The inner sanctum of Kal's apartment is the living room. A daybed/couch occupying one corner is the sole indication of repose. Every other corner, nook, and cranny is filled with the essentials of Kal's intense life: pile upon pile of music manuscripts, containing countless etudes, compositions, and books in various stages of completion for publication; work benches filled with unique, esoteric tools, many designed and hand made by Kal to exacting specifications for use in this creation of one-of-a-kind clarinet mouthpieces, barrels and reeds; heavy machinery such as drills, lathes, vises and sanders to aid in his crafting and experimentation with new designs. The walls are covered with posters from some of the more than fifty ballets, Broadway shows, and concerts where, as principle clarinet, he made the necessary money to support his children and keep the outside word at bay as he pursued his passion during every other waking moment. The cynosure of this seeming chaos of creation is a hand crafted wooden music stand and a stool. It is here at this symbolic center of the clarinet universe where Kalman Opperman, teacher, is passionate master.
All true clarinet compasses point to this magnetic pole from which emanates the powerful philosophy of teaching the clarinet where Kal has relentlessly held firm. Above, below, and in between the framed public posters testifying to Kal Opperman's success in the music business, file cards, scraps of paper, backs of envelopes, and sheets of legal pads are pinned and Scotch-taped to every surface. Here is written what one might call the wisdom of Kalman Opperman if it weren't for the fact that he has no time for such pomposity and carries with him a lethal dosage of cynicism which might be symbolized by “the wall test.” If a particular reed seems to want to play but defies that last bit of crating to make it truly playable Kal simply seizes the reed and jams the delicate tip into the wall, where upon it is crushed beyond redemption, and proclaims, “I was right, bad cane.” Some Kal pronouncements for the wall:
“God Bless me, my students, and my students' students. Them- and NOBODY ELSE.”
“If there aren't good reeds in heaven, I'm not going.”
During my three years with Kal while at Columbia Teacher's College, I began the scary and exhilarating process of submitting my ego to the force of my teacher's. At one point in my studies, Kal required that I must only practice with his supervision and within earshot. This meant staying in his apartment day and night, sleeping on an army cot, practicing in the room next to him even as he gave the students lessons. Occasionally I would be interrupted by the crash of his fist on the wall indicating I was not practicing correctly and I'd better stop, wake up, and focus! Fairly early on it became clear to me that I had to give up thinking I knew anything about the clarinet. At one of my lessons I began to play the opening notes of Schubert's Der Hirt auf dem Felsen and he abruptly stopped me with this shocking exclamation, “You don't even know where the holes are on the clarinet!” I, with my Master's Degree from Yale and doctoral pursuits at Columbia, was being reduced to raw clay.
I even altered the basic way I hold the clarinet in my mouth. I left behind my embouchure of some twenty years, the one every other clarinetist I know in the world used (with one crucial exception). I gave up the security of upper teeth anchoring the clarinet and began using only the delicate pressure of the lips to control the reed and create the sound-double lip embouchure it is called. So now, I was a rank beginner, able to make sounds only in the lowest range, the chalumeau, and even then only in very short stretches of less than a minute. I had to give up playing in public or with other musicians. For this concern, Kal simply replied that I did not need the outside, the connections, the approval of others. Practice slowly, do what I say and don't concern yourself with society. This was a frightening prescription for me. I had thrived on the accolades and acceptance of others and resisted Kal's stern assessment of such neediness.
I remember coming for a lesson on a beautiful spring day. The sun barely filtered through the covered windows of his studio. I told him my plans for a picnic later in the day with my family at Riverside Park. “You don't need sun, you need practice,” was his only reaction to my ebullience. When my mother came to visit in New York I wanted her to meet my teacher, so we planned a quick coffee midtown in between his matinee and evening shows. My mother was effusive in thanks to Kal for being such an inspiring teacher for me. “Richard really thinks so highly of you, Mr. Opperman.” Kal's terse response, “Not enough.”
The full dedication to me and every one of his students remains the same. “This is not my hobby. This is my life. I'm here for you completely, but don't jerk me around.” When I first tried to pay him for my lesson, I asked him how much I owed him and he replied, “you can't afford me.” Complete dedication was the true price.
As I got to know Benny Goodman a bit, I realized he was in some ways just like every clarinetist. He wanted to talk clarinet: what kind of reeds, what kind of barrel, whose mouthpiece? So when I told him about this miraculous teacher and designer and inventor, he wanted to meet him. I called Kal from Benny Goodman's penthouse and told him Benny would like to come over and meet him. “He liked the mouthpiece I had and I told him it was yours!” Kal sounded almost reluctant in his reception of what I had assumed was an exciting phone call. However, Benny quickly swept me into his waiting limo and off we went to visit my teacher. Benny breezed into Kal's apartment fifteen minutes later and there I was starry-eyed witness to the meeting at the summit of master clarinetist, pedagogue, and artist/craftsman with the icon of the clarinet and historic living legend. Yet there was a wariness in the room as Benny gave Kal a nod of recognition (“but not enough,” I thought) and Kal Opperman presented Benny with a beautifully crafted Opperman mouthpiece on which Benny proceeded to blow a few notes and pronounce, “Not bad.” Then came Benny's mortifying, “How much you want for this, five dollars?” and Kal's dark, quiet, contemptuous, “It's yours, keep it.” The next thing I knew, Benny Goodman and his limo were gone and I was alone with Kal at the summit, no stars, dark clouds assembling. I hold each of these great men of the clarinet in highest esteem and was not prepared for such a precipitous fall from grace. Great egos need room.
The student aspires to the model which the teacher sets. But the ascent is precarious. At one lesson I came unprepared. Kal listened for a moment and then said, “You know, Dick, you don't really want to play the clarinet. There are so many things to do in life. Go, have a picnic, enjoy. Why bother with this, you don't need it.” Tears of frustration and anger welled in my eyes. Was my teacher mocking me, was he telling me truth I didn't want to hear, was he giving up on me, was he expecting too much, did he think he was God? Enraged, I hurled my clarinet at him. Instantly, he caught it, handed it back to me and told me I could come back when I was prepared to learn. He did not let me fall all the way.
Excerpted from Another Name for God, copyright 2015