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Keep it Quiet
John Robert Brown
On this hot afternoon - the weather as near to hot as is ever reached in late summer in the UK - the temperature is high enough to have the house windows open. But with the gentle summer breeze comes noise. I can hear the clatter of woodworking machinery. For, although he's breaking all of the local bye-laws in this normally peaceful domestic suburb, my new neighbour is spending the summer indoors pursuing his one-man business of cabinet making. His windows are also open. Doubtless a wealthy client will soon be the proud owner of a new fitted kitchen. Meanwhile, I'll be in possession of a headache.
In the interests of avoiding a dispute I keep quiet. To say that I suffer in silence isn't quite true, for silence would be more than welcome today. Part of my tolerance is driven by the memory of how, more than fifty years ago, the neighbours at my parents' house protested at my clarinet playing. On that occasion there was no tolerance. First came insistent knocking on the party wall, followed by the rhythmic clanging of a dustbin lid, followed by the sending of solicitors' letters. The protest was curiously inarticulate. I altered my practice times. I tried to play quietly. I explored other ways to reduce the nuisance caused by my playing. For one thing, I cut down on polishing my newly-found glissando technique. The opening of Rhapsody in Blue may be exciting when heard at the beginning of George Gershwin's magnificent piece, but even I could see that a clarinet glissando loses its charm when practised for several hours at a time.
Quickly I discovered that you can’t mute a clarinet. Stuffing things into the bell simply doesn't work. One suggested solution was to play inside a closed wardrobe full of clothes. That isn't much fun. On a fine day, when the inside of a wardrobe is at its least attractive, one can take one's clarinet into the park. People will stare, but will leave you alone. Yet, having tried public outdoor practising I can tell you that practising al fresco isn't really a long-term solution. And, unfortunately, performing for people isn't the same as practising. Long notes, scales and arpeggios aren't much fun for the listener.
Throughout my playing years I've read about a clarinet practiser. I've even heard one played on a recording by Buddy De Franco, but I've never seen such a thing. My attempts to purchase one were fruitless. The practiser is a box which fits around the clarinet. According to one description it has 'sleeves', and armholes, so that as much as possible of the sound is prevented from escaping. Looking back, I'm surprised that I didn't attempt to make one myself to help preserve the peace. But back in the fifties I'd never even seen a picture of a clarinet practiser. I wouldn't have known where to start designing such a thing.
Come to think of it, I still haven't set eyes on a clarinet practiser, never mind having had the chance to try one. Have you?
First published in Clarinet and Saxophone magazine, Summer 2010. Used by permission.