Playing Clarinet, for the first time

When I was a kid, around 11, I wanted to do something different, something, I don’t know, special. I didn’t play ball on any teams, which is what most kids did to be special. Wasn’t really into it much. So I decided to take up an instrument. But I didn’t want to play in the school band, playing scales all day. I wanted to play music. So I started on kazoo. That’s right, kazoo. I was 11, and it was a fun, cheap silly toy, but I started to learn about melody…after all, playing a kazoo is humming, and you have to be in tune. I’d play along with records and match the pitch. After a while, I got small recorder, and began to learn how to make sounds by closing off different holes. Then, when I was 12, my father bought me a beat up clarinet for $4. The bottom half was in sad shape, and it didn’t have a reed. My resourceful father somehow new the guys that owned Pleasantville Music Shoppe, and soon I had a reed, a ligature, and a basic idea of how to put it all together. We figured out how to get a sound out of it, then I was on my own.

I didn’t do much with it. I could play the top note down to the middle note in a row, then it got all squeaky. But I did manage to figure out the mechanics of how it worked. After all, I was used to mechanical things…took apart and rebuilt bikes, go-carts, different parts of cars…so I approached the clarinet as a machine, and before long I figured out how the machine functioned. Unfortunately the machine was broken.

When I couldn’t get anywhere with the clarinet,  I talked my parents into letting me sell my meager coin collection to buy a trumpet. Trumpets only had 3 valves, and no reed. Figured it would be easier. So I got a trumpet.

Man, I damned near blew my head off trying to make a sound come out of that horn. But I eventually did, and figured out how that machine worked. Put I wasn’t very good at it. I somehow managed to get a cheap Bundy plastic clarinet, and went back to that. Still wasn’t very good, but started learning the mechanics a lot better, since I could get all the keys to work.

I was about 13 when I was at a flea market with my grandmother. I spotted an antique clarinet sitting in its case, on a table with a bunch of depression-era glassware. I knew the dealer didn’t know what they had. They only wanted $15 for it. It was a professional model. It was made in Germany. It was made of wood.

This was a pre-war pro model clarinet, probably worth hundreds, for $15. I begged and pleaded and talked my grandmother into buying it for me. What a deal! I took it home, cleaned it up, and started playing with it.

I say playing “with” it because at that point I couldn’t actually “play” it. Sure, I’d make sounds come out of it. Occasionally those sounds would string together to form some semblance of melody. But mostly, it was noise.

I’ll never forget the day I learned to actually play something. Must have been around 13, maybe 14. I was trying to work out the notes to “Moonglow” by ear. I seemed to have the rhythm down, but the notes were all wrong. Then, somehow, not sure how, something snapped. I played two different notes, and they were the right ones! I couldn’t believe my ears. Suddenly I was playing a song! And almost like a scene from a movie, I sat there, first playing the wrong notes, stopping, trying again, playing the right ones, and Bam! music seemed to float right through the air, heavenly sounds seemed to come from everywhere...and I was playing the song, the whole song! And then I played another song, and another. There was only one explanation. It must have been a magic clarinet. There’s no way I could just play like that. I kept playing, learning songs by playing along with with records of the masters, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Woodie Herman, Pete Fountain. When people ask how I learned to play, I tell them Benny Goodman taught me.

I still have that clarinet today. It still plays like magic. I tried to have it appraised, but there is no name to be found anywhere on it, just a serial number and “Made in Germany” stamped into the back. Everyone who’s seen it is amazed at the craftsmanship, the tone, and amazed that it’s not a name brand. To me, that just makes the magic clarinet even more mysterious.

I’ve played that clarinet for over 25 years now, in bands, on stage, and for myself. I eventually began playing alto sax, then tenor, but I still consider myself a swing clarinetist.

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