Joshua Mietz, clarinet faculty at Casper College in Wyoming, is also a competitve ultramarathon runner living at 5,643'. With numerous finishes in 100 mile races, including Bighorn 100 Mile, Hardrock 100 Mile. and Leadville Trail 100 Run, he also clocked an amazing 2:54 marathon and a 4:20 mile. He is a knowledgeable resource on the impact of exercise on clarinet performance. He can be found on the trails around Casper or on Instagram @joshuamietz or on YouTube @jrushm.
In this interview, Josh delves into the similarities between clarinet and conditioning. Instead of settling for the normal sedentary paradigm of clarinet training, his work as a teacher and performer explores the potential of mind and body for a classical performer.
1. How do you stay healthy as a performer and avoid common musician injuries?
I am a big believer in the “whole-athlete-model” when it comes to staying healthy. I feel that when I am healthy in one area, it allows me to be healthy in every area. With that, I am very particular about body mechanics. Each instrument is rife with their own injuries that are common. With the clarinet, we typically see many clarinetists experience carpal-tunnel syndrome, low back pain, and right thumb joint pain. My first clarinet teacher made me sit on the edge of the chair during lessons and it’s a habit that (usually) I maintain in my playing. This keeps the spine in an ideal balance between lordosis and kyphosis. Additionally, I teach students to play with lightly curved fingers and we make a game out of minimizing motion of the hands and fingers.
2. You have played extensively at high altitudes for years as a musician in the Denver area. How do you adapt to high altitude with your equipment, clarinet routine, and personal conditioning? What are other habits that help with higher elevations and your performing?
I have lived at 5500’ or higher for most of my adult life. So, for me, it’s more a question of adapting to lower altitudes when I perform elsewhere. I find that I need to play a harder strength reed at lower/more humid places. I don’t change my mouthpiece or clarinet or other equipment. I keep my clarinet and reeds in airtight, Lomax humidity-controlled cases. Reeds and clarinets tend to dry out too quickly at altitude and the cases help keep them at a more consistent humidity when not in use.
While my equipment is largely the same, I do notice that my upper tenon and barrel take a little more work to separate when I travel to humid places.
3. What keeps you mentally healthy as a classical musician?
This is a tricky one. I’m not sure I’ve figured out any good strategies other than putting my instrument away for the day. Confession: like all of us, I wrestle with Imposter Syndrome quite a bit. I usually combat this with some strong-confidence talks (i.e. “you can do this,” “this is hard, embrace the suck,” and “it’s never too late to play something at half speed.”) If those don’t work, I put it away and go for a run or do a few sets of max pull ups.
4. Can you describe your best exercises for breath support?
Planks! I do planks all the time. I even make my students, who are able, do them in lessons. (Some of my students are in their 80’s so I give them a pass.) In my studio, we get down on our elbows and toes, take a big breath, make a clarinet embouchure, and blow out as though we were playing for a few minutes. When their plank form starts failing, we sit in the chair and practice the same engagement of core muscles but while playing our clarinets. The plank exercise takes roughly 80-90% engagement to hold the position but clarinet playing takes a bit less… maybe 40-50% so when they sit down to play, they notice they have a great deal of air support just from doing a few planks each session. I don’t mess with the tubes and hoses. Maybe I just don’t understand them enough, but they seem to build tension into one’s playing when I messed around with them. Planks work for me. I also teach students to tap themselves on the side (just down and to the front of their ribs) while they are playing to check the engagement of their core. The best scenario is if they have a friend or sibling and that person can come over and tap them on the abs with a pencil or fingertips while they are playing long tones without hearing a bump in the sound.
5. What do you do for fitness and strength?
Lots. I consider this a vital part of maintaining my health and abilities as a musician. I read an article a while back where agents at the FBI are expected to train for at least one hour per day. Given that most of these people sit behind a desk, it made sense to me that musicians who sit behind a clarinet should do at least that since our job is so physical. While everyone’s needs are different, I run at least two miles at least every day of the week, sometimes significantly more than that. It doesn’t matter if I have a concert, long rehearsal, big day at work, am injured or anything else. I fit it in, and the run always happens. Sometimes, I only have time for the two miles and that has to be ok but when time permits my runs can be much longer than that. I also like to add in 1-2 backpacking/ruck sessions per week.
Additionally, I strength train 2-7 times per week, and take a few cold showers each week. Most of my strength training is either CrossFit-like ruck and sandbag workouts or calisthenics like push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, jump rope, box jumps. It just depends on what my specific goals are at that time.
In the winter, I’ll also add in a cross-country ski session or two per week. While these activities don’t directly benefit my clarinet playing, it does keep me healthy as a person. I manage to avoid almost all of the “bugs” going around and have the strength/stamina for even the longest of rehearsals.
While I am more inconsistent about it than I would like to be, I do find value in practicing the Wim Hof breathing exercises. These are truly amazing and can help people heal injuries and relieve anxiety.
6. What nutrition helps you as a classical musician?
I’m not sure anything in my nutrition keeps me healthy as a classical musician per-se but rather just as a person. I am a big advocate for whole foods that are minimally processed to the extent possible. Additionally, I drink close to a gallon of water every day and eat a mostly vegan diet. I have had to change this a little bit over the last few years and have started adding wild, animal-based proteins to my diet. This is usually bison, venison, antelope, or wild caught fish. When I can I, or my close friends, procure these items directly from the field. I do not eat beef of any kind, dairy, pork or anything else of that sort. If I’m traveling or am unsure, I default to the vegan diet. I usually include some sort of probiotic in my daily diet. This can be either a Kombucha beverage or a mix of apple cider vinegar with water. I have never missed a day of work or concert due to my own illness.
7. What do you do to stay calm and centered before a big performance?
Practice. (see No. 10)
8. How do you cope with performance anxiety during a performance?
Since I cleaned up my diet in 2012, I have dealt with very little performance anxiety. I do a headspace meditation for at least 5 minutes every day and if I feel a little twinge of nervousness, I breathe from the bottom of my lungs or integrates some of those practices. I find that I am most anxious if I feel underprepared or in a new-ish situation. Jazz gigs make me quite a bit more anxious, especially if I have to play saxophone or do much improvising largely because they are so few and far between when compared to recital gigs or symphony performances.
9. How do you guide and support your students in terms of mental and physical health?
This is tricky. My students come to me to learn to be better clarinetists. When I first started teaching I shared all my health tips and tricks. It seemed to overwhelm the students and take away from actually learning to play clarinet. Now, other than the planks and good body/hand mechanics, I try to avoid it unless they explicitly ask. For mental health, I try to keep the environment as open and friendly as possible and if they want or need to share, I’m happy to listen and support but I try not to go mining into their personal lives too much. If something is really bothering them, I’ll take them to lunch or coffee and we can talk about it away from the instrument.
10. What is your clarinet superpower?
My clarinet superpower is that I have no clarinet superpowers (I’m like Mirabel in the movie Encanto). Since I have no superpower, everything I do takes a lot of work. While this is uncomfortable in the short run, in the long run it is an advantage.
I spend roughly 30 minutes every day working on fundamental items (Kroepsch or Baermann studies, tuning drills, etudes, and sight-reading excerpts). This keeps my technical abilities sharp so that when I play symphony gigs or rehearse with colleagues, I can go to the first rehearsal with everyone’s part learned and I know how they fit with my part. Unless I get the music late, I feel comfortable enough to be conducting the ensemble and can probably at least sing everyone in the room’s part. I sight read the piece at home exactly once. Then, I will see if I can find a score and listen to a recording with the score and my part. After that, I woodshed any parts I need to and when available, play with a recording, often at half speed and isolating or looping any tricky spots. Since I practice intonation every day, I make note of how I’ll likely need to adjust my pitch to best fit in a chord (i.e. if I’m playing the major third of a chord, I’ll voice it 22 cents flat so that it fits best). I always know there will be some adjustments at rehearsals but I am supremely confident of everything in the ensemble. The great thing about this non-superpower is that once a piece is learned, it’s really learned and I’m usually very comfortable playing it again within a 5-8 year period after which, it starts to fade quite a bit. To me, this approach feels like a football player learning his team’s playbook for the whole season as well the playbook of every opposing team he will play that week.