Before the Music Begins

(The following story was submitted to the Columbus Dispatch for their First Person column. I hope it will be printed in the next week or two. It is a heavily revised, more accessible version of my previous post, "Why I am a musician", with several new paragraphs.)

The powerful symphony we are about to play, and my ability to play it, seem to come from somewhere beyond human capabilities. Yet it highlights my humanity and my frailty, my nobility and my baseness. It reaches across ages and shows me how history and art have formed me and the civilization I live in.

Who wouldn't want to be inside Einstein's head, or Picasso's or Martin Luther King's as they thought and felt their great deeds? My life's commitment is to get into composer's heads and recreate their great music for others.

The first note we play is a commitment to our colleagues, the audience and the music. Egos may clash off stage, but conflict disappears as the conductor raises his baton and we come together to go beyond ourselves.

But a lot happens behind the scenes before the concert.

My clarinet's reed is the heart of the instrument's tone; it must be perfect if I am to perform with utmost skill. I carve a tiny piece of wood off the base of the reed. Almost nothing. I put the reed back on the mouthpiece and fasten it with the ligature. I form an embouchure and play the scale I repeat hundreds of times a day to check reeds. The raspiness has gone from the reed’s vibrations. Now it has a bell-like ring through the instrument. Ahh!

After two hours of working on reeds, I am tired. Add several hours of rehearsals today and that's a full day. But I haven't finished. I still need to review sections of tonight's music. I need to be sure the reed will resonate in the low register for the famous opening clarinet passage of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. The clarinet's dark, brooding low notes are perfect for the mournful melody.

Why do I do this? I smile as I ask myself. 'Because I love it' might be one answer. But that's not quite it. It's more like an itch that needs to be scratched. Since age 12, after hearing a recording of the instrument (Robert Marcellus), I had the “ring” of the clarinet's tone in my head, an ideal to strive for.

As a child I always enjoyed science, especially botany, chemistry and physics. I also enjoyed music, perhaps because it seemed a bit like science to me. I began studying piano at age 6. During one of my first piano lessons my teacher had me face away from the piano and listen as she played various chords. I was to identify their happy and sad qualities. It fascinated me that a few musical notes could render such varied emotions.

Upon returning to the US after growing up abroad as a Foreign Service Diplomat's kid, I was treated like an alien by other children my age. When I was introduced to clarinet in the 6th grade, I latched on to it as something secure and knowable. Over the years clarinet became my identity. While other adolescents grappled with the meaning of life, I strove to climb the mountain before me: mastering the clarinet. I competed in and won many competitions to hone my skills. My parents never had to push me to practice. However, I often took criticism hard, as it exposed my fervent desire to be the best.

10,000 hours of practice is the only way to master an instrument. Like an athlete wishing to win the Olympics, I constantly strive for machine-like perfection with an all-too-human body and life. Beyond practicing clarinet, I have worked a great deal behind the scenes to make it seem "effortless" on stage. I exercise regularly and I have studied various techniques for focus and poise.

Of course, playing the instrument alone is still only part of this process. I am a clarinetist because I love classical music. I'll never forget playing Brahms' fourth Symphony for the first time, age 17, at the Interlochen Summer Music Camp, an intensive "boot camp" for aspiring young artists. Brahms' gypsy spirit shone through the almost tortured discipline of his North German Protestant upbringing. I related to the conflict of those emotions; freedom emerging from limitation. That sense of balance in conflict, and other such ideas learned from music, have fed my attitudes in life.

Being able to communicate music directly to an audience is my dream come true. A live performance reflects a unique snapshot in time and, like sports, happens in real time. And just as the excitement of a supportive crowd can urge a team to victory, an audience affects a performer with its attention and enjoyment. The smiles of listeners inspire me to fresh new depths of expression and heights of emotion.

Many in the audience probably think they know how this piece will sound. They have undoubtedly heard it in recordings. But tonight they will enjoy a fresh, new journey through this rich music, as performed by me and my fellow musicians. Maestro Hirokami brings down his baton and I am fortunate to be able to recreate the sad beginning of Tchaikovsky's Fifth symphony. The end is never clearly known, and tonight I somehow sense that the ending of this symphony will be more optimistic than usual.

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