A Clarinet After Sixty

Music from northwestern Greece tugged at my heart and soul. The scores from the films “Zorba” by Hajidakus and “Never on Sunday” by Theodorakus captured the world. I wanted to be a part of, and experience, that art.

I knew nothing about playing the clarinet, but decided if I didn’t learn it soon I never would. The happy coincidence for me was that our recorder teacher, Anne Young, was by profession a clarinetist. She told us she had had a compulsion to blow that instrument from the time she was very young, had majored in playing the clarinet at Oberlin College, and was fat her whole career because for thirty years she sat for eight hours a day practicing the clarinet. By the time I knew her she was lithe and strong because after she retired from being a clarinetist she took up skiing, mountain climbing, and hiking, incorporating us, her students, into that part of her life when we could join her.

A group of us, we named ourselves Flautengrupe, or Flute-group, followed her up Mount Whitney, playing recorder music during our rest stops.

Carolyn on a camping trip with the Flautengrupe
Carolyn on a camping trip with the Flautengrupe

For my sixtieth birthday I asked her, “Anne, would you teach me to play the clarinet?” “Sure,” she smiled in answer. Every week I drove to her office at Whittier College for an hour’s lesson and practiced an hour a day for a year. She advised me to rent a clarinet for three or four months before buying one so I would have a better idea of whether I really wanted to continue. When the time came we agreed that I should continue she took me to RDG Musical Instruments and picked the clarinet and special mouthpiece for me to buy.

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Dancing in Pasadena with the Cal Tech Folk Dancers
Dancing in Pasadena with the Cal Tech Folk Dancers

Meanwhile, I was learning to play the instrument, but not learning the kind of music I wanted to play. One night I was dancing with the Cal Tech Folk Dancers in Pasadena, and a trio of musicians showed up to accompany us. Aha! This was the music I wanted to learn. When the trio finished their gig and were leaving, I accosted the clarinet player and asked, “Would you give me clarinet lessons?” He nodded and kept right on leaving. I was disappointed, but a few minutes later his wife handed me a paper with his name and phone number. He was a grad student and she wasn’t going to forgo his getting a bit of extra money.

He showed me quickly this was folk music, not classical. No music stands, no books, no charts, only my watching his fingers, watching his embouchure, and copying him until the correct sounds came out. He showed me how to slide the notes with breathing, changing the muscles in my cheeks, lips, and tongue, and listening. It was slow going, but I was on my way. After six months he was graduated and went abroad, but the next summer when I was at Balkan Camp I joined the clarinet classes. I always felt like I was the bottom of the heap, but got only encouragement from fellow students and teachers.

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Then the day came I moved to Mariposa. In that town, population 1500, I busied myself integrating into the community. The only musical group I found was the Kazoo Band. It was a group of seniors who were out to have fun. They practiced old time songs weekly and performed almost as often. Most members played Kazoos, but there was a professional drummer, an oboe, a trumpet, and I came in on the clarinet. Within a year the leader moved away so the group disbanded. Meanwhile I discovered the Merced College Concert Band. Again, we rehearsed one night a week, and performed often at Civic and College events. At the closing ceremonies of the local Air Force Base, officers made speeches and we performed from under the wing of a 747 Aircraft in the pouring rain while the service men stood at attention, getting drenched in their meticulous uniforms.

Carolyn (front row) with her clarinet in Inky's Basement Band
Carolyn (front row) with her clarinet in Inky’s Basement Band

As time went by my friend Ingrid, who had enjoyed her high school and college marching bands, formed a local group that practiced weekly in her basement. We dubbed it Inky’s Basement Band, and competed with the High School Band in parades, played Friday nights in the park, at senior centers, the hospital, and many other gatherings.

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One strange experience I had in Bulgaria. A bus load of us was being driven to the top of a mountain where Koprivstitza, a week long festival of ethnic music, dance, and costumes was being held. I had stayed in a church at the bottom of the hill because a baby was being baptized and the family asked me to take pictures with my Polaroid camera. After the ceremony I started hiking up the hill. I couldn’t find a road, so I just started up through a goat pasture. After close to a mile I found the road and headed towards it. When I got to the edge of the pasture and through the fence there was a deep ditch between me and the road. I stood there, wondering whether to go into the ditch or try to leap over, and a tall man came along. He offered, “Let me help you across the ditch,” happily in English. I leaped over the ditch, he caught me, and when I was safely there he looked at me and said, “I know you. Your name is Carolyn and you play the clarinet.” On the way up to the festival he told me he lived in Denmark. I never learned how he knew me.

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Last summer in Mendocino the first night at dinner my friend JoAnne rushed up to me saying, “Our picture is on the Internet.” To make a long story short, someone had made a thirty second video advertising the camp, ending in a photo of JoAnne and me rehearsing with the Brass Band. When I got home my son had printed it out, and I wish I had a copy for you to see.

No, I won’t play the clarinet for you.

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