I have been studying with Kal Opperman for forty years. Even though he recently passed away at the age of ninety, his teaching continues to inform every moment of my practicing and performing. For all of those years, the furthest I have lived from Kal’s apartment on West Sixty-Seventh Street has been eleven blocks. I can certainly say that I have been spoiled by having such relatively easy access to Kal for all of this time. Without him, I now have to be my own teacher, which means that I must be ever vigilant in observing my own playing, both listening and watching as though Kal were in the room.
I first called Kal in the spring of 1970. A third-year student at Juilliard, I was most likely practicing something that was much too difficult for me and reaching a point of absolute frustration with commercial reeds. I first heard of Kal through a fellow camper who introduced me to Kal’s Handbook for Making and Adjusting Single Reeds at a music camp a few years earlier, and a private teacher had assigned me Modern Daily Studies, Book One. I had heard that he sold hand-made reeds and called him to ask if I could buy some. He replied that he didn’t sell them any more but would be happy to teach me to make them if I wanted to learn. I had one reed-making lesson and decided that this would be a great idea but I couldn’t afford private lessons. I organized a class of four people from Juilliard and we had our class at Kal’s every other Wednesday before his matinee. We each paid him five dollars. It didn’t take me too long to realize that my problem was not so much my reeds but the fact that I couldn’t play the clarinet! You see, Kal could play the heck out of most of the reeds. Here was someone who could really play the clarinet much better than I and he played double-lip, about which I had been curious since some of the most-admired clarinetists of the Twentieth Century played that way. After several reed-making classes I began to study privately with Kal, beginning a major overhaul of my playing based upon conversion to a double-lip embouchure.
Kalmen Opperman can only be described as a complete Renaissance man of the clarinet. Although by the time I met him he was only performing in recording studios and Broadway shows, the “immaculate concept” came through in every note he played. His sound was pure and unmannered and his hands looked as though they were sculpted to fit the clarinet. It was a true model for anyone fortunate enough to hear his playing. In the late seventies I met Betty Yokell Goldblatt, who had played viola in the Brahms Quintet with Kal and with Max and Jean Goberman some years earlier in a series of concerts in New Jersey, and she marveled at his exquisite pianissimo playing. When he was about eleven years old, he began studying reed and mouthpiece making with Edward Hoffman, a German who was in his late eighties at the time. Thus his craftsmanship was deeply rooted in the Nineteenth Century. He kept a box full of mouthpieces that he had ruined by going just one scrape too far. He was always experimenting, trying to improve on his tried-and-true barrel designs. Most uniquely, he had a sense of how to make a barrel to improve a particular clarinet. A lifetime of priceless experience has passed with Kal.
As a conductor, he demanded complete attentiveness from all the members of the Kalmen Opperman Clarinet Choir. Though it was sometimes a difficult adjustment for me, accustomed to playing in larger orchestras, the result was truly supple music-making with excellent ensemble. After his Ninetieth birthday concert, he received a number of inquiries into performances by the choir.
As a writer/composer, he said that his studies were often “designed” rather than composed. Each one presented opportunities to strengthen particular aspects of one’s technique. He also threw in “traps” to keep the student’s mind alert. He was incredibly prolific in the last fifteen years, publishing many books. In fact, every time he was hospitalized he brought a manuscript book and did as much writing as he could. His was a productive life to the very end.
As a teacher, he was serious, generous, highly perceptive and often brutally frank. He possessed the ability to help the student with any aspect of playing, whether equipment- or technique-related. One of my favorite of his phrases is: “the essence of fine clarinet playing all but eludes you.” I am deeply indebted to Kal for making me the player that I am today and giving me the tools to continue to improve.
Steven D. Hartman is contributor to kalmenopperman.com as well as:
Principal Clarinet: New York City Ballet, Brooklyn Philharmonic, Opera Orchestra of New York, New York Scandia Symphony
Associate Principal Clarinet: New York City Opera
Second Clarinet: Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra
Substitute and extra player: New York Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera, Orchestra of St. Lukes
Student of Kal Opperman