Just because a musical instrument is compact doesn't mean that it is simple
Prejudice lurks everywhere.
I spent a couple of hours with Toronto clarinettist Kornel Wolak yesterday and, once we got the business part of our meeting out of the way, I peppered him with questions about his instrument. I quickly realised that the orchestral world is like a microcosm of the city: We acknowledge and respect our neighbours, but we don't necessarily spend time to understand where they come from and what their everyday challenges might be.
I played clarinet (B-flat and bass) in high school, but I barely got past figuring out fingering and making a semblance of an acceptable noise before I graduated and left the woodwind behind forever.
So, given that I play the piano and the pipe organ, which contain thousands of individual components, one of which will randomly act up on any given day, I have to admit that I unthinkingly classify most other instruments as simple.
As Wolak told me about the differences between different makes of clarinets, how difficult it can be to find a professional-grade instrument that is balanced from lowest to nightest notes, that easily plays legato and that has a pleasing tuning, it was clear that a clarinet may have fewer keys than a piano, but making the right match between player and instrument is no easier to achieve. It is an idiosyncratic bond as intense and, with any luck, as rewarding as a happy romantic pairing.
I also assumed that the simple adjustment of a lever here and a piece of new cork there would be enough to keep a clarinet going for decades. Also not true; the moist breath of the player, frequent swabbing and the cycles of seasons can take their toll on the wood. For Wolak, an intense performer, this means a life cycle as short as three years before the instrument needs some major attention.
Even that is not simple: Wolack books three days with a technician in Indianapolis whenever one of his clarinets needs a major going-over.
Like me and my neighbours, every musical instrument is as quirky as the next. As with people, the more time you spend with it, the more you expect from it.
That said, Linsey Pollack is here to make fun of everything I just wrote: