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The Improvising Clarinetist-Mark Sowlakis


The genesis of this book is a result of my experience learning to play the clarinet and saxophone and teaching both clarinet and saxophone to over 2,000 students in the last 25 years. My studies included work with Warne Marsh, Joe Henderson, classical saxophone studies with Bill Trimble, Masters studies with former New York Philharmonic clarinetist Peter Simenauer, and sporadic lessons with Eddie Daniels and Ken Peplowski during my tenure in New York City as a graduate student. My interest in the clarinet originated in my love of the New Orleans clarinet style, and continued with my classical work in academia. Since that time I’ve made my living performing and teaching, and through my private teaching practice I’ve seen what’s worked, and what hasn’t. I often remark, when working with a very talented student, that I’m not sure who is teaching whom. It is through my work with many talented young saxophonists and clarinetists, several of whom have gone on to scholarships and studies at Berklee and USC, that I’ve developed what I think is a unique way to work with young students eager to improvise.

These days a quick search of the Internet brings up all sorts of clarinet and saxophone related instructional material……most of which, in my humble opinion, are a complete waste of time, money and paper. From a historical perspective I think the following books are interesting and having been written by Hall Of Fame clarinetists I think they deserve a place in any serious jazz clarinetists library. Although some of what you will find contained here is rather dated, it is worth investigating this material to see how these Masters of the Clarinet organized their material and thinking:

Benny Goodman’s Clarinet Method

Artie Shaw’a Jazz Technic Book One, Scales and Book Two 14 Clarinet Etudes

Jazz Clarinet by Bill Smith

Hand in Hand With Hanon by Buddy De Franco

The above books contain a lot of material, and clearly they all assume a pretty high level of clarinet expertise to even begin to work from. In my book I have tried to bring together a lot of diverse material, things that I’ve developed through my teaching, exercises that I’ve learned from my mentors, and things that I’ve culled from recordings and extrapolated into exercises for my students. The purpose of this book is to take intermediate level clarinetists, who have virtually no background with improvisation, and provide them with the tools to develop their ears, their technique, and their understanding of jazz harmony through the study of the the clarinet’s rich recorded legacy. This journey through the history and technical challenges of the clarinet can provide the studious and curious young musician/clarinetist with enough food for thought to last a lifetime. I firmly believe in the practice of learning classic jazz solos note for note, playing them daily until they are totally instinctual and natural, and then finally writing them out. Said another way, be as deeply influenced by the music and source material as you can be, and do your own transcription work. I believe my book will provide you with the tools to do exactly that, particularly if you supplement the book with some work and oversight with a fine clarinet instructor who has some experience in the jazz idiom. The book should also serve as a starting point to begin to create your own exercises and linear concept, and move you forward in an “organic” natural way, as opposed to memorizing licks and patterns.

A final word on the music……spend the money and begin building your CD or download library. Your goal should be to familiarize yourself with as many of the great recordings and clarinetists as you can. Start with the Ellington Band and the great New Orleans clarinetists, and work your way into the more modern and far reaching clarinet artists. Use a slow down program like Transcribe! (which you can find out about here… to hear things in detail, slow them down and sing along with them, and finally become proficient on some basic music notation software. These are the essential tools to get you going in the right direction. Combining these elements with the technical aspects of The Improvising Clarinetist will yield significant results, and remember to be patient as it takes time and diligent practice to make this pay off in the long run.

So if you are finally ready to delve deeply into the study of the clarinet and it’s role in jazz, then by all means, take some time to digest the material contained in The Improvising Clarinetist. And please, through my website, feel free to email me with any comments, suggestions or insights regarding this material, or anything somehow related to the jazz clarinet.

Mark Sowlakis

Chapter One-Scales and Scale Merging

Knowing your major and jazz melodic minor scales and having some degree of fluency with them is the first step towards learning to improvise. These intermediate exercises are designed to get the aspiring jazz clarinetist moving through these tonalities and will also help said clarinetist overcome the fingering difficulties inherit in clarinet technique. In time these three basic patterns should be learned until they can be played without looking at the written page. Remember the Jazz Melodic Minor Scale is merely the Major Scale with a minor or lowered third degree relative to the major scale. You should strive to develop these basic patterns through the entire range of the clarinet and through all 12 major and minor tonalities ultimately without reading them. These 24 tonalities form the basis for another idea we will address down the road in more detail, something I call Basic Instrumental Technique, or simply B.I.T.

The Intermediate Scale Routine-12 Major and 12 Jazz Melodic Minor Scales.

One octave up to the ninth, thirds, and triads.

Download PDF • 100KB

Download PDF • 101KB

A concept that I have developed and find very successful for training one’s ear, mind and fingers is something I call “Scale Merging.”I define Scale Merging as transitioning from one scale to another scale, in this case moving from Major into Minor Scales, or visa versa, without stopping or hesitation. Note this page in F should be transposed to all 12 major/minor tonalities.

Download PDF • 280KB

This is a fundamental skill, as jazz improvisation at its essence demands the ability to seamlessly transition between not only major and minor but augmented and diminished tonalities. We will address augmented and diminished at a later time, however for now concentrate only on major and minor, and be sure to tune in with your ears to listen for the difference in these two tonalities.

This next PDF is a slightly more advanced Scale Routine. These Scales In Triplets are a step forward from the basic scales introduced at the beginning of this chapter. You will find some familiar intervals being used in a novel and unique rhythmic manner. I like to go from the first set of scales and thirds and merge directly into these triplet scales and intervals. It takes patience and attention to the rhythmic complexity to make this work out. Give it a try and see what you can do with this material in tandem with my original scale ideas…….

Download PDF • 187KB

Chapter Two-Jazz Articulation

The most common problem that I encounter when teaching jazz improvisation to aspiring jazz clarinetists and saxophonists centers around “jazz articulation.” In a couple of ways this idea is diametrically opposed to the way articulation is taught from a classical perspective, and this is what makes it so challenging for inexperienced players to grasp.

Articulation with respect to clarinet (and saxophone) refers to the use of the tongue, where it is placed with respect to the beat, and how the articulation is used to execute phrases. Clarinetists in particular coming from a classical background invariably have difficulty learning jazz phrasing, and the secret is in the articulation. While learning solo’s off recordings and imitating closely what you hear masters such as Buddy DeFranco and Eddie Daniels do specifically is the best way to develop both an understanding of and feel for jazz phrasing and articulation, a few rules can be followed that will allow you to move forward successfully with this aspect of the jazz language. In no way is the difficulty totally confined to clarinetists, however, as I have seen this problem plague many a saxophone student as well.

Generally speaking, a smooth, legato stroke with the tongue is desirable, particularly when playing the standard swing eighth notes in succession. Many educators teach the swing eighths are an eighth note triplet with the first two eighths tied together, followed by the remaining leg of the triplet. A “two to one” ratio is then achieved with respect to the swing eighths, if you get what I mean. I think this is a good description of the feel of the eighth note line, but it can be achieved rather easily without any conscious thought by doing the following…..

Generally speaking, Jazz eighths are articulated “On the Up” or “And” part of a beat and slurred to the “Down” part of the beat. Therefore, if the phrase starts on the beat, the phrase should start with two articulated notes, the second which is slurred into, and then proceed to alternate tongue-slur, tongue slur etc……see the first line my example. When a phrase starts off the beat, simply proceed tongue-slur etc. Always slur over a triplet, and make the final note of a phrase a “fat” but stopped note. Finally, sixteenths should always be slurred over………

Download PDF • 30KB

Proper jazz articulation is the key to having solid phrasing technique in the jazz idiom. It can transform classical sounding phrases into sure fire jazz phrasing to dramatic effect. Practice this way of phrasing on any material that interests you, learn to apply it to some transcribed solos, and then finally implement it in your practice by learning solos note for note off classic recordings. I am certain you will achieve a satisfying measure of success. Remember to keep the tongue light and make the lines legato, while striving to place the tongue in the proper position relative to the rhythmic content of the line you are playing. There are a couple of isolated recordings of Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz playing Bach Two Part Inventions with jazz phrasing. Have a listen to those if you want to hear how to apply a loose, swinging jazz feel to some timeless classical counterpoint. A great practice project would be to overdub some Bach Two Part Inventions of yourself with a program like Garage Band, Logic or ProTools using proper jazz articulation and see what you sound like. If done correctly you should produce a legato sense of swinging jazz time and some great contrapuntal lines that fit together seamlessly. I predict the result will lead you to higher ground in your jazz phrasing and articulation going forward.

Coming soon, please stay tuned (no pun intended) for an upcoming blog post that will include Chapter 3-Triads and Chapter 4-Diatonic Seventh Chords from The Improvising Clarinetist.

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