By Adam Ebert
I first learned of Kalmen Opperman when one of my earliest clarinet teachers suggested I purchase a copy of “Handbook for Making and Adjusting Single Reeds”. After reading it, I was so intrigued with the simplicity of the language and how easy Kal made it sound to make my own reeds that I immediately wanted to give it a try. I remember buying the tools and all the necessary equipment to get started but after several attempts even with the help of my older brother, who is much more mechanically inclined than I, we still couldn’t get any of our handmade reeds to play.
In any case, since I had already decided that I wanted to become a clarinetist and that the skill needed in making one’s own reeds would be a necessary part of my training, I figured I might need some help. I thought, what better source of help to look to than the author of the handbook himself? So I searched Kal's name in the phone book, found the listing and asked my father to call him and ask if I could see him for a reed making lesson. I was so excited when my father said that he had agreed to see me the following Saturday.
We drove in from Long Island to his apartment for a 2:00pm lesson. When we arrived, his wife Louise graciously greeted us and led us into the living room. He was teaching a lesson at the time so I just sat on the couch and observed the lesson for a while. I was immediately struck by the enormous amount of energy and positive vibe coming off of Kal.
Watching Kal work made me think of a top spinning really fast around the room. He would instruct the student by asking him to play something, then perhaps go over to his bench to take one of his mouthpieces or handmade reeds for him to try and would often demonstrate something by playing it on the student’s clarinet. If he wanted to demonstrate a concept of sound or technique, he always played it on the student’s instrument with whatever reed was on the mouthpiece and was able to adjust and make it sound familiar right away. I always marveled at his ability to do this. Then he would hand the clarinet back to the student and you had to try and imitate that wonderful rich full sound. I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt intimidated to try and imitate the master but I soon realized just how valuable this process was for both teacher and student. It made you realize that if he could sound this good on your reed and mouthpiece, then it must be possible for you to do it on the same equipment even if it seemed a bit daunting at the moment. I remember how his sound would fill up the entire room with a purity and intensity that I had never heard before. It was a lovely full bodied sound with a warmth that was so distinct and personal that it was unmistakably “his sound”. When he would play a rapid chromatic scale covering the entire range of the clarinet, it was flawlessly executed and yet sounded so effortless.
When Kal excused himself to go the bathroom, the student whom he was teaching at the time looked right at me intently and said, “if you really want to be a great clarinet player, you will study with him and do exactly as he tells you.” Those words have stayed with me for a lifetime, and yet every time I pick up the clarinet, I feel that my life is just beginning all over again.
It was my turn to play. I sat on his stool and played a little for him but after a very short time, Kal stopped me and said, “You know, what you really need to do is sit down on your ass and learn how to play the clarinet.” I couldn’t believe it! I thought I HAD been studying all this time but clearly I didn’t understand yet the level of clarinet playing he was talking about. At the time, I was so intrigued and really wanted to play like him and learn how he did it but I was already studying with someone else while enrolled at the Juilliard Pre-college division. My parents thought it best for me to stay at Juilliard so it wasn’t until about a year and half later that I finally began my formal studies with Kal.
What prompted me to call him and what wound up being a real turning point in my life happened when I was sitting in the Juilliard Library one afternoon and came upon a recording of the late Harold Wright playing Weber’s “Clarinet Quintet” with a string quartet from the Marlboro Music Festival. I had never heard of Harold Wright before but when I heard him play, the experience was magical to say the least. I had never heard anyone play the clarinet with such a beautiful sound and who could make the instrument sing with so much expression and joy. He had transcended the clarinet into a human voice and the subtlety with which he could turn a phrase was breathtaking. This clearly was someone who had mastered the instrument and was literally free of all technical encumbrances so that he could concentrate more fully on the expressive possibilities of creating music.
When I heard Harold Wright play, I immediately made the connection with the way Kal had sounded when he played for me. I also related to and understood more of what he was trying to get across to me during my visit with him on that Saturday afternoon. They both played the clarinet with an elegant beautiful sound and a technical assurance that set them apart from other players I had heard. I also knew that both he and Harold Wright played with a double lip embouchure and had studied with the same teacher, Ralph McLane. McLane had studied with a proponent of the fine French School of clarinet playing, Gaston Hamelin and both McLane and Hamelin played with the double lip embouchure. This made me think that double lip embouchure was the way to go and I now wanted more than ever to learn how to play in the style of the French School of clarinet playing. I realized right then and there that I must get back to studying with Mr. Opperman if I was ever going to have a chance to play like some of the great clarinetists from this well known French school of clarinet playing.
When I called him in 1979, to hopefully begin my study of the clarinet, I began a long musical journey of over 30 yrs with Kal. Studying the clarinet, learning how to live life with honesty, integrity and respect for your life’s work is what Kal taught me. Kal was so devoted to his students and his work and was willing to go to the nth degree with anything that he chose to do. I was so awed by his powers of concentration and dedication that I just wanted to be around him more so that maybe it would rub off on me. Just the sound of his voice sometimes was enough to make me feel that everything was going to be ok and that I had hope for a wonderful future. He told me that success was in my hands and that it was up to me to devote myself all the way to my studies if I ever wanted to, as he always said, BE SOMEBODY. He would always tell me that time was my most precious commodity and that I should make the most of the minutes that I was given because once they’re gone, they’re gone forever.
Kal often invited me to come to the theatre where he was performing in “La Cage Aux Folles” and meet him in between shows on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. I would come backstage to the theatre to meet him for a quick bite to eat and then he would bring me into the pit where I would play some things for him so he could see and hear how it was going. I felt so honored to sit in the very same chair that my teacher sat in while he was performing one of the best shows on Broadway! (By the way, “La Cage” ran for 4 yrs, received 9 Tony nominations and won 6 Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book).
Kal was a complete teacher, always going the extra mile to see to it that the student had whatever he or she needed to be successful. He never carried too many students at one time because he dedicated so much time to those students he made the decision to invest in. One of the things he said to me that really made me realize his total dedication to teaching was, “your lesson begins when you leave here”. His fierce determination to be the best at everything he did and his ability to work for hours and hours on end often into the wee hours of the morning was mind boggling to me and I’m sure that I will never again meet anyone with the kind of dedication to his craft that he had.
Every time I left the lessons, I was always so inspired to practice harder and be the very best I could be. I wanted him to be proud of me and to make him feel that the time he spent with me wasn’t wasted so I could “earn” more time with him. The better I listened and the harder I worked, the more he took an interest in working with me. Sometimes I wish that I would have listened more to him and taken to heart more of what he was trying to get across to me. I truly had a golden opportunity and unfortunately I let some of this slip away. Fortunately, it is not too late and I know that all of his teaching principles and knowledge that he shared with me are still inside of me and will continue to be so much a part of who I am.
I will always be indebted to him for the willingness to share his knowledge with me and for his knowing just the right thing to say or do to help me. He had the most intuitive sense of any person I ever knew. No matter what we did together, whether it was going out for breakfast, going to the park to feed the birds, meeting him after his show at Grays Papaya on 72nd street for hot dogs at midnight, or calling him to just talk, he always enlightened me on life’s lessons while leading me in the direction of how I could improve as a musician and person.
I was fortunate to have been a student and a part of his life for so many years. It feels like a daunting task to carry on the work that he did so diligently for so many years but as the bible says, “to whom much is given, much is required” and so I feel that it is now my duty to take the torch and pass on his teaching and approach to clarinet playing for future generations to experience and learn from.
Adam Ebert is a contributor to kalmenopperman.com as well as:
Assistant Principal clarinetist with The United States Army Band, “Pershings Own”, Ft. Myer, VA
Principal Clarinetist with The Fairfax Symphony Orchestra in Fairfax, VA.
Formerly a member of the Opera Orchestra of New York, Brooklyn
Philharmonic and performer on three RCA Recordings with The Kalmen Opperman Clarinet Choir and Richard Stoltzman
Student of Kal Opperman