Sunday, February 8, 2009

The High Register

If there is anything potentially more embarrassing than, say, the admission of a amorous proclivity for farm animals, it's the confession that I play the clarinet. In the early 1960s, it seems, the clarinet, easily portable and more abundant than tympani or sousaphone, was the instrument of choice for families who had children in Los Angeles County schools. There were three sections of clarinets in band--adding up to more than 20 musicians--compared with the random bassoonist or trio of euphonium players. For a boy who measured his entire life on being mentally and bodily different from his fellows, the clarinet promised little more than anonymity and an opportunity to create screeching sounds that would scare off all sentient creatures with ears.

To wit: in my last year of elementary school, I was issued an silvery clarinet--save for its wooden mouthpiece--that was forged from a single piece of metal. It went whole into its carrying case. I'm sure it was crafted from surplus World War II aircraft parts, soldered and shaped, then had nine holes punched into it for the keys. We stored our instruments in lockers in the music room where other students had a chance to blow into them during the day.

By the time I entered Porter Junior High in Granada Hills, I had graduated to a wooden clarinet, which broke apart into two main sections, along with a barrel, bell, and mouthpiece that you sorted into proper slots in the velvet-lined storage case. It took months to learn how to play it without hitting one of those bone-chattering screeches. The instrument was powered by a slender bamboo reed that you soaked in your mouth for five minutes before assembling the clarinet. Once moistened, the reed vibrated evenly and if you built up an embouchure (training the muscles of your face to clench securely about the mouthpiece), you could avoid unwanted notes that diverted highway traffic for miles.

My father used to ask if I took requests, to which he'd add, "Can you play "far, far, away?"

Whenever relatives came for a visit, my mother (who had been a successful child violinist) trundled me out to abuse them with squeaks and screeches. I was proud--and horrified.

Day by day, semester after semester, I rose to the challenge. With 25 clarinetists in Mr. Schackne's band, it always came down to Howard Goldberg and I. We fought like dogs for the first chair of the section. One semester he'd sit at the top, the following semester I wrested the honors away. We played musical leap-frog for several years, rising to Schackne's challenge to play complicated parts from Ralph Vaughan Williams Folk Song Suite or Otto Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor --a death battle of woodwinds while our band-mates looked on.

In our last year of junior high school, I joined the Porter Polka Dots as principal clarinetist. Russ and Bruce played trumpet and Matt played tuba. We wore white dress shirts onto which we carefully pinned red polka dots cut from construction paper--and green-felt tyrolian hats with feathers. Proud then, I can only look back with horror. We sawed our way through "The Beer Barrel Polka" and other delights.

Following graduation, mom and dad took me on a visit to relatives in New York City. It was an astonishing trip for a 12 year old. We visited Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, Radio City Music Hall, Chock Full of Nuts, Coney Island, and the Empire State Building. But the highlight of the trip was a visit to the crowded district in Manhattan where merchants sold musical instruments. In one store, the clerk showed us a new Buffet clarinet. It was made of rich, brown pearwood and the quick action of the silver keys took your breath away. I nearly died when we walked out, the black leather carrying case in my hand.

But the following fall I entered high school and all would change. I improved my playing, but at the same time, it was clear that the clarinet was decidedly not a sexy instrument. We were listening to "Eight Days a Week" and "White Rabbit" on our .45 rpm records. Moving to saxophone was an option, but really, anyone who was "boss", "bitchin'", or "cool" was studying guitar.

I had a brief flirtation with bass clarinet, a horn more than twice the size of a clarinet with low notes that shook your whole body when you played. Since bands and orchestras only had a single bass clarinet, it was my only chance for distinction, and for a while I played for the Los Angeles Junior Philharmonic, rumbling out bass clarinet parts written by Shubert, Mahler, and Brahams. But in a world that orbited about the blazing sun of rock and roll, it simply would not do.

In the marching band, I turned to bass drum, since there was only one of those, and I could wear a kilt at half-time shows. Then, when I graduated and went off to college, I became the drum major, leading the band on to fields at Stanford, Cal, and the Rose Bowl. I twirled a five-foot long mace and high stepped in front of more than 50,000 drunken fans, which made more sense than playing that squeaky clarinet. But it still was not the same as mastering the guitar cords to Disraeli Gears.

For the better part of a half-century, the Buffet Crampon languished in its case, toted about the globe through my many professional incarnations. It found a home under my bed in towns like Fairbanks, Norfolk, Champaign-Urbana, and Tuscaloosa. It hid in the closet up in the Olympic Mountains and near the bustling airport in San Jose. I held onto it through times where selling it would have helped pay a month's rent, or when I thought it would finance a road trip.

I held to the notion that someday it would make sense to take it out and play something. And I was plagued by guilt whenever I recalled the day my mother and father walked me out of that store in Manhattan.

Recently I borrowed a guitar with the idea that I would finally learn the cords to Thunder Road. But my fingers hurt and I could barely eke out a note. I boxed up the guitar and reached beneath my bed for the clarinet case. The cork that lined the barrel and bell had curled off in decay and the pads that secured the tone holes were dry and cracked. It cost $150 to have it tuned up to playing condition, and I brought it home, tapping the case on the seat beside me as I drove.

Reeds are made of plastic or bamboo composites now, but you still have to lay them on your tongue and soak them before playing. I fitted the reed into the mouthpiece and tightened the ligature. My fingers knew exactly where to go, and I started in on Rhapsody in Blue, with that long glissando that rolls way up into the high register as if I was born for it.

I played for a good fifteen minutes before my embouchure collapsed. And I'm proud to say that I didn't squeak, even once.


Bill Stankus said...

Now you have to explain the photo at the top of your story.

ps: even worse - as a kid I played the accordion.

Gabby said...

There's a great joke, Bill. Guy parks his car outside a bar on a busy street. He locks it carefully because his accordion is in the back seat. After a round or two he hears shattering glass and races out to see his car, the back window broken. Someone has put a second accordion on the seat.

tangobaby said...

Gabby, I totally want to adopt you as a 12-year old. Your little childhood person just makes me smile.

I have to say that, as a tango dancer (and I'm not the only one to say this, I'm sure), that I happen to love the accordion (or bandoneon). And it's not that dorky... if held in the right hot little hands:

She plays for an Irish band in SF called Culann's Hounds and that accordion is sweeeet.

Gabby said...

TB: Great news! My 12-year-old is available for adoption. Hey, in the right hands, an accordion can be bliss.

Bill Stankus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Char said...

*sigh* beautiful music...rhapsody in blue is some of my favorite.

and I always dug Benny Goodman as a band leader.

Gabby said...

Actually, my parents' taste in music was excellent, for the most part. I got exposed to great stuff. But they took, as Jews, a hefty dislike of my playing Wagner operas, and my mother couldn't understand how I could stand all the screaming in rock and roll. But they did give me an incredible appreciation for Big Band music. I love the Dorseys, Goodman, Vaughn Monroe, Artie Shaw, and even Klezmer stuff. Never did get what they saw in Connie Francis and Streisand, but Harry James and Cab Calloway rocked.

Marylee said...

Once upon a time I played the clarinet, too. I think it was in junior high. I loved music class. There was a comforting and familiar "smell" in the music room; not unlike the fragrances that we associate with school libraries, sciences classes and locker rooms. Thanks for sharing another little part of your early life.