Learning to play clarinet


The other day my parents found a short essay I’d written in primary school about how excited I was about learning to play clarinet. I started learning to play when I was in Year 4, and continued playing for the next 12 years, taking various exams, playing in the local authority orchestra, concert band and clarinet choir, playing in my school’s jazz band and orchestra, and then joining my university concert band. The weeks would be full of rehearsals: lunchtimes at school, Saturday mornings at the Hillingdon Music School, Monday evenings at another school.

My secondary school jazz band was my favourite. I got the chance to do some improvisation, which helped me think more about melodies – how to fit them around chord sequences, and how to create something that an audience might find interesting. I remember playing an improvised solo in a school concert once, standing up and playing something over the band. Somehow it was less nerve-wracking to play something unprepared: if I messed up, it wouldn’t be immediately obvious.

The Music School I attended at weekends consisted of a couple of hundred teenagers. We played a concert at the Royal Festival Hall once. In the meantime, I took the Royal School of Music exams, from Grade 2 (I skipped Grade 1 as it was considered to be embarrassingly easy) right through to Grade 8.

The format of exams was always the same. First, you had to play two pre-prepared pieces accompanied by a pianist. Then you’d have to play another pre-prepared piece on your own. After that, there’d be a series of scales which the assessor would request to hear at random. Once the dreaded scales were over, you’d be presented with a completely unfamiliar piece of music which you’d have to sight-read. And finally – worst of all – there’d be the aural tests. These were incredibly difficult. Sometimes the examiner would play a two or three part phrase and you’d have to sing back the top or bottom part. Sometimes they’d play a series of chords on the piano and you’d have to identify what they were. Sometimes they’d ask you to sight-sing a completely unfamiliar piece of music. And sometimes they’d play a piece of random music, and ask you to talk about it afterwards: to guess when it was written, discuss the texture, style, notable features.

When I started University, I joined the concert band, but gave up after a couple of years, and after that I never really played clarinet again. Recently, I wondered what it would sound like to play a clarinet part on one of my voice and guitar songs, so I took it out of its dusty old box and tried playing it again. It took me a while to create a half decent sound that might work on a recording, but after practicing for a while I was able to play a part over a song called I Won’t Believe.

If you’re interested to hear the song, click on the link below!


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