Mr. Howard Thompson was my first clarinet teacher. The Sherman & Clay music store located in downtown San Francisco close to Market Street provided a room for him and I can remember he was a benign little man with gray hair, glasses that magnified his blue eyes in a warm way, coat and tie, both clarinet and alto saxophone at his side. He listened gently to my playing, guiding me to make my sound, joining me in duets, and encouraging me to try the alto. He was a busy "doubler" in the Bay Area and whenever a show like "The Ice Follies" or the circus came to town, he would be hired to play clarinet and saxophone in the orchestra. He had me buy Harry Huffnagle duet books emphasizing music written in manuscript rather than printed so I would get used to reading different styles of note writing. I loved the Rhythm Duets book which introduced all manner of syncopation and popular styles of swing.
My first public performance as a student at his class recital included Rimsky-Korsakov "Hymn to the Sun" from Everybody's 100 Favorite Hits of Classical Music, which I played on alto sax, and two choruses of Hoagy Carmichel's "Stardust" with the introductory verse. Mr. Thompson penciled in little grace notes, appogiaturas, and abbreviated riffs for me to embellish the chorus second time around. I really don't recall being nervous or judged. I think I just had a nice time and was floored by Mr. Thompson's young teenage student who was the last to play and, it seemed to me, played incredible feats on her clarinet.
When I learned that my father was moving the family to Cincinnati and I would no longer have my teacher, I felt devastated. Now, when I recall that final goodbye lesson, I realize I had a connection with this gentle man which was crucial in my young little life, though I had spent only 30 minutes with him each week. Indeed that precious time was the first I had ever experienced alone, with an adult not in my family where I was listened to and guided into the deep fellowship of making music, its practice and its power.
Excerpted from Another Name for God by Richard Stoltzman, copyright 2015