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Note #89: The hills are alive (2014.8.6)

Last week we received a delivery, a present from HJ’s father. It now sits next to the sofa, in a place that used to be occupied by two bookshelves (some of the displaced books are still looking for homes).

To the untrained eye—like, for example, mine—that may look like a strangely angular upright piano, but it is actually a Kurzweil digital piano. Thus it is not only capable of sounding like a grand piano, it is capable of sounding like about a dozen or so other types of pianos as well. In fact, it has as many “voices” as there are keys on the piano. These voices range from percussion to “80s synthesizer” to a reproduction of the piano heard on EPs by the band Supertramp (no, really).

Those are the keys, of course, and it’s hard to tell from the photo, but they are real piano keys weighted to feel like they are attached to a real piano. HJ says that it doesn’t “sound” quite the same as a real piano when played, but I think what she means is that it doesn’t “feel” like a real piano. A real piano is a percussion instrument, and when you play it you get real tactile feedback—not just the sound, but the vibration and resonance of the instrument. Apparently you do get some of that if you turn the volume up, but we live in an apartment and would like not to be hated by our neighbors, so we keep it down. Still, I think it sounds pretty good, and it’s nice to have a piano in the house for HJ to play.

The piano is not the only instrument we have in our house now, though. For my birthday, I asked my mom to have my old clarinet restored, and we brought it back with us from our recent trip to the States. I have since spent some time trying to reacquaint myself with the instrument. It’s harder than I thought it would be. Some things come back quickly and naturally, like riding a bicycle even after you haven’t ridden for years. And there was certainly something very familiar about the instrument when I picked it up at my parents’ house for the first time in well over twenty years. I went through the pre-playing ritual of wetting the reed (actually a piece of cane, and wetting it consists basically of sticking it in your mouth and sucking on it for a while) and fitting it into the mouthpiece, and then I put the mouthpiece in my mouth and blew to make sound come out the other end. I even played around with the fingerings a little and was able to puzzle out some of the notes.

This is not to say that I was playing “The Entertainer” right out of the gate. I did manage to recreate the first bar of the song played by the ice cream truck that had passed by moments before, but even that was a process of trial and error, and playing by ear was always something I was pretty good at. Aside from a couple of notes, though, I felt a bit lost. So I downloaded and printed out a fingering chart, and (now back in Korea) I have been practicing the chromatic scale. Apparently there is still some latent memory in my muscles, because the fingerings do indeed feel familiar, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some awkwardness there as well.

What has really surprised me, though, is how physically tiring playing the clarinet is. After my first half hour of practicing I found myself breathing rather heavily. I know I need to work on my embouchure; just the act of holding the mouthpiece in my mouth and blowing into it is not easy. It’s a work out, no doubt about it.

I wrote above that it’s been “well over twenty years” since I’ve played the clarinet. To put that into perspective, I started playing when I was in fourth grade and continued playing through high school, when I was in marching band. That means I played for eight years. It has now been over three times that long since I stopped.

I suppose it’s fair to ask what my expectations are. If I am to be honest—and I usually try to be—I was never really a great clarinet player. That’s not to say I was a bad player, but I was definitely middle of the road. “Journeyman” would probably be the best I could have ever aspired to. So, realistically speaking, the absolute best I could probably hope to be on the clarinet would be as good as I was in marching band. Most likely I will not reach that level again, but that’s OK; I have no intention of giving up my day job to become a concert clarinetist. My hopes and dreams are humble: All I really want to do is play reasonably well, enough so that maybe I can accompany HJ on the piano, or vice versa. Even if no one else ever hears us (well, except maybe our neighbors, I suppose), it is something we can do and enjoy together, and I think that’s enough. I have long thought about going back to the clarinet, and it feels good to be playing it again. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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