The Perfect Sound and the Clarinet

The Perfect Sound and the Clarinet

As I considered a title for this post, I was reminded of the titles of many Aesop’s Fables, such as The Goat and the Wolf  and The Hare and the Tortoise.  So, I pulled out the copy of those fables that my Mom bought for me during a trip to Tennessee when I was eight years old and sat down to revisit these poignant tales.  Now I’m back at my laptop and ready to delve into talking about tone and sharing the story of my own journey with clarinet sound.

My brother, Neal, who was six years older than I, played clarinet in his school band.  Neal was a gifted musician whose primary focus was composition, but he was an accomplished pianist and singer who could play several different wind instruments.  While I have vivid memories of him spending hours at the piano and poring over manuscript paper creating new music, I have very few memories of him practicing clarinet at home.  But because of his involvement with the band, my parents and I went to hear him at various all-district and all-region band events.  One of those concerts changed my life, because the first chair clarinetist had so many solos!  The sound he produced was so beautiful and the broad range of colors, dynamics, and enormous tessitura seemed to provide limitless possibilities for expression.  I felt at that moment that I had found my voice.

Not long after that concert, my parents gave my brother a new Selmer 10G clarinet for Christmas. For whatever reason, he was unable to produce a sound after initially assembling the instrument.  I was eight years old at the time and jumping up and down with enthusiasm and glee (and I’m sure an annoying persistence) begging to see if I could make a sound on his new clarinet.  Neal agreed to show me how to hold the clarinet and let me try to play it.  That moment in time is indelibly marked in my memory, because the sound I produced was enormous and ringing, filling up the house and shocking everyone, most especially my brother!  Then I KNEW I had found my voice, because it made everyone smile and laugh, so it felt like I had brought some joy to others, as well.  As you can see from the featured photo of this post, I think my brother was pretty bummed about it since his little brother did something he couldn’t, which was pretty rare feat at that point in our lives.  He assembled his old clarinet and let me play a few notes on it while he looked on, which is when my Mom snapped the above picture.

(When I tell this story, everyone always asks about my brother and what he is doing today.  Sadly, Neal passed away in 1993 from complications of the AIDS virus.)

The band curriculum in my North Carolina school district had beginner band starting in sixth grade, so a couple of years passed before I actually started learning to play the clarinet.  My first private instruction began in eight grade with Joe DiNardo, a retired band director who was the father of a former concertmaster of the Asheville Symphony.  He was not a clarinetist, but taught me a great deal about music, theory, phrasing, and the importance of establishing a solid concept of sound.  From the first lesson, one of his primary objectives was to have me listen to as much great music as possible.  As far as clarinetists were concerned, he wasn’t sure how to guide me, so my Mom took me to Dunham’s Music House, our local music store, and we rifled through all the recordings in the bin marked “clarinet”.  Another customer in the store overheard our conversation as we browsed and introduced himself as H. I. Louthian, a personal friend of Anthony Gigliotti, who was at that time the principal clarinetist of the Philadelphia Orchestra.  I was thrilled and eager to accept his recommendations.  We left with recordings of Mr. Gigliotti playing Mozart Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra, another recording called “First Chair Encores” with Mr. Gigliotti playing the Debussy Rhapsody, and a recording of Gervase DePeyer performing Weber Concerto No. 1 and Rossini Introduction, Theme and Variations.  I listened to those recordings ALL THE TIME.   Mr. DiNardo immediately heard a positive difference in my sound and in my playing at my very next lesson after hearing these recordings.  I never forgot his enthusiasm upon hearing me play my first notes that day, even before I told him that I had been doing so much listening.  The power of establishing a solid concept was indelibly marked from that point onward.

Soon thereafter, Ray Babelay, the excellent clarinet professor and wind ensemble conductor at Mars Hill College (now Mars Hill University) agreed to accept me as his clarinet student.  Summers spent at Cannon Music Camp and Brevard Music Center introduced me to Bob Crowley (principal clarinetist with the Montreal Symphony) and Virginia Tillotson (principal clarinet with the Asheville Symphony), wonderful performers and teachers whose influence continues to inform my playing and teaching every day.  Before I graduated from high school, all of these teachers instilled in me the importance of sound, of constantly being aware of the countless ways that attending live performances and listening to recordings influence our sounds and our music making.

My formal education included time spent in Vienna, Austria, regularly attending performances with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Staatsoper.  The sound of the Austrian/German School of clarinet playing was a strong influence when I first began studying with Stanley Hasty in graduate school, who immediately insisted that I listen to the great Harold Wright, whose sound was vastly different that what I had been hearing for a few years.  Mr. Hasty helped me do my very best to incorporate the aspects of the German sound I found most attractive with those of the French School, or at least that’s what I was trying very hard to do at the time.  I also spent a year studying with David Weber, whose commitment to bel canto clarinet playing and beautiful sound was unparalleled.

With the advent of the internet, sounds from all over the world are immediately accessible to all of us, opening the door to even more possibility.  As a result of my teaching, practicing every day, and performing regularly, my concept of sound continues to evolve and I do my best every day to continue to refine my sound.

So, with all this in mind, what do I know about sound?  What can I share about tonal concept that will be helpful to anyone who may read this?

It’s obvious by this point that it’s crucial to have a clear concept of sound, to have an idea of what one is listening for, the sound that one aspires to.  That said, tonal concept is one of the most subjective aspects of playing an instrument.  Regardless of one’s concept, some aspects of producing a sound with integrity are objective and arguably non-negotiable.

A good sound must be clear, focused, in tune, even and controlled at all dynamic levels and in all registers.  It must be consistent from the very beginning of a note to the release, from the first note of a phrase to the last.

Mr. Hasty asked me to make a list of adjectives describing the ideal sound I wanted.  Despite my enormous respect for him (No single teacher had a greater, more lasting impact on my playing and teaching than he did) I was skeptical at first, wondering if attaching words to the tone I was going for would make any difference.  It didn’t take long before I was all in for a number of reasons, but the most immediate shift was in how I listened to myself:  When I attached a descriptor as I was listening, I was aware of a change in the sound.  What a magical door that opened, because with that realization came the most cathartic of all—THE SOUND SERVES THE MUSIC.  Once we are able to control the sound, we can begin to change it to suit the demands of the music, as well as to serve our own imagination.  That experience with sound set me on fire and opened up wonderful new worlds in playing and music making.

Here is a list of adjectives from my lesson notebook that semester:

clear, centered, balanced (dark/bright), beautiful, ringing, responsive, resonant, colorful, stable, penetrating, solid, even (all registers, all dynamic levels), firm, secure, spinning, constant, focussed, natural, attractive, magnetic, supported, big/large, gorgeous, smooth, contained, creamy, round, lush, covered, up front, glossy, lively, graceful, neat, present, ringing, potent, allowed, warm, flexible, chocolatey, free

Images can also influence tone production.  Former students of the late, great Donald Montanaro shared that he described ideal sound as being like a perfect, beautifully faceted diamond resting on a plush velvet cushion.  What an incredible image, evoking clarity, color, projection, cushion, balance, reflection, and sparkle!  Imagining different colors while we play changes the sound to a degree that always surprises me.  I have no delusions that an audience will hear the color red if that’s what I’m imagining, but the listener will certainly be aware of something different, something special.

I believe in bel canto playing and love hearing (and doing my best to produce) beautiful sounds.  But there are times when the music may call for something else, maybe even something ugly, and we have to decide what’s more important, our commitment to the music or to always making a lovely sound on the instrument.

During the two magical summers I spent at Tanglewood Music Center, we were fortunate enough to have Leonard Bernstein conduct the Fellowship Orchestra and watch him work with the conducting fellows.  During the rehearsal breaks, he would often talk with the students, so one day the clarinetists decided to approach him to talk about his Sonata for clarinet and piano.  As he gestured dramatically with glasses in hand, he said something like “All you clarinetists are so obsessed with your sounds and always want to make everything beautiful.  But you have to be willing to let go of that and just do what a composer wants.”  His clarinet sonata at one point includes the marking “un poco crudo”, and he referred to that in particular, saying “You just gotta blow and be willing to let it be ugly at that point.”  I couldn’t believe my ears, but it certainly made a lasting and important impression.

The danger of varying the sound enters when a player tries to hide behind that and use it as an excuse for not being able to produce an even, clear, well-controlled sound, which is the necessary backbone of any variation in sound the player wishes to create or that the music may call for.

In addition to establishing a solid concept of the kind of sound, we need to listen to ourselves carefully every day, every time we play.  Recording ourselves with a decent microphone allows us to be objective about the tone we are producing:  Just as our speaking voices may seem foreign when we hear ourselves on a recording, the sound we produce comes across differently from what we actually hear while playing.  In order to produce the sound I want, it’s necessary for me to hear something that is much brighter than my ideal, or else the sound comes across to the listener as tubby and lacking overtones.  But we are all different, we all have different tendencies, so recording helps each one of us learn more objectively and honestly than just simply trying to imitate someone else’s sound.

The practice of long tones is essential to the development of sound and breath control, a statement which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me or has ever had a lesson with me.  And I’m not talking about mindlessly sustaining a sound to fulfill a teacher’s request.  Most every day, I begin my first practice session playing long tones, listening for the most beautiful sound I can make, observing myself in a mirror to make sure I’m using my body well, producing the most in-tune, stable sound I possibly can.  Playing long tones allows me to do this without thinking about anything else but what I need to do physically, mentally, and emotionally in order to make the sound I want.  (I use many different exercises for tonal development, so if you want more info, hit me up for a lesson!)

So, what is the perfect sound?  Clearly, the answers can be (and are) very subjective.  But for my answer to that question I relate it to life.  The most perfect time is the present moment.  Everything is as it should be right now, at this very moment which will never happen again.  The perfect sound is the one I am making right now, because I am listening carefully and playing with the best possible intentions, listening for my most beautiful, authentic voice, and doing my best to fulfill the composer’s wishes.  And in the world of sound, that is what I wish for you.  Now, go play long tones.

“It is better to use your head than to admire your whiskers.”

                                               The Goat and the Wolf, Aesop’s Fables

“Slow and steady wins many a race.”

                                                The Hare and the Tortoise, Aesop’s Fables