Trust me:”Every clarinetist dies a little, playing in a cold church”

As early as 1960, as a young student, I had thought of manufacturing a clarinet of a material other than wood. Not only was my thought unoriginal, it was childish, especially in retrospect. “Resonite”, the Selmer Company’s version of a plastic clarinet had recently been announced. I clearly remember the picture that appeared in all of the music magazines of the time. It showed a new Studebaker Automobile actually being held off the ground supported by four clarinets made from Resonite. At the time, I thought it a funny ad because it was so absurd. How and why would anyone support a car on four clarinets? Of course, it was a method of advertising and was quite successful at the time. (In actual fact, there had been an entire clarinet section of a Midwestern Marching Band using clarinets made from hard rubber,though unadvertised) in order to stave off the effects of rapidly changing temperatures. Then again, this ad had to be brand new, almost a rule for advertising a “new” product. As that young student, I knew that the material was artificial, or certainly not wood, my instruments of choice, simply every young player. wanted a wooden clarinet, and my desire was for a Selmer (Paris) wooden clarinet.

I learned and experienced early on, that a wooden instrument must not be subjected to rapidly changing temperatures. The instrument would be subject to cracking at the worst , and a lengthy period of time before the instrument would be warm enough to play properly in tune, and it was just unpleasant playing on a cold wooden clarinet. one learned to always allow a wooden instrument to adjust to the ambient temperature of a room of about 72 degrees Anything even in the 60 degrees average could and did cause all kind s of tuning problems.

But this “resonite” was by comparison, indestructible, and it was a great selling point. The only detrimental aspect was that the material was used for the manufacture of less expensive band instruments, specifically marching band instruments, and of course, there were , even then, many many more opportunities for playing in a marching band than for anytnng else. So, the Selmer Signet clarinet was manufactured quickly and cheaply. They played well, but of course, there was no refinements, this not being the priority. All kids in marching bands played plastic clarinets, actually, or metal clarinets, and those metal clarinets were really junky as a music emitting material.

In more recent times, the 70s and 80s, I played literally hundreds of concerts for the CBC, in many of the local Churches in Montreal. They all had one thing in common: They were cold, freezing cold, the pianos usually untuned for the rehearsal, sometimes for the concert as well. These were “remote” concerts. There were no retakes, and no excuses made for ill-tuned playing, coming in from a cold car, to a cold church, little lime for warming up, infact it was an impossibility. Trust me, every clarinetists dies a little in a cold church

My idea evolved slowly, but surely. Why not, I thought< get two clarinet-sized pieces of resonite and take them to Paris and have Selmer make them into the most perfectly refined and finished clarinets available. Certainly, my unevolved idea totally without thought, seemed a good one. In my mind, I saw them putting the piece of resonite on a lathe and slowly grinding it away until it became the instrument of my dreams. Of course, it was totally childish and just a thought, but, I thought, possible in some future time. The idea never left me until I discovered the clarinet made of ebonite, which of course, was hard rubber. Of course, those first popular ebonite clarinets were designed and manufactured through the efforts of William Thomas Ridenour. I first wrote to him perhaps 25 years past and asked him if he had one. He answered promptly, that he had a hard rubber clarinet that was "a killer", as e called it, and it would cost about 1100 hundred dollars. At the time, it was still much less expensive than a wooden instrument. Futher the material was much more stable, available and much less complicated to machine. Mr Ridenour had been the designer of the Leblanc Opus Clarinet, Leblancs manufacture that was considered the finest instrument on the market. An early hero of mine, Larry Combs, wth whom I had known and played with in the American Wind Symphony in 1959 and was then the Principal in the Chicago Symphony, played the Opus. At that time, with the wind symphony, where he was the youngest and far and away the best clarinetist, Larry traveled quickly to Eastman, then to the New Orleans Orchestra, then to Montreal as eb clarinet, evolving to Principal, and then, to Chicago, first, as Eb, then Principal, remaining in that position for thirty years. When i first met Larry in Pittsburgh, he looked at my Full Boehm Mazzeo System Clarinets and said jokingly that they looked like Christmas Trees, a remark which is hard to forget, for young kid as I was then. Even at the age of 19, he played better then anyone else in the section. Elsa Ludewig and Peter Hadcock were also in that section, so long ago,alomg with the kid with the weird looking clarinets, me. We all marched forward in different ways, and we are all retired now.

I will tell everyone who wishes to know why Mr Ridenour made the wooden Lyrique. These are my personal reasons, based upon the following: I have played perhaps thirty of Toms rubber clarinets, buying them at all prices imaginable from all sellers imaginable. Every single one of them played in tune, with or without a machine, to my ear, or to a tuner. I played many of them in rehearsals for a performance of The Quartet for the End of Time, by Olivier Messiaen, which we played in Alexandria, Ontario in 2006. Every clarinet of the many hard rubber instruments, blended extremely well with the piano Cello and the Violin, and my colleagues were extremely solicitous with their comments. It was an outdoor venue, had a big audience, but, also a terribly windy day, so the recording was useless. In fact I played it on my Selmer 10s at the last minute, and frankly it wouldn’t have made a difference. When Mother Nature decides to rear her head, forget about Messiaen or just about any outdoor music. I am sure you have all experienced wind at a quiet outdoor concert.

Finally, the only thing left to say is the following and that concerns any discernible difference between wooden Lyrique and hard rubber Lyrique. There is but one> In an orchestral situation, really a big orchestra, the wooden Lyrique will penetrate just a bit more than will the ebonite. That is my only statement on the difference. It excludes almost every single one who may read this, because big orchestras are dwindling rapidly and sorrowfully most of you will never play in one. In all other situations, the ebonite Lyrique will not only suffice, but excel, and it will not deviate in pitch or fit or anything. It is superior to wood dimensionally, as said. If you are playing “Ein Heldenlenben” by Richard Strauss, any of the parts. you will be in a big orchestra. Play it on a wooden Lyrique. It will carry better. Tom himself, agrees. So does this fellow in England who plays on a set of Lyriques.(Leslie Craven) I have many of each. Good luck. Stay well.And practice the Strauss part, no matter upon which horn you play it.

(By the way Anthony Baines,in his book on Woodwinds states that “ebonite is possessed of a more dulcit tone than is wood”)



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