How to Overcome Your Fear of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream
Every time I take out my excerpts book it falls defiantly open at one page featuring the excerpt that every clarinetist fears the most: the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. While there are many ideas about how to tackle this passage without getting your tongue in a twist, I don’t want to get too technical with details of how to position your tongue within your embouchure or how to take a proper breath as it is my belief that with just a few general pointers it should be possible to improve your playing of this piece.
The key to nailing this excerpt starts before you even play a note. Preparation is everything! As always when performing a piece or excerpt take care not to dive into playing too quickly. It is vital to get the character, feel and tempo in your head before you lift the instrument. Once you have the pulse in your head take a low breath for the duration of two bars, already feeling the rhythm in your breathing with a one-in-a-bar pulse. To ensure that you’re never late off the breath and have to rush to catch up, set the metronome beating at the start of each bar and breathe in for two ticks before playing the starting note. Make sure that you get this perfectly on the beat each time.
Listening to multiple recordings by different orchestras will give you a variety of ideas to play around with and help you to feel the phrasing. When phrasing, try to think in longer lines to avoid the staccato getting too heavy and the music from dragging. Feel the forward impetus, which should in turn help your tongue become nimbler.
In terms of tempo you will see a great variation in the speeds people play this at. If you are performing this as an excerpt for an audition, choose a tempo that isn’t too fast but allows you to create excitement with the character. Contrary to our natural instincts, playing a technical passage slower but with more precision will make it sound faster and more impressive than playing something slighter faster than the speed at which you can play it perfectly. This is a pitfall that only too many clarinettists fall into with this excerpt so it’s a good point to keep in mind. Once you have the perfect tempo, use a metronome to practice your precision and to avoid either rushing or dragging. Start with a metronome beat at the start of each bar and once you can do this confidently, half the metronome marking so you are left with one click for every two bars.
Finally, it is impossible talk about the clarinet without mentioning air stream. Our air is the most vital component. As with everything we play, a focussed airflow is needed to achieve a centred sound. For this piece it is no different. Once you’ve mastered this it becomes much easier for the tongue and fingers to sit on top of this air, like the icing on a cake. You can build up to this in stages. Firstly, try blowing onto the palm of your hand. The more relaxed your breath is as you do this, the warmer it will feel, the more direct your airstream becomes, the colder your breath feels. When practicing this on the excerpt play the starting note of each bar for the duration of the bar and try and maintain a focussed sound for each bar while hearing the melody in your head (see below).
Once you can do this you can move on to tackling the rhythm and tonguing. The best way to do this is to isolate the tonguing from the notes so you only have to concentrate on one thing at a time. Play the rhythm of the excerpt with all the crispness, clarity of articulation and character that you can, but only play it on one note. I would recommend starting this on a throat A (see example below), and then progressing to notes with more resistance, such as a long B (middle line of the stave) and an E in the upper register (top space of the stave).
Next, play the whole excerpt entirely slurred. This may feel odd due to the amount of repeated notes, but this will ensure your fingers can engineer their movements with ease.
Make sure you’re not doing any unnecessary movements by keeping down as many right-hand fingers as possible for the duration of the initial excerpt passage.
Finally, you can put all these elements together and dazzle everyone with a fearless rendition of the fiendish Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Written by Sophie Farrell
Published by Clarinet U
Sophie Farrell is a British clarinetist who studied at Chetham’s School of Music and the Royal Academy of Music, London. Sophie works in artist management and, in her free time, performs for both professional and local ensembles, as well as teaching clarinet and piano.
When not involved in musical activities you might find her enjoying some badminton, crafting, hiking or traveling with friends.