How I Learned To Play Clarinet

I tell this story to all my students when they start taking lessons. It is a story about me and how I got introduced to the clarinet. It is all true, and it might be slightly embellished but…..hey, it’s a good story.I started my musical career in the 4th grade when the band teacher, Mr. Alfono (spelling?), came to my class and gave use the 20 minute “lets go band” talk. I wanted to try it. What instrument though….? As I remember it, I wanted to do either saxophone or clarinet. He said something like “well, if you start on Clarinet then don’t like it, you can switch to saxophone”. Cool. I got a clarinet then. Don’t remember anything about band after that. It was something to get out of class for. When I went to junior high school (7-8 grade), I switched to bass clarinet. Not sure why. Perhaps I didn’t like all the competition? I played bass clarinet until my freshmen year of highschool, then the junior high wanted the bass clarinet back. I switched to Tenor saxophone then, and my clarinet days seemed to be behind me….

That was, until I reached college. Funny thing is that playing in big bands, all of a sudden parts start saying “Tenor Saxophone/Clarinet” or “Alto Saxophone/Clarinet/Flute”. Well, when started dabbling in clarinet at DVC, but was bad at it. When I started at CSUH , I somehow got placed as lead alto in the second big band. Thats cool, but we had to do this arrangement of “American” (something, can’t remember the name) by Toshiko Akiyoshi. It was a trombone feature, and the lead alto part had a nasty clarinet line. Spent a lot of time working on that. We played it for the winter concert, and I thought that the clarinet would end up in the back of my school locker again…..never to be taken out.

Enter Tim Smith. He was the wind ensemble director at that time. I had done an audition for him in the fall, but I got the impression that he didn’t need or want me in the band. Well, he did now for some reason. He wanted me to play in his band. I said, well, ok, next quarter. During finals he stalked me and finally dragged me into his office.

“So, you are playing in my next quarter”. Not a question, a statement of fact. I was doomed.

“Um, yeah. But it seems you have a lot of saxophones already in the band.” Please please find me a way out of this!

“Yeah, what else do you play?”

“Well, I play a little flute.”

“Good good, what else?”

“And a little clarinet..”

“Ah! Clarinet! Excellent, you can play clarinet in my band.”

Great. Not. He proceeded to give me music, and later I think it was all planned. Tim Smith plans things out WAY in advance, and that especially goes for his assigning of parts in band. So, now I was trapped. I was able to convince him that I needed a better clarinet, the Noblet (No play) wasn’t doing it for me. I was able to get a Buffet clarinet out of the instrument checkout guy, and proceeded to go on winter break, not even considering practicing my music.

First day of classes. Wind Ensemble. At that time, there was only ONE Wind Ensemble (or symphonic band, or whatever you want to call it). I was clarinettist number 6. Tim Smith has a policy of rotating the parts, so, everyone plays different parts (IE: 1st, 2nd, 3rd) on different songs. He also likes to sightread for the first 10-15 minutes in the period. That first day of band was sheer terror. I knew how to play the notes on the page……on saxophone. My brain proceeded to freeze at all the little black dots on the page. I was doomed. My ego! My fragile ego! With like less than 5 minutes to in the class, this other clarinetist, real cocky and real good, turns to me and says “Sounds good man! But play louder, I can’t hear ya!” Da! I wasn’t playing.

I endured the class for about 2 weeks like this. I was in panic mode, trying to figure out fingerings, playing in tune. I was hopelessly in over my head.

I decided after like the 2nd week to talk to Tim.

“I don’t think this is working out” I said. I wanted out of clarinet. Badly.

“Why don’t you talk to Bill, he might give you some pointers on clarinet.” Bill Wolhmacher, clarinet teacher and department head. Ok, what the hell, I’d go talk with Bill.

That was actually the turning point there. Bill was very helpful in showing me clarinet, and I later learned he played saxophone in the US Marine band (the President’s Band) because there were no open clarinet seats, just a saxophone one. So, my talking with Bill began concurrent saxophone/clarinet lessons for the next few years. It was actually a good thing since the saxophone teacher there at the time, Bill Trimble, was rarely attended his scheduled lessons and generally didn’t give a shit about CSUH, but thats another story. I went to saxophone lessons. I LEARNED at my clarinet lessons.

Now, as I look back nearly 10 years later, I’m glad I stuck with clarinet. I really enjoy playing it!

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