Learning to Play Clarinet in my Fifties
Old Dogs Acting Like Young Pups
When it comes to learning new tricks, I believe old dogs can do it. Consequently, I did not hesitate to embrace a new class of musical instrument – a woodwind – at age 55. Perhaps “embrace” is too strong a term, but “attempt” is too weak to describe my attitude. I was fairly confident that the “ugly black stick,” as my teacher sometimes calls it, and I would make music together. Confident – that’s the word.
Generally, I already could read music, mostly for piano or vocalists. Band music, however, is a different animal. First, it is smaller print. For non-music readers, imagine reading text in the font Arial 12 all your life, and then being required to switch to Arial 9. The difference challenges me, no question about it. Then, add the trial of having the score farther from one’s eyes. Double torture! As I choral singer, when I perform with a score I have an eye-to-print distance of approximately 14 inches. For piano, it is about 16 inches. Now, with the clarinet, the eye-to-print distance is from 20 to 22 inches. It takes some adjustment, this. However, I am up to the task!
More Reading Music
Band music has all sorts of weird symbols unfamiliar to me. There are many more repeats, da capos, dal segnos, and lots of eye jumping around. Sometimes our conductor stops to go over the “road map” with us. In other words, it aint left-to-right, forward march. Am I too old for this? Nope. I’ll get it.
Singing does not require finger agility. On the other hand, one would think that someone who plays piano and a smidgen of guitar could easily maneuver around a woodwind. Hmmmm…. Perhaps I would have been far worse without my prior experiences? I’ve tried to convince my teacher that my short finger length impedes my potential, but he isn’t buying it. As it stands, my fingers get very confused. On a clarinet, the notes are not logically arranged completely in ascending order. There are exceptions and then alternate fingerings. Who knew? (And, who invented this instrument?)
There is a remedy for the finger challenge. Practice.
Sound quality and more
Regarding the quality of my sound and the level of my playing: I sound like a beginner because I AM a beginner. Res ipsa loquitor. There is no shame in being a beginner. On the contrary, if I invite my parents to come see the equivalent of a 4th-grade instrument student in my 56-year-old body playing in a band concert, good for us! I am fortunate to belong to a community band which welcomes players from beginners through semi-professionals. I am totally comfortable in my own clarinet-playing skin. As long as everyone else is also comfortable, then all’s right with the world.
The moral of the story
Supposedly during the filming of the movie On Golden Pond , Katherine Hepburn informed co-star Jane Fonda that she tries to learn something new every day. I don’t find it necessary to grapple with unfamiliar information daily. Nonetheless, learning as frequently and regularly as possible is a good thing.
Text and photos copyright 2011 Maren Morgan
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