Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Friday, October 28, 2005

My "Main Squeeze"

I have come to play (and own) a variety of musical instruments in the course of my life. I originally started on piano, first by playing TV show themes and commercial jingles by ear when I was four, then by learning my friends' practice etudes faster than they did, and finally taking formal lessons when I was five. Unfortunately, while I had plenty of interest in playing, I had basically no interest in practicing. I continued to perform TV show themes proficiently, but I didn't make very good progress in my piano lesson books. My parents tried two different teachers, both of whom yelled at me a lot, before they finally gave up and terminated my formal instruction permanently. After that I didn't give much serious attention to music until I was ten years old, whereupon I took up a whole new animal, the clarinet.

I'm not sure exactly why I chose that instrument. It probably had partly to do with one of those child toys called "See & Say", in which you turned a dial to point its arrow at a picture and then pulled a string, whereupon it would play the recording for that picture. I had one that was for musical instruments, and the clarinet recording was my favorite (though I always thought the picture for it was kind of stupid). It probably also had to do with the fact that my clarinet teacher, who was also a clarinetist himself, was a friend of the family. I'm sure there were other reasons, too. Whatever they all were, I picked up the licorice stick and took to it like a flash. I was in the beginning ensemble for only two weeks before I was placed directly in the advanced band (whereas my best friend, who had also taken up the clarinet with me, stayed in it all year and didn't make a whole lot of progress. That started the rift between us).

Needless to say, I have been very active in music over the past thirty years, taking up guitar, bass, saxophone, flute, and several other instruments along the way. However, clarinet has continued to be my "main squeeze" despite the fact that it is something of a controversial instrument. In fact, it always has been. Its status in musical culture doesn't seem to have ever been clearly defined. In Dixieland and traditional jazz, particularly during the swing era ('20s to '40s), the "licorice stick" has played an important role, particularly after Glen Miller broke convention and used it as the lead melody instrument instead of trumpet in his "big band". Back then, clarinetists were like lead guitarists today, i.e. they were sex symbols who were loved by the women and envied by the men. In this era, however, I have had to suffer through a college band director who referred to all clarinet players by default as "ladies" and more than one moron with a macho inferiority complex telling me that "only fags play clarinet". However, even though clarinet is a French instrument, I refuse to surrender.

Despite its importance in classical music, the clarinet is actually the youngest of all the "orchestral" instruments. Its predecessor, the chalumeau, was a very limited (and oft maligned) party instrument that appeared in France in the 1600s. It was considered laughably unsuitable for "real" music until 1700, when a German from Nuremburg named Muller developed it in such a way as to give it a much wider range. Even so, it wasn't until the late 18th century that the clarinet began to be taken seriously, particularly by progressive composers such as that Mozart character. The clarinet became even more widespread in the early 19th century with the adoption of the so-called Boehm key system, actually adapted from the flute, which is far easier to play than Muller's system (which had notes missing, requiring lip-bending or half-holing to play a complete scale!) and is still the standard to this day. Other "modern" key systems, such as the Albert and Oehler (Auler) systems popular in Germany, also exist, but while they offer certain advantages in tonality, they are more complicated and therefore more difficult to play than the Boehm system.

German-made Oehler-system A/Bb clarinets

Many varieties of clarinet have been developed over the years, but the Bb "soprano" clarinet is the general standard. Orchestral clarinetists (such as myself) generally also have an A soprano, which is often used in 19th century classical works. Other common types include the little Eb "sopranino", the alto-sax-sized Eb "alto", the Bb "bass", the Eb "contralto", and the Bb "contrabass". There is also an interesting variant called the "basset horn", which is keyed in F and thus pitched slightly higher than the "alto" but is longer with more keys and thus a wider range. Mozart liked the basset horn's unique, mellow tone a lot and used it quite a bit, but now it is quite rare. I have seen only one in my lifetime, which was at the music club training camp in 2004 (and the teacher let me play it! THAT was fun!). Other types of clarinet exist, such as the Eb "piccolo" and C "marching-band soprano" (not to mention A and C "bass" models), but they are rarely seen and rarely used.

So there you have it, folks. I may strum, plunk, and squawk here and there and everywhere, but my old #1 has been and may well always be ye olde licorice stick, the made-in-France-but-with-German-improvements clarinet. Often enigmatic, often controversial, both loved and scorned with equal passion, I still find it a joy to play.

(But I still think Moussorgsky was trying to bully his clarinetists...)


  • I had to give my $1000 clarinet to my brother when he started into Jazz. It was a gift to me from my parents, but since I wasn't playing it, they felt it would be better off in his hands.

    Sigh, I wonder if he even still has it. I'd give anything to have it back.

    By Blogger DewKid, at 2:14 AM  

  • "Only fags play clarinet"

    It's not like you have any Hard Gay's on your blog.... I mean.... what I meant to say was....

    oh nevermind.

    folynav - thinking a GPS device will keep you from getting lost

    By Blogger DewKid, at 10:12 AM  

  • Only $1000? I'd better not tell you how much my Buffet-Crampon RC Prestige Bb and Buffet-Crampon Festival A clarinets cost (mainly because I don't even want to think about it...)!

    I've heard, "Only fags play clarinet," from a number of people, most of whom I didn't know, but there was one guy (nightmare?), a "drummer" from our high school days, initials T.W., whose statement to that effect was particularly memorable. I replied by saying, "Apparently assholes play drums." That was beyond his capacity to figure out.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 3:30 PM  

  • This may sound hard to believe, but I played clarinet, actually the bass clarinet for one day as part of a musical instrument exchange lesson during junior high. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to switch instruments in the band going from trumpet, to baritone, to french horn, and even to tuba. It was at this point when I was learning to play the bass cleff that the teacher asked my if I would try playing the bass guitar, as he needed one for jazz band next year. I jumped at the chance, and played bass all the way up to college, but only then after using my instruments as a hobby, and aquiring ever greater numbers. I now have three basses, four electric guitars, and a MIDI center with keyboard and synth module. That would all be hooked up by now, but my living situation is about to change again, so I'm leaving everything in the box until I get settled this year.

    By Blogger Pa've, at 4:26 PM  

  • A lot of us are happy that you like to play clarinet, Moody, becuase we sure like to listen when you do.

    I picked up the trombone in order to get out of a rather boring 7th grade general music class and into the band. One of my better decisions.

    At least chalumeau sounds exotic. The old name for trombone was sackbut. Comes from the French "sacqueboute" which means pull-push (how creative). I like the British slang better - "push me off the pavement".

    Thanks for interesting history - of your interest in music as well as your favorite instrument. Your talents and knowledge are well appreciated my many folks and you are putting them to good use.

    jigia - a dance performed by Irish "fags"?

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 4:29 PM  

  • Clarinet? Ha! Now the flute, that's a man's instrument!

    I've always been confused on how certain instruments have generated restricted gender status.

    Just another example of Junior High level sexual sub-consious programming.

    kjsyb-a clone produced exclusively for organ donation.

    By Blogger Seymour, at 5:52 PM  

  • I also played the clarinet. my first choice was the french horn, then the Oboe and the violin, mostly because I knew (KNEW!) that if I played the same instrument as any other family member I didn't stand a shot in hell of being anything but a distant second. Mom wanted me to play flute, like she and my big sister had. Playing Clarinet like my father and my brother the "musical one" was O.K. too, but the others were "too hard, I'd never be able to learn them". I even played violin for a year, but the support was less than present so I finally gave in and agreed to play the flute. I went into the first band class prepared to take up the flute and saw a row of blond girls in white Keds sitting there. Flute players! (ominous chords go here). Not wanting to be part of that flock I told the teacher "Clarinet".

    By the way, Dewkid, my parents bought me a clarinet when I started 7th grade but it was "better" than my brothers so they let him play it for two years, until they could afford a nicer one for him too.

    I played for thirteen years, through High School and College. High School wasn't much, partly due to my need for anti-depressants and the band teacher's bias towards his Jazz Band members, one of whom was a total shit! Practicing wasn't much fun either. My brother likes to show off. If I started to practice, he would remember he needed to practice too. I also got subjected to a lot of comparisons ( I think Dewkid understands this one very well) Parents, even the clarinet teacher! Big brother was such a wonderful musician, he won trophies, and I was just, well . . .

    Thank God for college! I started playing like a mad fiend. Practicing 4-6 hours a day, playing recitals, orchestra, pit orchestras for musicals, I even played adjudications, even though I wasn't a music major and wasn't required to. I loved playing clarinet. I loved the feeling that I was good at it. I loved the fact that other people thought I was good at it. That funny soaring sensation you get when the notes come automatically and you start playing music. God, do I miss it.

    You see, Unlike Mr. Moody, I can't play anymore. When I was 18, they surgically removed my wisdom teeth and in the process damaged some of the nerves in my jaw. I continued playing for quite awhile, I just had a two hour cut off. If I tried playing longer the muscles would stop obeying and start twitching, but about 5 years ago something about the nerve/muscle set-up changed. I don't have enough control over the muscles to hold embochure for 2 minutes, my right ear is usually plugged and half of my tongue is numb. No more wind instruments of any kind for me. I can still play keyboards. I took some piano lessons, but it isn't the same.

    By Blogger Phillipa Scratch, at 4:43 AM  

  •, serious ACK!!!!!

    Now I'm thankful mom & dad told the dentist to go bite himself when he suggested surgically removing my wisdom teeth...

    You know, this is really getting bizarre. There are a number of things my parents wouldn't allow me to do(such as major in music), and the reasons they gave often seemed just plain ridiculous. Recently, however, I've been finding out that those "unfortunate restrictions" that have bugged me all these years were really blessings in disguise. (For example, had I been a music major in college, ironically enough, I would probably be working at a department store right now and feeling sorry for myself instead of directing, composing, and performing for a first-rate music program!) it fate, or karma?

    dvfdwt - Daffy Duck trying to identify himself after Elmer Fudd has shot his bill off.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 4:33 PM  

  • Well, if it's any consolation, Phillipa, when you came to Japan to attend my wedding and we both rehearsed with the Kashima community band, I was surprised when I heard you warming up. (So were some of my bandmates.) You complained about the clarinet you were using (my beloved, old Selmer from my college career!), but my own playing ability had languished somewhat over the years. I couldn't help thinking, "Oh, my little sis has finally caught me..." I think some of my bandmates felt the same way.

    Oh, well. You still kick my ass on piano.

    slhftuql - One of Dr. Seuss' rejects.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 9:40 PM  

  • That's cause you have troubles with bass clef dude.

    I freaked out Chuck at Wally's music because I let him sell my Monster on commission and I couldn't get out the door without bawling. But he told me the kid who bought it was a serious student and I donated all my concertos with piano parts back to my college.

    By Blogger Phillipa Scratch, at 12:56 PM  

  • Another informative blog… Thank you for sharing it… Best of luck for further endeavor too.

    By Anonymous Voice Instructor san matio, at 8:08 PM  

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