Why the Clarinet?


Hello, good morning, and welcome to the Saturday Morning News Post!

Readers, not to toot my horn but I’ve given some interviews in my day. What can I say? People want to know what makes Danderfer tick. And for some reason, one of the questions I almost always get is: Why the clarinet? The obvious answer is of course “Why NOT the clarinet? It’s just plain awesome.” But of course, that’s not enough so I usually go into more detail. I’ve told the story many times but never here on the SMNP. So let’s make it official!

Imagine a 10-year-old James Danderfer. I know. Adorable, right? (In fact, a little more awkward than adorable.) I’d just started grade 6 and wanted to join the school band. I can’t remember why exactly but I think it was due, in part, to hearing/seeing a high school band perform at our elementary school. It was just kind of exciting/interesting to see all of those instruments working together, like a big clockwork-type music machine (fyi: I’m going to form a band called “big clockwork-type music machine”… so, dibs on that). I had already studied piano for a year at that point so I had a leg up, in that I could already read music.

So one fateful morning all the kids interested in taking band needed to go to the band room (located appropriately in the basement) and write down their first and second instrument preferences. Later on, throughout that day the band director (let’s call him Mr. Ennis) would pull those students out of class individually for a one-on-one sit-down to discuss the instrument they had chosen.

I remember it well when my name was called and I got to walk right out of class, feeling pretty special, and into the hallway where two little desks were set up. We both sat down. Mr. Ennis looked at my piece of paper and said “Okay, I see you’ve chosen drums as your first preference, and saxophone as your second preference” (PS It was a distant second preference at that, but I had to write something down and that might’ve been the only other instrument I knew about.)

“Okay, let’s have a look at your hands” said Mr. Ennis.

I held out both hands. Flipped them around.

“Good, and let’s have a look at your teeth.”

I had pretty crooked teeth at that point, which I wasn’t very happy about, but nevertheless I gave a big fake smile to show my clumsy array of chompers.

“Alright, fine. Well…”

He started writing on the paper. I didn’t know what. But I already had a sneaking suspicion it wasn’t drums.

“Judging by the size of your hands and the formation of your teeth…”

I’m perplexed already. No one told me that hand size was a factor in which instrument I’d play, and surely the formation of my teeth wouldn’t hamper me from playing drums. What on earth is happening here?!

“… I think you’d be best suited to play the CLARINET.”

Everything got quiet. It was a long silent pause and I could hear a pin drop as I looked at Mr. Ennis and he looked back at me. This wasn’t even my distant 2nd choice! Was it my teeth?! I wondered. It was my teeth wasn’t it?!? What had I signed myself up for? And most importantly…

What IS a clarinet?!?

I looked at the word clarinet written on my piece of paper, I had never seen this word nor had I heard of such an instrument. So disappointing.

[Sidebar: To make things even worse; the student who was selected to play percussion (let’s call her Cynthia Yeh) went on to become principal percussionist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. You realize what this means, right? It means that had I been selected to play drums in grade 6 band, it obviously would’ve been ME getting fast tracked to the principal percussion chair in the CSO! That chair was MINE damnit! ENNIIIIISSSSSS!]

I digress… water under the bridge. Some people get all the breaks while others end up having to play over the break (that’s for clarinet players to understand).

The point is (as I would learn altogether too late): hand size and teeth formation don’t really factor into which instrument you should play. But every grade 6 kid and their dog wants to play drums or saxophone and Mr. Ennis knew this. He also knew that you can’t have a band composed of nothing but drums and saxes!

And so the band director miraculously ended up with a perfectly balanced ensemble with just enough of every instrument and the clarinet and I wound up together in the most random of ways. I should mention that I wasn’t a “natural” clarinetist either; not at all. In fact, a year later I was still one of the weaker players. I remember the band played a “jazzy” piece with four little clarinet solos and I really wanted to play one of them. Despite all my practicing however, I still wasn’t chosen to play. Four other girls in the band (deservedly) got the solos and they didn’t mind rubbing my nose in that fact either. I wonder sometimes if I had been chosen to play one of those solos, if I would’ve persevered and started taking formal clarinet lessons a few months later.

Anyways, obviously, I grew to love the instrument. I loved its pure and noble sound (on recording that is… it sounded awful in my hands for years); and the “no-nonsense” quality about it. Combine that sound with the more free and swinging style of jazz music? Such a curious and beautiful mix of tonal colours. Artie Shaw was my first inspiration, followed by Jimmie Hamilton, Benny Goodman, Eddie Daniels and later on, the New Orleans greats: Barney Bigard, Jimmie Noone, Johnny Dodds, and many others.

A few years later I began to play the saxophone so that my secondary school band director (let’s call him Mr. Taylor) would let me play in the jazz band. Clarinet is quite a bit harder to play than saxophone so it didn’t take long to pick up, and I’m glad I did. It’s a beautiful, bold and fun instrument to play and so many of my favourite jazz musicians are sax players (John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Cannonball Adderley, Charlie Parker, Phil Woods, and Johnny Hodges to name a few). Somehow I always gravitated back to the clarinet and even though I found it by chance, it felt like my voice, as though I was discovering new things on the instrument. I wasn’t of course, but it felt like I was. All these years later, I still feel that way! And she’s still a tough instrument but hey… she’s worth it!

Thanks to all the band directors out there who love the challenging role they take on and share their passion with so many students. Special thanks to my secondary school band director Brent Taylor for cultivating passion, musicality, curiosity and humility in all of his students. I’m very fortunate to have had him as a teacher.

Thanks for reading and have a great week! jd1

*painting above titled “Clarinet Candy” by Jenny Armitage

  • Gerry deagle

    Caught your jazzfest concert today and loved your music so much had to find out a bit about you. Wow! Not only a fab arranger and clarinetist but a pretty cool and creative writer of verse to boot. Thanks again for bringing your band and that awesome singer to my ears.