Intimacy With Your Instrument

One of the biggest hurdles of longtime professional musicians is maintaining a good relationship with their instrument. Most of us start learning our instruments in Elementary School. How many people are married to their 5th grade sweethearts?

For many of us the beginning starts before we meet our life-long instrument. My relationship with classical music started when I was a few years old. I'd sit in the first row and wiggle and twitch while my mother performed Schubert and Schumann songs. I don't know how she concentrated. My father played tapes of classical music, mostly Beethoven symphonies and various opera arias. He wasn't a musician, but appreciated the art.

I began piano lessons at age 6 or 7. Though I don't remember much, I recall being fascinated by the happy/sad distinction of major and minor keys. My teacher would play a chord and ask me to identify the mood. What intrigued me was that the mood could be changed with only one note shifting down a half step.

When unable to study privately, I remember diligently but laboriously reading a simple Bach gavotte. I also improvised childish tunes and, like any other young pianist, played chop sticks and the boogie woogie. I was not a talented pianist and struggled with every piece. But my passion was undeniable. I enjoyed music, its moods, its shapes and textures.

In sixth grade I was introduced to the clarinet through a demonstration of numerous wind instruments by one man, a music teacher who went from school to school enticing kids with his alacrity on flute, trumpet, oboe, clarinet, trombone and saxophone. He was the pied piper to me, and really enjoyed each instrument.

I picked clarinet because it went the highest and the lowest. Sounds like a kid's kind of thinking! I had never thought of the clarinet before, or heard it as far as I remember. So that first impression was deep. My choice wasn't necessarily because of its sound, but I would later realize how its tone also drew me in.

Though years later I would fall in love with the floaty lightness of flute and the dark brooding quality of English Horn, there's an open, ringing clarity to the tone of the clarinet which has obsessed me since I began playing.

After I'd played my new rented plastic instrument a few months (and had thrown it on the ground in frustration, breaking it), I stumbled upon a recording which would solidify the clarinet as the love of my life. My parents often took me shopping at the Giant Superstore, something like a Wal-Mart. While they shopped for food, I browsed the LPs. One found its way fatefully into my hand: the Mozart Clarinet concerto with Robert Marcellus and the Cleveland Orchestra.

I was 12 years old. I hadn't formed any opinion of Mozart, and had never heard of Robert Marcellus. But when I heard that recording for the first time, I knew I wanted to be the one playing that piece someday. His tone was what hooked me. Marcellus had a haunting clarity, a round, dark ring to every note. I couldn't get that sound out of my ear, and I still strive for it.

The struggle begins. I had this sound in my ear, along with a style. Marcellus' legato was powerful. The connection between notes made you listen to the line. I wanted to get there but didn't know how.

I started private lessons with the best teacher in town, Sidney Forrest. Through Middle and High School, he hammered technique into me. He quickly saw that I could be complacent (a word Marcellus used years later to describe me to my face) and scheduled lessons at 8 AM Saturday mornings. No Friday night parties for me.

Mr. Forrest didn't play in my lessons, so I didn't have a close up model to imitate. I struggled to make the instrument mine. My technique was quite good, except for tonguing. My sight reading was terrible. Musically I had the right intuitions. Mr. Forrest disciplined all those to improve. I became a much better player, but felt no personal style developing yet.

I realize now I still hadn't respected the instrument deeply. Instead I was infatuated, addicted, like a young lover. I wanted to posses the clarintet, make it mine. I fought to conquer it, and inadvertently allowed a lot of tension into my playing in the process. My successes mounted despite the tension. I won numerous competitions in High School. But I had a lot to learn.

I continued my studies with Mr. Forrest at Interlochen Summer camp (where Robert Marcellus, conducting a rehearsal of Mahler 1, said my head was screwed on wrong) and then at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. After two years at Peabody, I became restless and wanted a change. I applied to study with Guy de Plus in Paris and was accepted by him. At the same time I had one lesson with the legend Robert Marcellus, who was at Northwestern in Chicago.

My lesson with Marcellus changed me. Though he was unable play much due to his failing health, his simple C scale demonstration showed me the closeup version of the sound I had had in my ear since age 12. He gave me his famous crash course in clarinet technique: basic legato, staccato, phrasing and tone. Though he wasn't masterful at the how to, he got across the what to. The rest was up to me.

I transferred to Northwestern for my third and fourth undergrad years. I ended up studying with Clark Brody, whose gentle, focused approach to the instrument wouldn't sink in to my soul for many years. I was still obsessed with Marcellus, with whom I had maintenance lessons several times a year, perhaps a fortuitous stroke of fate for me. I had heard about players he had ruined with his caustic and bitter teaching style. His tragically shortened career had left him justifiably angry.

I continued to imitate Marcellus, his tone, and now his embouchure, which looked like an alien had taken over his top lip and was trying to eat the mouthpiece and his lower lip. He once said me to in a moment of compassion, 'don't try to imitate the way I look, just use your ear'. I still had little to go on from my own soul. I could think of nothing but being him, rather that being my own, high quality player.

The best part of the Northwestern experience was mock auditions held twice a year. They helped focus me to the task of getting a job. Conservatory musicians tend to get lost in all the esoteric and aesthetic details of playing and lose the big picture (at least for orchestral players): winning an audition.

But my playing would not be independent until I was on my own. After graduating from Northwestern, I won the first audition I took, for the small Greensboro Symphony in NC. It was there that I would become truly intimate with my instrument for the first time.

I'll start from there in my next post.

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7 comments for “Intimacy With Your Instrument

  1. October 7, 2009 at

    Really enjoyed reading your story (I'll search for the subsequent parts). It's smart that you "recycle" these on Twitter. The titles draw me in (I invariably come here from Twitter). You are helping me get back to my clarinet playing. Thanks.

    • October 7, 2009 at

      Good to know the auto tweets help people find their way to some of my posts. It turns some folks off, but most understand. I also try to change them regularly. Nothing runs more than 2 days.

      I saw a video of you playing, but haven't had a chance to watch. Willdo soon.

  2. October 7, 2009 at

    Ryan, as you sense, this is very personal history. And I'm glad I have shared it, since it is coming back to me through the reflections of others' reading.

  3. October 7, 2009 at

    This is wonderful writing. I feel quite the same way as you did at the close of this entry. I feel like a qualified musician, but at the same time feel that I am too calculating in my approach. I look forward to the personal development you experienced in Greensboro. I can feel that maturity growing in me now and I am eager to reach the level of intimacy with my conducting that you have with your clarinet. I can't wait for the continuation!

  4. October 6, 2009 at

    An absolutely fascinating read and much of it really resonates with my own early experiences. Planning a pemanent move to France in Spring 2010, how interesting you ended up in Paris at one point!
    Your post has also made me realise that all of us can benefit from a lessons at whatever stage we are in our careers.
    Thank you for taking the time to write this.

  5. January 19, 2008 at

    What a masterful story. Reminded me of Phil Wood’s talking about how he became a sax player (whose first thought was he might melt his grandfather’s sax to make more toy solders and his parents mistook his passion for one of music) at a master session. Thank you for taking the time to put this down for future musicians and some of us older ones.

  6. David
    November 24, 2007 at

    Thomas, thanks for these posts. There’s not enough clarinet-related blogs out there! It’s helpful and enjoyable to read your thoughts and experiences.

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