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.Read More
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
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
“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