In 2004, Yeh was featured in Leonard Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue and Riffs in collaboration with the Hubbard Street Dance Company and the CSO conducted by David Robertson.

An enthusiastic champion of new music, John Bruce Yeh is the dedicatee of new works for clarinet by numerous composers, ranging from Ralph Shapey to John Williams. Director of the Grammy Award-winning chamber ensemble Chicago Pro Musica and a founding member of the Chicago Symphony Winds, Yeh frequently performs at festivals and on chamber music series worldwide. 

Passionately committed to music education, Yeh served for 26 years on the faculty of DePaul University’s School of Music, and he joined the faculty at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College for the Performing Arts in 2004. He is also on the faculty of Midwest Young Artists in Fort Sheridan, Illinois.

A prize winner at both the 1982 Munich International Music Competition and the 1985 Naumburg Clarinet Competition in New York, Yeh continues to solo with orchestras around the globe. His more than a dozen solo and chamber music recordings have earned worldwide critical acclaim. 

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