Some Stories About the Clarinet

A medley, if you will

When I was about seven, I told my father I wanted to learn the clarinet. I’m not sure what came over me. I knew he played many instruments, and his father played as well. He leapt into action, rented me a clarinet, and I started taking classes at school soon afterwards.

This was about 30 years ago, and Paula Abdul was the biggest pop star on the planet. One evening I mentioned that I liked her song Opposites Attract, and asked if we could get sheet music so I could learn to play it. My dad said ok, and I went to take a shower. While drying off, I heard my dad picking out the notes downstairs.

Doot doot. Doot deet. Doot doot dooooot. Doot. Doot-doot. Deet-deet-deet-doot-doot doot. Deet-deet-doot doot … doot doot deet, doot doot.

When I came downstairs, hair still wet from the shower, I saw he had transcribed the whole song for me, note by note. I brought the page to school and proudly played Opposites Attract for my friends. I felt special that day.

I never met my grandpa on my dad’s side, but I understand he was a music teacher. To quote a recent email from my dad, my grandpa was also a “utility infielder in the Winston-Salem Symphony.” His epitah on his gravestone is “Make a Joyful Noise unto the Lord.” That’s about all I know about him, other than the reputation that he couldn’t deliver bad news. From what I could gather, he was sort of a Mr Rogers or Ned Flanders type. He famously would say “that was very not good” instead of just saying “bad.”

I do have one story, though. He was interviewing for a position somewhere, and the interview was not going well. He wasn’t able to answer the questions, even basic ones. Finally the interviewer asked where he got his Mechanical Engineering degree. But there had been a mistake. He had an ME that stood for Musical Education, not Mechanical Engineering. But guess what? He actually got the job anyway, and apparently did pretty well at it after he put in the hours to catch up to everyone else.

I’ve been writing a series of essays for my teenage boy. I’m going to put them into book form, call it something like What Your Dad Believes, and present it to him on his birthday. In one of the early essays, I talked about how my favourite hobby is learning new things. Which means I spend a lot of time being bad at new things.

I think it’s too easy for an expert squeeze all the fun out of something. The first time people ride a roller coaster, they usually love it. But roller coaster enthusiasts have refined their riding tastes so finely that it can be hard to experience that childlike wonder anymore. We do the same with alcohol, food, music, fashion, and plenty of other things besides. We get skilled and replace curiosity and fun with a narrow view. I like maintaining that feeling of my first roller coaster or my first gross beer. I like being a novice.

One day in band class, the notes on the page shifted. Instead of having to look at the little black dot, think about my finger placement, reconsider if it was right, then blow, I felt like I could just read the song straight off the page. I tried an experiment on music I hadn’t seen before, and it was true: I could sightread. No one had told me it would happen, and it felt like magic.

I went home and told my dad and he smiled knowingly. I felt like I had joined a secret club completely by accident. “That’s called ‘getting it’. Pretty cool, eh?” he beamed. It was. I liked leveling up. It gave me a whole new set of challenges to learn, and songs to master. The world felt infinite.

I just bought a used clarinet, and I’ve been playing for the first time since I was a teenager. The instrument is low quality, but I’m not skilled enough to be able to tell the difference. I’ve forgotten most of the fingering, but the five notes I do know (G, F, E, D, C) are easy to play, easy to read on the page, and form the basis of a ton of simple songs.

I’ve been reaching for my clarinet in between design tasks or Zoom calls. I’ve been playing simple songs like Mary Had a Little Lamb (E-D-C-D-E-E-E) and The Lion Sleeps Tonight. (C-D-E-D-E-F-E-D-C) I’ve been marching through my house like a silly one-man marching band. I’ve been playing basic patterns to improvise along while I listen to the radio. I’ve snuck up behind my kids to trill at them with high notes (A-G-A-G-A-G!!) or pretend I’m an angry goose (VERY LOW CCCCCCCCCCCC) while they’re eating.

Frankly, I’m bad at the clarinet. I can barely get through two measures. My breath control is poor. I can’t sightread. I’m a novice again, and it feels great. But like my grandpa would have said, it’s not that I’m bad. It’s that I’m not good yet. But I can work at it, and I can improve. I’ll enjoy it while I’m a novice, and I’ll enjoy it on another level when I get better.

Let’s make some joyful noise!

Designer, writer, teacher. I love building things.