A long love affair with the clarinet

My son is about to enter fifth grade and must choose an instrument to learn. As a clarinetist (who still practices, every day), I have fretted that Anton would follow my lead and take up the "licorice stick."

Let me be clear. I have been playing the clarinet since I was 9. I have played in ensembles. I have a collection of clarinet sheet music larger than the local university's. I care for my instrument as if it were the last of its species: I oil it, dutifully swab it, keep the keys in perfect adjustment, and gently lay it to rest in its velvet case after every use.

If my house were to be struck by lightning, I would have only two thoughts: to rescue my son and my clarinet.

Yet I am worried that Anton will choose to play the clarinet. Why? Because, despite Mozart's loving estimation of the instrument ("Father! If only we had clarinets!"), it is devilishly frustrating to learn to play well. The key setup is a mechanical nightmare, and the reed is a temperamental slip of wood that determines whether the clarinet will sing like an angel or quack like a duck.

The clarinet started out, in the 1600s, as something of a penny whistle that could produce only a few notes. There were no keys and no reed, just a hollow tube with a few holes and an opening at each end. Over the years, the thing grew longer, heavier, and much more elaborate. Successive craftsmen slapped on keys and other hardware in a way that would have pleased Rube Goldberg.

A child's first interface with the clarinet is almost always tragic. While anyone can hit a piano key and get it to ring true, the first heroic puff at a clarinet normally produces little more than a rush of air, or a quack, or a squeak. If one is very, very fortunate, 15 minutes of exertion will yield a dull, sodden, open "G," which, if the clarinet could speak words, would be the equivalent of, "Oy! Another kid who wants to be Benny Goodman."

The result is that the nation is littered with forsaken clarinets. They occupy dark corners of closets, unbidden and unloved. They are the legacies of countless erstwhile schoolchildren who are now adults.

When these recovering clarinetists bump into one another, they share the same sad refrain: "I used to play the clarinet."

In fact, I have a theory. I believe that everyone either once played the clarinet or knows somebody who did. Which raises the question: If the instrument is so daunting, why is it pushed so heavily in elementary schools?

Well, there seems to have been a transgenerational conspiracy among band composers to write parts for legions of clarinets. This, no doubt, is to compensate for the attrition of clarinetists who fall by the wayside, frustrated by the instrument. What this means is that today's tykes are something like musical cannon fodder: All these clarinet parts exist, so somebody has to play them! It doesn't matter that their hands are too small for the instrument or that the reed is nothing but trouble.

The other night, while I was practicing a Haydn piece, 10-year-old Anton crept up the stairs, as quietly as could be, so as not to disturb the progress, such as it was, of my solo. He sat down, cross-legged, next to me, and watched, his quick brown eyes following every finger fall. I flirted with the idea of making a few deliberate mistakes, letting the clarinet squawk a bit, to preempt any burgeoning interest he might have in the instrument.

But I couldn't bring myself to disrespect Papa Haydn, and so I played on and brought the piece to a sweet finish.

"Is it hard?" asked Anton.

"Well, to be perfectly honest, yes."

"But you played it really well."

"I've been practicing a long time."

I knew that look, and the note of inquiry was also familiar. The clarinet, that sleek ebony tube with the sparkling silver keys and plangent tones, had caught Anton's interest – just as it did mine when I was his age. It was love at first sight – and hearing. I remember the first feel of the instrument, the heft of it in my hands, the taste of my first reed (a Rico No. 1). I recall playing "Home on the Range," which elicited discouraging words from my clarinet teacher, the irascible Mr. Markiewicz. I remember all these things as if it were yesterday, and now here I am, 40 years later, a devotee.

And so, sighing, I looked down at my son. "Anton," I said, "if you want to play the clarinet next year, I'd be happy to help you practice."

He waved me off. "Nah," he said. "I don't like it. I'm going to play the flute."

What? How could anyone not like the clarinet? Its beauty speaks to both the eye and the ear. Mozart celebrated it. Brahms came out of retirement to compose for it. It was the hallmark instrument of the Jazz Age.

Ah, look at me. Willing to defend the clarinet's honor after all.

Such are the wages of love.

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