The Clarinet Life, and some suggestions

There must be a considerable amount of wonder in the mind of an aspiring clarinet player (as I have read recently) and have confronted and advised  for many years. This particular career choice is first and foremost virtually impossible. One just does not learn to play the clarinet well, and then go off and work, starting small and working ones way up the ladder. One has to deal with something much more important than the clarinet, something which you can either do or not; one has to deal with oneself in the rest of the world; an issue which can and does dwarf the issue of playing the instrument.

It is not just an issue of  “at which school shall I get my degree in clarinet performance?” No more than it is a matter of “which instrument shall I play or mouthpiece? These issues are worked out during all of the learning that goes on in the “learning years”.

Advice number 1

 Do not allow the choice of a university to get a degree in clarinet performance. It is simply a non-starter, for there is no program and certainly no teacher who will give you a one-way ticket to a job. There are none.There is no teacher who  can make you play better than the others.  Something like this instant placement existed perhaps 50 or more years ago, when there were several teachers who were consistantly called by conductors or personnel managers for players and it was a simple as that.

In some instances, that was all there was to it, but we don’t hear about the ones who were recommended but who were unable to hold the job for many reasons, frequently having to do with personalities which were not able to be pliable enough to stand peforming under the increasing stress of playing in an orchestra.

It is no longet operable, although truthfully, there are many schools and unversities who attract students in that manner : The subliminal promise of a position throught the so-called prestige of the instructor. Another non-starter. Don’t believe it, as it is simply untrue and based upon the need for students and your own unrealistic aspirations. Reality and realistic thinking can be quite difficult for an aspirant of the clarinet.

 Making this kind of judgement only extends the time that you may have prior to entering the actuality of earning within todays world, whether music or not.

Advice 2

Instead, multitask, meaning do more than only enter a performance preparation area. It is advice given by many teachers and student advisors and it is not bad. Do more than just one narrow avenue of endeavor. In truth, you can continue your sincere performance preparation without that particular “major”. Many say, “go for a BME degree”,which I believe to be viable only if you don’t mind teaching many ungifted students in classrooms. If that is what you want, great, if not, do not go near it. It is a terrible road to mediocrity, which may be comfortable for many and is no disgrace, however you are a gifted clarinetist, or are you? You can continue on your road to perfect clarinet playing without a BME degree. Those kinds of schools specialize in keeping the amount of students coming in,usually do not have any credible orchestra program and are generally doltish in teaching and playing. It is not what you want,believe me.

Advice 3

Liberal Arts is becoming a viable major. For years it had turned into a no-no situation, “much ado about nothing”, but there really is somethng very good about a good general and liberal eduation. It widens your parameters, allows you more breadth of understanding and thus, more possibilities. And, you can keep up your clarinet studies.

I was Conductor of the Concordia University Symphony Orchestra for 17 years, a college/community orchestra.One time, I had auditioned a youngish student from another university and I heard coming from his clarinet the most beautiful playing! Really gorgeous. Asking him where he went to school, he answered that he was a Liberal Arts student at another university in Montreal. Could he have been a clarinet major? Yes, but he was not and that is what you want to remember. 

As far as my own background is concerned, I started the clarinet when I was 15, went into the high school band the next year, became solo clarinet in about three months and was playing the Debussy Rhapsody at the end of my first year. I started learning Orchestra Studies in my second year of HS and knew them all when I graduated when I was 17 or so, Yes, everything in that Bonade Book.My teacher told me that I could easily get into Curtis, but I didn’t know what that was and opted instead for a full scholarship ar Sam Houston College in Huntsville, Texas. You see, my dear friends, there were other issues within me which had to be solved and being away from home was important at that time, for my survival. I improved as a player there, learning to sight-read manuscript “dance-band” music very quickly,   But I couldn’t read! Trust me, I learned very quickly. That “lead-alto” book was hard and I had to really work. Did it help me to improve as a clarinetist? Yes, most assuredly, it did. And I met many people and schools of thought and life styles which were broadening and of which I was in great need.

Following that, I enlisted in the Fourth Army Band,stationed at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, a so-called “good duty” band, our major chorse being recording one radio show a week for disribution with our singer, Vic Damone, and playing a few guard mounts. During that time I continued studying with Lee Munger, oprincipal of the San Antonio symphony. After 3 years, I returned to Boston, first entering Boston University, where my brother taught (and therfore I received a half tuition advantage) and I studied with Gino Cioffi for a year or so, largely an unfortunate experience, however I got to hear probably the most talented clarinetist who ever lived. I have thousands of Gino stories, but here is not the place for them. I auditioned for Rosario Mazzeo and was accepted into his class (6 students) at the New England Conservstory of Music and learned a great deal about both playing and business from him. He was an excellent teacher and he knew the business inside and out as he was the Personnel Manager of the Boston Symphony. I spent 6 years there, free-lancing in Boston and finally auditioned and won Principal in the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. This was an interesting and challenging position. I was both Principal Clarinet and served as Personnel Manager as well, serving and organizing auditions throughout the US. After several years, I decided that I preferred something else, and left the orchestra for advanced degrees contuing to play always and serving as Clarinet in Residence for a new Music Group,having won a Grant from The Rockefeller Foundation playing its concerts in New York. I met my wife there and we then entered a more academic life. Playing as always, but here, I found more opportunities for performance of Chamber Music as well as conducting.

 Well, I hope I have perhaps been of some help to you and those who are in quest for a way through this world. I have played, taught, conducted formore than 40 years, and performed all of the repertoire for the clarinet and had about 50 works written for me. We are married and have four grown sons.

So, that is my example for you to consider and to take from it what you will. The rest can be filled in by my bio. ,included on this website, also a part of my daily existence. There are upwards of 600 articles contained herein,most of which in response to questions from aspiring clarinetists from around the world.There soon will be additional recordings of mine within the next several weeks.

Good luck and keep practicing, and perform at every opportunity.



2 Responses to The Clarinet Life, and some suggestions

  1. bflatjoe says:


    Your advice should be required reading for every aspirant to clarinet professionalism, and probably for other instruments also.

    Even more, it ought to be part of the fundamental introduction given to every music student. It pertains not only to mastery of an instrument and performance career expectations, but to those of composition as well.


  2. danop says:

    Sherman, thanks for sharing your story, and thanks for telling it like it is.

    When I went into music back in the 70s, I went the education route. I loved playing the clarinet, but I was also attracted to the idea of teaching. I didn’t quite have what it took to be a professional performer. Many things in the teaching profession have changed since then (that’s the subject for another discussion), and I don’t think that music teaching (or teaching in general) is as attractive as it once was. In today’s world, a music teacher has to know everything. Even though someone is a woodwind expert who wants to direct a concert band, he/she could be asked to teach anything and everything from first grade vocal music to middle school strings to high school jazz band. Sadly, with tight school budgets and No Child Left Behind, school music programs are suffering.

    Back in the 70s, performance opportunities were a bit limited, but it wasn’t impossible.
    There were some fine professional concert bands across the country (the Detroit Concert Band with Leonard Smith and the Goldman Band in New York come immediately to mind). These bands didn’t usually provide full-time employment, but with some teaching and freelancing, one could make a living. Today, these bands are gone and very few professional concert bands remain. Freelancing opportunites are still there, but not as plentiful as they once were. I talked to a friend recently who is an active performer and member of our local musicians union. He informed me that our local union is in sad shape, and that performance opportunities are quite limited.

    I remember being at parties in the past, and you would always see live musicians. This isn’t very common anymore. My performing friend complained that the DJs are everywhere. Why pay a live band when you can have a “cool” DJ?

    Are colleges always honest with students? I don’t think so, and I thank you Sherman for being unafraid to tell the truth. Here’s something else that’s interesting: Many music ed. students are pulled in two different directions by competing music faculty members. A woodwind music ed. student (who needs performance ensemble credit) might receive strong pressure from the band director to play in the marching band.
    At the same time, his/her applied music professor will strongly urge him/her not to march because marching will ruin his/her playing! I have seen it happen more times than I can count!

    I don’t want to sound totally pessimistic. I think there will always be jobs of one type or another for those who are real go-getters and want it badly enough. At the same time, it won’t be easy. Perhaps someone like the cellist Mat Haimovitz represents a future direction in music performance–I give him a lot of credit for doing something quite original.

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