It Starts with a Beautiful Sound

with Guy Yehuda

Date Posted: February 06, 2018

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In terms of your teaching philosophy, what are some major points you strive to emphasis with your students?

When I get a new batch of students one thing I will always do is emphasize sound and tone production. Especially for the undergrads I will reinforce the basic fundamentals of tone production which are crucial for anything else that we do on the clarinet. It all boils down to air support as a wind player. I tell them that everything is like a pyramid. If you were to take the foundation out from a building the whole thing will crumble. If you want to play with a beautiful sound, or play fast staccato, or even have a huge contrast in dynamics, everything starts from the correct usage of air and air support. Having said that, it takes awhile for, as young players trying to understand this concept, the body to assimilate. Of course long tones and working on the embouchure are important, especially making sure the embouchure is correct and not standing in the way of anything so you are able to achieve a beautiful and effortless sound.

I like to spend quite a lot of time with long tones, intervals, and different dynamics with an importance of using your ear and not just going on automatic pilot, which can be easy to do. It takes quite a lot of concentration to listen to what’s coming out of the horn and making sure that the sound is always beautiful. When the student starts to understand all of the acoustical underlyings of how the clarinet works, other things will start to unlock whether it is intuitively or not and the student is more intrigued to hear certain things. So when they play the fundamental note they’ll be able to hear a twelfth above it, they start to get the sense of, “Oh that’s the beautiful sound I want to get!” The students are individuals, sometimes they catch on pretty fast and sometimes it takes them a while, but they all get it eventually. I really do make sure they all go through this fundamental step where it’s really about mastering the basics on the clarinet. So my philosophy is really an emphasis on a beautiful sound. Say you have wonderful technique and your phrasing is amazing, but if your sound is unbearable, that won’t come across because the first thing to hit the ear is the sound. Once all of that is established we work on technique a lot making sure that at the end of the day the clarinet is not an obstacle in our playing but something we can use as expression.

Once you feel that a student has established a strong enough foundation, whether they be undergraduate or graduate students, what’s the next thing you like to focus on?

I think there’s a time and a place for everything that we do on the clarinet and with various students it will always be different. I try to have them go through different levels of playing the clarinet (sound, technique, etc) and they have the typical plethora of books that we will go through. They have to go through all of this in order to achieve the level I expect out of them, which is mastering the clarinet eventually. Every student is at a different level or pace, but they all go through it. Having said that, there’s a lot of room for personality. That has to do with what kind of repertoire compliments a certain person. Of course we all learn the Brahms and the Weber, but there are some niches I can see in my students and things that they are able to do quite naturally. Things like playing fast are more show-piece type of stuff, and then there are students that are more suited for contemporary type of works.

After my students go through this rigorous approach I like to introduce extended techniques. Regardless of whether they are an undergraduate or graduate student, I think it’s never too early to start thinking about extended techniques. It used to be something so obscure that only a handful of clarinet players used to do, such as circular breathing or double staccato. It’s become so prevalent today that almost every student is experimenting with double staccato and achieving great results. We tend to see the next generation of clarinet players become better than the older generation, and they catch up pretty fast. All the old techniques add on naturally, and it’s very cool to see how easy it is for them to add these types of things. Of course there are now more pieces written with that in mind, so it’s exciting to see what’s coming next.

Have you been working with any extended techniques or things of that nature?

Oh yeah! I’ve been playing quite a lot of contemporary music. I’ve always experimented with the clarinet in trying to see what makes it tick. It’s actually a very healthy way of learning to play with a beautiful sound because once you understand, “Why do I get all of these squeaks and squawks?!” It’s basically about the upper partials on the clarinet, and once you know how to operate within the norm of a beautiful sound, you’ll know how to get outside of the box and play those diads or multiphonics and morph around, composers love that, they love those kinds of effects. For young clarinet players to do these types of wacky things and then go back and play Brahms is like changing hats and that’s what makes the clarinet so versatile and cool!

We’ve heard word of a possible CD you’re working on, could you please tell us about that?

Yeah, it’s a CD that will be released in the next month with the label Blue Griffin Records. It’s a CD I’m proud of because it’s almost all newly commissioned pieces, allow me to explain. The title of the CD is Rhapsodies Around the World, because my idea was to give different composers from around the world a free reign of writing whatever they wanted as long as they’re inspired by Debussy’s Premiere Rhapsodie. I just wanted to see what happened, and it was pretty cool because I had composers from China, South Africa, Australia, France, and the US, and they were all basically writing rhapsodies for clarinet. The different compositions are influenced in any kind of way by hearing Debussy’s Premiere Rhapsodie. On the CD you’ll have the Debussy, of course, but you’ll also have all of the new commissions. It’s interesting because you can really hear the individual voice of the particular composer, but in the same token you can hear how universal music is and how a lot of things go between different composers. Within these same lines, whether they came from Debussy or not, you can hear a lot of similar sonorities. It makes you think, “Wow it’s a very small world!” We think we are all very different of each other but we are not very different. I think it’s a really cool CD and it will be coming out very soon.

Sometimes composers do like to have some kind of a direction. Of course it’s always very easy to like being very free and doing whatever you want. The cool thing about this CD is that it did give them that kind of freedom they didn’t say, “Well we have to use the same type of harmonic language or sonorities.” I just told them to go wild and free and do whatever you want. I had them listen to the piece to see if it would influence them in any shape or form. It was interesting to see what they did. The Chinese composer we had came up with something very interesting because he used a lot of the same sonorities but it ended up coming out sounding like completely authentic Chinese music. It worked so well because you could still hear the echoing of Debussy in his composition, it was really fascinating. We also had another composer from Brazil and you can hear this Brazilian background here and there, yet you could still hear the impressionistic type of chords.

Check out Guy Yehuda's latest CD Rhapsodies Around the World!

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