A moment for reflection

In the Summer of 2000 I had the great pleasure of meeting James Gillespie, editor of The Clarinet Journal, during the International Clarinet Association (ICA) convention in Oklahoma. James asked me if I would like to write about my work – an invitation that I found both humbling and daunting! The following was the first ‘Letter from the UK’ published in December 2000 in The Clarinet Journal, the official publication of the ICA. 

So to begin: Two of my strongest guiding principles, from which all I that I do stems, are that I love to be of help, and have a great desire to make things happen. But the encouragement and inspiration of my own clarinet teacher has also been a key factor in my life. I was very lucky to have first met Professor John Davies when I was a mere ten years old, and he has remained a friend and mentor ever since. His insight into the clarinet and its repertoire, combined with a profound understanding of human nature and his extraordinary thirst for the good things in life have had a deep and lasting effect on my own nature. It is therefore to John that I owe what success I may have achieved thus far.

It was my mother who decided that I should play the clarinet. (As an aside, I well remember my great disappointment at finding that the instrument split up into small chunks and lived in a rather small and plain looking case. The image I had in my mind, of going to school each day carrying this tantalisingly long and fascinating case, causing my fellow travellers to look on with awe, thus never materialised!) I have been fascinated by teaching and composing ever since I can remember. At the age of about seven, with a group of friends, I would present ‘puppet-shows’ using a motley collection of stringed marionettes. I would teach all my fellow puppeteers how to manoeuvre their puppets, and would write both the script and the music. (I suspect I must have driven my friends mad!) An interest in teaching grew through my years as a student at the Royal Academy of Music in London and I wrote my first clarinet method soon after leaving. Like many other teachers, I was frustrated with the pedagogic materials available and felt the need for a method that included lots of really imaginative and interesting music for the young learner to play. A good number of years later the Cambridge Clarinet Tutor (my first publication) is still popular and set on exam syllabuses. Also it is very non-dictatorial; it leaves the ‘teaching’ to the teachers! I have always felt that teachers are an undervalued race – if you trust a good teacher, they will get on with their work and produce good results. I very much hope my first method encouraged this philosophy and approach. 

Over the succeeding years, I have written many works for the clarinet. These include many ‘educational’ publications: the popular collection Summer Sketches; Suite in Five (a favourite time-signature of mine); Party Time and various albums that combine original pieces and arrangements, such as The Really Easy Clarinet Book, Music Through Time and Going Solo. On the more serious side I have written a Sonatina (whilst staying in Oxford for a few weeks) and an Adagio, premiered by Julian Bliss at the Oklahoma convention this year, which owes its inspiration to the Baermann Adagio, a work that I love. I was very moved by Julian’s tremendous performance. 

Visions is a set of five pieces based on the characters of five particularly able and colourful pupils I had at the time (echoes of Nielsen painting his friends into his music!) and two of my five Buckingham Concertos, also written for pupils, feature the clarinet. Like many composers, I’m often asked about my principal influences. My love for French music, especially Poulenc and Ravel, have certainly made their mark. I was taught composition by Timothy Baxter – himself a pupil of both Priaulx Rainier (who wrote an intriguing Suite for clarinet and piano) and Nadia Boulanger. I also suspect certain ‘English’ gestures from the likes of Gerald Finzi, William Mathias and Malcolm Arnold have had some effect on my musical language. More recently, I have written a Sonata da Camera for unaccompanied clarinet and there are various chamber works that include the clarinet published by my own company Queen’s Temple Publications. Of these, if I were to choose a favourite, it would have to be The Unhappy Aardvark; written for wind quintet and narrator, it is based on a rather endearing ‘feel-good’ story for which I must admit responsibility!

Another publication is Essential Clarinet Technique. I wrote this jointly with my teacher, John Davies, and the actual process of writing it taught me a great deal. Surrounded by John’s books and antique furniture we spent hours, days, weeks and indeed months discussing and arguing over every aspect of clarinet playing. We wrote, re-wrote and then re-wrote again in the search for a really succinct and clear way of expressing the central issues. Later, I was lucky enough to be asked to contribute the chapter on clarinet teaching in the Cambridge Companion to the Clarinet. It is not easy to write about the principles of technique. For one thing, there are many ways to achieve a successful result. We are all built to slightly different specifications and what may work for one player may not for another. Therefore in thinking about technique, we must always be open-minded, searching, curious, imaginative, inquiring and inventive. Rarely should we tell our pupils to ‘do it like this’. I have often heard great players put forward their particular solutions to specific problems, in masterclasses for example. And very interesting these usually are – but great teachers are more circumspect. They will enable their pupils to solve the problems for themselves, and their pupils will be so much better off for that.

Perhaps the most exciting project to date has been my new clarinet tutor Clarinet Basics. Faber Music, my principal publisher, first suggested the project and we had great fun in developing the idea. To be given a second chance at writing a method must be a very rare occurrence and so I wanted to produce something really special for the twenty-first century! There were a number of criteria that I set myself. Of paramount importance was that there should always be humour – it had to be methodical and seriously thought-through, but in all the best lessons there needs to be a good deal of laughter. Secondly, young learners are much better learning what they want to know and what they need to know – there is little point in including unnecessary or superfluous detail or information. Next, the understanding of rhythm is crucial to the healthy development of the young clarinet player; I felt that many existing methods introduce rhythmic development too quickly. Rhythmic complexities therefore are introduced very methodically and cumulatively. Last, but by no means least, is that the book consists primarily of music! In writing Clarinet Basics we tried very hard to fulfil all these demanding criteria, and I am delighted that in the years since, it has become the leading clarinet method on the market. 

In addition to writing for the clarinet, over the years I have developed a very deep interest in the processes of teaching and learning. For some years I was Head of Wind at Stowe School in Buckinghamshire. This is a wonderful school, with a music department situated in a Greek-style temple built in 1733, complete with porticos and columns. George III spent some time there and his wife, Queen Charlotte gave her name to the building, ‘The Queen’s Temple’. My time at Stowe was a true inspiration. The capacity of my pupils (all great characters) ranged fairly broadly on the intellectual spectrum, and they always demanded a great deal, but as a result caused me to give huge thought to virtually every aspect of musical tuition. Consequently I have written extensively, for example, on the learning of sight-reading and scales and have recently produced The Music Teacher’s Companion (published by The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, London). My sight-reading series Improve Your Sight-reading! (published by Faber Music) has sold nearly a million copies worldwide (I include this information not out of vanity, but because I believe it to be such an important area of musicianship and sales seem to echo this). I have always been concerned that a lot of teaching fails because it doesn’t produce musically independent pupils. Pupils are too reliant on their teachers in all sorts of ways. Even basic music reading is often weak. That’s why I was so keen to produce a method to help young players develop these basic reading skills. The Improve Your Scales! series was another such interesting project. Scales are of course hugely important in the development of the young player’s technique but it is, understandably, very difficult to enthuse your average pupil to go away and practise them! (The great player Karl Leister once told me that as a child he would sometimes practise scales for up to eight hours a day – but that’s rather uncommon!) As with Improve Your Sight-reading!, the Improve Your Scales! method deconstructs the process and builds it up again through a series of games, exercises and of course, music. I call this style of teaching ‘Simultaneous Learning’; you can read more about this approach in subsequent articles and in my books Improve Your Teaching! and Teaching Beginners. 

Moving away from teaching, composing and writing, I still find time to fit in a lot of playing. I play regularly with an opera orchestra, but my real passion is chamber music and I try to indulge my love for playing clarinet quintets, wind quintets and octets, and whatever else I can, as often as possible. In addition, I have for many years run the Stowe Woodwind Workshop – a specialist wind chamber music course for highly talented young players from all over the country. Two of my most fond memories are in fact related to performing. At the Academy I had the great honour of playing the Lutoslawski Dance Preludes for the composer himself, and the signed copy I have from the day is one of my most prized possessions. The second is from one of my many concerts at Stowe, which took place in the spectacular State Music Room. The room was completed in about 1781; much of the exquisite wall paintings and other decorations were carried out by the Italian artist Vincenzo Valdre. Valdre was responsible for painting sets for operatic productions in London and abroad (it is said that he was a particular champion of Handel’s operas) so he was no stranger to musical images, and the room is full of them. In addition, Stowe has been host to a considerable number of distinguished musicians over the years – one of the first may have been Handel himself! Since then, the music room has hosted many important musicians, among them the great British clarinettist Frederick Thurston. All would have discovered what a joy it is to play in, with a perfect acoustic and a sense of history that pours out of every corner! But the one performance I would like to highlight was an all Mozart programme; the Quintet for Piano and four winds (a work that Mozart considered as among his most treasured), and the wonderful Serenade in Eb for wind octet. Each of the four principal players had chosen a pupil to play second in the octet. It was a first for our pupils, of whom the youngest (my pupil) was 14. As part of a summer Chamber Music series our audiences were used to the highest standard, but on this occasion the exchange of musical ideas was wonderfully refreshing. The buzz before the concert was particularly effervescent; the Quintet is always a joy to play, but it was in the second half, when we played the Octet, that the room seemed to play its part in creating a truly memorable occasion. 

In fact, as I write this, I am coming to my last couple of weeks of teaching at Stowe. I have made the very difficult decision to see what it is like out there in the big wide world of the freelance musician! But I have much to do, much to write and much to say – it is a time of considerable apprehension but also much excitement, and I very much look forward to what the future has in store.