The Many Hats of a Musician

As my colleague Betsy Sturdevant pointed out in a recent post on her Bassoon Blog, the Columbus Symphony has a busy schedule with wildly varied repertoire this weekend.

Actually Betsy and I have a particularly full weekend, since we are both playing at a fundraiser for the Columbus Symphony, and which takes place after a relatively full day of a rehearsal and "Meet the Orchestra" Family concert Sunday afternoon. I plan to play the Rachmaninoff Vocalise and an arrangement of a Chopin Nocturne, No. 20, Op Posthume. These slow, songful pieces will nicely balance the virtuosic Vogel piece Betsy plans to play, a mini-concerto for bassoon and three strings.

However, before that all happens, we have a pops concert tonight featuring jazz singer Dianne Reeves. Dianne's voice has a gorgeous, velvety tone, and her improvitory abilities are remarkable. Her singing range is huge, from throaty low notes to squeaky, flutey high tones. It's a pleasure to hear her sing and play with her. Her arrangements, mostly by Billy Childs, are excellent, and the orchestrations are good as well.

The orchestra is featured on the first half of tonight's program, with Jerry Steichen conducting. Included in the music are excerpts from "Harlem Symphony" by James P Johnson, the earliest African American symphonic composer.

There are some other tricky pieces, including several jazzy arrangements with clarinet solos. Dixieland bands were a traditional group for early jazz. To create that authentic sound, the orchestra drops out in a few spots, leaving clarinet alone with trap set playing rhythm and a string bass player, joined later by trumpet and trombone. The solos are written out, but the style, a light, perky, rhythmic freedom, is not. To help me get into the mood, I imagine I'm playing on an old scratchy 78 rpm record from the 20s, with the piercing and jaunty tone of an early jazz clarinetist.

Unfortunately, the training I received as a classical player did not include jazz improvising. If I were in charge of a university classical clarinet department, I would require all students to take an improvisation class, and to learn to play along with a few jazz recordings to get the style right.

We wear many hats as musicians, from baroque to classical to romantic to jazz to modern.

I often think of a story Clark Brody told me. He was was the principal clarinetist with the Chicago Symphony for 40 years or more. He was a great player. Yet he lamented that whenever his orchestra played Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, he was unable to perform the proverbial glissando clarinet shmear which opens the piece. Now a days, that solo is on almost every audition list.

Times have changed, and so has the job of a principal clarinetist.

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1 comment for “The Many Hats of a Musician

  1. January 27, 2010 at

    You're right on the money with this post, David.

    Norman Luboff hired me to tour as pianist for his choir. He based his favorable opinion on my Gershwin! Never played a note of it in school.

    So how does one find out how to do that? Watch old movies!

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