I believe in long tones. When I used to teach saxophone, I would begin each new student with an explanation of what long tones are and a warning about how boring the exercise can be. “It’s simple, I’d say, ‘you just take a deep breath and play the note until you are out of air.” “The trick is, I’d continue, ‘while you play that note, you are trying to get the best sound possible.” “In this way, you are practicing only one thing, sound, and giving all of your attention to that crucial part of your voice.” By that time, the fourth grader sitting next to me had lost all interest and probably wished we could just go back to the part that sounded like we were going to have a contest to see who might run out of air first. The kid was probably dying to see me passed out on the carpet with a blue face and the imprint of saxophone keys under my pulsating neck.
Although I don’t teach anymore, I have a stepdaughter, Carolina, who plays the clarinet and occasionally goes with me to hear live music. The great thing about getting older is that some of my former students are grown and are even parents themselves, dealing with tantrums, boy-crazy teenie-boppers, and moody adolescents. When we do go out to hear someone perform, I’ll tell Carolina afterwards how that player used to be her age and how he did his long tones, religiously. “They work,” I pronounce. To show her my level of commitment, I even bought a clarinet so that I could practice with her. In spite of this grand overture, there are days when I am too tired and wishing she had instead taken up saxophone so I could really show her a thing or two. I’ll tell her to practice on her own and I can hear her fumbling through a book of Broadway show tunes we bought for her to sing, along with a cd of accompaniment tracks. She sounds like how I imagine many of my old students did when they left my teaching studio and went home to practice on their own.
I do regain my energy and musical focus, particularly on the weekend, and we are back at it. I tell Carolina the book of show tunes is for singing practice, not clarinet. Then, facing each other, I have her play an open G. It is horribly out of tune, but we are diligent and eventually the vibrations that are beating against each other thin out into a single line of resonant sound, like one clarinet playing, instead of two. I look at her and she nods. She can hear that we are in sync. She knows that I need this resolution in my life and she is patient with me until she needs to breathe again.
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