I live with a family whose members are dedicated to music. My daughter, Ellie, has for a long time been principal clarinet of Mexico City’s Sinfonica Nacional and her husband, Miguel, is principal oboe of the Querétaro Filarmonica and commutes. Max, the older grandchild—now a freshman at the Rhode Island School of Design—was a constant musical presence practicing his guitar and rehearsing pieces he had composed for his small band. Eva, my 17-year old granddaughter, is a violinist, getting ever more competent, though a career as a violinist is not her ambition. Given this brief background, you are not likely to be surprised at the “revelations” to be made in the comments to follow.
Most of us who care about music think of those who devote their lives to that trade as playing their instruments, alone or in ensembles, for audiences of listeners, many of whom, one hopes, are genuine music lovers. Not so, not at all so. While musical sounds are an almost constant presence in the house, they are not sounds designed to be listened to by some attentive audience. First there is the huge amount of time that is devoted to practicing, an activity that divides into two categories. The first consists of studies—exercises is probably a more accurate label—designed to have the player maintain or improve technical skills of a great variety pertaining to the musician’s instrument. An oboist, in addition, has the craftsmanly job of making reeds, an activity that has the listener hear brief bursts of experimental sounding followed by longer silences while a knife scrapes the bamboo, refining the shape of the reed. Miguel told me that an oboe guru declared flatly that working on reeds will take up half of his practice time.
Part Two of the practicing department consists of working through and polishing music that is about to be played as orchestra member, as chamber musician, or as soloist. This is where I recognize much of what I hear, though I don’t tend to focus on the repetitions that lead to the desired perfection. Pleasant background that has come not to distract me from what I am up to at my desk.
That’s even more true for the playing of students who come to be taught in the house. Both advanced clarinet and oboe students come here for lessons of an hour and often longer.
They, too, are put through their exercise paces, but, more interestingly, they are guided in the playing of orchestral excerpts and concerto movements, so that tunes of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and other greats waft through the house. The lessons take place downstairs while I am usually at my desk upstairs. But I hear them, mostly without really listening; musical sounds at a distance: pleasant but not obtrusive.
Then there are real rehearsals—almost mini-concerts because by the time a group of musicians get to this point there is very little starting and stopping. Twice within the last ten days a relatively large group rehearsed here for a festival in Baja California: a string quartet plus double bass, Ellie and her clarinet and at the piano, gently in charge, Józef. Aside from the fact that he can play anything written for piano, Józef is an expert arranger and is so well connected to the world of music here that I was not surprised that he is responsible for that Baja gig.
What the bunch played was mostly very familiar, starting with the overture to the Marriage of Figaro, but what made it real fun to listen to was the clarity achieved by the reduced instrumentation. (And I listened downstairs, discretely out of the way.) There were a couple of baroque movements, some Haydn movements, more Mozart, including some of the variations of Ah vous dirai-je Maman—that is, Twinkle twinkle little star. The piano did not contribute to every selection and neither did the clarinet. But Ellie did play the slow movement of the clarinet quintet that helped put that instrument on the map—namely Mozart’s. She is terrific and can make that instrument sing. You can find out yourself by getting her latest recording of three 21st Century Lyrical Clarinet Concertos by clicking here: