The Interview with Seunghee Lee (a.k.a Sunny Kang) took place on June 6, 2019 in New York and was edited by Heinrich Mätzener.
HM: What would you say: what requirements must today’s clarinetists meet in terms of sound quality?
SL: First of all, thank you for this opportunity to share. I’m truly honored. As for sound quality, I really think it depends on what type of music you’re playing such as jazz, Broadway, classical music, new music etc. Of course, we like to be versatile. But I think to have a good sound quality, you have to start classical style with correct embouchure and learn to work with reeds. It’s a good idea early on to set up a solid foundation in sound production, in order to be able to meet all musical requirements later.
Finding your own sound ideal by listening to role models
SL: My first LP recording I bought was Robert Marcellus’ Mozart Clarinet Concerto, and I always had this dark sound in mind. YouTube
HM. I have this recording. It is great, a very fascinating, I would say rich, sensual and always compact and very good conducted sound.
SL: Yes and that’s the clarinet sound I grew up listening to as well as my father’s. He was a clarinet player, not professionally, but he studied clarinet in high school and college in Seoul Korea and he’s the one who taught me my first scales. My high school band director was also a clarinet player and he played many clarinet recordings for me at school.
In search of “The American clarinet sound”
HM: But there’s also a vibrating sound that never stiff. There is a dark sound that some people today want to have, but often the projection is limited. Then I would say it’s too dark or not lively.
SL: I feel that there are many different styles in America and there are plenty of recordings by American clarinetists whose sounds and styles are so different from each other. As I mentioned, I grew up listening to an LP of Robert Marcellus playing the Mozart clarinet concerto. I also listened to Richard Stoltzman’s Weber Clarinet Quintet YouTube. They are very different! Richard Stoltzman is very lyrical and he uses a lot of vibrato. I really liked that freedom in his sound. I also grew up listening to Larry Combs’ beautiful playing with Chicago Symphony Orchestra Oververview of the career of Larry Combs, YouTube . So I don’t know whether there is one certain American sound that defines American school of clarinet playing.
HM: It is such a big country with a lot of influences by different nations.
SL: Yes, It is such a big country and everybody studies with different people with influences from all over the world. So I believe the classical clarinet sound you end up creating would depend a lot on with where you grew up and with whom you studied. However, I would also assume that when people think of America they would think of jazz too! Therefore, I would say that maybe Benny Goodman’s sound would be like a distinct iconic American jazz sound. His recordings are iconic and his sound is unique and unforgettable. Everything else is like a blend of French and German style. Honestly, as a kid, I didn’t even realize that there was a difference between French and German style and only in college did I learn about the differences in French and German systems of clarinet making.
HM: There has been a study from Stephanie Angloher (2007), a clarinetist in Munich. She wanted musicians to recognize, whether there was a French or a German clarinet system be played. Alessandro Carbonare, for instance, plays a French clarinet. But in the test people, listening to one of his recordings believed he would play a German System clarinet. But let’s return to the French root of American clarinet playing. Daniel Bonade is generally regarded as the founder of the American-French school of clarinet playing. Do you think it were only in the 40’s or 50’s of last century, that there has been a characteristic American kind of clarinet sound?
SL: Probably. I think that your meeting with David Shifrin (listen e.g. The Guarneri Quartet / David Shifrin with Brahms Clarinet Quintet YouTube) tomorrow will bring more clarity to this topic. He will probably have a better understanding of that transition period. David Shifrin was my teacher at the Yale School of Music. Of course I listened to many of his recordings as well. I loved his dark sound and his very lyrical playing, which is very unique and distinctive, and almost a mix between Robert Marcellus (listen e.g. Mozart Clarinet Concerto YouTube) and Richard Stoltzman (listen e.g. Brahms Quintet with the Artis Quartet YouTube) I generally like free style of playing but sometimes orchestra players can be very stiff when they try to play solo repertoire.
HM: That can happen. Orchestra musicians are expected to always follow the conductor's instructions, to blend with all other woodwinds and sometimes their own musical ideas are undesirable.
SL: As for soloists, I feel like we are like marathon runners. You have to pace yourself and be creative throughout the piece to keep the music alive until the very end. Whereas orchestra musicians are like sprinters, working towards that moment of solo passages.
HM: It’s different.
SL: Yes, and it requires a different kind of physical and mental game.
Keep the chin very tight and close the corners of the mouth
HM: Let’s talk you about your embouchure technique: what is the function of the upper and of the lower lip, and how do you involve other facial muscles?
SL: You know, I rarely analyzed that part. My teachers told me early on to always keep my chin down very tight, so that’s what I did. I don’t remember having any issues with embouchure. I had such great teachers from the beginning (Mary-Beth Skaggs, Laurie DeLuca), who were both students of Robert Marcellus at Northwestern University. I am forever grateful to them for helping me set up a solid foundation.
HM: And do you use your upper lip consciously, i.e. you pull it down a bit or you just concentrate to close the corners of the mouth?
SL: Yes, I like to close the corners to keep the air from escaping so that air goes this way [in the direction of the reed], without puffy cheeks, keeping everything tight by bringing your chin down.
Create the sound with the air not with the embouchure!
HM: We need some pressure to make the reed vibrate, but we should avoid biting in any way.
SL: Yes. I don’t only use the embouchure to make the sound to come out. I actually think your sound gets created from your core. I use a lot of my stomach muscles to control the airflow. Another words, your embouchure, lower lip, your upper teeth, all these are part of the overall structure that builds your lower facial muscles which acts as a whole embouchure. It’s hard to explain because I haven’t’ really thought about it. I don’t teach now, but earlier on in my career when I used to teach young students, they were always biting and I had to explain to them.
Do not bite, just seal the mouthpiece!
HM: What did you tell them so they wouldn’t bite?
SL: I told them to use the muscles around the mouth to create a sealing around the mouthpiece. It’s like tunneling warm air through the vents in a house; the muscles around the embouchure are like keeping the windows closed tight so the heat won’t escape. Then the respiratory muscles, involving the diaphragm, generate your sound production. The airflow should come from deep within your body. It’s like singing, you should be singing from deep within and not from your throat. Our sound production is the same. It doesn’t come from our throat; it comes from deep, down here. (SL is pointing to her core.) Breathing and posture
HM: So the main thing for the tone production is the breathing, after sealing the embouchure with the lips, so that no air can escape at the corners of the mouth, but without exerting unnecessary pressure on the mouthpiece and reed.
SL: Yes. Exactly, once I get started playing, I don’t focus on the mouthpiece or the reed so much. I concentrate more on my breathing; you control it from here [core]. When I take my clarinet, it becomes an extension of my whole body and I don’t push the clarinet with my thumb, it only holds it. (see Holding the clarinet)
HM: How could you describe the groups of muscles you focus while breathing for sound production?
<nr> SL: It’s down here (SL shows to her core). I did Pilates, while I was training as a golfer, and there I did a lot of stretching, with deep breathing in and out. That really helped to visualize what’s happening inside my body. When breathing in, you can store a lot of air quickly ”deep down”. When breathing out, there are pockets of air deep down that normally are not being used. You want to be able to utilize all the air pockets effortlessly. It’s a great practice for playing long solo passages.
HM: So, you do not stand always in an upright position when playing?
SL: No, sometimes I start folding my body…sort of say.
HM: Of course, if you used already some volume of lungs you cannot stay upright, you have to fold.
SL: Yes. It’s like squeezing a tub of toothpaste. When you want to get the last bit out, you have to fold it. It’s like that.
HM: And if you play a concert as a soloist, you also show your musical interpretation with your body language. <br
SL: Sure. You should flow with the music.
HM: Do you use also back muscles?
SL: Yes, I can feel it there. When I’m breathing in, for sure, yes.
HM: And inhaling, you’re opening on the flanks too?
SL: Yes, the cavity, the rib cages [chest box].
Double lip embouchure
HM: It’s interesting, I think Richard Stoltzman, who plays with a lot of different colors plays with double lip embouchure, a technique handed down from the old French school. I think, that his flexibility has also to do with his embouchure training. Did you have teachers who wanted you to play with double lip?
SL: During my high school years, I studied with John Bruce Yeh of Chicago Symphony. He plays with double lip (listen to e.g. C.M. von Weber, Quintet, Lincolnwood Chamber Orchestra Philip Simmons, conductor). John Yeh taught me about double lip and I tried it for a while.
HM: Do you think that there are some advantages?
b SL: I think it makes the sound more flexible because double lip helps to keep the embouchure open and less biting. For me I prefer the single lip.
Difficulties and advantages
SL: Ever since I was young, I used something to cover my lower teeth, because then the sharpness of my lower teeth doesn’t bleed into my lip and I can get a good grip of the mouthpiece with my teeth resting on top of the mouthpiece. I also use a rubber patch. When I tried the double lip, I felt I didn’t have that secure grip. I tried for a while because I wanted to sound great like John but later I ended up coming back to single lip and kept covering the lower lip with a thick paper. Now days there are plastic guards that you can mold to custom fit your teeth.
HM: To play with double lip embouchure isn’t possible for everybody, it depends of the physiognomy: if the lips are too small, it’s very hard. Bonade i.e., he had long teeth, (see Kycia, Carol Anne. 1999) . His lips were too small to cover the teeth. Daniel Bonade’s professors were Henri Lefebrve, a student of C. Rose, and Prosper Mimart. Mimart edited a method for clarinet and teached students to play double lip embouchure. But Bonade changed during his career in the states and payed single lip.
SL: How about Philippe Cuper, does he do double?
HM: Philippe Cuper sometimes teaches it, as he mentioned in the interview. And one of his role models, Louis Cahuzac, played double lip embouchure and came from the old French school. Louis Cahuzac was student of Cyril Rose in Paris. Some clarinetists in America, like Richard Stoltzman, or Thomas Piercy even changed from single to continued double lip.
I think when taking the upper lip inside as in double lip playing, it can be helpful to learn to shape the space inside the mouth. The tongue position naturally changes. Also, the opening of the throat is different, it changes naturally to a more opened shape.
Doubling other instruments
SL: You know, I played oboe for about one year at the same time I was playing the clarinet because my high school band director desperately needed an oboe player in the second band. Since I was the first chair clarinet in first band, he asked me, “Can you play the oboe in the second band?” I said “ok” and I took oboe lessons. My younger sister played the bassoon. I’d try to play her bassoon from time to time so I was already accustomed to the double lip. Anyway, through learning to play the oboe, I got to experience what it felt like to open up my embouchure. I learned to open up my throat as well to make the oboe sing like a singer. That was a great experience. So when my clarinet teachers told me to open up and sing through my clarinet, I imagined playing the oboe.
HM: It is interesting: in the beginning of the history of clarinet, oboe and bassoon players played the clarinet. It was logic for them to play with the same embouchure, they even had the reed upside, touching the upper lip. I am sure it was a good experience for you to play oboe.
SL: Yes, and even the flute. My other younger sister chose flute as her instrument and so I got to try that as well. Flute playing requires a more intensive examination of the air control. I think it is very smart for these young kids to try different instruments.
HM: We breathe, specially exhale, differently while playing a wind instrument as in normal life. How would you explain it? Do you keep the ribs a bit opened in the first few moments of exhaling, to keep them in a certain tonus, or you do just need only the exhaling muscles to support?
An elastic, wide belt as a tool
SL: One day as an experiment, I used a wide belt loosely put around my stomach, to visualize supporting my sound with stomach muscles. After breathing in and filling my lungs and diaphragm with air, I told myself: “Keep the belt full, even when I’m exhaling, try to push my stomach muscles out, to keep the belt from dropping.” It’s a useful vivid mental image when thinking about air support. When I was teaching young students, I used to demonstrate this to make them understand what I mean by “support your sound”. I said, “Breathe in deep all the way down to your stomach so the belt gets full. Now, when you are breathing out, try to keep the belt from falling down. Keep pushing your stomach muscles out, and don’t let it drop!”
HM: So, you stay in action with your inhaling muscles.
SL: Yes! I try to be full here in my core as a support.
HM: It’s a good feeling.
SL: Yes, it feels very solid. I think it’s the same thing when you’re screaming for your life, or singing at the Met Opera over the orchestra. You will need lots of support from your stomach muscles to fill the hall to project all the way to the back row. The solid foundation is the muscles around your waist. I sometimes use a Velcro belt around my waist; you know one of those back supports. Then, I try to push against that and imagine that feeling while I’m performing.
HM: So, the belt strengthens the muscles of inhalation all around your body, and you keep them in activation during exhaling.
SL: Yes, I believe strengthening stomach muscles gives solid support during inhaling and exhaling.
Economize the air
HM: I think this technique enables you to play with a steady, slow and continuous air flow. And I think you don’t use to much air for the tone production.
SL: No, no I don’t think so. You have to be strategic when you play the clarinet and really economize the air.
HM: Do you agree if we say we don’t have to regulate the air going through the clarinet by the embouchure-pressure?
SL: Yes. Not at all, not by embouchure-pressure.
HM: But you control the quantity of the air with this belt, with this inner tension.
SL: Yes. This is where you control the air, it [the control] comes from down here, not up here in your chest area.
The source is in the core muscles
HM: I have the idea that for Asian culture, it is easier to have this feeling of inner attention. Do you think it is right?
SL: Why do you think that?
HM: I imagine that you grew up culturally near to martial arts, and for this reason you might be very conscient of your body. I don’t know.
SL: Maybe! I never thought that way but I see like karate, judo…because when you take a stance for a karate kick, you’d need the core support to have this quick reaction.
HM: It’s like a tiger, a cat, being on the lookout, he can start running immediately.
SL: I see and it comes down to the source. The source is our core muscle. Look at the ballerinas. If you’ve been training, you are ready to jump anytime. That can be compared to our clarinet embouchure and our breathing. When we suddenly have to play high notes or fast tongue, our body is ready to do that.
HM: And avoid any tension that doesn’t allow your energy flowing from the core to the reed, to let it vibrate. SL: Yes. The source is in our core muscles. Like a tiger getting ready to attack, their muscles are very relaxed, saving energy, until ready to make the jump That’s good use of power.
HM: How would you describe voicing, and why is so important?
SL: Voicing is just like singing. I think this is where the pitch gets corrected too. It’s the highest level of artistry in performance where you get to become an artist rather than a technician.
HM: Do you create the voicing by changing your tongue position and form, by all what happens inside the mouth?
SL: Yes and also by mapping out the sound that I wanted to create by imagination.
HM: Do you take special positions of the tongue for different registers?
SL: Not really. I try to work with the space within my oral cavity for different registers rather than focusing on the tongue. In fact, I don’t even think about the tongue. It’s like singing. I love going to voice master classes. All they talk about is voicing! And when I’m listening to them I think to myself: “how can I apply that voicing on the clarinet?” And I think this is what all the clarinetists should do! And that’s where you’d get to work on creating lyricism. Sometimes clarinet learning can be so technical. We talk so much about the tonguing, fingering, the embouchure etc. I don’t even think about that. I think more about the voicing, like a singer.
HM: I heard about an English clarinet player who says: you can play with any embouchure, it doesn’t matter. What counts is the voicing, what’s happening inside the mouth. This is what’s important.
SL: Yes, most definitely. I think when a student can understand the importance of voicing; this is when he/she becomes an artist.
HM: The difficulty is: we can’t move our lips as a singer does. Our tongue has to change its positions and form independently from the embouchure building, and I think this independence is difficult.
Let some freedom to the embouchure
SL: It’s the art of coordination. You have to follow your instincts. Just because your teacher says that you have to play with this [solid] embouchure and you can’t, then you are not listening to your body, which may lead to putting limits to your expression. If you have a specific voicing in mind, your embouchure changes a bit to adapt. In the end, you have to find the most natural way that works for you. Therefore, if you need to loosen the embouchure to make a sound you want, then do it.
Sing and play
HM: Could you describe which positions of tongue you use for high notes, lower, or middle?
SL: Oh, My goodness!
HM: Do you do it consciously?
SL: No. I don’t… I never really thought about that. Because when you are singing, you don’t think about where your tongue is.
HM: Yes, you can sing on the same level but you’re changing the colors by changing the vowels.
SL: Right. You change the shape of cavity in your mouth to change the color. Our clarinet methods books talk a lot about the tongue position and all that, but I think we overemphasize where the tongue should be. For the kids to understand this, it’s too complicated.
HM: Yes, you tell them may be to form the vowels OO, UU, AA or EE.
SL: Yes, what I used to do when I was teaching young kids, I asked them to sing the melody. “Can you sing the melody?” then I say, “Can you do the same thing on the clarinet?” I think it’s easier talk about singing instead of prescribing where and how to put the tongue. This quickly can lead to awkward tension in the mouth and the kids get stuck thinking about the technique and they can’t sing.
HM: When you do slowly, it is easier to observe the changings of voicing between different registers. SL: Exactly. It’s kind of like driving car on a stick shift. If you’re going up higher, you need to change to different gears. Just like that, you have to go with the terrain of what music you’re playing.
HM. Best thing to learn is to sing without the instrument and then take the instrument and imitate the singing.
SL: Exactly. Immediately we improve on our sound production on the clarinet. You know kids are very shy to sing in front of their teachers, but once you break that barrier: “Why don’t you sing for me?” and then they play on the clarinet, their sound changes immediately and they don’t’ even think of the embouchure, they only think what kind of sound they want to produce. I try not to say to kids you need this kind of embouchure to create this kind of sound. I let them sing for me first and have them imagine how they can make that happen on the clarinet.
HM: Yes. At the beginning of the interview you said, you listened to other people’s sounds. You knew exactly what sound you wanted and then you tried to get this by your ear. SL: Yes it’s a natural process and we must use our ears.
Be analytical or let the body adapt the singing of the music?
HM: For sure it is expedient to choose this order: sing and play. Afterwards, I try to be analytical, I am curious to know which positions of the tip of the tongue are connected with which specific sound, what does my middle and my back part of the tongue to get the sound I like to have. If I want to have a more resonant voice, I try to imitate opera singers. They have a lot of resonance in their voice, increasing their resonance chamber, I think by putting their mouth base a bit lower.
SL: Ah…again talking about tonguing. I wouldn’t be of any help in this area! (laughter). It’s complicated and the tongue is a muscle that just seems to move all the time and I don’t know if students could understand that from early on and be able to control it! Therefore, I’m going back to talking about the singing part of making music when playing the clarinet. When you can sing the melody, the tongue just seems to adapt naturally. It’s just like speaking different languages, French, Japanese, Italian, Korean, etc. You know, Korean language and even Japanese language, we have lots of short syllables like Ka Na Da Ta Ka Sa etc. and the tongue is very much in the front to cut the sounds short. Whereas like French language. “Bonjour, comment ça va?” The framework is very different inside the mouth. I studied French in high school and I just came back from France in April. What I realized was that when I’m trying to speak French, which sounds to me very fluid and requires more use of the oral cavity, my body naturally tries to change to adapt to that language. So I think it’s the same thing with music and playing the clarinet in different styles. Let the body adapt.
HM: I think you have a lot of know-how, speaking French, Japanese, English, Korean, you’re very sensible to the melodic character of the different languages. For you it is natural to be flexible and you never get stiff in any tongue or throat positions. That’s a very good approach.
SL: Thank You.
Set a good example
HM: First of all, there should be an ear training, to learn to recognize i.e. a pure third octave or fifth.
SL: Absolutely. My first instrument was the piano. And I think everybody should learn the piano, just to hear the intervals. Of course, the piano has to be tuned! Ear training: you know the kids are like sponge they absorb everything, even when they’re babies, they hear our voices, so that’s why I think the mother’s voice and the child’s voice are very similar. The mother and the daughter ‘s voice is very similar, and the father and the son as well, because that’s what they hear growing up and we imitate. That’s why I think it is so important for young people to listen to great recordings, especially clarinetists playing in tune!
HM: Of course.
SL: I don’t believe young students should try to learn from amateur YouTube videos. There are too many bad performances out there. Social media is an effective way for a performer to have their performances on-line to document their growth and to share with friends and family. But if you are a young student starting to learn an instrument, I strongly advise them to take proper lessons and listen to a high quality recordings instead. It will take more time and effort to correct bad habits later on.
Techniques to change the pitch
HM: I agree absolutely! Tell me, if you’re playing octaves or unisons with flute, how do you arrange it if you feel: ”I’m too high”, or “I’m too low.” It’s easier to make a correction from a too high pitch. You go by your ear, or by embouchure pressure, by fingering?
SL: Oh! There are many ways to change the pitch. Probably by my dropping my jaw – if its high – I drop my jaw to bring the clarinet intonation down quickly and if I’m flat, I tighten up my stomach and my whole body, so the intonation goes up, without biting. And of course, it takes two to tango! I shouldn’t be the only one trying to change the pitch, unless I’m incredibly off the mark, but it’s collaboration between the two people.
HM. Yes it should be.
SL: (laughs) It’s music making, so we both have to listen to each other! It’s harder to go up in pitch though. Recently I was playing with some european string players and they play to 442!
Adapt the mouthpiece
HM: Oh, you are not used to play on 442!
SL: No, because in the US, it’s usually 440. During that rehearsal, I tried to adapt with my existing set up, but then I ended up feeling and playing too tight which prohibited me from being expressive. So I changed my mouthpiece that plays higher 442 pitch. Immediately, I felt more flexible. It’s so important to have the right set-up, the right products to start and then you have to listen to each other to make music.
Response and articulation
HM: Response and articulation is a big chapter for all clarinet players: to have a clear articulation. Which advice can you give to achieve good response and articulation in all registers?
Staccato needs the basic of embouchure and breathing
SL: I think to have a good articulation, you have to have a good embouchure, you need to have solid muscles to articulate. Like athletes, you know, gymnasts doing all that crazy hard tumbling and jumping and things like that. If their muscles are well trained with solid foundation, they could handle any kind of jumps. For clarinetists, I think our foundation is our embouchure and the facial muscles around it as you mentioned. Not the biting part. I’m referring to the muscles around your mouth and our body. It’s all connected. When everything is working together, I think the articulation comes naturally. Of course the most important thing is how you control the air during the articulation.
HM: So, you don’t think too much about tongue, how do I have to use my tongue, what position your tongue has on the reed. This is not so important, more important is the air and the embouchure.
SL: Exactly. Right, yes, yes! And in order for the tongue to be as free as possible, the air and embouchure must work optimally. I think it’s like setting a foundation building a house. If we want the tongue to work properly, we must have a solid embouchure that will enable a strong airflow. The worst thing is to try to control the tongue muscle alone… It doesn’t work.
HM: I understand, with a biting embouchure there will be too much tension in the tongue and it’s impossible to have a free and rebounding staccato.
HM: Do you care which part of the tongue touches the reed, and at which place of the reed, at the tip or a bit more of the surface, you make the articulations?
SL: (laughs) Again, there is no particular place, but if we have to be technical, it’s usually the tip of the tongue touching just below the tip of the reed and the mouthpiece.
HM: But when you are teaching a kid who really have problems to articulate?
Recognize the individual dispositions of the students
SL: I think the teachers have a huge responsibility on what they say to these young students! Especially teaching beginning students, the teachers themselves have a huge responsibility to learn the instrument correctly themselves, before passing on any information explaining what’s going on inside the oral cavity. Everyone is different and one embouchure that works for an individual may not work for another.
HM: Yes, its true, we all have different physiognomies, different teeth and lengths of the tongue.
Staccato in different stiles
HM: You mentioned, that your sound could change, depending of the different styles you play. Playing Jazz, you have another sound. Do you change also articulations if you play let’s say Stravinsky, Three Pieces compared to the Mozart Concerto?
SL: Kind of…I think when given different styles of music, you should change in the perception/interpretation of the music and not so much focus on what kind of articulation. You know, I would have loved to play jazz and be able to improvise. Unfortunately my body and brain doesn’t seem to go there easily. Maybe if I started training sooner (laughs). I also admire Broadway show performers, they have to be very flexible and play many different styles.
HM: They’re also doubling instruments.
SL: Yes. Doubling on saxophone, flute, oboe, and all kinds clarinets. In that sense, they could do different articulations to fit many different styles of music. That said, I would be hesitant to say that these multi-instrumentalists playing style represent the mainstream classical genre either. Mozart Clarinet Concerto performed by a multi-instrumentalist may sound and feel different than performed by a straight out classical performer. It’s not about being right or wrong but just different interpretation. Perhaps more interesting even! Paquito D'Riveria- "Mozart's Adagio
HM: I think of more in classical music, making the difference between Stravinsky and Mozart, may be even between Brahms and Mozart, or Schumann.
SL: I don’t know how to answer that! I guess in playing symphonic works in an orchestra, it also depends on what the conductor tells you to do, how to articulate…But I don’t think I would specifically say: “oh, in Stravinsky I need to do this kind of articulation, or in Brahms.”
HM: In Stravinsky’s faster movements, there are a lot of sforzato and accents, so they can be played differently.
SL: Yes, sure! Of course, you have to use different kind of articulations for different kinds of music as composers intended.
More air and a stronger embouchure
HM: If I would ask you about velocity, I think you are a natural talent, I’m sure you don’t have any problems to play a very fast staccato.
SL: Well, I double tonging and that helps with articulation in faster passages for sure.
HM: The difficulty with double tongue is, to make it respond clearly in the upper register.
HM: But if you have a good voicing, naturally, it works? SL: Kind of… as mentioned before, I believe it’s the speed of the air, the embouchure, the muscles around it, and how relaxed your body can get, that makes the tongue move faster.
HM: Which teacher did you work this with on this? Or did you learn it by yourself?
SL: I started learning double tonging from Charles Neidich at the Eastman School of Music during my undergraduate degree. After learning the basics with him, I practiced a lot on my own after I graduated. Then one day, years later, all clicked and I figured it out. At the time, for my debut album Brava, I was working on a repertoire that required some fast tonging, like the Arpeggione Sonata! I’m proud to have made a premiere recording played on the B-flat clarinet, in the original key! It was a huge challenge but I kept at it because I loved it so much! When I was learning this piece (she sings the passage), there were passages in the higher register that required fast tonging. I thought to myself, “I’m going to figure out how to double tongue in those higher register”. Then I figured it out! “If I want to tongue faster in a high register, I need to have a lot more air supported from my core”.
HM: Yes, I feel the same way, air is basic for the articulation. I don’t think too much about tongue and the moving, the air must continuously flow, never stop.
SL: Yes. Every time I heard Charlie Neidich double tonging while I was student, he was simply amazing! There were many other peers who used double tonguing and I didn’t get to that point until later. Honestly, I didn’t think I could do double tonguing at all! But I diligently practiced and pushed myself and then soon enough, I figured it out.
HM: You started in lower register, I think 2 notes, 3 notes. SL: Yes (imitates the technique, da-ga, da-ga-da) and It is just breaking it down, magnifying it and then slowly getting faster and faster and faster and then again, breaking it down, magnify and then you get better.
HM: And then also starting by “ga” like “ga-da-ga-da” ? It’s always good to combine it with the air activity.
SL: Oh sure!
HM. And the first impulse of the starting syllable (ga or da), should start combined with the air accent?
HM: The first note! I learned it with Guy Deplus. He always told me that it doesn’t depend where a group of fast note starts in the bar. Always the first note has to have a little accent of air also for double tonging.
Holding the clarinet
HM: Daniel Bonade writes in his clarinet compendium (p.1) Bonade, Daniel. 1962.  about holding the clarinet as part of the embouchure, to create just a little bit of pressure against the lips. So Larry guy describes it in his “The Daniel Bonade Workbook” (2007) ). Do you think it’s good to use the work of holding the clarinet as a part of the embouchure building?
SL: I don’t do that. I simply hold the instrument and I don’t think about pushing the instrument to my teeth.
HM: And, do you change a bit the angle of holding the instrument to regulate the contact with the embouchure?
SL: I don’t think about the angle at all either. The instrument is just part of my body’s extension and the mouthpiece rests in-between my upper and lower teeth. I guess, there is no pressure at all.
HM: I am asking, because Bonade – it really depends on the physiognomy of the teeth and of the jaw – wanted his students to hold the clarinet quite near to their body. For double lip players, it doesn’t work because there would be too much pressure to the upper lip.
SL: Yes. If you use double lip, I think it’s going to be like oboe.
HM: With double lip you have to play with a more open angle: this allows us to open the mouth a bit more the, what is necessary, because having both lips on the teeth, there must be more space between mouthpiece and teeth.
SL: Sure. Holding the clarinet is like a triangle: with my two arms to the side and the mouthpiece touching the upper teeth, where it is anchored. Maybe the two arms should be evenly distributed to hold the clarinet?
HM: Do you help holding the instrument sometimes with the left hand to have less weight on the thumb?
SL: No, I don’t think so.
Position of the thumb rest
HM: What do you think about the position of the thumb rest. Where should it be? Low or high?
SL: Oh! I recently got my clarinet changed. My thumb rest used to be down here [lower] and I would have problem in my hand. So I got it changed to a higher position.
HM: So, it’s opposite the index and middle finger?
SL: Yes, so the thumb and index fingers are on the same level.
HM: To get a smooth legato, Bonade (1962) taught to play very slowly and also close the tone holes very slowly, without tapping on the clarinet with the fingers (Compendium p.2). Did you also learn this technique? And then when you play in concert, of course you just don’t’ concentrate any more on the finger moving, you just think about the music.
SL: Oh, legato fingering! Oh...Who told me this? I also studied with Richard Dowell. He is another Marcellus student. He taught at Interlochen Academy for a while. I happened to study with him over a summer when I was growing up in Chicago and I remember him talking about that. And then also the half hole… you know changing the register, [i.e. going from f’’ to d’’]?
I also feel that it’s my breathing that makes the notes come out legato. So, I try not to push the keys too much. When I need to play a big leap in intervals, then I use combination of my breathing and gently squeezing the keys.
HM: And if you do technical brilliant things...some people say that if you tap with the finger it makes the music more brilliant. I don’t change myself, when I play very fast, I try to move very light: small movements and very light movements.
SL: Exactly. I like my fingers to be light.
How to learn difficult passages
HM: For learning difficult fingerings, do you make bigger movements?
SL: I’ve been taught to practice slowly when working on difficult fingerings. When you practice slowly, you are making a blue print in your brain and in your fingerings, like a muscle memory. Practicing slowly is the fasted way to learn and play difficult passages.
HM: Yes, and you have to be patient!
HM: Do you use to break in a reed? Is it important for you to go step by step: the first few days you only play five minutes, and only afterwards you increase the playing time?
SL: Yes. I used to do that. However, I think the reeds on the market these days have gotten a lot better so it takes less time to break in a reed for me now. I also briefly studied with Fred Ormand, at the Music Academy of the West. He was the Mr. King of Reeds! He would tell me, “Seunghee, the first day you do only 10 minutes, and then 20 min”. While I was a student at Eastman and at Yale, I used to spend hours working on reeds, even logging status update in a notebook; writing down the behavior of each reed each day. I also liked helping my fellow clarinet colleagues break in their reed before an important recital. Now days, I just play it out of the box. And I keep them in a humidity control reed case.
HM: It’s good when you’re travelling.
SL: Yes. And I rotate the reed. In that sense, yes, I do break in the reed that way! However, once I have a good reed, I just play on it for weeks! I recently started trying synthetic reeds. They are great! You don’t have to break them in at all. Once you get used to it, it’s so convenient!
HM: You use them also for concerts?
SL: Sometimes. Only in specific concerts. For example, I recently created a “music and stories” concert format.
SL: It’s like two minutes of talking, setting up the narrative behind the music that I am about to play. Then I play and then before playing the next piece, I tell another story behind it. Therefore, because I’m stopping and starting regularly, I need a reed that’s consistent that I can just pick it up and play. But there still seems to be something missing.
HM: Not so good projection! For me it’s also difficult to get the intonation in the high register
SL: Yes. I think so too.
HM: But sometimes in the contemporary music, if I play contrabass clarinet, when it’s not played continuously, the reed dries and moves, the response is getting difficult. For these situations it can be much better to use a plastic reed.
SL: Exactly! It’s good to have these for those times!
SL: Right now, I’m playing a Vandoren mouthpiece, B40. But all my recordings are done with a Dan Johnston mouthpiece or a James Pyne mouthpiece. My first recording was with Pine mouthpiece. Then I started using Dan Johnston mouthpieces. Only in recent years I’m trying Vandoren mouthpieces, because the Vandoren shop is right here in New York City. I also used Pomarico mouthpieces. Actually the crystal mouthpieces work well with synthetic reeds. When I’m doing the music and stories concerts I use Pomarico mouthpieces.
Maintain the technique by means of pieces
HM: Do you follow a daily warm up?
SL: (laughs) I used to play all the scales and arpeggios from Baermann, the Cavallini Etudes, the Rose, the Jean-Jean etc. for many, many years. Everyday, for 2 hours, I’d practice out of these books. Charlie Neidich, he was a very strict teacher. Nowadays, I just go straight to the music and warm up slowly with the pieces of music I’m working on.
HM: Sometimes it’s good to work with scales but sometimes there is no time. For students, it’s different: they need to do that.
SL: As a student you must do all that. There is time for everything. It’s like learning ABC. You got to have it down to become a master at reading.
SL: I was born in Seoul Korea and when I was 9 years old, my parents immigrated to the US. Since then, I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago until I went away for college. I received my Bachelor of Music degree at the Eastman School of Music, studying with Charlie Neidich, and I graduated from the Yale School of Music, with Masters of Music degree and an Artist Diploma degree, studying with David Shifrin. Straight after Yale, I got my first principal clarinet position at Puchon Philharmonic in Seoul Korea. It was a new orchestra. The orchestra was very young and vibrant. The string players were amazing. There were a lot of the Seoul National University graduates who were came back from studying abroad in Europe and the US conservatories. I was very fortunate to be invited to come audition and win the principal clarinet position job. But about a month and a half into the job I realized: “Oh my God, this is not what I want to do for the rest of my life!”
HM: Was it a symphony orchestra?
SL: Yes, it was a full symphony orchestra. I just didn’t feel like I had any control over what I play or how I play it. I had to follow the conductor and do exactly as he commanded. I realized then that I didn’t like people telling me what to do (laugh) So, I only stayed for two years, handed in my resignation letter, said my good bye, and never looked back. It’s been a long journey since leaving the orchestra circuit. But here I am now doing exactly what I love to do in music, making recordings!
HM: Just a last question: was there a moment when you were student, or later, where you thought: “Oh now I learned something very, very important!”
SL: You mean technically or musically?
HM: It can be both, just something very important.
SL: Technically, there were many moments when my brain clicked and got switched on, like circular breathing. I thought: “Aha! I can do it now!” Just like double-tonguing, once I learned these skills, it opened up many more possibilities for expanding my repertoire. That’s why I decided to record Lukas Foss’s Three American Pieces, originally written for violin and orchestra. The third movement, it’s all double-tonguing in the beginning.
At the same time, for musicality, while I was at Yale, there was a moment where I switched my mindset from being a student to becoming an artist. It was liberating to say: “Ok, now I’m going to start creating something of my own”. At this transition point, I was grateful to have studied with David Shifrin at the Yale School of Music for my graduate studies. David’s teaching style was very different from Charlie Niedich. I felt that David’s approach was cultivating individual styles. I’m grateful to him for allowing that space and freedom to explore my own creativity.
HM: He was trusting you, and he helped you to trust yourself!
SL: Exactly! I learned to trust myself, creating my own voice. I am sure everybody had a different experience, but that was a great transition for me to have studied with Charlie Neidich and with David Shifrin and in that order.
HM: You don’t teach anymore?
SL: I don’t, I don’t have the time. If somebody comes and knocks on my door and says, ”Can you please teach me?” and is very committed, sure! But otherwise, I’m not going to go out of my way, I have so many other things to do (laughs)!
HM: Thank you so much (HM just received as a present a marvelous “Full Circle” CD)! Three American pieces by Lukas Foss, that’s the composition you spoke of in connection with double tongue?'
SL: Yes. It’s originally written for violin and orchestra and arranged for clarinet and piano by Richard Stoltzman. Years later, I discovered this sheet music in one of his Songbooks. At the time, the only recording I could find was the original recording by Itzhak Perlman for violin and orchestra. I learned it and loved it so much so I programed this piece to perform at the Dame Myra Hess concert series in 2005. Since it was intended to be played on the violin, there were some places that just didn’t work for the clarinet, especially in the third movement. So, prior to my performance, I contacted Mr. Lukas Foss through Carl Fischer, his publisher. We met in New York City and we worked out some of those problematic spots for the clarinet. I suggested things like alternate registers, articulations, and even adding a glissando at the end of the third movement. I asked him, “Mr. Foss, is it ok if I play a Copland like glissando at the end?” He replied, “Oh! That sounds great! Let’s do it.”
Fast forward to 2017, in tandem with the release of the world-premiere recording (for clarinet) of Three American Pieces, included in my Full Circle album, I was super excited to partner with Carl Fischer to publish my newly edited version. [ It is now a stand-alone piece that anyone can enjoy. I’m thrilled to be contributing this important clarinet repertoire to the growing library of our clarinet community.
Lessons of letting go through golf
HM: One final question. Tell us about your other name, Sunny Kang?
SL: That’s a very interesting question and thank you for asking! It’s a long story but in a nutshell, there was a brief period in my life where I quit music all together (too much mental stress) and became a competitive golfer during a period of time when my husband’s work took us out to live in Hong Kong! Thanks to the rigorous practice discipline I’ve cultivated through learning my instrument, when I applied the same practice discipline to golf, I was able to achieve a single digit handicap status in less than two years. I started competing in high amateur golf tournaments and won numerous trophies and even became the captain for my team! (Alex Jenkins talks to Sunny Kang)
Sunny Kang is a name I gave myself as a golfer. Sunny represents a cheerful side of my personality and Kang is my married name. Most importantly, through golf, I learned how to let go and have fun! I learned the power of being in the moment, looking at one shot at a time. I realized there’s no such thing as perfection and when you start letting go and embrace yourself, that’s when magical things start to happen. This was what I was missing as a classical musician and I realized just how stuck I was in “perfection”, always comparing with others and being my own worst critic. Taking a long break from playing the clarinet helped me to really appreciate the gift of musical talent. I was able find my way back to music rejuvenated to perform again and also pursue several music entrepreneurial endeavors. I was honored to speak at TEDx Hong Kong on the topic of “Perfectionism” and the double-edged sword aspect of it.
HM: Thank you a lot for this interview!
- Kycia, Carol (1999). Daniel Bonade: a founder of the American style of clarinet playing. Captiva, FL, P.37)
- The clarinetist's compendium: including method of staccato and art of adjusting reeds. Kenosha, Wis: Leblanc Publications. 
- Guy, Larry, and Daniel Bonade. 2007. The Daniel Bonade workbook: Bonade's fundamental playing concepts, with illustrations, exercises, and an introduction to the orchestral repertoire.