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Learning to listen in order to express


Clarinet CE/Moderator
Staff member
In another posting I hinted on being able to keep one's eyes, ears and mind open. After playing for the last two days with only an audience of myself I thought it might be beneficial to convey what I have learned or created from my clarinet playing.

Musical Interpretation is an art form that is isn’t really learned, it’s projected from one’s own desires and internal feelings.

Think of the making of a play or movie. Everyone has seen where the director asks the members to project some emotional state so that the audience can feel the scene.

This is the same as music. In teaching one can teach fingerings, articulations, following dynamics and doing everything written on the piece of paper.

But the artistic interpretation comes from within and projecting one’s emotions of what the music means to oneself outward from the instrument.

This morning I found myself playing several clarinets before settling on my Leblanc LL. I also wanted to play the Mozart Clarinet Concerto k622, and more specifically the Adagio movement which I’ve never really played before.

The first two measures (3 actually) took me a good 15 to 20 minutes to get it to sound and “feel” the way I wanted. What do I mean ?

Technically it’s very simply. In pianissimo and written “dolce”. From mid C, F, A, A, G, F.

Technically very simple.

But it just doesn't sound right to the way I wanted to express and put emotion into the playing of the piece.

This harkens back to the early days of my music career. I recall my high school band director, back when I was in elementary school drawing a diagram of a teardrop bell curve and explaining the sound rises up quickly then trails off, such as playing orchestra chimes. To my private teacher pushing me to be more “expressive” I was great technically but lacked this expressiveness.

I’m glad that she pushed that even though I really did not know what I was doing. How does one express emotion and character through a musical instrument ?

Donald Sinta at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor is known for taking an entire lesson on just the first one or two measures. Why ? not only is it related to perfect entry, articulation but also conveying a feeling which can then be projected to the rest of the piece.

I didn’t realize this until years later when I was able to actually start conveying emotion and feeling into the music that I play. This can’t really be done in a concert band setting but it’s perfect for a solo setting. Just playing concertos or anyone’s piece that they enjoy.

Listening to music requires one to open up one’s ears and listen over and over to a piece, or segment and listen to the minor variations in technique, breathing (and blowing) in the slight variations of tone and dynamics related not only to a segment or the entire piece but to each individual note.

Years ago I studied Grover Washington and Boots Randolph. About a year each. But not every piece that they played, just a handful. With Grover it was fabulous, hearing the minute variations of notes and slight dynamics and jazz techniques. This was quite a learning experience. Boots Randolph himself had tremendous techniques to learn too in his recordings.

I followed up the Grover and Boots lessons with studying clarinet and piano solos. There is an infinite amount one can learn from listening to soloists music over and over again. One has to open ones minds and listen, and listen for more over and over again.

But I was lucky in that I had a very nice stereo that could handle deep lows and highs as it supported 2 channels of 6 speaker cones from a small ceramic tweeter to 16 inch basses and a high end Sony ES equipment powering it all. Sometimes today we listen to cheap speakers on the computer or cheap headphones that just don't bring out those slight variations, and to me, the music sounds drastically different between the two. You don't need to turn up the volume but be able to hear the intricacies in the music.

One’s own internal ability to express emotion and feelings into one’s playing is the difference between being technically correct and providing a fluid emotional story which one is able to convey to the listener.

Back to the Mozart. Playing the first 6 notes is easy. But add that “bell” tone like an orchestral chime to each note, and provide a slight raise in dynamics on each note going up, and on the 2nd measure the A with a slight push before trailing off down to F, and one has a much more dynamic entry as if conveying a story. But that’s not all, add a fluidity of expressionism that creates a desire for the next note, but not really knowing when it is coming requires a very slight delay of the last A of the first measure to also include a retardo of the first A of the next measure before back to tempo.

One has to hear the difference to appreciate the artistic value one has to learn to convey in music.

Studying music is much more than reading and doing exactly what is written. But one has to learn to express one’s own internal feelings of the music outwardly through the instrument. This is the real lesson to learn and the reasons behind striving to learn all the different techniques a teacher has to offer.

But as I have learned, always keep an open mind and learn to listen and listen more deeply to what you hear. You are bound to learn a lesson that is very difficult to teach and only yourself can paint the blank canvas which is a written piece of music.

I some point I hope to record this example but I lack any good recording capability at the moment.


Admin and all around good guy.
Staff member
I know so many school trained musicians who didn't make it as a performance artist and now work a "real" job. Technically they are all stellar but expressively they just don't make the grade, at least to my ears. Many of them solo with altissimo notes that are not fun to listen to and other grab bag tricks. It's almost as if they are saying listen to my effects rather than I have a story to tell with a beautiful sound. I could just be naive too, who knows.

I dunno, I have stayed away from some of these folks for my sax quartet and 4-horn jazz groups who play technically better than me. I want musicians who can listen across the group, adjust as necessary and who aren't tied that metal mouthpiece just because it looks cool.


Distinguished Member
Distinguished Member
It's almost as if they are saying listen to my effects rather than I have a story to tell with a beautiful sound.
Wouldn't that require one has understood the story in the first place? What I'm aiming at is that one might be able to technically "grab" a piece, but the feelings conveyed with it remain a mystery - much like functional analphabetism, but on a musical level.

I can interpret many pieces reasonably competent, on a technical level. I feel when there must be straight or swung eighths, but maby one in ten or twenty pieces I can (or think I can) play, as in really play.

In that light I agree that this cannot be learned. Rather it somehow dawns on you, touches a nerve, and, of course, many people have rather different concepts of how exactly to interpret any given piece.

It's like asking readers to describe Frankie in "Member of the Wedding" without having seen a screen or stage version. (I just googled images, and was shocked to learn that my mental image of her didn't match at all what others were seeing).


Distinguished Member
Distinguished Member
On my master's recital I performed the Mozart Adagio along with some very demanding pieces on saxophone. The Adagio took every bit as much preparation and practice as the fast technical sections of the saxophone works.

I had some very fine teachers in college both as private teachers and conductors. From them I learned these very simple, yet profound concepts that help to form and guide expressive playing. These are not "hard and fast" rules that apply in all circumstances, but guidelines to help one interpret and play or conduct music more expressively.

- Each musical phrase has a dynamic contour that usually follows the pattern of the notes
- Every note in a phrase is either leading toward or away from the peak of the phrase
- Every section of a piece of music is either leading toward or away from the climax of the piece
- Most musical expression occurs on the last beat of the measure
- All phrase endings in a legato piece should be tapered---some entrances as well
- There should be a slight hesitation before the stressed note at the end of a crescendo
- There should be a marked hesitation before the climactic point in the piece


Admin and all around good guy.
Staff member
There is a flow to music, and ebb and pull as in waves, when you play. Intuitively you might crescendo as you go up the scale and decrescendo as you come down. When you do the opposite or even worse, nothing, it can suck the emotion from a piece. I'm just sayin'...

Then there is the intonation thang. Sometimes being in perfect pitch does not help you play musically. Being in tune with the ensemble, that is when it all comes together. Is there one person that is too loud, so that other important parts are squashed and lost? If you have the moving part do you up the volume a bit to add interest?

I may never understand it as well as some of those who have commented so far do. But I know what I like to hear across a diverse range of music and styles.


Old King Log
Staff member
I relate it more to singing. I too have known dozens of speed demons who can fly up and down a horn with great facility But, ask them to convey an emotion with a simple phrase, and they are at a loss.

I've never received note one of vocal training (and precious little of instrumental training, for that matter), but I have always made a study of how a vocalist phrases and shades their performance. Even vocal tricks like sliding into the perfect pitch on the longer intervals can apply to musicianship, if only we bother to understand what the notes on the page are trying to convey.

Compared to vocalists, we are slightly impaired in our ability to communicate through music. We have to make up for the lack of verbal content with our superior range and facility. But, it still doesn't hurt to think of what you are doing as "singing" a passage.

And, that's some dark ass clarinet music you are posting there. What's it printed on, carbon paper?

(Now, someone will ask, innocently, "What is carbon paper?"
This is a good thread.
I agree with you, Gandalfe, especially in your first post in the thread. I know of a lot of "musicians" that fall in to that category, it's as if they know that there's a note that's hard to hit, so the emphasize their ability to hit that note to an ear-splitting, blood drawing squeal. It's not just the woodwind section. <looks over toward the brass section>

Too much emphasis on technicality kills the music. It's a thick line between music, and arranged mechanical noise, but it's easy for some to completely forget this.

Do you want to sound like a MIDI clarinet, or a very talented and expressive musician? If the latter, good. But then obviously there's a time and place for everything, over-expressing in certain scenarios can kill it just as much as no expression at all.

I always approach the music, whether I've written it or not, with a connection. If I do not feel connected to the music, I can not enjoy performing it, or listening to it, and if I look deep enough I can connect to just about anything (other than popular marketing "music").

If one can internalize the "flow" of the music, it's all smooth sailing from there. That is most definitely a great foundation.

I also agree with the idea of mentally imaging "singing" the musical phrase. A very good way to approach it.


Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
(Now, someone will ask, innocently, "What is carbon paper?"
What's that? Did that contribute to global warming?



This topic touches on what I don't like about a large percentage of jazz music: I get it, you're technically brilliant. That's great. However, I could pick up one of your solos, transpose it to whatever key and drop it into another one of your recordings. Additionally, if you're always playing a flurry of 16th notes or faster, I can't hear your tone. After awhile, I think that's intentional.

The other thing that's touched on is the dying art of using dynamics. Playing everything molto blastissimo isn't that interesting.

Again, looking at Steve's excerpt, it's adagio (slowly), piano (softly -- and that doesn't just mean "quietly"), dolce (sweetly) and there's a couple slurs (watch your tonguing). If you can play all the notes at the right speed, that's great, but it's half the battle. Now play it soft and sweet. Don't play it slap-tongue.

As a final comment, a lot of classical music up until about the late 18th century (if memory serves) didn't have tempo, dynamic or other markings. Just notes. The player was supposed to interpret the music.
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