Some Insight for the Modern Day Clarinetist

a Conversation with Melissa Koprowski

Date Posted: October 13, 2016

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Melissa Koprowski is a Vandoren Regional Artist. The goal of the Vandoren Regional Artist program is to enhance the quality of the music experience in your school. This is made possible by Vandoren and a network of woodwind professionals around the country with a passion for music education and performance.

VandorenUSA: What are the strategies you have for planning for clarinet competitions, auditions and other events happening at the same time?

Melissa Koprowski: I have always been a pretty competitive person, so when my high school clarinet teacher Judy Donaldson wanted me to participate in a music competition, I eagerly accepted the challenge. I prepared to the best of my ability, and as it so happened, I won. Looking back, that was the best thing she could have done for me at that point in my playing. It sparked a greater interest in myself wanting to explore in ways I could have never imagined. The clarinet really gave me a goal to work towards and pushed me to its limits. Throughout my college career, I remember spending hours a week looking up various competitions that were more or less attainable for my (at the time) level of playing. I would keep a running list of all the competitions I would find and put them in different categories based on how ready I felt (now, almost, and reach). When it came to competitions, auditions and practicing, I was always organized with my planning. I would spend hours creating an excerpt notebook for each audition I took. For competitions, I would list the pieces required for each with dates of the events. I would often have to be creative in choosing repertoire since I wanted to find as much overlap as possible. This allowed me to prepare quality over quantity.

Do you have any experience playing auxiliary instruments? If so, what is it like to transition between those auxiliary instruments and soprano clarinet?

MK: Yes, I’ve played bass clarinet and Eb clarinet quite a bit, although I prefer bass. When I studied at USC, my teacher, Yehuda Gilad, required us to take lessons on one of the auxiliary clarinets. I chose bass clarinet and had the privilege to study with David Howard, who taught me a great deal about the instrument. My first experience playing bass clarinet was in my undergraduate degree, when my clarinet professor asked me to play Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21. Now bear in mind, this was my first experience ever playing bass clarinet. I remember having issues switching between bass and Bb, and more specifically, over voicing the bass clarinet in the lower range when I quickly switched from instrument to instrument.

In my first few lessons with David, I remember having the same issue and finally figuring out it was a voicing issue. I have since learned that if I’m performing something where there is a quick switch, I need to spend a lot of time practicing that specific task. In my practice sessions, I would play a full range scale on soprano clarinet, do the same scale on bass or Eb, then go back to the soprano clarinet. I would also practice downward octave leaps on bass, to show if I properly remembered voicing differences. In myself, as well as my students, I have found the areas that are the hardest exist when you do a quick switch and play outside the range of the soprano clarinet. I hear it all the time when my students are first learning an auxiliary instrument. As soon as they have a note below chalumeau “C” on bass or go above clarion “A” on Eb, the pitch and comfort level become issues. It’s a simple concept, but for me, practicing switching and also paying attention to voicing is what has helped the most.

Can you tell us about your first CD, Around the World in 60 Minutes?

MK: Around the World in 60 Minutes was a CD I recorded with the pianist I was fortunate to have the opportunity to collaborate with while studying at USC. Roberta Garten is someone who practically knows the complete clarinet repertoire and can stick to you like glue no matter what you do. When I was awarded the Sy Brandon CD Project Grant and Commission, I was in my last year of my doctorate program and knew this was the last chance to perform with Roberta Garten. I jumped on the opportunity and graciously accepted the grant. The repertoire I picked were pieces that are some of my favorites (but not necessarily standard works), ones we had previously performed during my time living in Los Angeles, as well as a couple of works by Sy Brandon. My favorite pieces on the CD are a toss-up between the Sonatina by Joseph Horovitz and the Hilandale Waltzes by Victor Babin.

"I strongly feel my job as a professor is to teach my students not only how to diagnose, but to correct their own playing issues, becoming their own teacher." - Melissa Koprowski

Any recent pieces in the clarinet repertoire you are particularly excited about?

MK: The summer before my first semester teaching at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, I received an email asking if I would like to play a piece with the wind ensemble and if so, which piece. I have always loved soloing with band and as a result, have done many pieces written for solo clarinet and band. I decided to use this opportunity to dive into a genre I had always shied away from, but a piece I had always wanted to learn how to play – Artie Shaw’s Clarinet Concerto. There is such great repertoire for the clarinet; however, learning this piece jumpstarted an interest in a genre I had never thought would be of interest. I knew UWEC had a strong jazz program and could ask for help from the head of our jazz program, Bob Baca, if I had any stylistic questions. I have since performed and recorded with our jazz ensemble Leonard Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs, Artie Shaw’s Clarinet Concerto, and Morton Gould’s Derivations.

How has teaching at a university changed the way you look at the clarinet?

MK: I strongly feel my job as a professor is to teach my students not only how to diagnose, but to correct their own playing issues, becoming their own teacher. I get really excited when a student shares something they have discovered on their own, whether it be a new piece they wanted to play, a competition they wanted to pursue or solving a new problem in their playing. Just this last week, I had a student come into her lesson and thank me for assigning her an etude to re-do (for what would be the 3rd week in a row). It was a mixed meter exercise and she was getting closer each week, but it was evident it hadn’t quite clicked. She explained to me this week she came up with a different way to work on the etude- through recording herself. She tapped the subdivisions while stomping the main pulse, creating her own mixed meter “click track” to practice along. What I love about teaching at the university level is how I get to experience my clarinet students learning to hone their skills to becoming self-sufficient learners.

What is it like to form your own clarinet choir and choose repertoire for it?

MK: Throughout the many experiences and opportunities I have been fortunate to have, I believe I have performed in almost every type of instrument ensemble, with the exception of a clarinet choir! When a couple of students came to me during my first semester at UWEC and asked if we could do a clarinet choir, my first reaction was no. After reconsidering, I quickly realized how much of a benefit they would gain from such an experience. Since we are an all undergraduate music program, most of my clarinet students never had the opportunity to learn an auxiliary clarinet before their start at UWEC. I did not necessarily want their first experience playing auxiliary clarinets in the large ensembles, so I formed the Eau-Clarinets Choir. I have really enjoyed working with my students in this type of setting and love picking repertoire for the group. I had no idea there were such amazing pieces out there for clarinet choir. During the summer, I spend several weeks listening to pieces (both new and old) and have a running list of works I would love to program throughout the school year. My favorite things to program are works the students discover and ask if we can play.

Melissa Koprowski is a Regional Artist. The goal of a Regional Artist is to enhance the quality of the music experience through education and the assistance of Vandoren. For more information on how you can request a free clinic, visit our Regional Artist Page.

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