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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

image of a poster advertising an organ and clarinet recital
Promotional poster
(click here to see concert video)
I am a parish priest, a preacher, and a theologian.  That is how God made me; that is who I am.

black and white headshot of young Tony with clarinet
The young musician
However, in 1955 when I was a young teenager in Montreal, I joined my high school band and was given a clarinet to learn.  At the same time, The Benny Goodman Story came out (a movie starring Steve Allen and portraying the life of Benny Goodman — still the world’s greatest jazz clarinetist, as far as I am concerned).  I was hooked.  I started my own jazz combo, and over the next few years my group and I played several exciting professional gigs.  As well, I participated in the Montreal Junior Symphony Orchestra.

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.

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The Instrument
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”).

the one-piece central portion of the clarinet, with covered keys
Unique one-piece clarinet, with covered keys and low E-flat
I have no idea how old the instrument actually was when I bought it.  It was at least ten years old, possibly much more (which would make it well over sixty, by now).  It was built by Buffet, one of the world’s most prestigious clarinet makers, and has several unique features:  The central section, for example, is a single piece of ebony. 2  As well, the whole thing is longer than standard clarinets, with an extra key at the end, making a low E-flat (D-flat in concert pitch).

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. Thou shalt not let thine instrument squeak;
  2. Thou shalt not lift thy fingers in an uneven manner causing the two notes that thou intendest to play to be separated by several little unintended notes;
  3. Thou shalt not sway to and fro whilst thou makest thine instrument sing
  4. Thou shalt draw enough breath that thy phrases may be long in the piece which thou hast been given to play; and there shall be no gasping for air!
Violation of any of these commandments is a sure indication that the musician to whom you are listening is a rank amateur (I confess I broke every one of them at least once in yesterday’s concert < sigh >).

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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.”

2  The standard clarinet mid-section normally consists of two shorter lengths of wood or plastic.

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