Clarinetist and teacher Ray Wheeler (1930-2006) shocked the clarinet world in the early 70s with his x-ray film of what happens inside a clarinetist’s mouth while playing.
(Video link thanks to ClarinetMike Blog)
For those who may not be aware of it, most clarinet teachers and players believe the tongue is high in the mouth for high registers and low for low registers. This video shows the opposite. It also shows an amazing amount of movement in general. In fact clarinetist’s and saxophone players move their tongues much more than any other wind instrument player. I looked at a few similar x-ray videos of trumpet players, and they barely move their tongue at all.
A tribute to Mr. Wheeler can be found here- CWU remembers Raymond L Wheeler
Below is an excerpt from a long interview with Mr. Wheeler from the CWU Living History Project. I included all of his comments about how the x-ray movie idea came about, and how it was received in the clarinet world.
EJ: How did you come across that idea?
RW: That’s a long story. When I was in [inaudible – sounds like “Scone”] I gave lessons to a girl [inaudible]. Her father was the head of Radiology in [inaudible] Bridges Hospital in Tacoma, and he was also a clarinet player – very common for medical people to have musical backgrounds, which he did. He was a good clarinet player. Anyway, after the girl’s lesson on oboe he and I would be talking every now and then. I even gave him a few hints. And he one day told me he respects what I do, because I am careful not to talk about things I don’t know about. And I say, what do you mean? He said, “Well I’ve taken lessons with music teachers who say, ‘Now when you do this, by all charts your tongue will do – ’ and something with the anatomy. And a few years after, when I’m out of college and actually working as a medical doctor I think back and went, that guy doesn’t know what he was talking about. He talking about the uvula. He should have been talking about the [inaudible] or something.” In other words, the guy’s talking about things he doesn’t know about, but pretend he knew. Anyway, he says, “You don’t seem to do that.” And I says, “Well, I’m kind of afraid to. If I don’t know what’s going on in there, I don’t – I’m kind of afraid to say that.” Anyway, he respected that, and I said, “It sure would be nice to know that.”
Well, I moved over here and I don’t even remember now what the occasion was that he and I are talking somewhere again – some trip back to Tacoma, I suppose – and he says, “Did you ever think about that stuff we talked about a long time ago, about inside your mouth?” I said, “I think about it all the time, but I don’t have any way of doing it.” He said, “If you ever get interested, let me know because we’ve got the equipment.” “Well good, I’ll check it out.” So sometime later I’d been talking to him and said, “What do you mean?” He says, “Well, what do you have to do? Stand in front of this machine, we’ll turn on a machine – camera film that would record what we’re looking at, and you just play some examples and we can see right in there.” “Oh boy, that sounds good!” I went back a little later and took my clarinet and just stood in front of the machine, and they’re standing out in front – this is a fluoroscope that you use when you want to look at your chest, or something. Anyway, that [inaudible] possession so they could get a picture of this part of my mouth, and I’m playing and they’re [inaudible], “Hey man, look at that! You can sure see that good. Let me try it!” Because two of these guys were also clarinet players, and [inaudible]. Anyway he stood on there and he tongued a little different than I did, and this other doctor – I still remember him saying “Hey, don’t do it that way. That’s not right.” And I’m looking there and you can see the tongue just so clear – you’d see it flop around. And I knew it it’s doing that, but I didn’t know what it was. Anyway, so they fulfilled that occasion. They even let me have the film because they said they were going to do some medical writing and use this for a basis for that.
Anyway, he eventually lost that film, and never wrote the articles either – he got too busy. Anyway, so that was kind of a test to see if it would work. So it was at least a half year later I wrote up some [inaudible] examples not knowing what I’d see at all, and I went back over and I took only clarinet, and we played a few things – I took these [inaudible] examples, and about half of them were kind of – I didn’t know this, but half of them just sort of duplicated what I’d done in our earlier example, and so out of about a dozen examples, at least half of them had good new – good separate information. Anyway, I came home and looked at that, and the first time I looked at it I had the whole department – faculty – come in and watch [inaudible]. And I hadn’t even seen it yet. I just turned it on and here [inaudible]. And for – I was confused for about three, four minutes because I don’t – everything you’ve read about how clarinet’s played is when you play low notes your tongue’s low in your mouth, you play – etc., and that’s what will affect the wind. Well that’s what [inaudible] was to believe. And I was watching this, and I remember that I had played – written down, you know – and I’m not seeing what I think I’m supposed to see, and so I’m confused. My first reaction is that those – well, when I got the film back I really took – [inaudible] Seattle at a place called City something – a film producing place. I didn’t want to mail that film because it’s too valuable. So I drove over there and said, “You take care of this, because if you loose it you can expect a [inaudible – three syllables] suit. Anyway, they sent it back to me – I’d had them make five copies of each of the film. I’d turned the film on and started watching it, and I can’t believe it – the tongue’s low, it’s supposed to be high. What the heck? And after about halfway through the film I started saying “Well maybe it isn’t what I thought it was, because so far it’s consistent as heck.” The low notes had the tongue high, and the high notes had the tongue low, and that’s the opposite of what it should be. I said, “Well what the heck?” So I told [inaudible], “Hey that was kind of a surprise. That wasn’t what I expected.” And I went home and I wore out one film watching it back and forth – of the five. And after a while I started saying, “Hey, that explains something.” And before long some of the idiosyncrasies of the clarinet – it was just – it all had the same problems, and before long I could explain exactly why some of those problems happened. And I started saying, “Well hey, the world’s got to know about this!” So I – it was only a matter of a month or two later I’ve got an article in the mail to the [sounds like “equipment”] and they took it right now. They didn’t wait on it. Uh, how did I get into this?
EJ: Well I’d like to ask you – did you use that in teaching, then, later?
RW: That’s my whole life.
RW: That allows me to analyze problems almost instantly, and I’ve got the right answer. A standard statement when I give clinics showing this film and talking about it is that if students did exactly what their teachers told them to do, they would never learn to play the clarinet. It’s that bad.
EJ: The individual can determine where the tongue is, right?
RW: Uh, well –
EJ: Even though –
RW: [Inaudible] the details – it would take too long to explain, but somehow we’re misled in what we feel. The sense of when it’s – when my tongue’s low in my mouth I imagine it’s high.
EJ: Oh, I see.
RW: And we’re misled somehow or other, and so we’re analyzing wrong what we actually do. Which means when we make a suggestion to [inaudible], we aren’t really helping. They get there in spite of us. Anyway, it’s not that way for me.
I should back up a second. If I were able – well, I was able to go back and do it again, only this time I had an alto sax, bassoon and oboe – just a little bit. But I can do the – I can – sometimes – if I were smart and had the right opportunity I would have taken some job at some big school that had got a medical school also there, and I’d be in charge of the Doctoral program, and every Doctoral student comes through I would give him a topic and give me about 10 or 15 Doctoral students each studying something – we’d have that thing figured out so good that there’d never need to be any more studying. Anyway, that wasn’t possible, and –
And as a matter of fact, a lot of people aren’t very excited about what I’m telling you. The principal clarinet player of the Philadelphia Orchestra – now that’s big-time. He’s got a drill that improves the playing of all of his students. If they do what he told them to do, they would never learn to play the clarinet. It’s that serious. At any rate, I’ve never talked to him, but I still get letters and phone calls once a month – the latest one is a fellow down at Arizona State who is considering doing something and wants me to and wants me to kind of tell him what the routine’s all about. Anyhow, a lot of people weren’t too excited about this. Why? Because I’m saying things are not what you people think, and you don’t attack the biggest clarinet players in the world and say they don’t know what they’re talking about. I usually butter it up for them so they don’t feel that. I mean, if they – they have their [inaudible] in this, so I was saying the same thing until I had the chance. So some people weren’t too thrilled about this. I wrote a letter just a week ago to a clarinet player – retired clarinet teacher in Denton, Texas who’s in charge of writing our big International Clarinet Society magazine. He made a statement I can’t let go by, so I wrote and told him about it. I’ll get an answer any old day back saying “I don’t agree with you, Wheeler. I’m tired of being lectured by you.”
Anyway, some people do like this, though. The clarinet player at the University of Toronto – Toronto Symphony – that teaches there – Leon Rechnoff, New York State, is one of the biggest names there is in New York City, Gibson down in Texas, John Moley at the University of Michigan, Al Beck [?] University of Michigan, David [inaudible] there have shown the film in all Northwest State International Clarinet Society in Danburg, Flagstaff, Arizona, Chicago, Atlantic City, New Jersey, University of Michigan, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and they were out here. So I – it’s been around, but – a lot of people accept it, but some don’t want to give up.
EJ: I’ve got one other question on that one. Did you find the same general principal for other woodwinds?
RW: Yeah, in a way – the tongue being low for high notes and this or that. But each one is kind of a different story. They picture of an oboe is quite similar to that of bassoon, but for some reason or other the movement from a low note to high note on bassoon the tongue is only a little bit, and oboe is quite a bit. Clarinet and saxophone is a big distance. And so each instrument’s kind of got it’s own pattern, but generally speaking low tongue means high note and the opposite, and that seems to be there. I’ve got it figured out, but I can’t prove this – is that some how or another when you stick something inside your mouth it causes the inside of your mouth to [inaudible] itself differently than if you’d played an instrument out in front of your mouth such as brass instruments or flute. And as a matter of fact they’ve done quite a bit of study with brass instruments – used the same technique I have – but I only know two people who’ve done it for the woodwinds, and the one guy didn’t know what he was doing and he just kind of talked about some things and didn’t publish at all, which makes me mad because we need more people saying what I was saying.