Making a study of studies

Mention Baermann, Blatt, Muller, Cavallini, or Stark to any self-respecting clarinetist and the response ought to be one of great reverence and gratitude. Why? Because they’ve all contributed to the huge depository of clarinet studies. That hoard of wonderful unaccompanied pieces that help us to improve our playing. Studies are an essential part of a clarinet player’s (and indeed any instrumentalist’s) development. The fact that we don’t generally perform them allows us to approach them in a rather different way, in comparison with the way we approach our pieces. Of course it’s not that we shouldn’t play or teach studies with the same degree of musicality and artistry that we bring to pieces. It’s knowing that they won’t be performed, knowing that they are just being studied for our own benefit, that puts them in a rather different psychological place in our minds. Studies are there for us to concentrate purely on our playing and on developing our technique. We can focus all our preparation into the nuts and bolts of making the piece work technically without worrying about how other ears (apart from our teachers’, perhaps, and possibly an examiner!) might perceive it. 


How to get the most out of studies

When approaching a study piece with a student, I start by first identifying the fundamental technical areas – for clarinetists, for example, these are tone, articulation and finger work. I then break these topics down into their myriad of constituent parts. For example, within the area of tone, there are studies to explore the taking and extent of breath; evenness, gradation, colour and beauty of tone; the whole range of dynamics and changing dynamics; controlling tone in different lengths of note and in different registers, and much more besides. Obviously each study has a number of other ‘active’ ingredients moving alongside the central objective and it is this amalgam that makes them really interesting to explore. Once you’ve identified the key ingredients, including the key of the study, I always encourage students to then examine that key (the importance of which can never be underestimated!) through its scale, arpeggio and any other related patterns, and then by making connections with the other ingredients. And we’ve explored all of this before actually playing from bar 1! 

Studies in practice

Take an example study from More Graded Studies for Clarinet Book 2. The study, called Zazz, in F major, features key ingredients such as articulation colour, crossing registers, syncopation and wide leaps. So, with a 4-time pulse in mind, initial lesson or practice activities might include work on the scale and arpeggio over a two-and-a-half or three-octave range, using different kinds of articulation (accented, non-accented, staccato) and thinking about clean and neat finger movement across the registers. Next you could try playing the scale or arpeggio with each note off the beat (or a combination of notes on and off the beat). Then how about playing F major in octaves – maybe also in tenths. Then more mixing and matching ingredient work could follow, combining any of the ingredients. The rhythm of the first two bars would fit a one octave scale perfectly – having got this under control, extend the pattern over three octaves, add the various articulation patterns. Next you might improvise some slightly more extended phrases using these ingredients and trying to give them a jazzy-like character…the possibilities are endless!


This is all imaginative preparation very much in the spirit of Simultaneous Learning – making connections, working with the ingredients in a logical, positive and musical way. And all this before we’ve tried playing from bar 1!  Once into this kind of work you might look deeper still and notice there are also some C, B flat and D flat major, D and E minor triadic patterns – more ingredients to explore and combine. Finally, when the decision to begin at bar 1 is finally made, so much of the piece is already understood. Ingredients have been explored and can be instantly brought to life in a musical and vivid fashion, and the technical objective of the study can be fulfilled, and some! Let’s take studies seriously - they can have an extremely beneficial role to play in our, and in all our pupils’ development.