“Ask Benny for one of his old ones”-my moms advice

Mr. Friedland:
I want to laud you on providing clarinetists of whatever age and ability the opportunity to converse with a truly marvelous musician-clarinetist such as you. I am now 72 but still an active player.

This may seem like such an obvious question but I think one worthy of addressing. That is, starting a youngster’s clarinet instruction off right. I am talking of my own experience. Sixty-two years ago, when I was 10, I heard Benny Goodman on the radio. That decided me on the instrument I wanted to play. So, my musical instruction began at my elementary school in the 6th grade in a group situation with the instructor who was a really good guy not specifically a clarinetist. I then went on to a private instruction at the local music store, assigned to an instructor who was a trumpet player. Later I switched instruction to another gentleman, a good musician, but also a trumpet player. He was my last instructor. Both of these instructors were excellent musicians, but neither taught me anything specifically about the ins and out of the clarinet (mouthpiece and reed selection, embouchure, breathing, technique, alternate fingerings, etc.). My parents were not musicians and knew no better. But, at no point was any suggestion made to me by my instructors of hooking me up with a clarinet player-instructor. Save for a period of over 20 years after I graduated from college, I have continued to play clarinet (and sax) with a dance band, and clarinet with our community band and orchestra. At best I consider myself as a strong and enthusiastic, but only adequate second section, clarinet player. The lingering question I have is, could I have done much better under the early tutelage of a good clarinet player? This may be an obvious redundant question, but an important one for parents and those starting off with a young aspirant student-clarinetist.

Hi Jet:

Does the teacher we choose determine the outcome? The immediate answer is almst a resounding NO. As far as choosing a clarinet player for a teacher at the beginning level, you must consider what made you chose the clarinet? That’s closer to an  affirmative response. You and I both were inspired from listening to Benny Goodman. You studied through your school and was assigned a teacher who happened to play trumpet. In my case, and this is almost unbelievably true: my parents suggested that I write to Benny Goodman* and ask him for one of his old ones. I knew that wouldn’t work.  After I asked and more, they put an ad in the paper “wanted to buy, used clarinet”.

The fellow who answered the ad also offered lessons. He was my first teacher and truly a great influence and happened to be a wonderful player (as well as a dealer in used clarinets). I remember taking my first lessons at the NEC. Frequently during lessons, there would be a knock on the door, a short conversation, a few bucks passed and my teacher wold come back to the lesson with a brown paper bag in which was a clarinet he had just bought from …..? I never knew. I still wanted to play. I had been an unhappy kid I guess, and the clarinet absolutely changed my life, truly and completely. The source of all of this was me, the student and the player. Even traveling to Washington DC in the back of my dads Nash, on Route One,(to visit my brother) I practised while the car was bumping around on that crumby highway. Nothing would stop me. I knew I couldn’t miss a day. It was certainly more complicated than that, however while my parents had literally nothing to do with it, they had everything to do with it, because I did it to spite them, and that is really true. My father had told me that as a musician, I would “walk the streets”.In my deepest self, I knew that I would someday play the clarinet and never “walk the streets”. That I happened to have talent was inconsequential.
Yours, ours, is a story repeated by just about everyone in the world who, at a certain time in their time here wonders what would have happened had one circumstance or a group of them may have been different.
I see so many similarities in your question and many of my own that I can’t help but say that we’re  in the same boat. There were so many opportunities that could have been changed had I made a different choice or that would have had to change had things gone differently.
Everyone   goes through the same kind of experience.
In your situation, you could have had a clarinet player for a teacher, and they could have been either quite helpful to you, or not. The trumpet instructors you did have perhaps made you a better player than you would have been had you had a clarinetist.
From your letter, I see that you have loved music and played music all of your life. That is an achievement. I have seen so many students in conservatory that have turned against the instrument and the discipline involved. They simply gave up or said “to hell with it” and never had the chance to play for a lifetime and remain enthusiastic, which you have done. It really is of no consequence were you play or in what organization. Perhaps you are “only adequate” as you say. The thing is that you’ve done it with enthusiasm and joy.
Perhaps your aspiration was to play the clarinet. You have done that and need to enjoy whatever there is still to play, and it is always there, so you are in the same position as many who have aspired to much more and remain totally unfullfilled.
I auditioned one time for the Israel Philharmonic. It came down to two players, me and someone else. I know that I played the better audition, but not according to the conductor. So, I was disappointed and felt robbed too. Had I gotten the job, I would have been in Israel playing . I would not have met my wife in Buffalo where I was engaged to play new music. I played many many performances of new music in New York and in Buffalo. But my wife who is an amazingly lovely person  happens to understand people very well, especially her husband. She has told me many times that I am really not cut out to be an orchestral player.I do not function well with a conductor whom I do not respect or in situations where you simply sit and play. I have always had to do more than that, much more,so I wound up, conducting, teaching, playing , administration and all kinds of different things . Still, I wanted to do more, but  a part of me wishes that I had been appointed in Israel.
I’m still here, alive and playing and loving music, and still doing many of the things I love. Same as you.
Be well, and enjoy each rehearsal.

best always, Sherman *(Many years later, I did meet Benny, and rehearsed his part with the Milwaukee Symphony , and later helped with balance when he and his daughter, Rachel, played a benefit concert for the Fontainebleau Schools. This was at the ES Gardiner Museum in Cambridge)

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One Response to “Ask Benny for one of his old ones”-my moms advice

  1. danop says:

    Jet, it’s interesting to see how times have changed. Perhaps there are still music stores that “assign” teachers to students, but I don’t know if this is very common anymore. At the music stores near me that offer private instruction, the student and parent(s) select the teacher.

    I know it’s so tempting to look back and wonder about what might have been. I do the same thing. Would things have been different if you had taken lessons from a “real” clarinet player? Maybe, but not necessarily. It’s important to remember that most school instrumentalists today don’t take private lessons.

    As a clarinet player myself, I taught in the public schools for many years. Over the years I taught everything–woodwinds, brass, percussion, strings, and a little vocal music, although I never taught any of these other insruments privately. I really think I did a decent job, but I knew that I really couldn’t teach strings like a real violinist or percussion like a real percussionist. That’s just the way it is. Having said this, I was able to learn a lot about some of these instruments, and I came up with some unique techniques to help beginning flute and trumpet players. I’m proud to say that a low brass player that I started is playing in a major orchestra today.

    Parts of your training probably could have been better. Still, it sounds like your teachers did something right–you’re still playing! Good for you! You’re a definite success story and an inspiration to band students everywhere. You could have ended up with a real know-it-all, obnoxious clarinet specialist for a teacher. After a few lessons with him/her, you might have decided that you never wanted to play clarinet again. I’ve run into teachers of this type over the years, and the experience is far from pleasant. You could have also taken lessons from a clarinet specialist who was an ineffective teacher. While these people are nice to be around, their teaching is poor. I’ve also run into several of these types.

    Sherman, thanks for your story. It was interesting reading, and there are some great lessons in it. You gave Jet a great answer.

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