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Q&A WITH MARY ALICE DRUHAN
What made you want to organize and host a clarinet event like the Texas Clarinet Colloquium?

When I first moved to the northeast Texas area, I was the only full-time woodwind professor at my school, and I had only five clarinet students. Having just come from The US Army Band “Pershing’s Own” and after years of graduate school, I felt very isolated and lonely. I was so busy finishing my dissertation, creating a curriculum for the woodwinds, juggling parenting, and recruiting students that I really didn’t have time to leave campus to visit other clarinetists, so I just decided to invite people to visit. My first guest was Dr. David Etheridge, because I was so grateful to him for the events I had attended at the Oklahoma University Clarinet Symposium. That year we welcomed seventeen guests. 

Any advice on getting approval and support for your events? 

I’ve always been terrible at asking permission. My first boss at the university told me that he trusted me to know how to do my job—after all, that’s why he hired me. If I thought something needed to be done, he said I should just do it.

I got very accustomed to this, and I really enjoy being my own boss. In reality, I have created some friction with other people along the way who like to be more involved and don’t understand my proactive approach to getting things done. Support generally comes easy, though. I find that if you love what you do, people will respect that and be more supportive. 

Venues: What do you look for in hosting an event?

In an ideal situation, having everything in-house and on campus can solve most of the issues of an event; it’s just not always possible. Location is critical: proximity to transportation hubs, lodging and food are paramount. Other considerations include the proximity of lectures to concerts and keeping the vendors and exhibitors close enough and highly visible.

The 2015 Clarinet Colloquium was the first event that required me to use outside venue contracts. My best advice: if your instinct tells you that the person in charge of a venue isn’t organized, it’s more important to be repetitive and relentless than it is to protect their ego. The flip side is destruction to the plan and a very stressful day. Trust your gut.

Vendor support: What should your colleagues know about working with vendors and exhibitors?

Vendors . . . the “big bad wolves”! In reality, they’re just fuzzy puppies with sharp teeth who want to play all day and who like to puppy-fight over square footage.

Ultimately, vendors want their products in the hands of the attendees. They want to be visible and they want impartiality. I’ve tried to always provide this, listening to advice and requests (and believe me, representatives will request special treatment). Know your limits and back up all communications by email. This will come in handy during misunderstandings and disagreements over promises made and privileges assumed.

Artists: What kind of artist do you normally engage for events?

Each year I search for a variety of artists and then contact industry companies to request support for an artist. I want to see some well loved, charismatic, energetic teachers like Larry Guy and college professors like Richard MacDowell who have a great reputation for excellence and good rapport with students.

It’s always great to have a strong orchestral artist like Ricardo Morales and someone who is active as a soloist, such as Michael Lowenstern. Lastly, I always work hard to include private teachers from the local area, inviting them to teach as volunteers (gifting free admission for some of their students), and other university teachers who need to be active in Research Scholarship and Creative Activity (RSCA) for their evaluations. 

Scheduling: What is the most difficult challenge in scheduling, and how do you overcome it?

Too busy or too light? There really is no balance. Exhibitors want tons of free time for people to browse. Attendees want variety and “bang for the buck.” It’s a real struggle, as the schedule has to juggle artist availability and travel, too. I have some tricks for this, but I adjust every time I host.

Generally, I try to put more space between classes that are geared to certain ages. Middle school classes are short with long breaks for the students’ developing attention spans, which works well since they are generally new to exhibits and need that time. It’s more difficult with older crowds, because they are interested in more topics and want to keep a busier schedule. 

How do you manage all the moving parts, including colleagues and student volunteers? 

One of my favourite mentors (Frank Wickes) used to call this “with-it-ness.” Every person is different, and it’s important to know your strengths and weaknesses.

Organization has always been a strength of mine, perhaps too much so. I will say that I have had to learn flexibility and reaction/correction techniques. This continues to be one of my greatest challenges. 

That same mentor, Frank, taught me that great leaders learn to delegate, but that the best leaders know whom to delegate to. The best of the best also learn how to inspire their delegates to work as efficiently as they would themselves. Dang, I try.

My students and former students are absolutely critical to the success of my events, and they have helped me more than anyone knows. Jennifer Daffinee is not my right hand . . . she is all of my hands and a couple of my feet. I love her dearly for being such an amazing collaborator. What people don’t know is that there are also too many wonderful “others” to name.

Egos: How do you manage them leading into and in the middle of an event?

I’ve only had a few problems in ten years of hosting nearly two hundred artists and many exhibitors. Ultimately I just have confidence in what I’m doing and I stay focused.

It can be really frustrating, because I work so hard leading up to an event, and I’m usually exhausted by the time guests show up.

I also have rejected any notion or suggestion of inviting back any artist to present if I recognize conduct that I feel is inappropriate or disrespectful toward my students or guests.

What is the most gratifying part of organizing events and what keeps you coming back for more every year? 

I love the community. We are supportive of one another, we all want to be engaged, and we all want to enjoy music and each other. I have made wonderful friendships and learned so many valuable things. By allowing this kind of event to happen around my students, I provide for them an opportunity for growth and enthusiasm. What could be better, honestly?

Lessons learned: If you had to start over again, what would you do differently? 

Got a new boss? Start over! Don’t just follow the developed pattern, but sit down and go through the steps with each new administrator. Too often, I take charge and go to work, forgetting there’s a dugout, a huddle and a batting plate before I’m supposed to hit a home run. Also, try to always say “thank you.” It’s an honour to have people involved and to be involved.

Mary Alice Druhan is Professor of Clarinet at Texas A&M University–Commerce, and performs with the Dallas Wind Symphony, among other groups. Previously, she performed as the solo E♭ clarinetist with the US Army Band “Pershing’s Own,” as well as a B♭ section member of the Ceremonial Unit, and as a featured soloist with the concert band. A founder and director of the Texas Clarinet Colloquium. Mary Alice Druhan is a Backun Artist and performs on MoBa clarinets and accessories.

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As with any creative pursuit, even professional ones, there comes a point in any day when the art is put away and the rest of life must be attended to. What happens, though, when your frequent artistic collaborator is also your spouse? Where does the music end and the rest of life begin? Is there such a thing as work-life balance?

When I first reached Chad Burrow by phone in his office at the University of Michigan, he expressed considerable doubt that we’d have much to talk about. He explained that he understood I’d be writing about collaborating with one’s spouse, “but I'm not sure if there’s enough material there to generate an article,” he said, “any more than if you were just asking about collaboration in general. I don't know that it’s drastically different when it’s one’s spouse.” My turn to be skeptical. In my experience, collaboration — no matter the medium(s) — always makes for good stories.

Chad and his wife, pianist Amy I-Lin Cheng, met when they were in graduate school at Yale in 1999. Chad needed a pianist for a recital, and the original person he was assigned backed out, so he had to find a replacement. The replacement ended up being Amy. Though they’d been acquainted for several months at that point, they really started getting to know each other through working together.

Perhaps this is the detail that led to his assertion that their story wouldn’t be particularly interesting — Chad and Amy have always played together. It’s just a part of who they are as a couple. Eventually they made their musical relationship official by forming the duet Duo Clarion, the founding of which they backdated to that first recital performance together at Yale. They married in 2002.

Back on the phone, I pressed Chad about how working with his spouse simply must be different, at least in a work-life balance way, from his work within academia or with an orchestra. Mustn’t it be harder — or easier, perhaps — to draw boundaries with one’s spouse?

“We live and breathe teaching and performing,” he replied. “Obviously, we have our two children, we have our family, but it’s all sort of organically interwoven. Where does work and entertainment and family life begin and end? It all sort of blends together in this collage. It’s more our commentary to each other, when we have requests or we don’t particularly like something in rehearsal, maybe we’re slightly more direct with each other.”

I admitted I’d assumed it would be the other way around: that with your spouse, you’d always have your eyes on the prize of domestic peace and might choose to fight your professional battles differently. Not so for Chad and Amy.

“It’s the people that you don’t know well that you sugarcoat or you’re more careful with how you interact. Just as an example: if I’m playing with someone in the orchestra and there’s something that’s out of tune, I’m going to say, ‘Would you mind going through this passage with me? I’m having trouble finding the pitch.’ I might even sort of take the blame for a problem, whether it’s my issue or not. Whereas if it’s something with my wife, I might say something to the effect of, ‘We're not together there, so what are you doing?’

“You can joke and you can imagine all kinds of fights breaking out, but for the most part, it’s all very civil. I know that if my wife is critical of something that I do or if I’m critical [of her], at the end of the day it’s not an issue with the person not caring about you. It’s okay, you have a disagreement over something. It doesn’t translate beyond that.”

I started to come around to the idea that this could actually seem totally normal. Of course, managing two music careers hasn’t been easy for either one of them.

Amy finished at Yale first and went on to pursue her doctorate at the New England Conservatory in Boston while Chad remained in New Haven, Connecticut, to complete his degree. This was the beginning of two years of long-distance dating, first between Boston and New Haven, then at even greater distance after Chad graduated and took the Principal Clarinet position in the Oklahoma City Philharmonic. He was also offered an academic position at Oklahoma City University. He described that time: “To be offered those positions . . . I was twenty-four at the time and didn’t have a doctorate. I thought, ‘Well, let’s go get some real-life experience.’ My wife had one more year left on a doctorate.” So then the couple commuted between Boston and Oklahoma City.

As luck would have it, about a year after Chad moved west, Amy was able to get a job at Oklahoma State University, about an hour north of Oklahoma City. After four years there, she took a position on the same faculty as Chad, and finally they were back to both working and living together. 

Three years later, it was time to move on, and the couple again had to weigh their professional and personal priorities, this time with their toddler son in the picture. They decided that an offer to Chad of a tenure-track position at the prestigious University of Michigan was too good to pass up, so Amy would move with him to Michigan and would find her way once she got there.

“For [Amy], it was a few years before she really got something significant,” Chad told me. “Frankly, I think she had to be rather humble just to help make ends meet. She had to put goals and career aside, to some extent. I know that at times it wasn’t easy for her, but because she works hard and is really exceptional — and this is her husband speaking — she came to the notice of a number of my colleagues who started engaging her to perform. Then she started performing with a group in Detroit every now and then, the Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings. The piano faculty here [at Michigan] got to know her, then there was an opportunity for her to teach a graduate course in chamber music for pianists. She started coaching chamber music, started teaching a bit, and now after being here in Ann Arbor for seven years, she has gone from basically an entry-level lecture position to a full-time contract. She's currently heading up all of the piano chamber music here at the University of Michigan.”

Talking about the decisions they’ve made over the last eighteen years, Chad paused. “I suppose maybe there’s more here for an article than I thought.”

Indeed.

Chad Burrow is recognized as one of the premiere clarinetists of his generation. He has appeared as a soloist and chamber musician in concert halls across the globe. In 2009, he was appointed to the clarinet faculty of the University of Michigan, where he teaches clarinet and chamber music, and serves as the director for the Michigan Chamber Players. Additionally, he serves as co-artistic director for the Brightmusic Society of Oklahoma and is on the faculty of the Sewanee Summer Music Festival and Alpenkammermusik Festival in Austria. Chad is the principal clarinetist with the Ann Arbor Symphony and regularly performs with the Michigan Opera Theatre Orchestra. In addition to his own schedule of performances, Chad is the clarinetist for Duo Clarion, formed in 1999 at Yale University with pianist Amy I-Lin Cheng. Duo Clarion’s work has been recorded and released by Albany Records, CD Baby, and Wei Studios in Taiwan. Violinist Sean Wang joins Duo Clarion to form Trio Solari. The trio has had a regular touring schedule around the world since 2006. Chad holds a Bachelor of Music degree from Northwestern University where he was a student of Russell Dagon, and a Master of Music degree from Yale University, where he was a student of David Shifrin. Chad Burrow serves as an artist for Backun Musical Services and Vandoren. He plays exclusively on Backun, MoBa Clarinets.
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In my opinion, the most important aspect of musical artistry is sound. Sound quality is what people initially evaluate when they hear someone play. If a musical sound is unpleasant to the ear, it doesn’t matter if a beautiful phrase is crafted or blazing technique is demonstrated — few will listen for long.

The final arbiter in all musical matters is the ear. Through the exercises outlined below, we’ll focus on three fundamental concepts essential in creating a beautiful sound: inhalation (full lung capacity), exhalation (with support), configuration of the oral cavity, and embouchure. It’s assumed that you have a high-quality reed, mouthpiece, and instrument. If you don’t, please correct these issues, otherwise you’ll be tilting at windmills.

What Is Support?

For years I could not find a definition that makes this technique understandable in the context of clarinet pedagogy or in a way that can be effectively relayed to students. I ask my students if a former teacher has told them at some point in a lesson, “You need to support that phrase.” If so, I ask them what this request means to them. In thirty-five years of teaching, I’ve had only two or three students who were able to define breath support in a way that makes sense to me. Someone may have a better definition than mine and if so, my hat’s off to them and please let me know so that I can share with my students!

Here’s my definition: Support is the dynamic, not static, relationship of the velocity of the airstream and the density of the airstream, with velocity the variable and density the constant.

Dynamics such as forte and piano are controlled simply by the velocity of airflow. We can of course apply varied levels of lower-lip pressure to the reed to influence the speed of airflow and response of the reed but, in my opinion, this can have a deleterious effect on sound quality. Perhaps this effect has a place in some musical settings, but for the purpose of this article we’ll assume static lower lip pressure. Also, I reside in the land of Goldilocks regarding lower-lip pressure — not too much, not too little, but just right.

It’s essential to develop intellectual curiosity. Intellectual curiosity creates the willingness to experiment that helps guide us to our aural North Star — the sound standard we choose to guide us in our pursuit of creating a beautiful tone. Of course, each of us must determine our own aural North Star. We accomplish this by the guidance of an excellent instructor, extensively listening to recordings and attending concerts. Remember, we learn to talk by listening and then imitating. 

Experiment with a good mouthpiece/reed, different lip pressures, and different amounts of mouthpiece in your mouth. Determine the parameters of too much and too little, then find your Goldilocks mouthpiece placement and lip pressure. My experience has led me to finding the mouthpiece facing/reed strength/lip pressure that allows me to produce my optimum sound with the greatest degree of efficiency.

Inhalation and Exhalation

Proper inhalation requires knowing how to fill your entire lung capacity efficiently. As you inhale, strive for full expansion in your lower abdomen, lower back, and upper chest.

  1. Find a short section of clear plastic tubing (about one inch in diameter and six inches long, available at hardware stores). Another useful option is to use a Breath Builder Isomeric Exerciser. This is readily available on the Internet.
  2. Place one hand on your sternum and the other on your lower abdomen, about belt level.
  3. Place the tubing in your mouth and inhale. Inhaling through the large diameter of the tubing promotes an instinctive lower abdominal expansion. Slowly and steadily draw in air, and focus on expanding your lungs completely in the area of your lower hand/lower abdomen, then allow the upper hand to expand. You should also notice that your lower back slightly expands.

Exhaling is essentially the reverse of inhaling, with one important difference.

  1. Keeping your hands in the previously mentioned positions, with the plastic tube still in your mouth, exhale with the same slow and steady airstream, letting your upper hand collapse until your air capacity is almost exhausted, but don't let the lower hand collapse inward. As you exhale, your upper hand should collapse first, then your lower hand. Imagine pushing “down and out” with the abdomen while you exhale. The lower hand should collapse only at the very end of your exhalation.

A helpful visualization compares “hot” air to “cold” air. “Hot” air is produced when you exhale condensation on a pair of glasses to clean them. That “hah” sound produces an upper chest sensation and is an unsupported way to exhale. Supported exhalation involves “cold air,” which is generated in the lower abdomen. Imagine trying to blow out a candle that’s four feet away, maintaining a steady, high-velocity airstream. Imagine a laser beam–like airstream directed at the imaginary candle flame.

Tip: Practice the “cold air” exercise with hands placed as previously mentioned. Don’t let your lower abdomen collapse until the very end of your lung capacity.

What part of the human body is most closely analogous to the reed? The vocal chords, of course! Great singers understand air support; they have to.

  1. Try singing a good vocal vowel (E is a good one) sound using the aforementioned “hah” upper-chest airstream.
  2. Then try the same vowel sound using a “cold” airstream lower abdominal expansion, and pushing down and out as you sing the same vowel sound. I’m betting that you’ll notice a difference in sound quality. This is how I define density.

To sum up, learning to use your entire lung capacity while inhaling and then pushing “down and out” as you exhale creates a denser, supported airstream: the foundation of a beautiful sound.

Oral Cavity

It’s like patting your head while rubbing your tummy, but it’s important to develop the independence of an open oral cavity with the tongue in a relatively high, athletic position. Forming this physical relationship accomplishes two things. First, an athletic and relatively arched tongue position speeds up the velocity of the airstream efficiently, much the way the Venturi effect works with fluid dynamics. Secondly, it places the tongue in the optimum position for efficient articulation (again, athletic position).

  1. Pronounce the word “low” — make a perfectly round “O” with your lips (look in a mirror) — and arch your soft palette. (If you are wondering what an arched soft palette feels like, try yawning. The soft palette arches at the beginning of a yawn.)
  2. Then, while maintaining your round lip configuration with arched palette, move your tongue, independently of your oral cavity configuration, to the position that allows you to voice the vowel “E.” This is the key. “Low” allows the oral cavity to be open, for resonance, and “E” promotes a relatively high tongue position to produce a focused and fast-moving airstream.
  3. Look in a mirror and say the word “low.” Strive for a small, perfectly round opening in the lips and notice that your chin flattens naturally. Without moving your lips, say “E.” Visualize directing, then reflecting, a dense, supported airstream off of your soft palette and then the back of your incisors. The combination of the resulting phonic should sound similar to the German pronoun “ich” (you can search online for an audio pronunciation).
  4. While observing the aforementioned, keep your tongue as close to the reed as you can without touching it — even while articulating, it’s wise to move the tip as little as possible. Again, it’s all about efficiency.

It’s very important to know that the tongue can be too high in the oral cavity. I hear a lot of students say that their tongue position is in the “E” position without the consideration of an open oral cavity. This configuration restricts the efficient flow of your exhalation. Imagine a river that has one movable bank. This is a metaphor for your airstream and tongue. As the movable bank moves towards the opposite bank, the water of course speeds up (this is what we are trying to achieve with a relatively high tongue position — Venturi). But there is a point at which the increased water flow is at its fastest; beyond that ideal point, the flow of water, as a result of surface tension, starts to become restricted. And, as the movable bank gets even closer to the opposite bank, this constriction actually acts like a dam. This is why only pronouncing “E” without the open oral cavity is not efficient, and is, in fact, counterproductive.

Embouchure

Here is how to form an efficient embouchure in a couple of steps:

First you’ll need to set the lower lip/jaw combination. The lower lip/jaw combination is the foundation of the embouchure. The upper lip plays an important role but it’s not part of the foundation. Important: stand in front of a mirror as you practice these steps. I’ve yet to be able to see my face without the aid of a mirror!

  1. Imagine the corners of your mouth and the point of your chin as an equilateral triangle. Then imagine your lower lip divided into three equal parts. Draw in the upper two angles of the triangle (corners of your mouth — outside thirds) to the middle of your lower lip (the middle third). Maintain a flat chin as if you were trying to create a cleft in your chin. Don’t thrust your chin forward.
    1. Buzz your lips (while observing the aforementioned) as if you are forming a trumpet embouchure. You’ll notice that the upper lip will be drawn downward as a result. This is completely correct. What we are trying to form with the lower lip is a “bed of roses” for the reed to rest on while maintaining a rock-solid embouchure foundation. The amount of the red part of your lower lip that shows while “buzzing” is the correct amount, for you, of lower lip that should cover your lower teeth.
  2. While maintaining the previous configuration (still looking looking in the mirror), slide the mouthpiece into your mouth. Don’t let the friction of the reed drag your lower lip further over your lower teeth. Don’t reset your equilateral triangle. Once your foundation is set it does not move, even after you start to slide the mouthpiece into your mouth. When your reed touches your lower lip, nothing moves. If your chin-area equilateral triangle moves, start over. As you insert the mouthpiece into your mouth, when the beak of the mouthpiece contacts the top teeth, stop. Strive to have your lower lip at the approximate point that the reed separates from the lay/facing of the mouthpiece. This stop point will be contingent on the angle at which you hold the clarinet and the profile of the “beak” of your mouthpiece. Hold the clarinet no more than 35 to 45 degrees from parallel to your face, assuming your orthodontic occlusion is normal. Experiment with how much mouthpiece insertion produces your ideal aural North Star.

It’s important to understand that an efficient embouchure incorporates a “controlled” bite. Teachers often tell their students, “don’t bite.” What teachers really mean is “don’t bite excessively.” As a result, students sometimes don’t apply enough jaw pressure. It takes some pressure on the reed to focus reed vibration optimally. We use the corners of the mouth and the upper lip to maintain optimal and consistent jaw pressure on the reed. Remember, the function of the embouchure is to provide the optimum environment for the vibration of the reed.

In closing, I refer back to the final arbiter in all matters musical—our ears. All of the suggestions above, if done correctly, will get you in the neighbourhood of a good sound, provided you have a good reed, mouthpiece, and instrument. Our ability to listen with “one” ear and at the same time evaluate our real-time sound production with the “other ear” is an essential skill to get you fully home. Strive for efficiency in all aspects of sound production. To improve and ultimately maintain our ideal sound we must consistently navigate towards our aural North Star — our ideal sound. Intellectual curiosity — a willingness to patiently experiment with mouthpiece/reed configurations — coupled with mindful and dedicated practice are essential to producing outstanding results. It is essential that you remember what works and what does not. Experiment with only one change at a time so that when an experimental change does not work, you have a trail of breadcrumbs to follow back home. Best of luck finding your aural North Star!

Bil Jackson enjoys a varied musical career that includes solo, orchestral, and chamber music appearances. He is on the Artist Faculty at the Blair School at Vanderbilt University. Mr. Jackson has performed as Principal Clarinet with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Colorado Symphony Orchestra, and Honolulu Symphony, and as Guest Principal Clarinet with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Orchestra of St. Luke’s,  St. Louis and Cincinnati Symphony orchestras. Jackson is currently on the summer Artist-Faculty of the Aspen Music Festival and Colorado College Music Festival. He is the only person to win the International Clarinet Competition twice and was a finalist in the Prague International Clarinet Competition. Bil Jackson is a Backun Artist and performs on MoBa clarinets and mouthpieces.

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On Technology in Art and Teaching

In conversation with Kim Werker

There’s an occasional clicking noise coming through as I speak with Jose Franch-Ballester via Skype. I’m at my dining room table in Vancouver, Canada; he’s in his studio in Valencia, Spain. He’s telling me about the avant-garde multimedia concerto he’ll be premiering in January, 2018.

Jose Franch-Ballester: There is this composer, Saül Gómez Soler; he’s from Valencia. About a year ago he started composing me a piece called “Apocryphos.” Apocryphos means tenebre, dark, mysterious, simulated. We have this idea of starting experimenting on our clarinet concerto, which won’t be accompanied by an orchestra but by two speakers in the concert hall. We wanted to move away from the electroacoustic phenomenon, because a lot of electroacoustic music can be very contemporary, and for some kind of audiences that can be very tough to understand. I’m not saying that that’s bad, but I’m just saying that we have a very clear idea of which kind of music we wanted to present and which kind of audience to target. <<click click>> Are you recording this whole thing?

Kim Werker: Yeah. Is that okay?

Jose: Sure, sure. I was thinking, “How is she memorizing all this?”

Kim: No, no. I’m recording.

Jose: Okay, so that’s how the piece started. The piece has three movements and the first movement, it’s like a dark monastery. The second movement, it is like a new world, like you go to another planet and everything becomes very stimulating and you are, “Whoa.” Right? Then the third movement, it’s something different, more like a finale. For that, this composer — he has a background orchestrating music for Hollywood. He’s very well acquainted with all of the software, and virtual instruments, libraries. They are super expensive. A lot of composers like James Horner, et cetera, they use a lot of this music. Sometimes they record with orchestras, sometimes they simulate orchestras. <<click click>> I didn’t want us to simulate an orchestra, because the whole purpose of this experiment is not to recreate an orchestra because we couldn’t have one; the whole idea is to present more of a variety of sounds than an orchestra can offer.

<<click click>>

We use instruments from the Middle Ages. We use shofars — like the Jewish shofars. We use all kinds of instruments. We use a lot electronic music from the seventies. We use a lot of effects. We use voices, like monks singing. It’s like <<click>> the possibilities that you can use are infinite. We wanted to create a piece that is around twenty-seven minutes that you are constantly stimulated by. You’re always listening to something new, and it’s like a whole voyage to hear this piece. That’s probably the biggest project that I’ve been working this year. Now we are finishing the piece, and we are going to premiere it in January [2017], in Spain. Then we’re going to be doing a concert tour. <<click>> 

All that technology — things that we can do to be more creative in a different way — we can do it in concerts, like projects like this, but also we can use it in our practice habits.

Jose’s enthusiasm is contagious, and I find myself fidgeting in excitement as he talks. I discover that the clicking isn’t a problem with our Skype connectionJose is also fidgeting. He’s holding a retractable tape measure, pulling at it as we converse.

Kim: How so? 

Jose: For instance, there is an application that I use myself every single day, and my students all use that application. It’s called Tunable. I like to practice long notes, long tones, with this application, because a tuner tells you if you are flat or you’re sharp. This one not only tells if you are flat or you’re sharp, it gives you a pattern, like this. [He demonstrates with his hands.] It’s like a line, but if you play and the line keeps going down straight, it means that that note, it’s produced and controlled very well, like a phenomenal string player that has a great control of the bow, without shaking. If you start shaking the sound, you will see that the line starts going like a snake. Before, I had to be constantly listening to my students play, and when they were playing their long tones, I would be, “Oh, you’re doing this,” or “You’re doing the other.” Most of the time they told me, “I don’t know. I don’t know how you can hear that. We can’t hear this.” Right? With this application, they see it.

Kim: It gives them feedback, right as they go.

Jose: Yes. There is another aspect. One thing’s the control, that we want really long, very controlled lines, but there’s another aspect that is the singing. I think that singing is what makes us unique, besides the unique sound that each artist has. If you hear many of the Backun artists, like Corrado Giuffredi, like my teacher Ricardo Morales, et cetera, David Shifrin, each one has a unique way to sing the notes. I hate saying vibrato; I don’t want to say vibrato. I want to call it singing. This app, it’s phenomenal for that, because it shows you if you are doing a vibrato or a singing that is going from in tune to low intonation or in tune to sharp, or how fast it is going and how wide it is going. There are some parts, like someone will be playing a Brahms sonata, and some students will play like, da da ti, with no singing or soul to it. I will tell them, “Look, look at the app. I will play,” and they will see the little curves that form. I tell them, “That’s what I’m doing. Try to imitate it.” They try to imitate it, and in that way they learn how to sing and to vibrate. That’s the first step to doing it well. 

Kim: It helps them find their voice.

Jose: Yeah. That’s one app that I love using. There is another app, called Sound Meter. Sound Meter is like a decibel meter. The ones that people use to see how many decibels they’re sounding, and to see if their neighbours are in trouble or not. Sometimes, especially clarinet players, when we get tense or nervous or insecure, we tend to bite. When we bite, what we do is that we reduce the sound and the projection of the sound. With some students, I’m like, “Louder. Play louder. Use more air.” You see that they are red like a tomato, and they don’t sound loud. I show them the app, and they play, and I say to them, “I want you to get to ninety-five decibels,” and they cannot get to ninety. Then I tell them, “I want you to bite more with your lips,” so they bite more, and instead of eighty-two, they go to eighty. Then when I tell them, “Relax your embouchure,” they see that they go to ninety, where I want it. It’s a great way to check those things. Apps like this, they come in very handy. They come in very handy. When you’re trying clarinet, when you try out mouthpieces to see which material makes you sound better and in an easier way so you don’t have to do much to it. For things like this, apps are fantastic.

Kim: Do you use any in performance? Aside from the big production that you’re doing now, where the technology is a part of the performance — when you play classically, do you use any technology as part of your performance?

Jose: Yes, for many years I’ve used an iPad; now I have an iPad Pro. I use forScore, and I use the AirTurn pedals, made by AirTurn. They have become so handy to me. When you are constantly on tour, that means that you have to bring a lot of music with you in the suitcase. Plus, all the music that you have to be playing in the next half of the year, to practice. Now I have everything on my iPad, have all my books, have all my music, all my exercise books, everything is there. What I do is that I practice and I play concerts from the iPad. It’s phenomenal, it’s phenomenal.

Kim: Do the pedals enable you to control the iPad with your foot while you’re playing? Is that the idea?

Jose: Yes. They are Bluetooth pedals, so when you press the pedals, they change the pages. One pedal is to go forward, and the other pedal is to go backward.

Kim: That’s so clever. I was wondering how you would do that. That makes it even easier than paper, too, because you don’t need hands.

Jose: Yes. No, no, no, absolutely.

Kim: Are many musicians also doing the same?

Jose: Yes, more and more. You’d be surprised. There are some musicians that love the texture of the paper. They say that they will feel insecure having it digital, if something happens, et cetera. I play with a chamber music group called Camerata Pacifica, and many of the artists that play in Camerata Pacifica, we use iPads and pedals, but they are very clever about that. They say, “Okay, if you have a problem with your iPad during the concert, we’ll treat that as a string that breaks.” You know? It’s necessary for you, and this is under contract that you should bring spare parts of your music, or a second iPad with another pedal. You always have a backup. Thanks to them, I always do that. When I have concerts, I like to have printed music with me, and a pedal, or sometimes have another iPad with me. Nothing has ever happened to me. Probably bad things happened more times to me during concerts because of the paper than the iPad. I’m so happy.

The Making of forScore

Lifelong musician and self-described nerd Justin Bianco was always interested in writing software. When the iPad was first announced in 2010, he had a feeling it would be the perfect device for sheet music, so he seized the opportunity to connect his two interests. ForScore 1.0 was released a few months later, and Justin has been working on the app full time ever since. We asked him to write up a few tips to help our readers take advantage of the app’s features.

  • Links and Rearranging: There are two ways to handle repeat sections and codas in forScore:
      • Links allow you to add hot buttons that jump from one page to another and flash to show you where to pick up playing.
      • Or you can turn the idea of a printed page on its head and use the Rearrange tool to duplicate and change the order of the pages to create a forward-flowing run-through of the piece. (You can also annotate with white rectangles to block out unneeded lines.)
  • Half-Page Turns: Turning pages needs to be as fast and smooth as possible. Use this mode to preview the top half of the next page while you play the last few bars of the current page, avoiding a distracting page-turn transition. You can also adjust the blue bar up or down for each page to avoid splitting a line in two.
  • Audio Playback: Link audio from your iTunes library to songs in forScore (or import audio files directly) to use as rehearsal references or backing tracks. Media controls include pitch and speed options, timed page turns, and looping, among others. You can also record rehearsals right within the app for review later.
  • Cloud Services: Cloud storage apps only allow you to export one file at a time into forScore. Instead, use forScore’s Services panel to access your accounts directly. You can store or share your music library by selecting multiple files for upload or download, as well as change file formats. Supported services include Dropbox, Google Drive, Box, and OneDrive.
  • Buttons: Place a tappable, programmable button anywhere on your page to instantly control many of forScore’s functions. Start and stop the metronome, change the tempo, jump to the next score, play audio, and more. Find this setting, and many others, in the Tools menu.
A native of Moncofa, Spain, Jose Franch-Ballester is one of the most promising clarinetists of his generation. In 2008 he received the highly coveted Avery Fisher Career Grant, and in 2007 was selected for a Carnegie Hall Professional Training Workshop with Emmanuel Ax and Richard Stoltzman. He has played with artists such as Charles Wadsworth, Arnold Steinhardt, Warren Jones, Ida Kavafian, Frederica von Stade and David Shifrin, the Saint Lawrence and Jupiter String Quartets, and as a soloist with orchestras such as Orquesta de la Radiotelevisión Española, I Musici of Montréal and Orchestra of Saint Luke’s. Mr. Franch-Ballester is in demand at numerous festivals, including Chamber Music Northwest, the Skaneateles Festival, the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival, Music from Angel Fire, Usedomer Musikfestival, and Verbier Festival. In 2017 he joined the faculty of the University of British Columbia School of Music as Assistant Professor of Clarinet and Chamber Music. He is a Backun Clarinet Artist and performs on MoBa Cocobolo Clarinets.
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Am I going to get claustrophobic?

This was the question on Ellen Breakfield-Glick’s mind as she descended into the darkness of Mammoth Cave, her clarinet safely stowed in its case on her back, her arms full as she and her fellow musicians carried in all of their equipment, including chairs and music stands.

Mammoth Cave was just the first stop of a two-month tour of national parks across the U.S. last summer. A septet, Music in the American Wild was the brainchild of flutist and director Emlyn Johnson, a school friend of Breakfield-Glick. Johnson had contacted her a full two years earlier to see if she might be game for the trek into nature.

“She said, ‘I have this crazy idea. Would you be interested?’”

The crazy idea stemmed from a National Endowment for the Arts grant to celebrate the centennial of the United States National Park Service. The septet played all new music, commissioned specifically for the centennial. The eleven composers were given instructions: each piece must be written for flute, clarinet, horn, two violins, viola, cello, and percussion, with the understanding that there would be no conductor and that the pieces would be performed outdoors.

“It was cool to see how creative people can be given a set of restraints,” Breakfield-Glick enthused. “The pieces were totally different — there was nothing that sounded the same.”

A longtime chamber music aficionado, Breakfield-Glick is a member of CityMusic Cleveland Chamber Orchestra. On faculty at Cleveland State University, she also regularly travels to perform with the Michigan Philharmonic Orchestra. She had never been on tour with a chamber group before.

“It was exciting! Everyone was so enthusiastic and excited to be there. I had such a nice time. It was fun to experience all these amazing places with a group of people working hard together. I love playing in an orchestra,” she added, “but I find I can be my truest self in a chamber-music setting. I like that you can be very experimental, and I love the collaborative spirit. I think it’s a special and intimate way to play music with your colleagues and your friends.”

Every member of the septet, and all eleven composers, were either alumni or faculty at the Eastman School of Music, where Johnson and Breakfield-Glick first played chamber music together as undergraduates.

“We were partially sponsored by the NEA, but we had a lot of support from Eastman in terms of advertising and concert spaces. We had a send-off concert at the George Eastman Museum, which was fun because we got to play outside. It actually rained on us! We played twenty-seven concerts and the only time we had rain was in Rochester [New York].” 

Weather played a significant role in the tour. The group chose combinations of their eleven-piece repertoire to suit the conditions they found at each venue: the windswept slopes of Washington State’s Mount Rainier precluded quiet pieces, and a concert at Purchase Knob in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, straddling the North Carolina/Tennessee border, was kept short to avoid an incoming thunder storm.

The challenges of outdoor playing also led some members of the group to make unconventional choices with their instruments: the string instruments were all made of carbon fibre, and Breakfield-Glick chose to use a synthetic clarinet — the Backun Alpha.

“I wanted to sound like me, but I wasn’t going to take my MoBas in a cave. I called Morrie [Backun] and said, ‘What should I do? Should I play an old clarinet?’” He suggested she try the Alpha.

“I was blown away by how great it is,” she said. “I put my MoBa barrel and bell on it, and that made it even more comfortable, because I was playing my own equipment but I didn’t have to be concerned about the body of my MoBa.”

Breakfield-Glick also did not have to worry about how her instrument would respond to the various, sometimes extreme, conditions. “We played all kinds of places, and I never had a single technical issue with my instrument the entire time. If I had taken any wooden instrument, there’s no way I could say that; somehow it would have been affected.”

Still, she admitted to some uncertainty at first. “I was nervous, but after about two days, our cellist said, ‘Ellen, what are you going to do about the environment?’ I said, ‘Oh, this is actually a plastic clarinet,’ and he couldn’t believe it! I didn’t put it away after the tour,” she added. “I still travel with it, and I use it sometimes when demonstrating in lessons. It’s my favourite little thing now.”

The instruments weren’t the only things that had to be hardy — the players themselves faced unusual challenges. Their initial tour included seven locations, from the send-off concert in Rochester, New York; to an open field in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia; to the damp halls of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. There was a subsequent tour of Washington State’s national parks; they played at an elevation of 6,400 feet on Mount Rainier and hiked into the rugged North Cascades National Park to perform in the mist. “The concerts went well, but we definitely had to be aware of our environment. Every single time was an adventure.”

It was an adventure for the audience, as well; hearing new music in the middle of a rainforest is a unique experience. “Some concerts were more formal, but a lot of them ended up being interactive. We got so many questions: ‘Are you guys doing another tour?’ ‘When does your recording come out?’ There was a lot of excitement in the audience. We’re told that it’s hard to get people to come to new-music concerts,” Breakfield-Glick said, growing thoughtful. “I don’t think I agree with that. Sometimes we had three to four hundred people, in the middle of a park! There’s definitely an audience for classical music. It’s just a matter of timing and finding creative ways to communicate with them.” 

A longtime supporter of new compositions, Breakfield-Glick is now a passionate new-music performer and hopes this experience will lead to more demand for these pieces and their composers. “Basically my whole summer was playing new music. I think there should be more of that, and I hope these pieces will get played more — there’s some really great music in there.”

The septet planned to make studio recordings of all eleven pieces in early 2017. Live recordings from the tour are available at their website and at the Seattle Times.

Confidence in My Instrument

by Ellen Breakfield-Glick

When I learned about our tour of seven national parks, I knew that I needed equipment that would help me sound my best in diverse and extreme conditions. This is not an easy ask when one concert is underground in Mammoth Cave and one is 7,000 feet above sea level at Mount Rainer! The Alpha was the perfect clarinet for our trip: it was durable, reliable, and most importantly, it helped me sound my best in every situation. One of the best parts about our tour was interacting with our audience members. At each performance I received several questions about my instrument, allowing me to speak personally about my experiences playing in the parks. We performed in some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, and having confidence in my instrument meant that I was able to enjoy every moment.

Ellen Breakfield-Glick holds positions with CityMusic Cleveland Chamber Orchestra and the award-winning Michigan Philharmonic Orchestra, and she frequently performs with the Louisville Orchestra. An avid chamber musician, she has performed for a wide range of audiences throughout the United States, at venues such as Lincoln Center and Kilbourn Hall. She has participated in music festivals throughout the United States and Canada. As an educator, Ellen has served on the faculty of Cleveland State University since 2013 and maintains a successful private studio. In 2016, she was awarded the Golden Apple Teaching award, given to faculty members for excellence in teaching and outstanding contributions to the CSU community. Ellen received a Bachelor of Music Degree from the Eastman School of Music and Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts Degrees from the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance. Her teachers have included Daniel Gilbert, Kenneth Grant, Robert DiLutis, Michael Webster and Harry Hill.

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Corrado Giuffredi is one of the most prominent clarinetists on the global scene at the moment and has played with important orchestras since he was young. His videos on YouTube and Facebook reach thousands of fans within hours of being posted. A good number of students crowd his masterclasses and desire to study with him regularly. Principal Clarinet of the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, he is one of the most important figures of the new Italian clarinet school. We recently discussed his past experiences, his exclusive instrument, and his advice to the next generation of clarinetists.

  • Angelo Semeraro: How do you feel about being one of the most famous Italian clarinetists in the world?

Corrado Giuffredi: Honestly, I feel very positive because lots of people follow and admire my work. This is extremely satisfying, and it pays me back for the work I have done in the past and for what I will do in the future. It’s very important to me to have joined Morrie Backun’s team — a great team that gives me the chance to be always in touch with artists like Ricardo Morales, Eddie Daniels, David Shifrin, Ben Lulich, and Jose Franch-Ballester. We are very close and we have fun together!

  • AS: How much of your success and artistic expression is due to the fact that you were born and grew up in Italy?

CG: All my success started in Italy. When I was a child I had the great opportunity to join the Emilia Romagna Youth Orchestra, and one of my first concerts was with Luciano Pavarotti, in 1985. During my collaboration with him, hearing his voice up close and playing some of the most beautiful clarinet solos made me certain about the direction I wanted to take for my future.

  • AS: Which experiences have provided you the most inspiration and momentum?

CG: There are a lot. As I said before, I started when I was very young, in a youth orchestra. At the end of the ’80s, I became the Principal Clarinet of the Toscanini Orchestra, where I worked until 2002. I played much of the operatic repertoire, but also uncommon operas with beautiful solos like Donizetti’s Poliuto and Torquato Tasso, or Pacini’s Saffo — operas that are rarely produced theatrically and usually appear only in orchestral-excerpt collections. It is very rare to play most of them during one’s career, but I was lucky to play them with great masters. Since 2003 I have been the Principal Clarinet of the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana. Each experience has contributed to my artistic growth, naturally, but my recent collaboration with Cecilia Bartoli in particular has given me very strong emotions.

  • AS: In your opinion, what are the artistic and musical features that distinguish an Italian artist?

CG: The Italian clarinet is famous in the world for its beautiful and mellow sound. The art of “bel canto” and expressiveness are our strong points, along with technical and interpretative competence.

  • AS: The Italian clarinet world has seen moments of prestige abroad in the past. Could you briefly summarize them?

CG: There were lots of Italian clarinetists who emigrated to other countries in the past, in particular the USA. Gino Cioffi, Luigi Cancellieri, Luigi DeSantis, Napoleon Cerminara, Edmondo Allegra, Joseph and Anthony Gigliotti, just to mention some of them. They all were Principal Clarinetists in the most prominent American orchestras!

  • AS: What should young musicians do to make their careers international?

CG: First of all they must practice hard. They have to put themselves in the spotlight, winning auditions and competitions . To be a good musician is not enough; it is only the starting point. Having a good teacher at the beginning is a blessing, but students then have to intensify their study with principal clarinetists from around the world. It is quite impossible to win international competitions if you are totally unknown.

  • AS: What does the Italian clarinet school need to improve to be more competitive? Which Italian institution can offer a state-of-the-art program?

CG: In my opinion, what is necessary is to work as a team, and in Italy Maestro Piero Vincenti, president of the Italian Clarinet University, has understood this. With the Italian Clarinet University, we have a team of very qualified teachers who bring new ideas and teaching techniques from all over the world.

  • AS: Today the Italian Minister of Education recognizes more and more academic qualifications obtained outside the system of conservatories. Do you think that is a good thing?

CG: Of course. More qualified teachers attract the best students in Italy, improving our own clarinet school and making it more competitive.

  • AS: What is the future and what do you hope for the Italian clarinet?

CG: In every Swiss orchestra, there is at least one Italian clarinetist, and in Lugano there are two. There are Italian clarinetists in France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Finland. It is incredible. In these years, lots of Italian musicians are winning auditions and competitions around the world. We are everywhere around the globe, and this makes us proud.

  • AS: The clarinetists that follow you are very interested in your experimentations and choices about your instrument. Can you tell us what are you are working on?

CG: I am testing a new clarinet that Morrie Backun has conceived of just for me. A new concept of instrument. It’s made of wood on the inside and synthetic material on the outside in order to increase sound quality. The projection of the carbon fibre shows a great difference from traditional clarinets, especially in big halls. It appears to be a very amplified instrument, one that does not sacrifice quality and beauty of the sound. Therefore, with it I like to use a new Corrado Giuffredi (CG) crystal mouthpiece developed by Giorgio Clerici, of Pomarico, and me. It comes in two different models: CG and CGPlus, both of which really give form and substance to the Italian sound. By changing the chamber’s internal measurements, we have obtained the sound I have always dreamed of. The mouthpieces are finding great success, and Pomarico has to work day and night to meet consumer demands!

Entrato giovanissimo a far parte di importanti orchestre, Corrado Giuffredi è uno dei clarinettisti più in luce del momento. Il suo canale YouTube e i video che pubblica sul profilo Facebook registrano migliaia di visualizzazioni in poche ore. Tantissimi i giovani che affollano le sue masterclass e che vorrebbero studiare stabilmente con lui. Primo clarinetto solista dell’Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana è tra i maggiori esponenti della nuova scuola italiana del clarinetto. Ecco cosa ha risposto alle nostre domande sulle esperienze passate, i consigli alle nuove generazioni e il suo esclusivo strumento.

• Cosa si prova ad essere uno tra i più conosciuti clarinettisti italiani nel mondo?

Onestamente mi sento molto bene, perchè essere seguito e apprezzato da tante persone mi dà tanta soddisfazione e mi ripaga di tutto il lavoro che fatto e che farò in futuro. Mi ha aiutato molto essere entrato nel team di Morrie Backun, una squadra eccezionale che mi dà la possibilità di essere in continuo contatto con artisti come Ricardo Morales, Eddie Daniels, David Shifrin, Ben Lulich e José French-Ballester. Siamo molto uniti e insieme ci divertiamo anche molto!

• Quanto del suo successo e della sua espressione artistica sono frutto dell’essere nato e cresciuto in Italia?

Tutto è frutto di ciò. Da ragazzino ho avuto la fortuna di entrare a far parte dell’Orchestra Giovanile della Emilia Romagna e uno dei primissimi concerti, nel 1985, fu con Luciano Pavarotti. Sentire la sua voce, così da vicino, negli anni in cui era più in forma e avere la fortuna di suonare con lui alcuni degli assoli più belli del clarinetto mi ha fatto subito capire quale era la direzione che volevo prendere.

• Quali esperienze le hanno dato maggiori stimoli e slancio?

Sono state tante. Ho iniziato molto presto come già detto in un’orchestra giovanile. Sul finire degli anni Ottanta sono diventato primo clarinetto dell’Orchestra Toscanini, dove sono rimasto fino al 2002. Ho suonato gran parte del repertorio operistico, ma anche quelle rare opere che contengono bellissimi assoli come il Poliuto e il Torquato Tasso di Donizetti o la Saffo di Pacini, Opere che sono rarissimamente inserite nei cartelloni dei teatri e che di solito sono solo nelle raccolte dei passi d’orchestra. Tanti di questi è difficile suonarli nella propria carriera, ma io ho avuto la fortuna di farli con grandi maestri. Dal 2003 sono clarinetto solista dell’Orchestra della Svizzera italiana. Ogni esperienza naturalmente contribuisce alla mia crescita artistica, ma in particolare la recente collaborazione con Cecilia Bartoli mi ha dato veramente grandi emozioni.

• Quali sono secondo lei le caratteristiche artistiche e musicali che contraddistinguono un artista italiano?

Il clarinetto italiano è sempre stato famoso nel mondo per il bel suono. Questo ci ha sempre contraddistinto. La cantabilità e l’espressione sono da sempre i nostri cavalli di battaglia. Ora abbiamo aggiunto anche la preparazione tecnica e la consapevolezza interpretativa.

• Il mondo clarinettistico italiano ha conosciuto momenti di prestigio all’estero anche in passato. Potrebbe in breve sintetizzarli?

Ci sono stati nel passato moltissimi clarinettisti italiani emigrati in altri Paesi, in particolare negli Stati Uniti d’America. Gino Cioffi, Luigi Cancellieri, Luigi De Santis, Napoleone Cerminara, Edmondo Allegra, Giuseppe e Anthony Gigliotti solo per citarne alcuni . . . Erano tutti principal clarinet delle maggiori orchestre americane!

• Su cosa deve investire un giovane che vuole rendere internazionale la propria carriera?

Innanzitutto deve studiare come un matto. Si deve mettere in evidenza da giovanissimo vincendo audizioni e concorsi. Essere bravi non basta, è solo il punto di partenza. Avere un buon insegnante all’inizio è una benedizione, ma si deve approfondire successivamente lo studio con maestri importanti. Arrivare da perfetti sconosciuti a Concorsi Internazionali e pensare di vincere è quasi impossibile.

• Di cosa ha bisogno la formazione clarinettistica italiana? Quali enti possono offrirla?

Credo che ci sia necessità di fare squadra e lo ha capito in Italia il Maestro Piero Vincenti, Presidente dell’Accademia Italiana del Clarinetto. In passato questo è mancato. Con l’Accademia Italiana del Clarinetto si vuole fare squadra e abbiamo un team di docenti davvero notevole per essere il più possibile all’avanguardia e per conoscere anche da docenti stranieri come si suona in altri Paesi.

• Oggi il Ministero dell’Istruzione italiano riconosce sempre più titoli conseguiti in accademie al di fuori del sistema dei Conservatori. Pensa sia un bene tutto ciò?

Certo che è un bene. Più gli insegnanti sono bravi più si attirano in Italia i migliori allievi, migliorando e rendendo più competitiva l’offerta didattica della nostra scuola clarinettistica.

• Che futuro vede e cosa si augura per il clarinetto italiano?

In ogni orchestra svizzera c’è almeno un clarinettista italiano e a Lugano siamo addirittura in due. In Francia, Belgio, Germania, Spagna, Finlandia ci sono clarinettisti italiani. È una cosa sbalorditiva. Tantissimi italiani stanno vincendo in questi anni audizioni e concorsi in ogni parte del mondo. Siamo dappertutto e questo ci rende orgogliosi.

                 • Le sue sperimentazioni e scelte sullo strumento interessano i tantissimi clarinettisti che la seguono. Possiamo sapere al momento quali sono le novità su cui sta lavorando?

Sto testando da quasi un anno un nuovo clarinetto che Morrie Backun ha pensato appositamente per me. Una concezione di strumento tutta nuova. Legno dentro e materiale sintetico all’esterno, in modo da esaltare le qualità sonore e sfruttare la proiezione della fibra di carbonio che, soprattutto nelle grandi sale, mostra un’importante differenza rispetto ai clarinetti tradizionali. Sembra uno strumento amplificato che però non perde in qualità e bellezza. Poi c’è l’abbinamento che ho pensato con il nuovo bocchino di cristallo Pomarico che porta il mio nome. Sono due modelli: il CG e il CGPlus che danno veramente forma e sostanza al suono italiano. Rivoluzionando le misure interne della camera siamo riusciti a ottenere il suono che ho sempre sognato. Sta avendo un grandissimo successo e Pomarico deve lavorare anche la notte per soddisfare tutte le richieste!

A truly versatile artist, Corrado Giuffredi is renowned as a classical, chamber, jazz and klezmer musician. His orchestral appearances include performances with the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana and the Orchestra Filharmonica della Scala, to name a few. In addition to numerous recordings, Corrado has also premiered a number of works including Penderecki’s Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra.
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I met Wes in 1977 when he joined the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (ISO), but we didn’t start dating until he asked me out for my Halloween birthday a year later. I fell in love with that tall, handsome gentleman, and we were engaged by American Thanksgiving. We didn’t want to wait till summer to get married, so we planned our wedding — to be held at my parents’ suburban Chicago home — and honeymoon, to coincide with the ISO’s week-long vacation in February 1979. What we didn’t plan on was that two weeks prior to our wedding, Chicago would experience its second largest snowstorm in history, which dumped about twenty-one inches on the area. However, youth and determination prevailed, and we arrived there safely, along with Wes’s mother and several brave friends.

Born and raised in Vancouver, Wes attended the University of British Columbia (UBC) before beginning his professional career. He was Principal Clarinet in the National Ballet Orchestra, the Hamilton Philharmonic, and the Indianapolis Symphony. In 1980, after failing to win the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (VSO) audition the first time, Wes figured we would stay in Indianapolis, and we bought a lovely house. No sooner had we started to feel like this was home than Vancouver came calling again, and after flying up to audition once more, Wes finally won the job. He was delighted to be joining such a cohesive and genial woodwind section, and it was an adventure for me to be moving to a “foreign” country!

As a violinist, I was impressed by the complexities of Wes’s clarinet world, which he eagerly shared with me. Almost from our rst date, I was introduced to his two idols, Robert Marcellus and Harold Wright — “the sun and the moon” in Wes’s solar system. Then to the many parts of the clarinet: bells, barrels, mouthpieces, reeds, even clarinets in various keys! I learned, too, that Wes’s studio was his “man cave,” where he practiced, made reeds, or listened to recordings (with headphones). He was fairly inaccessible then, but never resented an interruption.

We made Vancouver our home in 1981, and it was lovely to be near Wes’s parents. They doted on our children and became an integral part of our family. Our daughter Amalie was born in 1982, and Ross followed in 1987. Wes was a devoted father and managed to nd a balance between career and family. He was always so encouraging and supportive to me in my musical pursuits, and we often played chamber music together.

Integrity and commitment were two of Wes’s hallmarks, whether it was performing or teaching. His Tuesdays were usually spent at UBC teaching clarinet majors.

Affable and known for his quick wit, Wes loved to laugh as much as he loved making others laugh. Often when I looked over at the woodwind section, they’d either be doubled over with laughter or sti ing it, depending on whether it was a rehearsal or concert. He made life fun for our children as well, often doing his Donald Duck imitation in front of a delighted audience.

Some of his passions were hockey, sushi, and ice cream—especially Dairy Queen and “Blizzards were on Wes!”

Wes and I made it a priority to take family vacations, often incorporating them with musical activities. The Banff Centre for the Arts was a place dear to Wes’s heart where he had taught many summers. The kids and I accompanied him there and enjoyed being in that gorgeous setting for three summers.

I am very blessed to have had thirty-four years with such a fine and wonderful man.

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No relationship is as important to an orchestral principal bassoonist as the one we share with the single-reed specialist who sits to our right. From Beethoven to Brahms, Schubert to Schoenberg, the search for that perfect blend of bassoon and clarinet is an endless quest.

Wes Foster and I sat side by side for twenty years. Day after day, season after season, we paid close attention to each other, to every shared phrase, to every unison, the vagaries of cane, the changes of weather. He even asked me for input on ligatures. We cultivated a single- minded approach to intonation, colour, and a happy tonal balance. Building a good woodwind section is about patience, perseverance, and the refinement of craft. You need partners willing to bare their faults and expose their artistic fragility in the hope of achieving great music making.

In this long path together, I could not have wished for a better partner than Wes.

Robert Marcellus instilled in Wes a passion for the warmest, most homogeneous sound as well as a commitment to mastering the intonation challenges of the modern clarinet. Wes’s relentless perseverance in exploring improved bores, in both barrel design and eventually the whole instrument, was the seed that grew into Backun Musical’s remarkable growth. His musical DNA is embedded in these wonderful new instruments.

When I play a passage in a Brahms Symphony with a Backun Artist, I can’t help but recall Wes’s impeccable tone, his determination and patience, and the thousands of hours we devoted to blending our individual musical voices.

Christopher Millard is Principal Bassoonist of the National Arts Centre Orchestra, and was Principal Bassoonist of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra from 1975 to 2004.

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A faint pulse runs through Backun Musical Services. It’s not the day-to-day bustle or the constant hum of the massive CNC (Computer Numeric Control) machines that manufacture Backun clarinets. It’s not the thrum of the Backun family, staff, or artists. This pulse harkens back to the earliest days of the company, long before the first Backun clarinet was ever conceived.

A childhood friend of Morrie Backun’s, John Wesley (Wes) Foster shared a similar passion for the clarinet. The two grew up in Vancouver, Canada, studying under Dominic Lastoria, an archetypal clarinet teacher schooled in the Italian tradition of clarinet playing. Following years of lessons, school band, and youth orchestra, Wes and Morrie took different paths: Wes’s career took him to orchestras in Hamilton and Toronto, Canada, as well as Indianapolis, Indiana, and, finally, back home to Vancouver. Along the way, Wes was mentored by iconic player and teacher Robert Marcellus. In fact, it was Wes whom Marcellus tapped to be the heir apparent to his teaching studio, which resulted in Wes flying weekly from Indianapolis to Chicago to teach at Northwestern University after Marcellus had retired. Morrie went into the family music business, while continuing to perform as a clarinetist and conductor with local orchestras and ensembles. Later apprenticing as a flute maker, Morrie honed his skills in instrument repair and custom modification.

Years later, back in Vancouver, Wes and his wife, Karen, settled into their respective chairs in the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (VSO). Both Wes and Karen contributed greatly to the musical scene in Vancouver, continuing to travel and teach — Wes was a frequent teacher at the Banff Centre’s illustrious music program. Also a faculty member at the University of British Columbia (UBC) School of Music for over two decades, Wes was appointed Principal Clarinet of the VSO in 1981.

Back in 2000, Wes called on Morrie for some clarinet work. With Backun Musical Services having been founded just a few months earlier, Wes’s need for a replacement barrel for his vintage C clarinet dramatically altered the course of the company. Morrie dutifully set out to craft a new barrel for him, and history was made. If we’d only known at the time!

Gone but Not Forgotten

From the very first barrel to the very first bell, Wes was with us, testing almost every piece Morrie made by hand in the days before we brought in the CNC machines. Back then, with each barrel taking no less than three hours to craft, and each bell almost an entire day, Morrie spent a majority of his time taking on woodwind repairs, while I made many of the barrels and bells by hand in between and after classes at UBC. After all, one or two barrels a day do not exactly pay the bills!

In the midst of all the hubbub and daily goings-on at the shop, we noticed that, at times, Wes was not himself. Sometimes it was a forgotten fingering or the name of a colleague that slipped his mind. Over the few years that I got to know and work closely with Wes, his symptoms and forgetfulness became worse. Then one day, a diagnosis: early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The news was devastating, while at the same time, comforting to those who searched for meaning in Wes’s gradual decline.

After he retired early from the VSO in 2004, Backun Musical Services was often a refuge for Wes. A chance to remain in contact with the instrument and music that he loved. And he was welcomed. Even when the visits became less frequent, we were always grateful to see Wes and spend time with him, trying the latest barrels, bells, and mouthpieces, talking shop, or just listening to music. Wes passed away peacefully in 2013, and while his memory may have faded, our memory of him has not.

Tens of thousands of barrels and bells, mouthpieces, and now clarinets, later, a faint pulse runs through Backun Musical Services — that of John Wesley Foster — and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

In memory of Wes and the incredible legacy he left to the Backun Musical Services, we have named our newest professional clarinet in his honour: the Model F.

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If not for Wes Foster, those of you performing on Backun products might never have had the chance. Allow me to explain…

Wes and I both grew up in the greater Vancouver area. We both studied with a wonderful player and teacher who had emigrated from Italy and performed as second clarinet in the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (VSO); his name was Dominic Lastoria. The first clarinet during those years was Ronald de Kant. Wes and I also had the opportunity to work with de Kant, who had been a student of the great Daniel Bonade. After working with de Kant, Wes studied with Robert Marcellus, preparing for his career as Principal Clarinetist with several orchestras and eventually winning the Principal Clarinet chair in the VSO.

Wes was meticulous about his equipment, spending countless hours on mouthpieces, reeds, and clarinets. I can still hear his sound in my head.

One day, while I was doing some routine maintenance on his clarinets, Wes showed me an antique C clarinet that he had obtained. The problem was that it was missing its barrel. To complicate the matter, this clarinet was made from a brownish wood, rather than the typical black grenadilla. We both contacted everyone we knew, and every company, looking for a replacement, without success. In what would be a life-changing moment, I suggested to Wes that I make him the missing piece on my trusty Boxford lathe. Wes was very enthusiastic about the idea (he really had no choice), but wanted the colour to be brown, not black. Thus began the search for and experimentation with woods other than grenadilla. Cocobolo to the rescue!

During our early years, Wes play-tested virtually every barrel and bell we made and was a wonderful champion of our work. By another twist of fate, Wes introduced our work to Ron de Kant, who was then teaching at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. He subsequently introduced our products to his former student, Ricardo Morales, who has since become an integral part of our ongoing quest to reinvent the clarinet, one piece at a time. And now you know why we’re excited to name our newest clarinet the Model F, in honour of Wes.

Wes left us too soon, but the legacy of his life is well preserved in his wonderful family, his extraordinary students, and the beauty of the music he shared. May it live long in every note played on each Model F.

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