A distinguished ambassador for the clarinet, Michael Collins’ sensitivity and astounding technical brilliance sets him apart as a clarinettist of the most esteemed stature and he continues to inspire the younger generations of musicians worldwide. His prolific discography, for which he is now exclusively signed to Chandos, consists of numerous gems of the clarinet repertoire. Rachel Deloughry shares her experience of learning from the great man himself.
“Live more on the edge” was the piece of advice that stands out most in my mind from any masterclass I attended in my student years.
As a conservatoire student, I was fortunate to have the chance to participate in masterclasses with Michael Collins, one of the world’s most highly respected clarinettists who made a name for himself in the 1970s and has since been championing solo clarinet repertoire the world over. Michael Collins had reams of advice to give. He had a certain way of imparting the information that seemed to resonate with me. It just made sense, the same way his clarinet playing has the ability to move people and inspire me.
What he meant by “live more on the edge” was that in each performance, we have just one shot at it. It's just like diving into water, not like a painting that you can touch up again or an article you can edit and re-edit as much as you like. We psyche ourselves up for each concert and , though we can feel completely in control, it can go by in a fleeting moment in a way other than how we might have planned. How do we avoid disasters when we're feeling under pressure with everyone listening? Well, for one, we have to stay out of our comfort zones. For instance, performers often accidentally start speeding, and if this happens, instead of panicking on the spot, you can just go with it. When you push the tempo to 'very fast', you run on adrenaline and can actually perform much better. This ability to make the most of an unwanted situation separates the pro from the amateur!
He gave many colourful insights into what he comes across day-to-day: namely, performing on stage with orchestras, from the BBC Symphony Orchestra to the Helsinki Philharmonic. Everything is slightly more exaggerated when playing with an orchestra. You have to give more in order to get the music across, so those ‘louds and softs’ are always more extreme. When you practice in a small room you lose something of the essence of the music, especially in the dynamics, colour and various other fine details. To sum it up, his point was that you have to know how to conserve some extra verve for the real thing.
Michael Collins gave us plenty advice about teaching too! Chances are that everyone in that room had taught or would at least go on to teach at some point in their lives, and this showed just what an ‘all-rounder’ he is. He was not just there to instruct us how to play the clarinet, but to help give us an richer, broader mindset that we can bring to our musical lives in general. One strong point he made was that in his experience, teachers’ resources such as the beginner tutor books never cater for speed, and this can later on lead to speed being a problem in the clarinettist’s development. And as many instrumentalists will agree, nobody wants ‘speed problems’! Being able to play quickly and at the same time securely, is physical but also psychological. Teachers should experiment with speed, extreme high notes and advanced articulation right from the beginning and should not follow the textbook. So basically he was telling us to be very questioning of how we were being taught and how we were instructed to teach.
From here, Michael went back to his student years. As a youth, he was a disciple of Dame Thea King in London and he then studied with Stanley Drucker in New York. Collins and Drucker were not a great match as pupil and mentor, so Thea King suggested that he get lessons from a non-clarinettist. He soon began studying with the cellist Jacqueline Du Pré. Once you get to the heart of the music, it actually doesn’t matter what instrument you are discussing: music is music.
The experience was eye-opening, certainly one of the most fulfilling music lessons ever. Why? Because what I took away was more than just tips for better proficiency and how to become more pro (yawn) - I left with a broader scope towards a mindset of positivity and that transferred into my everyday life of music making.