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Bass Clarinet: Interview and demonstration with James Ognibene

Created by All Star Orchestra.

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Video transcript

("Daphnis and Chloe - Suite No. 2" by Maurice Ravel) - This is a member of the clarinet section. Instruments have families, and the clarinet has its family, and this is a bass clarinet. It represents the lower end of the clarinet family. It plays low notes. Because the bass clarinet is large, it's heavy, it would be very difficult the hold this up as you would hold up a clarinet. It's designed to be used with this little end pin, and it rests on the floor. Each part of the clarinet has its counterpart on the bass clarinet. The clarinet has a bell, and here's the bell on the bass clarinet. And every key on the clarinet has its equivalent on the bass clarinet. There are some extra keys on the bass clarinet that allow you to go down to a very low note, a low C. Unlike the clarinet, it is operated by your right thumb. The clarinet does not have any such mechanism, but that's the only difference. Here are the keys that you would operate with your thumb, and that would give you an extended low range, down to low C on the bass clarinet. Here is the top section of the bass clarinet, similar to the regular clarinet. All the keys are the same. It's all exactly the same, but bigger, the next piece on a clarinet between the top part and the mouthpiece is called a barrel. But on the bass clarinet, it's called the neck. And this is the neck, it's this curvy thing that goes between the mouthpiece and the top section of the bass clarinet. And here's a mouthpiece, which is very similar to a clarinet mouthpiece, but it's bigger. The reed is similar to a regular clarinet reed, but it's bigger. ("Daphnis and Chloe - Suite No. 2" by Gustav Mahler) My father loved Benny Goodman, and he loved Artie Shaw, and I was about seven or eight years old, and one day he came home with a metal clarinet because he loved the clarinet (laughs), and he said, you're gonna play this. And fortunately, I did like the instrument, and I went on from there. It was a lot of fun. I enjoyed playing the clarinet, but it was my father who introduced me to the instrument. When I was growing up in Warren, Ohio, we had excellent music programs. I had excellent teachers. I went through intermittent periods of wanting to practice and actually wanting to quit. There was a period of time that I didn't want to play anymore, but I was not allowed to quit, so I just kept going. When I was approaching my teenage years, I started to discover the music. I started to hear classical music. Before I was in the high school band, there was a community youth band that I performed with that played opera overtures, that played transcriptions of classical music, and I just loved hearing that music. When I reached high school there was an excellent band in my hometown. I had two very excellent band directors, Robert Fleming and Clint Foster, and they were very influential in my life. They were inspiring, and introduced me to a lot of great music. When I discovered that it was possible to make this a career, whether it be from a performance standpoint or a teaching standpoint, I was pretty sure that that's what I wanted to do. Since I grew up in northeastern Ohio, I was close to Cleveland. Cleveland has one of the world's great orchestras, and they had a clarinetist in that orchestra by the name of Robert Marcellus. I was fortunate enough to take lessons with him. I started as a regular clarinetist. People who play the bass clarinet also play the clarinet. Almost always, the clarinet is their primary instrument, and then as they become skilled on the clarinet, they may choose to play another member of the clarinet family. There's the E-flat clarinet. There's the bass clarinet, there's the contrabass clarinet. So, it was later on in my life that I became interested in playing the bass clarinet. I was a member of the Charlotte Symphony before coming to the Metropolitan Opera, which is my current job. I was a clarinetist in that orchestra. While I was there, they asked me if I would mind playing the bass clarinet on some pieces. I agreed to do it. I bought an instrument, and I realized that I had a lot of fun doing it. I enjoyed playing it, and thought it would be interesting to delve into it more deeply. Perhaps, take auditions and go for bass clarinet positions, and that's exactly what I did. ("Daphnis and Chloe - Suite No. 2" by Maurice Ravel) When we are performing, whether the music represents something happy or something sad, it's still music, and it's always to be played in its appropriate style. So, if the intention is to be evil, you have to find some way of making it evil, but still beautiful, because it's music, and you have to know your role. You have to know what you're part of... You're on a team in an orchestra, and just as you have to know what your role is as a team member of a baseball team or a football team, you have to know what your function is at that particular moment. The music decides that function. The conductor may decide that he wants a little more of this, a little less of that, but you have to certainly know when your role is more important, when your role is more supportive, and not get the two confused. And experience and practice, of course, teaches you these things. ("Symphony No. 2" by Gustav Mahler)