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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Interview with U.S. Navy Band Clarinetist, Cindy Wolverton

Musician First Class Cindy Wolverton earned a Bachelor of Arts from the University of South Carolina, a Master of Music from the University of Southern Mississippi, and a Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of North Texas.  Her teachers include R. Douglas Graham, Bruce Dinkins, Wilbur Moreland, and James Gillespie.  Petty Officer Wolverton spent three summers at the Sewanee Summer Music Festival, winning the Concerto Competition in 1993.  She also won the 1993 Atlanta Music Club Young Artists’ Concerto Competition and was a semi-finalist in the 1996 International Clarinet Association Young Artist Competition in Paris.  In 2000 Wolverton joined the U.S. Navy Band in Washington, D.C., where she now serves as bass clarinetist.  Since 2003 she has been a member of the McLean (VA) Orchestra.  She is also the author of “Clarinetists in Uniform,” a regular column in The Clarinet magazine which spotlights the activities and achievements of clarinetists serving in our nation’s military bands.

KM: When did you join the military and where have you been stationed?
CW: I joined in August 2000 and have been with the U.S. Navy Band in Washington, DC ever since.

KM: Where were you before you came to the military?
CW: I had just finished the coursework for my DMA at the University of North Texas and decided to start taking some auditions.  I am living proof that the old adage “no one wins their first audition” is not true!  Granted I was 30 years old and had spent 12 years in college.

KM: What is your favorite basic training memory?
CW: My favorite day was the day we went to the pool.  For Navy recruit training everyone has to pass a swim survival test which includes jumping off a high platform, treading water for 15 minutes, then swimming to the opposite end of the pool.  Then we learned how to make a life preserver out of a pair of pants!

KM: What did your family and friends think when you joined the military?
CW: Well my sister Cheryl had joined about a year before me (she is a clarinetist in the U.S. Army Band) so I think my parents knew what to expect.  My husband was excited, but worried about me going to boot camp.  I think some people were surprised that after pursuing the DMA I was going this route.

KM: What has been your most memorable clarinet moment in the military?

CW: Playing at the White House with the clarinet quartet.  It was around Christmastime and they were having a dinner for the press corps.  The quartet was tasked with playing background music in a hallway while members of the media waited in a receiving line to meet the President.  We played Christmas carols nonstop for almost two hours!  After everyone had gone through the line, we were told to quickly pack up our horns and were led into a room where we also got to meet the President and First Lady.  They had us pose for a picture, and George W. Bush put his arm around me!!  Several of us in the quartet went to school in Texas so we of course started chatting about that.  Mr. and Mrs. Bush were very friendly, but the presidential aides were anxious to escort them up to the dinner.

KM: On an average week, what do you do at work?
CW: My primary duty is playing bass clarinet in the concert band.  Our typical schedule is to have 3-5 rehearsals during the week and a concert on the weekend.  In addition, I may also be asked to play with the ceremonial band, which does funerals at Arlington National Cemetery, retirements, parades, arrivals for foreign dignitaries, etc.  For ceremonies I play Bb clarinet.

KM: Would you encourage interested clarinetists to join the military?
CW: Well, it’s not for everyone, but I would encourage others to at least explore the possibility before deciding against it.  There are many musical and financial benefits, even if you only do one enlistment.

KM: What is the weirdest thing you do at your job?
CW: For the last inauguration (January 2009) they decided to shut down all the roads into D.C. for security purposes.  Since we had to be on the bus very early that morning to go play the parade, everyone in the band who didn’t live in the district was required to sleep in the band building the night before.  They provided cots for us and a pancake breakfast in the morning.  

KM: What are your after military plans? 
CW: I hope the clarinet will always be a part of my life, but I would like to do something completely different from music when I retire.  I just have to figure out what that will be!

KM: Do you have any regrets about joining the military?
CW: No.  I would have never imagined that I would become a bass clarinetist, but the opportunity arose and I decided to give it a try.  I’ve been playing bass for 6 years and I’m still amazed at how much I actually enjoy it!  If not for being in a military band, I would not have had access to an instrument and playing in a large ensemble is a great way to learn.  I also love the people I work with.

KM: It seems like everyone was in a military band at some point, and there's always that gossip about which great symphony players were in the military. Who is someone you know that was a military musician at some point?
CW: Larry Combs, Howard Klug, Larry Bocaner

KM: What is the number one question you get asked by the general public after a concert? 
CW: What do you DO in the Navy?  Do you ever go on a ship? What is the difference between red and gold? (Red service stripes are for people with less than 12 years of service, gold for more than 12.) And my favorite comment (from the elderly gentlemen) is Wow, they didn’t have sailors like you back when I was in the Navy!

KM: Do you feel any more or less patriotic than you were before being in a military band?
CW: More.  I will never forget seeing the smoke coming from the Pentagon on 9/11 or the way our audiences rose to their feet and started singing along during America the Beautiful on our Spring 2002 national tour.

KM: What is a question you would ask other military clarinetists?
CW: How do you stay motivated to practice?  What kinds of playing opportunities do you have outside of the band?

KM: What is your favorite note on the clarinet?
CW: Low D on the bass clarinet.

KM: What is your most memorable musical moment?
CW: About a year ago, we had Dr. Mallory Thompson as a guest conductor.  The program included David Maslanka’s Symphony No. 4, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor, and John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine.  Dr. Thompson was amazing to work with and that concert was the best the band has ever sounded.

KM: If you could magically wake up and play any kind of music, what would you do?
CW: I have always wanted to play the cello.

Thanks Cindy, I really enjoyed reading your responses! Look for Clarinetists in Uniform in The Clarinet to find a compilation of the military band clarinetists I've interviewed with some new bonus material!!! 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

More Thoughts on Articulation

I love your last post, Kristen! I especially like the "Mental To-Do" at the top. In addition to the physical aspects of articulation that you explained so expertly, it also helps me to have a model of articulated sound. This probably falls under "1. Be Creative" in your post above. While there are many fine recordings of clarinetists who articulate beautifully, I often like to have a model that is not a clarinetist, but rather a vocalist or violinist. The physical nature of the clarinet lends itself well to heavy articulation, whereas so much of our repertoire demands lighter articulation. In addition, so much Classic and Romantic music is written in an operatic (vocal) style. To try to overcome the tendencies of the clarinet and achieve a variety of articulation styles, I listen to vocalists and string players and try to put passages in that context (vowel? consonant? on the string? off the string? pizzicato?) to achieve lightness and style appropriate to the passage.

The two recordings of "La Ronde des Lutins" (the original for violin and a transcription for clarinet) illustrate this idea in action.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Starting and Stopping Sound, Articulation on the Clarinet

Teaching and learning articulation on the clarinet is difficult and often leads to tears and frustrations. I was very fortunate to have a teacher that was OBSESSED with articulation and sound, and my time with him set me up for an honorary doctorate in Nerd-ology. The ideas I have on articulation are by no means revolutionary, and I don't think they will work for everyone. I would love to hear your interpretations and arguments... because down deep I am a mega-clarinet nerd, a perpetual student, and I love talking about the clarinet. 

Mental To-Do While Practicing:

1. Be creative. Being creative doesn't necessarily mean you have to tell yourself your legato articulation should sound like the voices of a thousand angels singing in unison (although if that helps... go for it). Use your imagination to think of how the body is working and how you can control yourself efficiently and comfortably. Create ways to practice things YOU need to work on. 

2. Be open-minded. Often we have issues that we "forget about"over time because we use our brains and ears to figure out ways to hide them. Don't be afraid to tackle these issues. No one is perfect!

3. Calm down. Just because you have that secret problem hiding in your "clarinet closet" doesn't mean you are terrible. Simply embrace the problem and fix it! With the problem out in the open and fixed, you are prepared for some great stress-free music making. The more glitches you get out of your playing, the more confident you can feel during performance. 

Articulation, as described by Daniel Bonade:

Staccato is an interruption of the tone by touching the tip of the tongue to the reed, and not by a hitting motion. When making a succession of staccato notes one should remember that the tongue should always be on the reed between staccato notes while the finger or fingers should move quickly, preparing the next note ahead. This anticipated preparation will be very beneficial and useful as it forces the eye of the player to read always one note "ahead" and will develop faster reading of music, even in legato playing. Staccato should be practiced very slowly, playing with a fast motion of the fingers after each played note. Do not forget that the tempo at which you play, determines of short staccato and articulations should be made. (Clarinetist's Compendium)

This is probably how everyone is taught to articulate. Through some "creative thinking" I've decided for me, it's best not to think of hitting or touching the tongue to the reed. I choose to think of releasing the tongue from the reed instead. I find it makes it easier for me to keep the air moving quickly, which give the tongue a solid foundation to work on. It also keeps me from hitting the reed too hard. 

On the issue of playing staccato notes at the correct length (staccato notes should be one half of the written value); I find that in faster tempos it's easier not to think of playing short at all. A prime example of this would be the Mendelssohn Scherzo from A Midsummer Night's Dream. With all of the staccato markings and accent markings indicated, one's brain might begin thinking all of this should be played very short... but in performance, it would probably be best to think of the sixteenth notes without the staccato. This helps keep air behind the articulation, and no one would be able to hear the difference at this tempo.

This is also a case where I would use the HIGHLY CONTROVERSIAL "nee" articulation syllable. I've gotten in a few arguments over this particular idea, but "nee" has some reputable supporters out there. Basically, instead of using the traditional "tee" or "dee" syllables, I've chosen to use "nee." The reasoning is simple, "nee" is easier to say than "tee" or "dee." I also think that it most accurately mimics the motion your tongue should make when touching the reed (high and motion-less in the back, and pointed in the front). You may be asking yourself now, "Why do I care what syllable you use to verbalize articulation?" and I would say... "Very good question!"

I firmly believe that verbalizing music with prescribed syllables (whatever they may be) is the key to learning and internalizing music. It is also much easier to learn rhythms and coordination when you don't have the "black agony stick" in your mouth. Add the clarinet to the process once you have mastered the technique without the clarinet. 

I definitely use more than one syllable when verbalizing music. I use "nee" when I'm practicing a very specific type of articulation - the "short" fast articulation. When verbalizing more lyrical music, a wide variety of syllables can be used. The idea behind the verbalization is to learn rhythm, articulation patterns, and feel. You don't have to be Pavarotti to do this! The idea is to coordinate your tongue with your ear so when you add the fingers, there is less confusion.

Once you have the verbalization portion down, you can try to add the clarinet. Using the Mendelssohn Scherzo as an example, try playing the excerpt on all one note.

1. I would use an open G first...

2. ...then do the same exercise on a more challenging note like middle line B (because it has a lot of back pressure)...

3. ... and then perhaps the C two lines above the staff (because it is a more difficult note to control)

Once you have mastered the one note version of this excerpt, try the whole thing as written. At this point you may notice the hardest part is going from throat A to B on the staff. I would take this opportunity to play the rhythm of the excerpts with only those two notes. 

Another thing to practice is starting the sixteenth notes with a burst of air instead of the tongue:

Ex: hee-nee-nee-nee

This would help get the air started and ensure that you don't over-articulate. Though I sometimes use this  when there are sections that are too rapid to tongue everything, I can't think of a time I've used it in a solo situation. 

Daniel Bonade again:

Precise articulation presumes a properly developed staccato. Articulations can be classified thus:

Long - (legato staccato)
Medium - (ordinary)
Short - (fast staccato)
Very short - (staccatissimo or pizzicato)

Now, as stated above, the last note of any slur must be clipped, so as to permit the fingers to be ready for the following note, but only when the next note is a staccato note. When a slur is followed by another slur there is not shortening of the last note of the slur unless succeeding slurs are off beat (or syncopated). A syncopated articulation always requires an accent on the 1st note of the slur. (Clarinetist's Compendium)

Basically, we are always doing some version of the "staccato tongue" when articulating on the clarinet. It's the amount of space we leave between notes that creates the articulation we are looking for, not the motion of the tongue that changes. The motion should always be the same. Here is a visual example of that idea. 

Medium or ordinary (using Bonade's terms):

(___ represents the air stream, T represents the time the tongue is on the reed)


(The small t represents a shorter time the tongue touches the reed)



Very Short:


Supposing these examples all take the same amount of time to complete, you can easily see the shorter articulations have more tongue-on-reed compared to sound time, and the longer articulations have a longer sound compared to tongue-on-reed time. 

Bonade mentions the fingers in both excerpts I've included from the Clarinetist's Compendium. He is indicating that to have the cleanest articulation, you would have to move your fingers rapidly between notes. This is hard to coordinate, especially when you're playing lyrically. For the cleanest sound in articulated passages, the fingers would have to move rapidly to the next note while the tongue is on the reed. Using the example above as a visual aid, just imagine that every time you get to the "T" you would also immediately move your finger to the next note. As you can see, you would have to move your fingers more rapidly in the legato passages because your tongue is on the reed for less time.  

Thanks to Timothy Phillips for asking me a random question about articulation and prompting me to write this stuff down... whether anyone agrees with me or not! The only real conclusion I have to this posting is that there is no conclusion! I still think about articulation all of the time... it's the vehicle for sound and musical communication! 

Don't give up... he's watching!