Monday, November 13, 2017

The Emperor's New Clarinets

Many years ago there was an Emperor so exceedingly fond of the clarinet that he spent all his money on the finest instruments. He cared nothing about reviewing his soldiers, going to the theatre, or going for a ride in his carriage, besides to show off his clarinets. He played every hour of the day, and instead of saying, as one might, about any other ruler, “The King’s in council,” here they always said, “The Emperor is in his practice room.”

In the great city where he lived, life was always wonderful. Every day many strangers came to town, and among them one day came two swindlers. They let it be known they were clarinet makers, and that they could make clarinets with the sweetest sound in the world. Not only were their woods and keywork uncommonly fine, but clarinets made of these materials had a wonderful way of sounding bad to anyone who was without talent, or who was unusually stupid.

“Those would be just the clarinets for me,” thought the Emperor. “If I played them, I would be able discover which of my colleagues are without talent. And I could tell the wise men from the fools. Yes, I certainly must get some made for me right away.” He paid the two swindlers a large sum of money to start work at once.

They set up their workshop and began to work. All of the finest wood and purest gold-plated keys they demanded were sent to them and they worked far into the night.

“I’d like to know how those clarinet makers are getting on with my instruments,” the Emperor thought, but he felt slightly uncomfortable when he remembered that those who were without talent would think the clarinets sounded bad. It couldn’t have been that he doubted himself, yet he thought he’d rather send someone else to see how things were going. The whole town knew about the instruments’ peculiar power, and all were impatient to find out how stupid their neighbors were.

“I’ll send my honest old minister to the clarinet makers,” the Emperor decided. “He’ll be the best one to tell me how they sound, for he is a sensible man and no one does his duty better.”

So the honest old minister went to the room where the two swindlers sat working away to hear the clarinets.

“Heaven help me,” he thought as his eyes flew wide open. “They sound absolutely terrible.” But he did not say so.

Both the swindlers begged him to be so kind as to come near to approve the excellent instruments. They continued to play the clarinets, and the poor old minister listened as hard as he dared. He thought they sounded terrible, because they did. “Heaven have mercy,” he thought. “Can it be that I am stupid? I’d have never guessed it, and not a soul must know. Am I without talent? It would never do to let on that the clarinets sound terrible.”

“Don’t hesitate to tell us what you think of them,” said one of the clarinet makers.

“Oh, they sound beautiful, just enchanting!” The old minister leaned in closer. “Such an even tone, what beautiful colors! I’ll be sure to tell the Emperor how delighted I am with them.”

"We're pleased to hear that," the swindlers said. They proceeded to point out the special wood and unique keywork. The old minister paid the closest attention, so that he could tell it all to the Emperor. And so he did.

The swindlers at once asked for more money, more wood and gold keys, to get on with their work. But it all went into their pockets. None of this improved the sound, though they worked at their craft as hard as ever.

The Emperor presently sent another trustworthy official to see how the work progressed and how soon it would be ready. The same thing happened to him that had happened to the minister. He listened and he listened, but as hard as he tried, the clarinets sounded awful.

“Aren’t they beautiful instruments?" the swindlers asked him, as they displayed and described their clarinets.

"I know I'm not stupid," the man thought, "so it must be that I have no talent. That's strange. I mustn't let anyone find it out, though." So he praised the sound that he hated. He declared he was delighted with the good intonation and even tone. To the Emperor he said, “The sound held me spellbound.”

All the town was talking of these splendid instruments, and the Emperor wanted to hear them for himself while they were still being finished. Attended by a band of chosen men, among whom were his two old trusted officials-the ones who had been to the clarinet makers-he set out to see the two swindlers. He found them hard at work.

"Magnificent," said the two officials already duped. "Just listen, Your Majesty, what colors! What a full sound!" They pointed to the instruments, each supposing that the others could hear beautiful music.

"What's this?" thought the Emperor. “They sound awful. This is terrible!

Am I a fool? Am I completely talentless? What a thing to happen to me of all people! - “Oh! It sounds very pretty," he said. "It has my highest approval." And he nodded approbation at the instruments. Nothing could make him say that he hated the way they sounded.

His whole retinue listened and listened. One heard nothing better than another, but they all joined the Emperor in exclaiming, "Oh! They sound very pretty," and they advised him to play these clarinets, especially for the grand recital he was soon to perform. "Magnificent! Excellent! Unsurpassed!" were bandied from mouth to mouth, and everyone did his best to seem well pleased. The Emperor gave each of the swindlers a cross to wear, and the title of “Sir Clarinet Maker.”

Before the recital the swindlers sat up all night and burned more than six candles, to show how busy they were finishing the Emperor's new clarinets. They reamed tone holes. They placed new pads. And at last they said, "Now the Emperor's new clarinets are ready for him.”

Then the Emperor himself came with his noblest noblemen, and the swindlers each handed him a clarinet. They said, “This barrel is cocobolo, the top joint lined with grenadilla,” naming each part. "All of these pieces produce the most beautiful sound.”

"Exactly," all the noblemen agreed, though they hated the sound.

"If Your Imperial Majesty will condescend to take give us your old instruments," said the swindlers, "we will help you adjust your new ones exactly to your liking.”

The Emperor handed over his old instruments, and the swindlers made final adjustments.

"How amazing your Majesty sounds! Aren't the instruments amazing!" He heard on all sides, "That tone, so perfect! Those colors, so flexible! They are magnificent instruments.”

Then the minister of public performances announced: "Your Majesty's recital is about to begin.”

"Well, I'm supposed to be ready," the Emperor said, and played a few more notes. "It is a remarkable sound, isn't it?" He seemed to regard his tone with the greatest interest.

So on to the stage went the Emperor to perform. Everyone in the audience said, "Oh, how fine are the Emperor's new clarinets! Don't they sound perfect? And his intonation is flawless!" Nobody would confess that he sounded awful, for that would prove him to be either without talent, or a fool. No recital the Emperor had given before was ever such a complete success.

"But he sounds terrible," a little child said.

"Did you ever hear such innocent prattle?" said its father. And one person whispered to another what the child had said, "He sounds terrible. A child says he sounds terrible.”

“He sounds terrible!” the whole town cried out at last.

The Emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, "This recital has got to go on." So he played more proudly than ever, as his noblemen all applauded the sound that everyone hated.

Based on a translation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes" by Jean Hersholt

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

No, a carbon fiber clarinet is not going to fix your terrible fundamentals

Carbon fiber clarinets, cryogenically treated ligatures, reeds formed by space-age polymers, an endless selection of exotic woods to customize your clarinet sound to your liking: we live in an age of unprecedented innovation and experimentation when it comes to the equipment we use to produce our art. While this is exciting and fascinating in many ways, it is also a terrifying phenomenon. I say this because all of this wondrous technology and development has created a situation in which work on solid fundamentals (air, technique, tuning, etc.) is being ignored and replaced with a desperate search to get the "best" equipment, as if a fancy mouthpiece or a special ligature will magically give ring and focus to an undeveloped sound.

My current set-up, which I adore,
is entirely composed of these
new technologies
The victim of this "equipment culture" is the student, specifically the advanced student studying music at the university level. I have seen countless students that are unhappy with their articulation, so they look for a new barrel, dissatisfied with their tone so they seek out a new mouthpiece, struggle with intonation so they drop thousands of dollars on this week's flagship model clarinet, when all of these issues, at their core, can be fixed through fundamental work. As a teacher, I have to work hard to stress the importance of fundamentals to my students. It is especially difficult because my set-up is comprised of many of these new technologies. I remember taking a lesson as a high school student with my local university teacher and hearing him play. I loved his tone and for some reason assumed that the reason I didn't sound like him was because I didn't have as fancy a ligature as he did. I truly thought if I shelled out the $80 I would instantly sound like him. I was too young to realize that long tones are worth more than a solid gold ligature, Kell more than any barrel made of rare woods, Baermann more than any ergonomic keywork, and time with my tuner more than any boutique-style clarinet setup.

 These technologies and innovations are exciting and I have adopted many of them. I think they offer an incredible opportunity to experiment with sound and can aid us in finding the elusive qualities that many of us search for our entire lives. At the same time, however, I think extreme caution should be used when introducing these products to students, especially younger ones, as they can often get in the way of the development of the basic tenants of clarinet playing, especially when touted as a quick fix for things that can only be improved by hours upon hours of deep, quality practice.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Chamber Music Michigan: The Midwest's Newest Chamber Music Organization

Based in Ann Arbor, Chamber Music Michigan is an organization that is committed to presenting high-quality chamber music performances. Beyond that, CMM strives to be an organization that is actively involved in the community through educational and other outreach opportunities.

The organization's inaugural performance is coming up on March 26th at 7:30PM in the parlor room of the beautiful Earhart Manor, located at Concordia University, Ann Arbor. Admission is free (suggested donation $10) and includes works by Beethoven and Mozart. If you are interested in attending, please RSVP to the Facebook event below, as space is limited. RSVP HERE

Check out their website below!

CMM: Chamber Music Michigan, Music at the Manor

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Anthony McGill and the Pacifica String Quartet (samples)

Anthony McGill and the Pacifica String Quartet have recorded the Brahms and Mozart Clarinet Quintets on a CD that comes out on Tuesday, May 6th. You can preorder the album on iTunes today.

Check out these samples!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Cantata Profana - Chamber Music of a Grander Scale

Cantata Profana, founded in 2013 by students from the Yale School of Music and the Institute of Sacred Music, is a unique ensemble as it is committed to performing works written for larger-sized vocal and instrumental ensembles. According to manager and founder, Jacob Ashworth, "There are earlier precedents, but Arnold Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire kind of split the roof open for this sort of group. So many composers followed suit and started writing for eclectic combinations of instruments with voice... It’s hard to find the group that wants to devote themselves to making the organizational effort and spending the rehearsal time on a Webern piece with eight instruments and singer, if it is only going to yield two minutes of music on a program. But that’s us. We’re that group."

The group has already given two very successful concerts on the Yale campus and will be taking their hit show, Eight Songs for a Mad King, to Brooklyn's Roulette Theater on May 22 at 8:00pm. Tickets available HERE

This is a group made up of stunning musicians dedicated to presenting chamber works that are rarely performed. If you have the opportunity, be sure to check them out on May 22nd. Audio clips at top. 

Tickets for the May 22nd Show at Roulette, Brooklyn HERE

Cantata Profana Website HERE

Interview with Jacob Ashworth, the ensemble's manager and founder, HERE

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Joel Puckett's Concert Duo - Listen tomorrow at 11:35am CST

Tomorrow at 11:35 AM CST Troy University Public Radio will be playing a segment from Tim Phillip's Clarinet Corner featuring the premiere recording of Joel Puckett's Concert Duo. You can tune in online HERE to catch the great recording featuring Anthony and Demarre McGill with the Chicago Youth Symphony. 

You can keep up with the latest from composer Joel Puckett by following him through the links below.
     Twitter -

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Choma Academy of Music

The Choma Academy of Music is a music school located in Zambia, Africa where students are given the opportunity to receive formal music education while at the same time being given access to assistance for traditional schooling, AIDS and human trafficking prevention education, basic needs provisions, and career development/vocation skills training. There "Music... offer[s] an alternative to a life lived in fear of sickness and slavery. The Academy of Music in Choma, Zambia is battling AIDS and human trafficking by offering students life through the arts."

A colleague and friend of mine, Derek Thompson, will be traveling to Zambia this summer to teach music, bring along much needed music supplies, and to help to grow this institution which is helping to combat the issues of poverty, AIDS, and human trafficking. If you are able, please consider making a donation to help fund his trip. Donations of any size will make a difference! All donations will be used for travel costs, living expenses, and music supplies for the academy. Learn more about Derek and what he will be doing in Zambia at his fundraising page HERE. The Choma Academy of Music Facebook Page can be found HERE