A clarinetist’s formation

As did many of you, I became involved with the desire to play the clarinet while I was in high school. I was 15, became obsessed with the music of Benny Goodman and decided that I wanted to play the clarinet. His music, style and demeanor took over a good part of my life. As previously mentioned in these pages, my parents were unimpressed wih my desire. A musicians life was simple. To them, it would be the life of a bum. They were born , and bred in Russia and came over to the US early in the previous century. So, they suffered through the Depression My father variously sold crackers, drove a truck and then finally landed a job as a truckdriver  for my uncle Joe, who flourished selling plumbing supplies. Before I was ten years old, I was working for him in the canteen, a concession from the government, on which he bid and won and operated in a Service hospital for a numher of years. Winning the bid moved the family to Boston, when I was seven. During those war years, he and our family flourished and did very well, perhaps prospered is a better word, but only to the extent where savings were created. They knew nothing else but trying to make a dollar in those years. My brother and I worked there in this fast food place for patients, in the Public Service Marine Hospital in Brighton , Massachusetts. I liked the work , serving the patients cigarettes and coffee and whatever else we sold here. Business during those war years was excellent.. I worked there until I ws to enter High School. My older brother and my mother also worked there. He hated it and she loved it. She was able to flirt, scrutinize for thievery  and would fequently go downtowm to Filenes Basement and buy clothing for the patients. These guys had been merchant marines, risking their very lives in unarmed ships taking supplies back and forth to The war in Europe. Those that returned had been paid huge amounts of money for their risky service. Because we were located in a service hospital for wounded , we would frequently get large shipments of virtually everything that was scarce to most others in that period of war. We got large shipments of cigarettes which were terribly difficult to buy during the war, and all kinds of other things. The place really was good investment for my parents

That is when the music started. Somehow I got a set of records of the Philadelphia Orchestra playing the Grieg Piano Concert with Ormandy and Rubenstein. This gorgeous music became a center of my life.. In high school , I became involved in the Jazz Club. We listened to music virtually all of the time I wasn’t listening to Grieg. It wasn’t just Goodman who impressed me. It ws his playing. There was a joy and exhuberance which I
found enthralling. My folks never encouraged music for me, but went along, knowing in their hearts that musicians walked the streets, as I was to hear over and over again.
But, as has also been mentioned befroe they got a clarinet and lessons for me, and happened to luck into a wonderful clarinetist and teacher, who was also making a living; he, in music, by playing the Operas , when they came to Boston, and teaching at NEC and peddling lessons and instruments. But, as I have said, I was very lucky, for he was truly gifted, a wonderful clarinetist, and a fine teacher.. He simply always sounded terrific to me, and he became a role model. And so too, did Benny.

I promised myself that I would practice every day for half an hour, as I had been instructed, would stop squeaking forever and would never ever give up the clarinet. . I remember making that promise. You see, my parents always said, and repeated that I started many things and would always give them up. How many things can you start and give up by the age of 15?

In high school, I quickly became involved in every musical organization, the band, the orchestra and the chamber music ensemble, which was called the “Orpheus Ensemble” I worked through Klose, Kroepsch, Baerrman,and was told to buy the Bonade Book of Orchestral Studies.. I was told to study the first studies in the book, the clarinet parts of the Beethoven Symphonies, to which I applied myself, never ever having heard the works from which they came. I went way ahead of Beethoven, learning as many of the notes I could, without ever hearing any of the works. I loved them and memorized the entire book in a short time. I will not say how accurate was my playing, just say that I was in love with these notes.  Which has always remained.
I progressed very rapidly, able to copy sound very well and began to actually sound like I was playing the clarinet. But, it was to be years before I became professionally involved with the clarinet.. I learned that I was to think of the clarinet as a Selmer Clarinet, to desire and to play one. own one(this was Boston in the 40s .)I learned and listend to Scheherazade and other pieces filled with clarinets, and continued learning and relearnig the studies in the Bonade Book. It must have been really funny sounding because I was only beginning to listen to music,  these works from which my orchestra studies came. It took me a long time to get t o a Brahms Symphony and I simply didn’t have a clue as to what it was about. Not a clue. It sounded confusing, and simply could not pick up the form of the works. I knew only the soud of the clarinet, with which I was endlessly fascinated.

My brother was going to College and got a job in Washington, DC, working for the government. We drove to see him in DC and I practiced the whole way, in the back seat of our 1948 Nash, we bounced along . The most important thing was my promise to practice. I don’t remember how long it was, how many years I never missed a day. I think I got pneumonia one time and was too sick to blow the clarinet. My clarinet for those years was a metal Pedlar clarinet. It was in one piece in a fake leather covered case, and I was extraordinarily proud to have it, although it remained a rented instument for several years.

I practiced all of those etudes, yes,.including Rose, and whatever else was on th shelves in Rayburns Music, where I had my lessons. I became enamored with the Polatscheck books for clarinet. Thee were two: one quite simple , but melodic, the other, compliex and made from actual repertoire Victor Polatscheck was the principal clarinetist of the Boston Symphony during those years, and excellent and thoughtful musician.

The army came along for several years and I was stationed with one of the better service bands. More and more clarinet music. I fell in love with the Boston Symphony Recording of the Berlioz Fantastic Symphony , a beautiful looking album to which I listened thousends of times.

There existed at the time, The Seventh Army Symphony, made up of all service members. There was an opening and I wanted to audition  NO.he first seargent flatly told me, promising me an assignment to Fort Hood, instead. That was the end of that.

I graduated from te US army in 1957 and enrolled in Boston University, studying with, of all people, Gino . We called our teachers by their first names when they weren’t around. He was truly a gifted wonder of a clarinetist, however we were not meant to be. He wanted me always to buy either his clarinets, or his mouthpiece or sell me insurance. There are many true Cioffi stories within these pages.   All the superlatives are true. So, are the stories.

I left BU after a year and was advised to audition for Rosario Mazzeo, bass clarinetist and personell manager of the orchestra. I was accepted,audtioning on the Nielsen,  This was a formative time and I spent about 5 or maybe 6 years with him. He was a mentor, a friend, and an unusual teacher, precise and exacting. All during these years, I auditioned for whatever was or seemed available, never being hired until Milwaukee, where I discovered orchestral life was not a glamorous as perhaps the image I had built in my mind. For some, certainly yes, for me, there had to be something in addition to playing .

I resigned and went back to Boston  to complete a graduate degree, having decided that university was more interesting and had more  opportunities than playing in what was not a great orchestra.

Teaching at the University of New Hampshire was not an unpleasant diversion, but, still too narrow a scope. I wanted to do more and found an excellent opportunity in Montreal at Concordia University, where I organized and conducted the university symphony orchestra for 17 years and started the Chamber Players, a group dedicated to the performance of 20th century classics. I was asked to perform i many many concerts for Radio Canada, an experience unto itself. It became known that I knew virtually every piece that included clarinet, and we played many concerts, making four  professional clarinet recordings as well.

In montreal during this time, early music was in vogue and generated a large audience in many of the churches and other such venues. I learned that the recorder existed, was an easy instrument to learn, and had none of the complex difficulties, such as reeds, or even embouchures for that matter.

The richest harvest of the recorder is the enormous amount of repertoire by some of the greatest composers that exists for the instrument. Handel Telemann ,Bach, They all wrote fine works for the recorder. I became fascinated with the music , set up a music stand in a bathroom and practiced away on the instrument at almost any time I wished. There was much to learn about the music itself, specifically the rich baroque ornamentation, of which , as a clarinetist, I knew little or nothing. I learned all of the functions of ornamentation of the Baroque period, and the actual improvisational passage that are or were available. As I became enriched with this information, I began to think of the possible interest in combining recitals of clarinet music with performances of music for the recorder.

With my accompanist, the late and greatly gifted Kenneth Wolf, we devised and played many concerts of this mixed media to considerable success throughout New England.

The next project came also from early music, for the classical clarinet, this boxwood three or four keyed instrument was becoming popular, actually had a beautiful purity of sound, which made incorportating that instrument into chamber music concerts another novel idea

Somehwere in there I founded the Mannheim Trio, with Valerie Kinslow, Soprano, and Boyd Macdonald, keyboard. We toured Nova Scotia one summer, which was great fun, and I learned to love Haddock.

In actuality, Early Music for clarinet players is a wonderful idea. Learning performance practice for a time about clarinet players know nothing, is simply a terrific and enriching idea. Combining early instruments and performance with more contemporary works makes for interesting and fascinating programming and a novel way to attract audience, while you are learning the various horns and ornaments.

Keep practicing, keep playing , keep learning as much as it possible.

Take a break, then start again.

best wishes



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