Watching a Dancing Bear?
October 20, 2008 (updated October 30, 2008)
Listening to a preacher and theologian play the clarinet in recital is probably akin to watching a dancing bear: the fascination lies not in the quality of the performance, but in the fact that it is being done at all! 1
(click here to see concert video)
The young musician
Then, in seminary and after ordination, I did not continue. It was unsatisfying to play alone, without the harmonies of a band or an orchestra around me. For musical satisfaction I took up classical guitar, playing it in private for many years, until arthritis in my fingers forced me to put it aside.
I lent the clarinet to my sister for a while, and later to a friend. Briefly in 1998 I brought it out for my own use when a musician friend of Rachael’s, who puts together small professional jazz orchestras, asked me to play a few solos in front of his band at one of our Winnipeg hotels. I was pretty rusty, but enjoyed once more making live music. Then my clarinet went back in the cupboard again, as I continued to pursue, with the usual intensity, this priestly vocation of mine.
In the spring of 2008, my friend Russ Greene, a church organist, told me about a competition for composers: a competition in which participants would create music for organ and solo instrument. “Would you be interested,” he asked, “in playing a couple of the winning entries with me?” I was flattered, floored, flummoxed, and frightened, but agreed to give it a try. Russ got the music, and I got to work. And, to our mutual delight, our early efforts didn’t sound too bad at all!
I have grabbed a few moments practice nearly every day since then. The world of computers, which didn’t exist when I started out fifty years ago, has also been a wonderful help: I can now practice with a full orchestra at the click of a mouse! Then, as we began to develop the concert, there was great satisfaction playing ‘live’ with Russ and the church organ!
On October 5th we had a “dress rehearsal.” I was so fearful that nerves would get the better of me in the actual performance, that I invited ten friends to hear us play my part of the programme. It went quite well. Heather tells me that I stopped looking nervous part way through the second number. The programme contained four pieces for organ and clarinet: two were the winners of that competition, and, by way of contrast, there were two selections from the Baroque era. Of course the concert was primarily an Organ concert, and Russ eventually played three solo pieces for every one we played together. This worked well from my perspective, because a goodly interval between my numbers meant that I could get a chance to catch my breath!
Anyhow, for better or worse it all culminated yesterday, October 19th.
How did it go? I don't suppose it is really possible to ask the dancing bear how well the dance went. If it could speak, I suppose the bear would say, “Umm, I did my dance. Nearly fell down once or twice, but mostly I stayed up.” About 107 people came, and they clapped when I stopped playing (read that any way you like). The concert was recorded on video, and two of the items have now been posted to YouTube. You can click here and judge for yourself.
I was terribly nervous, and very relieved when it was all over, but basically I enjoyed the experience. I love making music once more, so I think there’s no turning back now. Indeed, after it was all over last night, I began setting up the computer to accompany me on a new piece: the exquisite Larghetto from Mozart’s Quintet for Clarinet and Strings (K581). As for performing in public? One day, God willing, Russ and I will do something again; indeed our goal is, eventually, to perform Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.
After my first season in the high school band, I began to take private lessons. Before long I was looking for a better quality instrument than the one issued by the school, and began saving up my paper-route income in order to buy one. One day, my teacher said he had come across a fine instrument second hand. It would cost $100.00, which was quite a lot of money in those days, but there was enough in the paper route fund, so I took the plunge and bought it (my mother harrumphed suspiciously, “I’ll bet it was pawned”).
Unique one-piece clarinet, with covered keys and low E-flat
Finally, with standard clarinets, most of the notes are open holes; but on this one, nearly all open note-holes have been replaced by covered keys. I think it was custom-made for a saxophone player, who would be unused to covering the note-holes properly. Certainly, when used for jazz, this instrument loves to wail. However, it takes work to make it sound sweet.
Commandments for a clarinetist:
1 This is a re-statement of a much more scurrilous epigram attributed to Dr. Samuel Johnson in the 18th Century. After his friend, James Boswell, had attended a Quaker meeting and remarked on having heard a woman preach, Johnson apparently said, “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprized to find it done at all.”
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