Synthetic reeds must duplicate traditional response

October 21, 2012

By now, you’ve seen it all and experienced most. You have received he email or the telephone calls from the friendly introductory remarks and received the samples. You have been excited by the obvious qualities, the fact that it may be played without preparation and that it is longer lasting than any cane reed you have ever played. If your guide was careful, he may have told you that you may wish to change your mouthpiece in order that more reeds may be tried and perhaps used, with even better results. Then, of course, the reeds are graded to be comparable to your V12s or whichever cane reed you have played. You may have made a false useless move by changing your mouthpiece. The change of course, produces changed results,: a bit brighter, or darker, real improvement in the response, or so you think. The problem with changing any part of your equipment in order to get a better result from a synthetic is of course detrimental to your whole concept of what the traditional sound of the clarinet is,especially to you.It is very similar to changing your car when you were filling up the tank. Of course, that new car is a bit different, it is new, and you perceive it differently, and you have deviated from the traditional response that you have experienced for years. This is your tradition, that which you have been taught to bring to the clarinet, that which you will pass on to your students, that which keeps the sound of the Mozart clarinet in your head and heart. If you give up this legacy you carry from all of the clarinetists of the past , think twice, because if you can really hear, you will return to this tradition, you have to. Some of that tradition which you receive is passed on to you from Cahuzac, Klose, Muhlefeld, Stadler and many others. It is what your teacher has brought to you from his past.

While certain teachers had forecast all kinds of changing electronic methodology and technology for future instruments, this has not happened and we still carry forth the sounds that we have heard and been taught to reproduce. It is in your being and while it may change a bit, you still hear it well and will reproduce it.Ours is a sacred trust and we cannot forsake it for a piece of plastic, which can be a cameleon-like as any piece of cane.

Let us say that we have not changed our mouthpiece(s) for the sake of the reed, which is as I say, analagous to changing your car when you fill the tank with gasoline, or when you change the oil. All of that is salesmanship, pure and simple. No matter what you read or what you are told. The many changing cuts of reeds, the Illinois, cut, the Oregon cut, the Oklahoma cut, and the quebec and Ontario, traditional ond what have you, cuts are all done purely for salesmanship and the all-important volume. The synthetic takes the place of your cane in order to preserve all of the many sub-disciplines you have acquired, and to make them more dependable and responsive, and to duplicate totally your tradition concept of your clarinet sound, nothing more. Variety can be , indeed the spice of life, however it cannot serve any purpose at all, if you change your concept of sound
If one accepts the possibility that synthetic reeds are at least, possible, and practical, one has to go further. It is the conventional accepted wisdom. They do work, They do work well, although some are inconsistent. The inconsistency is the result of the manufacturer adding finishing steps which are anachronistic to the idea of synthetic.

For instance, a good synthetic is made mostly by machine. It does not need to be wet in order to play. It does so immediately. So, a good question,in fact my question is why add a superlative cutting mechanism for the tip of the reed? Superlative obviously means just that: it cuts superlatively, but, by the very nature, it cannot exactly suplicate the cut and therefore some reeds do not play as others do. I had a CEO of a company send me a couple of their finest synthetics. One played well, the other did not; not anywhere near the response of the first.
It was amusing, in that there is a claim of perfection, yet they played differently which of course, contradicts the whole idea of a synthetic.
Each reed must play very close to the next, if not an exact duplication. I do have some basic logic. If a reed is made completely by machine; if even the tip is synthetic and conforms to the specifications of the product, it is simply the end of the story. I feel this is true with the synthetic I play.
I now leave the reed on the mouthpiece at all times. I never even loosen the screws unless I accidentally scrape or hurt the tip in some way. It simply always plays the same.
So, keep practicing, and buy and try the reed which is made completely by machine. That’s why it is called synthetic. Think of synthetic oil. It is the best oil you can buy for your car, and there are now no exceptions.

Keep practicing. Most is in the mind, some is in the manufacture. Your sound, your tradition remains that which you have developed over the years of learning and performing

Stay well,


Stranger things than lint in the bore of the clarinet

October 20, 2012

Ordinarily, lint is

1. Clinging bits of fiber and fluff; fuzz.
2. Downy material obtained by scraping linen cloth and used for dressing wounds.
3. The mass of soft fibers surrounding the seeds of unginned cotton.

In youth I was a very ambitious student, who seemed to be studying and practicing quite well, and progressing through the repertoire and the various steps in learnng to play However,I came quite close to giving up the instrument. Had I given it up, I most probably, would have become a successful dentist as my parents seemed to wish, and I wouldn’t be writing this. I would be driving a Lamborghini, worrying about nothing and thinking about retirement, which as a dentist, I could have , after a very few brief years.(This is all dreams of my parents) But, I didn’t quit the clarinet and all in all, I am very pleased. I love music, and of the clarinet, all of its repertoire; and they told me I was talented. Could have been true, maybe not. Music has been kind to me.

I was into writing down difficulties, and solutions to these difficulties. High register stacatto, th natural uneven quality of the clarinet and getting everything to sound smooth, developing the best legato I could make and doing not too badly. But then, I encountered a problem, which never before had crossed my way, The sound I was making started becoming somewhat diffuse and fuzzy in quality, mostly in the clarion register of the clarinet and it literally drove me first crazy to the point of considering giving up the horn. Who needed this aggravation? I tried writing down the problem and many possible solutions: Reeds, mouthpieces, ligatures, Reeds, sensitifty or lack of it, and there was simply no solution.Maybe ,I should have changed teachers. But, I did that as a matter of course.

So, here is the advice I give any of you who may be experiencing the same problem, and I read about you almost every day.Before you give up, or change teachers, or even clarinets, mouthpieces or other equipment. check your horn very carefully. Do you swab your instrument after each playing? What kind of swab do you use? Does it have a weight on the end ? Is it a heavy weight? If you reverse swab as most are taught, you drop the weight down the clarinet from the bell. There is less resistance that way, and therefore, much less to worry about. Let me tell you a true story which happened when I was a Fromm Fellow at Tanglewood in 1965 . I was to play the Easley Blackwood Clarinet Concerto, with Gunther Schuller conducting. I think the concert and the concerto went well, but prior to playing the piece, I put the swab down the clarinet from the barrel down, pulled it hard and it just stuck right there , caught by the register key and my stupidity. I went ballistic of course, but there was a solution. At the time, I was playing Centered Tone Clarinets. These had a hexagonal screw surrounding the register key. Someone had a wrench which fit around that hex screw, loosened it, the register key vent was withdrawn and the swab moved easily. What a relief and an incredible lesson. Never use a heavy weight at the end of your swab and never use anything but the lightest swab. The fashion these days is to use a silk swab which has a slender weight on the end, just enough to carry the swab down the horn.
Don’t make your own swab. Don’t use one of those brushes, which some leave in the clarinet, which of course, soaks up all the moisture and can wreck the closure of the pads.

Always drop the swab down the clarinet after you have turned it over, and by the way, make sure that the swab passes through pointing away from the register key vent because it can get stuck that way as well.

But the above was not the answer to my problem. I finally took the register key off and looked at it through a light . There was only darkness, Carefully, I pushed a toothpick through the vent and it came out of other side full of….. wait for it, lint. The lint caught in the vent was the cause of the problem. When cleaned , it played like new. Of course, I have checked thousands of times since, but never found anything like that thick lint in the vent.

One more true story. For several years I went Le Conservatoire Americain in Fontainebleau France. Though I seldom played my A clarinet, I had to have a set, with double case. How else can a kid look professional? Of course, I was wrong, but that is a whole other article. When back home in Boston, I had a concert to play using my A clarinet. I got ready to play and again, nothing came out , absolutely not one sound. I looked up at the clarinet through a light and again, saw nothing but darkness. Of course, I put the swab through the clarinet, and out came a big spider, dead, but with all the legs and good stuff. I stomped the poor dead thing over and over again, and have always been suspicious of what might be lurking in a nice warm A clarinet. Those are some long stories that perhaps may benefit some, or even amuse. In retrospect, it all seems quite hilarious. Then again, I could have been a dentist.
Stay well, and practice, on both clarinets. It is always a good idea to practice on the A, which is a bit more resistant than the Bb. When you then play the Bb it always seems to be more fluent.


Silver Plated keys: it’s personal

October 7, 2012

Ijust received a question from a clarinetist asking the best way of keeping silver plated keys looking well.I just spent a while looking up silver plate, and how to keep it bright and lustrous. The reason for my research is quite simple: I have always preferred silver plated keys. The contrast of the silver with dark wood of the instrument is quite satisfying, pleasant to gaze upon, and as a young student, I thought anyone who had silver plated keys must certainly be a professional. It was something to wish for, a clarinet with silver plated keys, the only thing to surpass that would be a set of Bb and A clarinets, all with silver plated keys. Very cool looking was what they were and are, still today.

Now, I am a player who has always had the easiet time of keeping silver plated keys shiny and lustrous. There is either something lacking in my system or some acid which does nothing to them, no wear, no pitting, no breakdown in the plating , color, luster or the metal. In fact, when first I owned clarinets with silver plating, my fingers kept slipping off the keys, especially the little finger keys. There was available at the time, cutouts of the keys of your clarinet which had adhesive which adhered to the key, and on the other side was a slightly abrasive material which kept your fingers from slipping. I actually used these things for a while until i tired of them and learned to keep my finges from sliding. There are many players of our instrument who prefer the nickel plating or so-called German silver, however they have been somehow less attractive to me, so,it has always been silver plating. There are many whom I have known who can make their silver keys tarnish in one rehearsal, an exaggeration, but only to an extent. For these folks,it is imperative that they repolish their keys after each rehearsal. Their is also a rhodium plating which keeps them bright, but it wears off after a while. I’ve seen some clarinets , deeply pitted and worn, and not from long sessions of rehearsals.

This is why I say that it is personal. I used to keep orange peels in my case, and I cannot remember why, except for the pleasant ambience which always arose when I opened the case. Or, was it to keep my keys bright? Frankly, I cannot remember. Some always carry “dampits” in their cases, and depending upon the climate and the temperature in the hall, one can never tell what will assail you.
I remember playing a Bavicchi Concerto with the MIT Band in Florida. Prior to the rehearsal, they had sprayed the hall with some kind of bug killer. I remember feeling “out of it” during the rehearsal, but then was ok, for the performance. That has little to do with silver plated keys. On the birthdate of my second son in July of 1977, I had a concert at the University of New Hampshire. It was 105 degrees in the hall and all of my keys were tending to stck and that was a full boehm Mazzeo Clarinet. I used talcum powder continuously in order that the keys would not stick. The concert went fine. My son had been born in Plymouth, New Hampshire the last night. Though it had been difficult because there was a phone strike and the doctor was late and it was a breech presentation My wife was fine. Who cared about sticky keys?
To conclude, the answer to keeping your silver plated keys in good condition lies within your self, your particular genetic makeup , the humidity and temperature in the hall, what you had for your previous meal. Oh yes. have heard that it is proper to avoid pungunt salad dressing before playing. I once played in a church in Montreal where the temperature was below 60f. I actually brought a small heater which I kept at my feet. It was that cold. Of course, the clarinet was terribly out of tune. The lower tones were sharp, the upper frozen and flat. (It was the only time I ever did that). Better to turn down the gig than to play in a freezing church. There are those readers who will know of what I speak. Keep your keys and your powder dry, and a rouge cloth in your case, and you will be OK.
But, you have to opractice.

stay well.

DeQuervains Syndrome?(discomfort, in right and/or left thumb)

October 6, 2012

DeQuervain’s Syndrome is a painful injury that afflicts millions of people worldwide each year.It too affects many clarinetists , oboists, and virtually anyone who plays an instrument by resting it on the right thumb , supporting most of its weight. Symptoms include pain, and overall weakness. The pain is usually on the posterior portion of the thumb joint due to the thumb adductor and flexor muscles becoming too short and tight, therefore causing the joint to shift out of alignment towards the short, tight side. This shift causes the thumb abductor and extensor muscles to become severely strained as they attempt to hold the joint in its correct functional position, resulting in micro-tears of the abductor and extensor muscles at the CMC and MP joints but also the wearing of the anterior portion of the thumb joint which can lead to osteoarthritis. This is quite serious if it happens to you, dear readers. Those of you with discomfort in the right thumb, or those complaining of uncomfortable thumb rests could have this painful and actually, mistake-causing illness.

DeQuervains Syndrome gets ite name from the surgeon who first named it in 1895. It is also called middle-aged women illness from holding and pouring tea and other beverages. Since I have had this illness in my left hand and now in my right, it deserves your serious attention.

I have been a serious student, carefully analyzing problems and attempting to solve them, but this particular ailment caused me a considerable amount of pain. It affected my playing , even on one commercial recording, and so I bring it to your attention.
When it first announces its onset, you will be critical of your thumbrest, calling it uncomfortable, badly designed, all of these things. And you may be correct, however the cause could very well be this very common ailment that causes all kinds of problems and disallowes you from playing your best. It can also influence your choice of music to perform during a recital and give you problems in ordinary orchestra playing. I finally got it fixed after a long diagnostic period by having a surgeon cut a small incision in my left thumb, near an inch above the left wrist. Despite the preparation time, it took all of five minutes for him to make his cut, and I was almost immediately cured. The cut causes scar tissue which, when it heals allows the ligaments to move freely and without pain, because there is now enough room for those ligaments to move normally.

Because we are all quite confident after all those lessons, those endless etudes, the many rehearsals, the many auditions, the successful aiditions, we tend to think we are invulnerable to simple discomfort,like this one. If it does not get your attention, it can lead to al lkinds of pain and finally, severe disability.

As a preventive measure, I recommend the use of a neck strap, which is now no great shame, being used by several of the finest clarinetists in large orchestras. You may feel terrific, and your hands are perfectly fine when playing, but consider the neck strap as a preventive measure. Remember that both your thumbs get more exercise than the other bones in your wrist, and the slight pain, will turn into a real pain because of the overuse of the thumb.

You need to have perfect flexibility in both your hands and certainly the thumb gets the most exercise and the resulting fatigue can cause you trouble you never ever considered.

Start with a neck strap. (Both Morales and McGill use them).
That will assist you by diverting some of the punishing weight on your thumb. If you have to go further, proceed cautiously. There are also a number of exercises you can use to help strengthen these overused muscles. Proceed cautiously.
And keep practicing, painlessly.

stay well, sherman