Woody Herman's Thundering Herd

I first met Woody Herman at a jazz club on W. 52nd St. in NYC. It was dark in this basement lair though it was still late afternoon on the street. I’d been invited to “sit in” by the writer/critic/ drummer, George Simon. The band struck up “Bye, Bye Blackbird” and after I played George said, “There’s somebody I want you to meet.” We walked over to a table in the back and a dapper gentleman, well-dressed with a silk ascot, shook my hand and said, “I’m Woody Herman.” Oh, my god I thought, I just played a mediocre chorus on my clarinet for the leader of the Thundering Herd—one of the greatest big bands in the world!

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One of my earliest memories of playing the clarinet was using it to join the altos alongside my mother in our church choir. It was my father's idea (he sang tenor) to help the inner voices stay on pitch. And so I tried to blend in with the singers. Emulating the singing voice became a natural goal in creating my sound, my tone. Life is vibration.

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"...just remember you have something to say with your music."

Crawling around on the floor as a normal, curious little boy, I discovered a black leather pouch underneath my mother and father's bed. The metal latch was particularly intriguing and I finally managed to flip it open and dump the contents upon the floor. Out rolled a small wooded toy barrel, then a wooden bell, and then two wooden cylinders like telescopes but with holes on the sides to let in light and strange metal rings, rods, and keys. The wood was dark black but the metal was shiny and silver. As I began peering through the telescope and sending the little barrel careening across the room, I must have thought, “what a wonderful discovery. My own little toys to play with all inside this black pouch under the bed.” Of course, soon my play world was interrupted by my father who quickly scooped up my toys, placed them back in their leather case, and explained to me this was not a toy but rather Daddy's clarinet and that maybe someday I might be big enough to try one out.

That day came in fourth grade when a round little man named Mr. Kessen bounced into our elementary school to announce he would be back next week to teach a scale to any of us who could find a musical instrument at home and bring it with them to school. My father rented a one-piece Conn metal clarinet which I wouldn't be able to break and inside the long case with the clarinet was a bamboo reed for the mouthpiece. The bamboo tasted green and porous and this I could break. I soon learned the idea was not to chew it, but to make it vibrate by placing my lips around the reed and mouthpiece and blowing through the clarinet. Somehow the subsequent squawks and squeaks and my perseverance in producing them convinced my father to find a private teacher for me and that's how I ended up taking the Market Street Trolly with my Grandma every week to Sherman and Clay Music store for a clarinet lesson with Mr. Howard Thompson.

I have always been blessed by wonderful teachers who somehow taught me what I needed to know when I was ready to know it. As a beginner, I thought I needed to know everything at once. Howard Thompson allowed me to understand that the next thing he showed me was exactly what I was to supposed to know next.

The crucial insight it gave me was in preparing me for my first moment to shine during his students' recital at the end of the year. He gave me two little pieces. The first was from a book entitled, “100 Favorite Classical Tunes” (or something like that) and was Rimsky-Korsakov's “Hymn to the Sun.” The second piece was two choruses of “Stardust” by Hoagy Carmichael. I played the introduction and first chorus as written. On the repeat, Mr. Thompson had jotted down in pencil a few embellishments on top of the melody line to lend it a sense of improvisation. I loved this chance to play both something “classical” and something “jazzy.” So my very first public appearance presaged my path in music, thanks to Howard Thompson. He was a kind and gentle man and when my parents announced the family move away from San Francisco to Cincinnati, I was very sad for my last lesson and felt my life in music would now be over. Howard Thompson looked at me, light blue eyes through his thick glasses, which made his eyes seem larger and luminous and told me, “Now Richard, don't cry. You just continue the way you're going. You'll find another teacher and just remember you have something to say with your music.”

Excerpted from Another Name for God, Copyright Richard Stoltzman, 2015

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.

Mr. Marcellus

It was James Griesheimer, an oboe student at Ohio State, who put me onto the famous “cloboe” sonority of Marc Lifschey and Robert Marcellus, principal winds of George Szell's Cleveland Orchestra. He shared his recording of a Schumann Symphony slow movement. The oboe and clarinet exchange melodic lines in loving caresses of intervals. This breathtaking sensitivity to tonal color between Lifschey and Marcellus was so inspiring that I vowed to force myself on the mercy of this great clarinetist and beg him for some lessons. In the summer of '63 Marcellus found time for me and I was his starstruck, trembling student for six lessons. It was a very special glimpse into the realm of clarinet playing, a rarefied stratosphere where only the deities of the wind world dwelt. Here were divulged some of the mysterious secrets of producing sound and creating a melodic line. The revelations were heavenly, the realizations were devilishly difficult. Searching to discover this new sound, Marcellus would have me make a tone and sustain it, then drop my jaw. This feeling was akin to standing on what seemed to be a firm platform, then suddenly feeling the floor drop away to reveal a cavernous trap door. If a noose had been wrapped around my neck, I wouldn't have felt any more hopeless and despairing. And this was just the beginning! While suspended in this terrible lowered depressed tone, Marcellus then entreated me to leave the trap door open but fill the hole up with a huge blast of accelerating air from my diaphragm muscles in order to levitate the tone and induce a brand-new series of supporting overtones. Turning purple and shaking with the effort to squeeze more air out of my distressed lungs, I finally shattered and broke.

What I had thought as a simple, beautiful melodic line was clinically dissected and microscopically examined for inner architectural secrets. A crescendo from soft to loud grew by a precisely graded system of numbers. To begin a sound one first had to expel all the stale air in the body, then breathe deeply, let the fresh air settle, set the embouchure, touch the first millimeter of the reed tip with the first millimeter of the tip of the tongue to prevent the reed from vibrating as the air pressure builds behind, and slowly release the bamboo, while the air induces the reed to vibrate.

Excerpted from Another Name for God copyrighted 2015, Richard Stoltzman



Another Name for God

“Taxiiiiiee! I'm going to The Skylite Diner on 27th off of 8th. Do you...?” “No problem, sir.” One sharp, illegal U-turn and we were on our way. I glanced at the driver's photo and taxi I.D. number in that habitually hopeless memorization of vital information to cough out to police after being overcharged for my Sucker's Tour of the Bronx. But as we swiftly zoomed towards the right destination, I euphorically explained my rendezvous for the birthday breakfast of my clarinet teacher. “You have a teacher?” “Yes- he's 80 years old today.” “You are very lucky. To have still such a teacher- you are very lucky.” “Yep,” I said. As we rolled to a stop at the corner I said, “I can walk from here.” But as I gave him the fare he said, “you know, in my country, we say, the other name for God is teacher.” From that corner to the Skylite Deli entrance, the morning light intensified and I felt and injection of insight course through my 58-year-old veins. Teacher. Another name for God.
 Excerpted from Another Name for God, Copyright Richard Stoltzman, 2015

William Thomas McKinley, composer and jazz musician

RS and William McKinley

William Thomas McKinley -- for 50 years, the most powerful, universal force for music in my life -- has died. He awakened in me the true and primal energy of music. Beginning with Attitudes (1965), he and his music unleashed a blinding spectrum of colors and emotions which took my breath and heart away. He left us miracles of music which will resonate with the boundless beauty and brilliance, the love of life, and the sweet surprise that only the greatest jazz musician and genius composer can express.

The photo was taken in Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall after the world premier of Burning Bright by Tom. Photo by Hiroyuki Ito.

Remembering Benny Goodman

My first aural memory of Benny Goodman probably came from the many 78 recordings of swing bands which my dad loved to play in the evenings when I was a child in San Francisco. But it wasn't until my grandma took me to see the Benny Goodman Story at the Castro movie theater that I really put the sound together with the man and the legend and dreamed of one day playing the clarinet. Flash forward 30 years to the moment when the legend called me to come visit him, talk clarinets, and play duets. As I took the elevator to Benny Goodman's penthouse on the east side of Manhattan, my knees started to shake and I felt as though I was ascending to God. The childhood memories of my dad's records and going to the movies with my grandma filled my mind. The elevator opened to the door of his apartment and I nervously rang the bell. My whole life seemed to be building to this moment. The door opened, I looked up and was struck speechless. I was shocked to see another person! I struggled to regain reality. I suddenly realized I had been expecting to see Steve Allen, who played Benny in the movie. But the man who warmly invited me in was indeed the one and only, attired in silk smoking jacket and ascot. And then for a precious few hours the legend and I spoke of all the mundane things which every clarinet player ends up talking about: reeds, mouthpieces, and equipment. He wanted my opinion of a live recording he had made of the Max Reger Clarinet Quintet. And we read through the old Italian clarinet duets every kid growing up loves to play with a friend. His chauffer took us two blocks away to an east side deli for soup and sandwich. It all seemed like a dream, but people kept coming over to our table to make sure I realized with whom I was having lunch. Not Steve Allen. It was the king.

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.