Kalmen Opperman

August 26, 2008 Borgen-Gemen, Deutchland. Home of Hans-Jörg and Hildegard Modlmyer:

I played yesterday morning in JohannesKirche, a small protestant church with a lovely sound. The congregation was full (due in some degree to Hans-Jörg's dilligence in driving me directly from the Düsseldorf airport to the Gemen Daily News for an interiew and photo). I tried Syrinx of Debussy for the 1st time (given to me by a clarinetist who came to a Messiaen concert in Highlands, NC) before a Christening for a brand new baby Tristan, who was dressed in white silk tuxedo à la Sir Elton John. After the sermon I performed Bach's Chromatic Fantasy, walking down the aisle to the back of the Church during the last page, in my manuscript, which descend the chromatic scale melodically and harmonically at the same time. Then I went up the stairs to the organ loft and joined the organist for Amazing Grace and Meditation on 'My Shepherd Shall Supply My Need.' I was told some cried and a young man thanked me for the gift to his heart.

This week of repose, so generously offered by Hans-Jörg and Hildegard, is a blessing of rest, practice, peace- and the potential to get another start on Another Name for God. I just collected a voicemail from Mika on my new iPhone describing the emotional tears of a young Japanese clarinet student and her family who came to 17 W 67th and heard 88-year-old Kalmen Opperman play for them.

Time for me to reflect on the father-god-teacher man that is Kalmen Opperman.

My relationship to Kal began in lessons with my penultimate teacher, Keith Wilson, at Yale. Inquiring about reed making, Mr. Wilson referred me to his copy of Single Reed Making Handbook, by Kalmen Opperman. I asked if Mr. Opperman was still alive but Keith Wilson wasn't sure. This was in 1966. An address in the book prompted me to send a letter to him in the chance that he was indeed “still” alive, and requesting the opportunity to meet with him for a reed making lesson. I was happily surprised to receive a prompt typewritten reply, suggesting I take the train down from New Haven and meet him at his studio in New York. I did and my life changed forever.

Buzzed into his building and let into his apartment studio on the ground floor I was was struck by a tremendous vitality packed into a powerfully small man. There were few social pleasantries and a no-nonsense directness to his demeanor and questions. So, I wanted to learn how to make reeds? I was finishing a Master's Degree from Yale and yet none of my teachers had taught me this basic knowledge? Observe, and with that, Kal Opperman took a piece of bamboo, cut off a section, split and sliced it, peeled the bark, willed his razor-sharp knife through the many intricate steps detailed in several chapters of his book, slapped the sculpted brand new reed on his clarinet mouthpiece and breathed vibrating life and tone through that bamboo which ten minutes earlier was inanimate wood. Oh my God- I was in the presence of a true master.

The ten minute transformation of a piece of bamboo into a resonating reed turned the engagement with my clarinet into a more than forty year marriage discovery, desire, discipline, dedication and, dare I say, near-death experience with the man who became my teacher, father-figure, iconoclast, and executioner. I have sometimes said Kal was an overwhelming force who sometimes deems to teach from the dark side, by which I mean that your passion for the instrument becomes a test of your own destruction as a mere player and your rebirth as a disciple to almost unattainable excellence. As Kal would say, quoting from one of his many words of wit, wisdom, and cynicism, “Each of us has his own way of destroying himself. Some choose the clarinet.”

After this first meeting I decided after Yale to move to New York and study with Kalmen Opperman. Comments like, “You don't even know where the holes are on the clarinet,” goaded my desperation to prove him wrong.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What type of mouthpiece do you use?
I play on a mouthpiece made by Kalmen Opperman.

Q: What type of clarinet do you play?
My clarinets are Buffet R-13 clarinets (both A and B-flat). They have gold-plated keys and are worked on by Mr. Opperman.

Q: What reeds do you use?
Vandoren White Master reeds, size 3. 

Q: What type of ligature do you use?
I play on a Buffet ligature, which was reworked for me by my teacher, Kalmen Opperman. I also use an M. Martin ligature which is very similar. When I'm testing out reeds, I use a Ratterree to save time.

Q: How much do you practice every day?
It would be difficult to know the exact number of hours every day, but I take the clarinet out when I wake up and come back to it all throughout the day.

Q: Where can we find your concert information?
In addition to my web site, check out my Facebook page and Duo For Love on Facebook.

Q: When and why did you start using double lip embouchure? I switched to double lip after hearing a recording of Schubert's Der Hirt Auf Dem Felsen for soprano, clarinet, and piano with Benita Valente, Harold Wright, and Rudolph Serkin. Wright's gorgeous legato and sublime homogeneous sound was so inspiring. I discovered that he used double lip embouchure. He suggested I work with Kalmen Opperman. Mr. Opperman basically tore my playing apart and rebuilt it again based on his philosophy of sound and understanding of technique.

I find double lip feels organic and natural for me. It allows for subtle variations in the amount of mouthpiece and reed inside of my mouth. It also seems to allow for greater variety in tone color.