Saturday, December 4, 2010

Lesson with Anthony McGill

Yesterday in New York, I had a lesson with Anthony McGill.  Anthony McGill, if you don't know, is the principal of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York City.  He played at the Inauguration with Yoyo Ma and Itzhak Perlman.  He is one of the best clarinetists I've ever listened to.  The piece I am playing for the Walgreens Concerto Competition is the Weber Concertino.  I chose it, because in the spring I heard Anthony McGill play it with the Chicago Clarinet Ensemble, and it was very inspiring, because he has a very serene, emotional and expressive tone.  After hearing Mr. McGill play it, I really wanted to play it too.

I was supposed to meet Mr. McGill at the stage entrance of the Metropolitan Opera which is part of the Lincoln Center.  We got there early and waited until 2:15 which was when the lesson was scheduled.  Mr. McGill came out at 2:15 and told us that his rehearsal was running late and it would be 15 or 20 minutes more.  I was very nervous.  I had been a little nervous about playing for him for days and days, and having to wait a little longer made it even more scary.  I was really worried that I would embarrass myself in front of somebody I think of so highly.  I had to get up at 4:30 that morning to catch a plane to New York, and so I was also quite tired!

Finally, Mr. McGill finished his rehearsal and came out to meet me.  He took me to one of the practice rooms that is under the opera house.  It was a very small room with foam on the wall.  There were two chairs and a music stand in the room.  My chair was a spinning chair with wheels, like a computer chair.  Mr. McGill was very nice and friendly and he was always smiling.  That made me feel a little better.  There was a trombone playing in a nearby room.  Mr. McGill joked that we would have a trombone accompaniest for the lesson and he laughed.

First, he told me to take out Etude #2 from the Rose 32 Etudes for Clarinet.  It's a fast technical piece in 3/8 time.  I played through the piece once, and then Mr. McGill told me to play it again, but this time pay more attention to subdivision and make the phrases longer.  I played about half of it through, and he stopped me and told me I needed to project more.  Whenever I articulate a note, I need to sustain the breath as I am slurring, even though I am tonguing the notes.  Then we started taking the piece apart and working on it section by section.  After that, we moved on to the next Etude.

Mr. McGill told me to take out the next etude, which was #18 from the Rose 40 Studies for Clarinet.  This is a slower, more expressive piece.  I played the piece through once, and then he told me to play it again.  He stopped me after the first measure and told me that if I am playing a long note, I should either swell or fade away to make the note more interesting.  Then he had me play the entire phrase, and he told me to play it with more breath not to divide the phrase up the way I was doing it.  He had me play it from the beginning again, and he stopped me after the second phrase.  He told me to play the phrase with more expression, so I played the phrase again more expressively, and then he stopped me in the middle and said, "During the section with the triplets, you have to swell more, and fade away more."  He demonstrated.  I loved the way he played it.  We worked on the rest of the etude taking it apart phrase by phrase.  His advice was really useful.  He said to focus on playing with more breath support, emphasizing the dynamics, and playing longer phrases.

Then we moved on to the Weber Concertino.  First he had me play the entire piece through.  I was nervous, and I messed up on the runs at the end of the piece.  Mr. McGill told me to play the Adagio part at the beginning again.  He stopped me after the first note, and he told me to play the first note with more breath.  He said I was playing note too quietly, and not projecting enough sound when I played it.  I tried it again, and he said I had it that time.  That made me feel really awesome!

We worked a little longer on the first phrase, and then we took apart the entire Adagio section and worked through it phrase by phrase.  When we got to the Andante section, he told me to get a more singing tone, and tongue the notes more lightly.  He worked with me on changing the air speed when I changed registers.  He demostrated by blowing air.  Whenever I didn't play with enough breath, he blew to let me know to use more. 

After working on the first two sections, we moved on to the Poco piu vivo part of the piece.  This is where the piece gets technically difficult.  He told me to work on getting a more singing-like tone, even with the really fast, difficult parts.  We also worked on the phrasing.  When we got to the staccato runs, he showed me a way I can get a much sweeter sound on the staccato runs, and he made it much easier.  He showed me that when I was playing staccatos not to tongue so heavily, but to use my lightly against the reed and play the runs as if they were slurs, but with tonguing.  This helped my sound enormously.  I was surprised and pleased by how much better it sounded when I played it that way.

Then we worked on the triplet section.  He told me that I needed a sweeter tone on the slurred staccato parts.  I think this is called portato, but I'm not sure.  We worked on the phrases, and then we moved onto the next difficult passage.  I played it too fast at first.  He said to slow down and not to stop the phrase with my staccatos, but to keep my breath moving through each note to the next.  He had me use different amounts of breath.  The higher register needs more air.  We worked through each phrase like that, and then we moved onto the slow part that ends this middle section of the Concertino.  We worked on the phrases here, because it's a very slow and beautiful part.  That makes it harder to play.  Mr. McGill said to not play the sixteenth note after the dotted eigth note too fast, among many other things.

Finally, we moved onto the last section of the piece, the Allegro.  Mr. McGill demonstrated how to keep an internal beat going as I played through the passage by sniffing on the beat.  He didn't mean that I should sniff while playing, of course, but he demonstrated how to feel the beat as I played to keep the notes more even.  This section was a little out of control, so we worked on how to get it in control. 

We reached the first of the difficult runs at the end of the piece.  We worked on slowing them down so you can get all the notes in, and we practiced only one register at a time so we could practice the register alone without transitioning.  I skip notes sometimes when I transition between registers on these fast runs, and doing it this way helped me be aware of each note.  It's hard to get 13 notes in on one beat!

Next we worked on a slower sweeter part that divides up two fast technical sections.  We worked on the expression here.  He demonstrated on his clarinet, and it was amazingly beautiful.  He told me to play the part where it transitions into a minor key more expressively than the part before, because this makes a very good impression.

Finally, we reached the last section.  He got the music out, so it would be easier to do the twisty section.  I had been playing from memory up to this part.  We worked on slowing down the twisty section and getting it more in control.  Then we worked on the last three big, fast runs at the end of the piece.  We worked on slowing them down and dividing the parts in different registers up.  We were finally done. 

Before taking me back to the stage entrance where mom was waiting, he showed me the orchestra pit.  He pointed all the way to the top balcony which was really far away!  Mr. McGill said that I had to project my sound all the way up there even in pianissimo sections.

Anthony McGill is a fantastic clarinetist, but I also found out this weekend that he is a wonderful teacher.  He had a way of being friendly and positive even when he was correcting me.  His advice was incredibly useful, and it was great to have the opportunity to play the Concerto for him before doing it for the Walgreens.

Thank you, Mr. McGill!

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