Clarinetist Scott Wright is currently the Professor of Clarinet at the University of Kentucky, a position he has held since 2002. At Kentucky, he is also a member of the esteemed McCracken Faculty Wind Quintet, and Chair of the Winds—Percussion—Jazz Division in the School of Music. In a career spanning nearly three decades Dr. Wright has performed and taught in a wide variety of settings including the public schools, universities, chamber and orchestral ensembles, and as a soloist. He has been featured as both a conductor and clarinetist the conferences of the International Clarinet Association, National Band Association, College Band Directors National Association, the International Double Reed Society, the National Collegiate Choral Organization, the Midwest Clinic, and the American Choral Directors Association. Mr. Wright is conducting the 2015 Wisconsin Honors Band.
It seems like yesterday that I was traveling north out of Lexington, Kentucky to one of my favorite places on earth—Green Bay, Wisconsin. As with any trip of a professional nature, I am always a bit nervous; whether conducting, playing a solo, or working as a chamber musician, there is always an element of uncertainty surrounding any new engagement. I was about to meet a staff of skilled professional teachers (any one of whom could have assumed the directing responsibilities on a moment’s notice without missing a beat); meet 104 of Wisconsin’s finest high school wind, brass, and percussion instrumentalists; sight read a program of technically and artistically challenging music; and then work closely together for three days before bearing our musical souls to a live audience in a world-class performing arts venue. What could possibly go wrong?
How quickly all the unsettled thoughts vanished upon my arrival in Titletown! After meeting the wonderful students and teachers of the WSMA Honors Project, I was reminded once again about the immense joy and satisfaction of making music with youngsters: the back-and-forth sharing of ideas and musical experiences, the incredible talent, intellect, and motivation displayed by the students in the WSMA High School Honor Band, the careful instruction offered by all the staff to lead the group to a clearer understanding of sophisticated conceptual and artistic elements, and of course, the playful cajoling during practice sessions that encouraged just another couple moments of rehearsal at the end of a very long day! All of these items point to the process of making music that, for me, has become just as satisfying and emotionally nourishing as the performance itself.
Desire and Motivation—the process of making music can’t truly begin until the performer feels some sort of push or desire to actually ‘get going’. For the kids of the WSMA project, there wasn’t much need for external motivation; these kids are well prepared, thoroughly grounded in fundamental skills, and most are absolutely hungry to create high-level music. Although the teacher must still be inspirational and artistically stimulating, it is a much easier task when the audience is open and willing to be inspired.
Mindset—Once instilled with a strong desire to create music, the performer must actually work hard to develop a mindset that promotes and fosters long-term success. It is a mindset that allows the musician to see past all the hurdles and roadblocks that exist at the beginning of the project and catch a glimpse of the wonderful endpoint in the process. Once that vision is in mind, the Process involves submitting oneself to a discipline that will eventually result in success. This mindset requires maturity, focus, and the ability to look into the future (what might be), rather than focusing on the present state of things (what is). This mindset was firmly in place in the students and faculty upon my arrival in Wisconsin.
Acknowledgement of inadequacies—the next step in the process is to quickly assess our current abilities in relation to our desired goals. In other words, we must figure out what we can’t do, and then we must own up to the fact that there are concerns (either conceptual, physical, or artistic) that need addressing. This sounds like a simple enough task, but I often find (even as a seasoned performer) that it is much easier to dwell on the things I can already do as opposed to accepting the challenge of conquering new ideas and new materials. However, if the process of making music is going to continue to move forward, we simply must take the time to honestly identify technical, intellectual, and artistic problems that are hindering us from reaching our final goals.
Plan of Attack—After weaknesses have been identified, we move swiftly to the Plan of Attack. This plan involves a multi-faceted approach to removing an item from the weaknesses column and placing it into our strengths column. This transition usually involves the dreaded word PRACTICE. To some, the word practice suggests an arduous, boring, and robotic repetition of a passage or excerpt. However, for the thoughtful musician, practice is a period of time for great musical and artistic creativity and discovery. It is a highly personal time in which intense focus on a given subject or problem can lead to a profound understanding about brain function, body processes and muscular control, learning styles, and artistic and physical tendencies. Most importantly, thoughtful practice can unlock the keys to artistic, authentic, and meaningful interpretations to even the most complex of musical scores. This type of practice rarely gets boring, and this type of practice, although time-intensive, can lead to great inspiration and enlightenment for both the student and the professional.
Simmer Time—Simmer Time refers to the time required for the body and mind to process certain physical skills and techniques. For instance, we’ve all seen small children struggle with the task of tying shoes. As adults, we see the act of lacing up our shoes as the simplest of our many daily routines. However, if we actually break down the muscular and coordination elements required to accomplish this undertaking, we will discover that it is not so simple after all. A great many physical gestures must happen in sequence and with precision if the knot is going to hold. Simmer time refers to the several thousand ‘trial runs’ the student makes, with his brain fully engaged, before truly mastering the skill. Once mastered and muscle memory has been locked in, the task is accomplished to perfection nearly one hundred percent of the time with little or no mental energy expended.
It is important for performers and teachers to remember that simmer time cannot be rushed. It takes time to develop muscles. Just as the bodybuilder understands that there is no shortcut to the development of an impressive physique, the musician understands that the development of an impressive and consistent technique requires a daily workout consisting of scales, chord studies, articulation exercises, range building studies, and more.
For the WSMA Honor Band members, the simmer time is happening right now. It consists of the hundreds of hours the students are currently spending honing and refining individual parts. It consists of the numerous frustrations they work through as they study with band directors and private teachers to develop new skills and advanced techniques; it also consists of all the moments of success that are being enjoyed as difficult passages and individual parts are being conquered and mastered by students.
It was an absolute delight to work with the faculty and students of the WSMA Honors Project this past summer, and I am excited to see and hear the progress of these wonderful students after three months of simmer time. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to experience the process of making music with these marvelously talented Wisconsin young artists. See you in Madison!