The Dundas Boy: The Humble Clarinet

THE HUMBLE CLARINET

 Some years ago, when the Oscars were being presented at the Annual Academy Awards Night, there was a winner who was a “no-show.” It was Woody Allen. This actor-director of some interesting and off-beat movies had won an Oscar for “best something” in one of his pictures. I think it was “Annie Hall” I could be wrong about the picture. Woody Allen, being his own man, excused himself for not being present at that gala affair. He said that he would be playing his clarinet that evening in a little scat band somewhere in Manhattan. That setting of priorities fitted the man and it fitted the instrument. Only the chance to play his clarinet at some minor musical event could trump being honoured amid the glitter and glitz of Hollywood’s biggest night. Go figure! But as the Australians might say to Woody, “Good on yer.”

 

When I was about thirteen years old my piano teacher, Miss Nellie Hamm, felt that I was coming to the end of what I might do with the piano and suggested that I broaden my musical horizons. My Uncle Ken had a carefully preserved clarinet that he had used in a marching band some years before. It was now sitting in his house unused and none of his kids wanted to learn how to play it. Would I be interested? The “licorice stick” had not been out of its case for years- a fine black ebony instrument begging to be played. It was the answer! He didn’t loan it to me, he gave it to me outright. No strings attached. So where do I go from here?

 

I needed a teacher. My parents tracked down a Dundas man, Fred Brant who played clarinet and saxophone professionally. He agreed to take me on. Fred was a bachelor and lived with his sister Ella who was librarian at the Dundas Public Library. My lessons were scheduled for Saturday mornings at nine- not the happiest time for a kid who would rather be doing any of a dozen other things about then. Anyway, I biked off to the Brant house on Victoria Street right near the bottom of the Cannon Hill. Fred would appear in his tuxedo shirt and striped pants looking as if he might have just got home from playing at some fancy affair and didn’t have time to change.

 

Fred taught me that it wasn’t enough just to know where to put your fingers and blow, it was equally important to know how hard to pinch your teeth and lips on the mouthpiece and the reed when you blow in order to avoid the squeaks and squawks that are the trademarks of the beginner. He did his best with me for about six months and then said, “You’re on your own.” So what does one do with a clarinet? You start with the Sunday School Orchestra. But when you go to a party nobody rushes up to you and says, “I hope you brought your clarinet.” If you could strum a banjo or a ukelele; perhaps you could play the latest tunes on the piano you would be more than welcome. But nobody phones to remind you to bring your clarinet.

 

I realize that I am insulting an instrument which, when played well, can sound pretty good. Benny Goodman could do it. Artie Shaw could do it. On the very last episode of “M*A*S*H*” the little bunch of Korean kids played Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto amazingly well. But, in the main, “Clarinets just don’t get no respect.”

 

For reasons best known to my parents, when I finished Dundas Public School in 1939, I was sent to Westdale Secondary School in Hamilton to take the Tech-Matric course. Westdale had an orchestra. It would be too much of a stretch to call it a symphony orchestra, but under the direction of Ike Lomas we played classical music as well as “God Save the King” at student assemblies, which we called “Auditoriums.” We had some good players among the students. There was Stan Szczygiel who played a magnificent violin; there was George Scroggie who played an e-flat alto horn and later advanced to the trombone. (He ended up playing for Mart Kenney and His Western Gentlemen which was probably the best dance band around in the forties and fifties.) Bill Noonan played a good trumpet and when we played Tanhauser, Scroggie and Noonan shone. Anita Patterson played the xylophone and she was perched right up in front and sometimes played solos. She was really good, and pretty too.

 

Then there was the clarinet section. Betty Louden was first. John Dewdney was second, and I played third. I never got any higher. On orchestra rehearsal and performance days I would sling my clarinet in its wooden box covered with black cloth over the handlebars of my bike and off I would pedal to school. We practiced at noon. A few times, over my High School years, the orchestra was asked to play out. Our schedule was not exactly crowded but when invited we would eagerly go. We wore our green blazers with gold piping; the colours being based on the fact that our school song began with the words, “You that wear the green and gold arise; raise a mighty song in praise of Westdale….”

 

It was war-time and we were invited to play for members of the Royal Canadian Air Force at their training base in Jarvis. After the concert we were plied with all kinds of goodies to eat. I dove right in and overdid it. On the bus ride back to the school I threw up. I made a great mess in the bus and was totally embarrassed. I remember with both surprise and gratitude Benny Simpson, our usually severe and remote Principal, coming to put his overcoat around me and saying, “It’s alright. Don’t worry about it.” Even as the least skilled of all the players, I was the representative for the orchestra on the “Triune Society” executive, which was our student government body. At last sighting, even after graduating from Westdale in 1944, our picture still hangs in the hall.

 

After High School, I never felt I could survive the auditions for the Varsity marching band so I let the clarinet rest a bit. A year or so after university, David Lee, who later became a partner with his father D’Arcy in the Lee and Lee law firm (with offices at 63 King Street West) had an idea. He would form an orchestra to play some of the old standards as well as some of the new tunes coming out. He gave me a call. Now David is a fine concert pianist as well as a ragtime composer. He plays the works of Brahms, Beethoven, Bach, Bartok and Buxtehude with skill but he wanted more variety.  So he mustered a few of us at the home of his parents on Cayley Street. There was Charlie Adams with his saxophone, Doug Laing with his cornet, me with my clarinet and a few others. David was the leader and played piano. He had sheet music for each instrument and we started with “Charmaine.” There was a lot of zeal but, alas, limited talent- except for David. We met only once. I have a feeling that David just never called another practice as a way of disbanding the group. David had more than musical arrows to his bow, he was noted for javelin throwing at the intercollegiate level of competition. It should also be noted that his father D’Arcy was a skilled fencer. “En garde!” Interesting family.

 

Over six decades have passed and I still have the clarinet. My son Dan plays the trumpet professionally but is not interested in the clarinet. I have tried to give it away to the children and even the grandchildren of my uncle who first gave it to me. There were no takers. The other day I got it out to see what I could do with it after years of neglect. But I couldn’t find a reed. You have to have a reed or you’ve got nothing. That’s the thing that vibrates and makes the noise. Reeds are made of finely shaved bamboo (or now plastic.) In frustration I tried to whittle an old pop-sickle stick to roughly the shape of a reed. No go. So there in the now-empty cupboard that we had filled with food, ready for the Y-2-K catastrophe that never came, sits my clarinet.

 

You know it’s nice to be able to say, “Oh yes, I play an instrument. I used to play in an orchestra.” When asked, and you tell them, “I played the clarinet,” it’s a sure thing that nobody will ask you to prove it. This instrument was the cause of a minor explosion in the Boston Symphony one time. The Russian conductor Sergei Koussevitsky was overly annoyed with his clarinet player who was having difficulty playing a particular part. The conductor wanted it just so and he wasn’t getting it. He glared at the clarinet player. The clarinet player glared right back. The conductor, in frustration shouted in his best English, “Kill me. It will make me more pleasure than listen to you.”

 

We who carry this burden of trying to make our instrument a mellow and desirable thing must sometimes suffer the insults of those who don’t understand how difficult the clarinet is to play. I never mastered it and I have no intention of continuing to try. Maybe I’ll just learn a few more chords on my ukulele and settle for playing songs around the campfire with my grand-children.