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Uebel-Interviews: Nancy Braithwaite

How did you discover your instrument?

I started playing the clarinet as a child in the USA in the public school system. In 5th grade, at the age of 10, all children could choose a musical instrument and were given free group lessons at school.

The previous school year we had played small black recorders called Tonettes in our music classes. I was good at the tonette and enjoyed it. The clarinet was also black and looked sort of like the tonette so I chose it. I had already played the piano for 3 years and could read music, which gave me a head start musically.

In middle school I played in the wind band, which was very popular in the Midwest where I grew up, near Chicago. My band teacher recognized my talent and arranged for me to attend a 3-week summer music camp at Northwestern University when I was 12 years old. There I had my first individual clarinet lessons with Jerome Stowell who played in the Chicago Symphony and was professor of clarinet at Northwestern University. He invited me to become his student and I studied with him for the next 5 years, until I went to study at the Eastman School of Music.

Jerome Stowell was a huge inspiration to me and a wonderful musician. He sang along with me in my lessons, which influenced me to develop a vocal approach to clarinet playing. I often hear from listeners that my clarinet playing sounds like singing.

I took the train to Chicago every week and attended Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts on Friday afternoons before my clarinet lesson. I was so very fortunate to live near a major orchestra and hearing those concerts was enormously inspiring and educational.

During my high school years, I attend the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Michigan for 8 weeks every summer. I loved being with other young people who were dedicated to the arts and I was thrilled to spend all day making music. Those summers were the highlight of my high school years. My parents, who were not musicians themselves, always encouraged me to follow my dreams and supported me completely in my artistic development.

Did you have important role models during your studies?

I greatly admire the playing of Harold Wright, who was principal clarinetist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for many years. I spent 8 weeks one summer as a fellowship student at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony and I heard Harold Wright performing every week with the orchestra and in chamber music concerts. I loved his sound, refined phrasing and inspiring interpretations. Incidentally, that was an important summer for me romantically as well, as I met my Dutch husband there, who was studying conducting which is how I ended up living in The Netherlands.

What were the first pieces that you played for an audience?

Every year in high school I participated in a solo contest for young musicians. We had to perform a work by memory and play with piano. There was a panel of judges and it was open to the public. I don’t remember all the pieces that I played, but I do recall playing the Weber Concertino and the Debussy Rhapsodie. There was a brilliant pianist, Matthew Ward, in my class in high school and he sometimes performed with me. He is now a highly regarded professional pianist in New York City and thanks to Facebook, we are still in touch.

When did you know that you wanted to be a professional musician?

It was clear to me in high school that I wanted to be a professional musician. I loved playing the clarinet, learning wonderful repertoire and making music with others and I have always enjoyed the process of practicing. I like the feeling of total concentration and flow. There is nothing like making music!

What are the goals that you have achieved as a musician?

Das Ziel ist für mich das Musizieren selbst. Das liebe ich einfach.

I think of music as a form of communication, an emotional language. In the first place is communication as a performer with the composer, which means studying the score and trying to understand the feelings and thoughts behind the work. I play primarily chamber music so listening to the other musicians is a key element in the process of rehearsing and performing. It’s a kind of musical talking together through the work being performed. It’s very important to open your heart when performing.

And of course sharing the music with the audience is the goal, trying to bring the music to them as vividly as possible.

I am fortunate to have amazing musicians in my chamber music family, many of whom have become close friends. Playing chamber music together brings people close to each other’s essences.

I like that! Teaching students also creates a very close connection because of the music and individual setting.

Working with composers is also very important to me. I feel that as performers we have a responsibility to play new works and encourage composers. I have commissioned and performed a number of works that were written for me in various settings from clarinet solo to nonet and I have a long term connection to several contemporary composers. In 2017 I brought out a CD of works by the wonderful American composer Edith Hemenway called “To Paradise for Onions’. It is available on Spotify. I am very happy to have been able to bring her beautiful works to the attention of a wider public.

How important is passing on your knowledge, for example with teaching?

Teaching has played a very important role in my career. I find teaching enormously rewarding. It requires a great deal of creativity to help each student develop their own unique gifts, figure out how best to inspire them and unlock their ability to teach themselves. Practicing an instrument is very much about problem solving, concentration, and curiosity.

Teaching requires good interpersonal skills, an understanding of clarinet technique, knowledge of repertoire and a delight in sharing that knowledge.

I have gained a lot of understanding through helping my students solve their problems and I have also developed as a human being thanks to this work.

I love the enthusiasm and open minds of young people. I have been very fortunate to teach at Codarts, The Rotterdam Conservatory in The Netherlands where more than half of the student body is international. My life has been enriched by working with students from all over the world. I love coming into contact with other cultures!

Masterclasses also play an essential role in sharing knowledge internationally. I not only enjoy teaching in other countries but I have gained a lot of insight by attending the masterclasses of many wonderful clarinet professionals at clarinet conferences, on line and with visiting guest teachers at Codarts.

One of the most exciting and worthwhile experiences of my life was visiting China three times as an Uebel clarinet artist, performing and teaching masterclasses in seven Chinese cities. I was so impressed with the love of learning, intelligence and warmth of the Chinese musicians. For me this is the ideal way to travel, with an opportunity for cultural exchange and meaningful contact.

Teaching chamber music is also a particular love of mine! I enjoy helping students to interact with the music and each other in small ensembles and to gain insight into the whole score. In an orchestra the conductor has the responsibility of making the musical decisions but in chamber music this job rests with the players. It takes insight into the full score including musical form, harmony, colors, balance and intonation to fulfill this responsibility. Teaching the art of chamber music has deepened my own understanding of all these musical ingredients.

What would be your advice for music students (college/university level)?

Listen to great artists on other instruments particularly singers and string players. Get to know the whole output of a composer when you are studying his or her piece. Focus on listening to yourself when practicing and solving problems. Practice creatively and with enjoyment of the process.

Practicing yoga is a great way to increase focus and flexibility, which carries over into music making.


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