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  • Writer's pictureThomas Doggett

The clarinet

I traveled to Washington DC to see my family over the winter break. It's always great to see them because for so many years, I didn't get to see them during the holidays. That was the decade I worked in music retail. I would always travel to see them in January but the energy is different in January than it is in December. A decade in retail makes you appreciate time with your family during the holidays. How my family spends the holidays has changed over the years but the important parts...the parts that I find to be important...have stayed the same: conversations in every room of the house with the most active conversations happening simultaneously in the kitchen and dining room, and food being cooked all day. After the elevated energy of a family meal, there is hush of calm...almost to the level of boredom. This is my second favorite part of the experience. It's in that locale that the most disruption takes place. "Hey, Tom! What do you want to do this week?" said my dad. "I brought my saxophone and clarinet mouthpieces with me. Let's play some music together before I leave town."

am·a·teur noun: a person who engages in a pursuit...from Latin amator ‘lover’, from amare ‘to love’.

My dad is the quintessential amateur musician. He loves playing music. His enthusiasm is unmatched by anyone. I think in many ways that his years as a scientist made him appreciate music even more. Like a quote I read once that says something like: "...artists just want to talk about money but businessmen want to talk about art..." My dad pursues music in such a focused way but he constantly says that his focus is to have fun...and that he does. He practices several times a week at a room he rents at his synagogue. He records all of his practicing with a usb microphone that I got him several years ago. He will listen and edit down each recording. Sometimes he sends me clips to listen to. His practicing consists of playing every song in his two volume collection of "jazz tunes David likes." I've put books together like that; collections of songs that I feel that I want to work on for no other reason other than my own absorption.

For our session, he played tenor sax and I played clarinet. Not just any clarinet but the clarinet that started us both on a path of musical discovery. A Bundy student-model clarinet that was brand new in 1958 for my dad to learn on...and not so new in 1980 when I learned. I must confess that my clarinet playing is better than it's ever been...really...seriously...this is the best. It's because I'm always playing duets with my students; my students have made me a better clarinet player. When I looked at his clarinet, I saw any clarinet but when I started playing it, the memories came rushing back. The left-hand pinky keys have their own unique feel to them and that thumb rest...the same thumb rest that gave me a callus in 6th grade...the same callus I still have to this day. Walking home from school carrying it with my books...sometimes loving it and sometimes hating it. My first band concert. The taste of a new reed. The smell of cork grease. The wonder of what notes exist beyond Bb...and all of the questions a young clarinetist would have.

Our playing session included a performance. The kids in the daycare at the synagogue took a break from their routine to listen to us play. We played through a bunch of tunes improvising arrangements, reading down chord changes, finding the pretty notes to lock onto, and adding as much soul as we could. We didn't need to talk; the answers were in the were the topics, the observation, and the reflection. Later that day, my mother asked: "Did the kids like it?" I said: "They covered their ears and said we played too loud...some cried...but yeah, I think they liked us."


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