Thomas Piercy

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Thomas Piercy’s teachers

Gervase de Peyer

TP: My main teacher was Gervase de Peyer, who is obviously an English clarinetist, but he went to Paris to study with Cahuzac.

HM: He was student of Louis Cahuzac, one of the most important representatives of the “old French School” of clarinet. Gervase de Peyer had a very flexible sound. Do you think it is due to his embouchure technique? Did he play double lip?

TP: No, he played single lip.

’’HM: He learned with Cahuzac, who was a double lip player.’’

TP: I don’t know if he ever played double lip, we never discussed that when I was studying with him. He was like my childhood hero. I wanted to study with him ever since I was a kid and I studied with him for many years.
Actually, in November I’m going to London for a week. He died last year and his widow, has asked me to come to London to go through his music and his papers with her. She’s not a musician. His papers have been given to the Royal College of Music. She wants me to go and pick out what should go to the College and what could just be trashed, and what do I want to keep, but we never discussed that.
I started playing with vibrato. No one ever told me not to. It was very funny: Gervase and I never discussed how to produce vibrato, because I was already doing it. We would discuss how to use it; like adding a little here or less here but never the physical aspects. De Peyer almost never talked about the approach to the instrument.

HM: He talked more about music.

TP: Always about music! And if I would ask him, eventually, after years and years. But you know like the run at the end of Shepard on the rock. E’’ to E’’’ (sings) and if that wouldn’t consistently come out, I’d say: “What can I do?” He would always turn his back on you and go: “why didn’t it happen?”

The teaching vocabulary

Gervase in lessons never talked about embouchure. Now, I hear so many clarinet teachers and clarinetists younger than I am, who always talk about voicing. So my three main teachers, de Peyer, Opperman and Leon Russianoff never ever used the word “voicing” Suddenly when I started hearing that about 20 years ago, I was like… I know what they’re talking about, but I’m not sure, was this fashion, or was that emphasis on voicing to get like high note or whatever didn’t come out well justified? These three teachers who were great teachers and players, never ever used the word “voicing”. They may have say: “Push the air faster”. Opperman was very much about “put more mouthpiece in” or “pull in [the mouthpiece]” and sometimes he would talk about raising your tongue, but he never used the word “voicing”. So, I thought that was very interesting.

Staying curious

TP: Certainly de Peyer was my biggest influence how I play and still, but it was interesting to go to Kalmen as a mature player, learn something new, I would still work a few times a year with de Peyer because I trusted him more than anyone. He was also very curious about what I’m doing and how I’m doing. He would still be curious.

HM: Maybe you could write a book about it; that would be nice.

TP: I have thought about it because those three main teachers, studying with them so long. As Opperman’s assistant, I helped him write his later books. Opperman and Russianoff came from similar backgrounds but were so different as teachers. I tell my students and other professionals, who may be thirty and they don’t need to study anymore! And I don’t want to insult any professional. But I want to tell my colleagues: “It would help you to go study again”. For whatever reason? Just to keep learning. And so, with those three teachers I had to learn so many different things. Until now I am full from what they taught me, hopefully, it still keeps me so curious! I don’t study with anyone now, but their voices are still in my head.

Kalmen Opperman

HM: You said you were forty when you were ready to start to study with new a teacher.

TP: With Kalmen Opperman, yes! I felt, that I had a little bit on tension in my jaw and the muscles back here. I went to Kal and said: “I’m curious about double lip”.

Changing from single to double lip embouchure

HM: My idea is that when you play double lip, the shape of the oral cavity is changing. Throat, tongue and soft palate feel different than in single lip playing. And I think, if you try to transmit the constellations given in double lip playing to single lip, you’re changing your sound. Do you think I’m right?

TP: Kal said to me: “you can play double lip today, but you won’t know what it really means: you need to take several months off from work and follow my instructions. If you are not willing to follow my instructions, I’ll kick your ass out.” He was very brutal. I would go and sit in his lessons with other people; most of his students were older working professionals who came to him. I would take three months and after then, I would decide yes or no, I will see what works what doesn’t work, what was the benefit. I really followed his instructions, as frustrating it was for those three months. But, even after one week, I sort of knew, it is going to work. It felt good, more natural for me. My students can choose, I don’t make them play double lip, I will them try to experience it, but I don’t force anyone to switch. I am not of those people who think dogmatically: double lip is better than single lip. It depends on the player. If for me it works, I am the only one I have to live with.

Practice double lip in an upright position

HM: I heard about Harold Wright playing double lip embouchure always in a sitting position. He also used to put the clarinet on his knee while playing.

TP: And because he did that, a lot of American clarinetists say: ”Oh, if you play double lip, you have to sit”. I stand most of the time, because to me, if I’m moving, it’s kind of weird, maybe it obviously worked for Harold Wright, he can do what he wants, but for me I feel physically constricted and also many of the notes that are coming out of the bell or the lower part, I feel the difference, like [the sound waves are] coming back at me. I don’t think the audience hears it but I do and I react to it; so I want it here.

HM: I think there must be a difference. Sometimes I understand that for double lip players it can be more stable, playing in a siting position. Standing upright the most difficult note is the C’’’, because you don’t have so much stability holding the clarinet.

TP: Yes, you have nothing, but Opperman would have me, playing that or whatever, he would always say that most clarinetists think they play the c’’’ [only with the left thumb]. But he said: with double lip, you also use your right thumb, to push the instrument up.

HM: Yes, as part of the embouchure building.

Transfer all the advantages of double lip to single lip

HM: If somebody tries, can he transfer all the advantages of double lip to single lip?

TP: Yes. Maybe younger players with not much experience and playing single lip don’t realize the advantages of these muscles here (points to his upper lip and the corners of his mouth). They think they have to pull back the corners of the mouth their whole life, forming the vowel “E”. But in double lip you naturally use all these upper muscles and you see how much it helps. And so, they derive some of the advantages of double lip just by being aware of the muscles in their upper lip and also the flexibility that you have, instead of being so obsessed with pulling back and having that flat chin, and nothing moves. I think it’s good for them to experience that.
I know now, I mean before I switched to double lip, when I am playing single lip, I rarely thought of my tongue, except for tonguing. And I just rarely thought about airflow in the context of the tongue position. But after switching to double lip, when I now would switch back to single lip, I would realize: Oh, my tongue is in a different place! And if I want to get it back up, I’m consciously manipulating my tongue, which I find hard to when playing. Whereas when I play double lip, I don’t have to think about my tongue.

HM: It changes naturally the positions, as I recommend how it should be. I don’t want my students to play permanently with double lip embouchure, but just to play sustained notes to learn the difference of the tongue form and its position, and also the difference in the whole oral cavity.

TP: Yes, and feel the muscles that form the oral cavity. Playing single lip, maybe you never get aware of that but playing double lip, they are there.

Double lip evokes sensibility all around

HM: So you would say all these muscles and also the whole mask of your face is involved in the embouchure?

TP: Yes, because the upper lip is so much involved that suddenly it feels as your nose is being involved too. When you’re pushing down your upper lip, you are feeling that your cheeks are also engaged. With single lip I’m not feeling much in my cheeks. And I try, for me, to play with as little tension as possible and I find double lip forces you to not play with tension, or if you do play with tension, immediately you know it, because you’re going to feel it here (the contact with the instrument at the upper lip) or if your fingers are slamming, you’re going to feel as well with single lip, you can slam your fingers around; you don't feel so much of it. Double lip, if you start slamming it, you also start feeling it this way: the clarinet would fall out of your mouth!

HM: Because holding a clarinet becomes part of the embouchure.

TP: It does, yes! You feel more; it’s from the air all the way through and through your fingers and enters the instrument. I am playing a Luis Rossi instrument, a copy of Boosey and Hawks 1010. With double lip because my fingers are lighter, I feel more vibration in the horn and sometimes I think, maybe it’s in my head, but I think I feel the vibrations of the air; but I certainly feel the vibrations of the horn, because I’m not gripping it.

HM: Also, the danger of biting doesn’t exist.

TP: You will feel it.

Consider the shape of the lips and teeth

HM: I see your lips are quite thin. I have a colleague he has small lips like you. He was afraid of being assigned to the Italian teacher of his universtity, who wanted everybody to play double lip. But would you say the form of the lips doesn’t matter?

TP: I know some people that wanted to study with Kalmen Opperman and one just switched to double lip but either their lips were too short, or their teeth were too long! And there was just no way: there’s nothing you can do about that.

HM: Daniel Bonade, studied in Paris with Prosper Mimart[1] who describes in his method the double lip embouchure as standard for clarinet playing. When he came to the USA he might have switched on single lip because of his quite long teeth. Carol Anne Kycia (1999) describes these details in her book[2].

TP: I have a typical overbite of clarinetists, I found that switching to double lip – you know my mouth was open more – and so the position was better for me than with single lip, the position with the over bite and where my teeth would hit on the reed. So just the fact that I opened up made it, so the overbite did not matter.

Influence of double lip on the articulation

HM: And the line where you touch the reed, did it change from single to double lip?

TP: No, more mouthpiece went in on the top [the embouchure line changed a bit downwards], but the bottom stayed the same.
But where my tongue would touch the reed for articulation changed. It became closer to the tip, not tip to tip, but just behind the tip and also became much lighter. But I don’t know if it was double lip or because Kalmen was very strict about having a very relaxed, non-aggressive tongue. So, you could be very fast.
Exercise "getting a conscious feeling for tongue activity"
This exercise by Kalmen Opperman can take five minutes.

  • Do articulate in the following way:
  • Put the [tip of] your tongue on or near the [tip of] the reed.
  • Start the air
  • Slowly, consciously pull away the tongue
  • Start to feel the reed vibrate, but there’s no sound, almost tickling [on the tongue]
  • Remain with the tongue at the reed, slightly enough that you would hear sound, but you could also still sort of feel vibrate it
  • And pull the tongue back and then stop
  • Do not come back [do not pull the tongue] any further

So, this was a very minute movement of the tongue and I don’t know if he did that with other students, but it’s what he did it with me. But I do know from other students, because we would be in lessons or I’d be working on his books. [It is very important, not to pull the tongue further than necessary back.]

Changing the angle instrument-body or leaning back with the head

Sometimes [we would experiment with the angel clarinet-Body] and pull the horn in. If you don’t want to pull it in, lean your head back, because it’s the same thing, but also changing the angle. I can be more comfortable [for the embouchure]. You know, Richard Stoltzman, he often plays with the clarinet very closed to the body. Obviously, that works for him, for his mouth and the position of his teeth. For me, I want to be more out, so when I need to achieve that, especially playing a C’’’ with double lip embouchure, I would lean my head back. You will see there are pictures or videos of me where I’m leaning back. People may think:” Oh! He’s feeling the music!” No, I am especially sustaining a high note, playing a diminuendo al niente. It is just a physical technique to achieve an effect.

Some of Kalmen Opperman's teaching methods

TP: Kalmen would call his students, because he had students all over the world, so he would say: ”Play me a chromatic, single tongue, [sixteen notes, tempo quarter] 144: go!” He would listen and he would be able to hear over the phone and says:” No, your tongue is coming too far off and you’re hitting to hard. Ok, I talk to you tomorrow” and he hang up!
It was so funny because you could get a phone call from him at 7 in the morning. He loved making those phone calls! I was by train maybe 5 minutes away from his apartment: he would call me ”What are you doing? Nothing? Grab your horn and come on up”. He was incredibly generous with his time.
He was very analytical about how to play the clarinet, but he almost never talked about how to play music. We wouldn’t work on Weber or Bernstein or orchestra excerpts or anything. It was all the physical approach to the instrument. I was an older musician by that time, and he’d go: “you’re going be musical”. He firmly believed that you cannot teach musicality. “You’re either musical or you’re not! So, you’re gone do what you’re gone to do!” And I sort of agree with him, from my teaching, you can teach elements of musicality, you can say, crescendo here, ritardando there but those are just elements. If it is not really intuitively in you, it gets a little more difficult. You can teach style: Weber is different than Brahms, Mozart is different than Copland.

Finger technique

Keep your fingers close to where you will use them

But it was all about a physical approach. For a longest time, he was happening to play scales and all sort of stuff. When I came to him, my little finger was too far up and I had to have my little finger doing the exercises, actually touching the E and the [F] key, not when I was performing, but for him to watch me and he said “every day, ten or twenty minutes, you have to put a piece of tape, because your little finger is not there to look at me [but he has to operate these keys]. Put it there, so you feel the tension and there were times where he would say: “it’s too far: stop”. And we’re talking about millimeters away from where the fingers touch [the key]. He always said: “keep your fingers close to where you will use them”. So, these need to be here. If you’re getting ready to play A - B and you’re getting ready to play an A, why is your finger [index] up here? You know, he said “keep them close and light and just push that air.” He would sit there sometimes with a pencil [near my fingers]. I had to play like a chromatic scale, and if I hit the pencil with one of my fingers, I could feel it hit. And so, you would just remember sort of try not to come up and he’d say: “now go and play the way you want to play” He didn’t want you to feel like a straight jacket either but the hand position really did help! And I was forty years old when I went already playing a lot. But he took me to another level of playing.

Mimart Etudes

TP: Speaking about the old French School and methods, I was thinking: Opperman was having me and another student work on Mimart Etudes[3] for smoothness of fingers and smoothness of sound over all registers. Not that every register has to sound the same, but smoothness and that legato. Whereas de Peyer never ever gave me an etude. It was all repertoire and he would make me do technical exercises within that piece. Going back and forth or playing it backwards, or stretching it out or beat to beat, but never ever gave me an etude.

HM: Are these etudes in the method of Mimart or separate?

TP: There were two books, Mimart Etudes I and II but they were different form his method. And then he would just take classical pieces, orchestra or piano pieces, and turn them into clarinet etudes.


Movements of the tongue

HM: Does your tongue equal as your fingers, move also as little as possible?

TP: Yes.

HM: That means, that sustaining a note, the tongue stays as close to the reed as possible.

TP: The next time you use it, it should be close. [Do not pull it back to the throat when releasing from the reed].

The back of the tongue

HM: Do you think the back of the tongue should stay more or less stable as part of the cavity, or do you let it as free as possible?

TP: That’s is a difficult question because I don’t give much thought to the back of my tongue. I’m going to answer that I keep it free, and I try to, especially with the large bore clarinet, I found that my throat has to be very open. I switched from Buffet to the 1010 Rossi model. That was the biggest thing, especially the throat tones. I had really to open more the throat and push more air. I started my training as musician as a singer and, you know, it comes from here (points to his diaphragm), not here (points to his throat).

Use the musical possibilities of differentiated articulation

Depending on the type of articulation and depending on the piece, if there are some crazy contemporary playing that needs a harsher tonguing or a very quickly lighter, in the way that I would move the tongue. In Brahms I would even be different than the way I tongue in Debussy. On [Brahms] the tongue would maybe touch the reed with more body. On Debussy, it would be very, very light. With Mozart I would be a little crisper with it, you know in the faster stuff. I’m always changing what I do with the tongue depending what I think the music is asking of me.
I never say, the tongue must be here always, because I don’t think that’s how it works. The music has to tell you how to articulate.

The tongue rests on the reed

HM: Do you use this technique as you described it before, to make like an echo, letting the reed vibrate as the tongue is touching it?

TP: There are times in certain pieces, especially if it’s something very soft, I don’t want anyone to hear the tongue when I am a changing note. In a way I don’t want them to hear the articulation. What I want, like a new sentence or a new word to start, but I don’t want them to be so harsh. There are times when I can hear it and I’m thinking” ok: the sound changes but my tongue is still on the reed”. And obviously, it’s vibrating enough to make the sound.

Touching the bottom lip

And there is also something that Opperman had me do: if it was like the middle range of the instrument and down, so the vibrations aren’t so fast, instead of touching the reed, he would have me touch my bottom lip, which would [damp] the vibrations of the reed, so you would hear this like “aah-aah”, but not “ta ta” or “da da”. And first it was a little difficult to control that, because you’re touching your lip, [and not the reed]. But eventually it’s a great technique to be able to use when you just don’t want to hear the tongue.

HM: That’s nice. The French Alain Damiens learnt the staccato like this, touching his bottom lip with the tongue, when he started to play the clarinet. Only his second teacher realized it. Then changed or lets say and expanded his skills with by further techniques.

No tongue and just air

TP: I’m always telling my students and in master classes that I give, when they start the Mozart, I say, “I don’t want to hear your tongue, I want to hear pitch”. And when they go da da da, I say: “no, I don’t want a scoop, how about trying no tongue and just air. And you can see some people asking: “What do you mean?” I answer: “Just practice setting your embouchure, and then the air support and breathe into the horn a little bit, and it’ll be there”. There are times when I want to hear the tongue, but on the most parts, I don’t. I’ll ask my students sometimes: you know „I can’t see into your mouth” so, I would sometimes go: “did you tongue it or did you not?” Then they answer, because I can’t see in there and sometimes I can’t tell, did they use their tongue or was it just air, but I might want to fix something, or it might sound really good, and I say: “what did you do? Whatever you did, remember that!” And I ask: ”did you not use your tongue? That’s perfectly fine! Like a singer, blow air and let it go!”

Instrument, mouthpiece and reeds

Instruments with different bore

HM: You say you change from a Buffet clarinet which has a narrower bore to the Rossi that has wider bore. Must there be a balance between the bore of the instruments, and let’s say the diameter of your airways inside your mouth?

TP: I think so, because that’s what happened with me with de Peyer, when I switched to the large bore instrument. He would say as well: this [your throat] has to stay open; the bore [of the instrument] is bigger. And you have to push more air. I also started using a less resistant mouthpiece and reed-set up, so I could have more of a flexible sound. I don’t play in orchestra; I am a soloist and chamber musician. So, it’s all about having a sound as flexible as possible, whereas, when I’m playing Buffet, I think of it almost like a triangle, where the Buffet is all about focusing on one sound. It’s a beautiful sound, but to me it’s just one very pure sound with not a lot of flexibility. It has flexibility but not in the range of the other. There is also less resistance on the large bore instrument; to me it was the opposite: the triangle opened up and all of this flexibility, it was harder to control, but the payoff was you had more flexibility. To get that one particular sound on the Buffet, after a while it’s easy to control, because you’re doing the same thing. But I got frustrated with losing the flexibility. And now in a concert I’m going: “I want to color this:” basically I feel [playing it] like I think it and it happens. I’m not putting so much effort into it. I feel it’s more responsive to what is happening in my head or my heart. With Buffet, I felt I can make that different sounds but I had to work too hard to do that.

Mouthpieces and reeds must fit to the clarinet and to the clarinetist

HM: What mouthpiece do you take for the Rossi?

TP: When I first got the Rossi, Gervase gave me some of his mouthpieces. And these were Boosey and Hawks; there was a little BH 1010 on the mouthpiece. But then, Gervase had them replaced and they were great! You know Edward Pillinger? So, I read about his mouthpieces and he has these different models, like historical models, like what English players were using in 1930. He sent me 6 mouthpieces and I tried them. There’s one that like he said, English players were using in the 20’s, with large A-frame. It is the most gorgeous sound. But [the mouthpiece worked only with] a softer reed and it was just getting a little edgy, no offense to jazz; it almost started making me sound like a jazz clarinetist. I found, with the sort of demands in modern music, I couldn’t really use it [in classical concerts]. I would try a harder reed, and then it got stuffy. I still I have it, and I would pull it out sometimes. I just got that sound, it’s so gorgeous and then he made me several, what he calls, his modern facings, but with different openings. And I used that for a long time. And then Tony Lamb, who was playing a lot in the opera orchestras, got in touch with me, he had mouthpieces. He’d been using them; these were Jack Brymer’s old mouthpieces. He had three of them, he was retiring and said: ”do you want to look at them?”, so he sent them to me and the week that I got them, I was in the middle of a recording project for a CD. I got the mouthpiece; it was a Lelandais Chedeville mouthpiece that had been refaced by Holdsworth. I had never heard of him but I found out that Holdsworth was a clarinetist who refaced a lot of the French mouthpieces for the English players. But this beautiful Lalonde mouthpiece, I got it and, no offense to Pillinger mouthpieces because they are very, very excellent, this mouthpiece was so incredible that I used it for the rest of the recording. I thought this is probably not the smartest thing to change mouthpiece in the middle of a recording but I had to. It is so beautiful. That was maybe 2005 and I have used that mouthpiece for 90% of my work since then. There are some times when I use one of Pillinger’s mouthpieces for whatever reason, some of these have a little bit of bite or edge in maybe some crazy contemporary piece, and I always worry that I’m going to drop it.

HM: You should make it copy.

TP: Well, I have often thought to send it to Pillinger and say, “please make a copy” but it’s not just the facing, probably it’s the chamber and the material. And it must be 60 years old and of course I love the fact that it was Brymer’s mouthpiece. It’s a gorgeous mouthpiece! And then, I only used it a few times, but Luis sent me 3 crystal mouthpieces that Pomarico had made for him that have a large bore. And they are gorgeous sounding, so typically crystal clear but the intonation was a little odd and it might be that me, meaning to take more time with them but also, they are really heavy. I can feel it on my thumb. And I think:” ok it’s a beautiful sound, the intonation I can probably manage to adjust it, but the weight, I don’t need that extra weight, but again occasionally, I pull one out and play it, yes that’s really beautiful for a day and put it away.

Modifications on instrument, barrel and mouthpiece

HM: Which modification did Kalmen Opperman on the Buffet clarinet?

TP: [He modified barrels. He changed the bore, made it wider or narrower, and changed the course of the drilling. And he made barrels in different woods, especially boxwood. They sweeten up the sound very beautifully. Then he did a lot of work with the mouthpieces. Both, mouthpieces and barrels were modified in several steps according to his sound conception, and after every step he wanted me to test if his modifications felt good to play. The closer the reed, the mouthpiece and the barrels connect, it makes an incredibly improvement on the sound, and on the intonation and also the backpressure while playing can be optimized. With the instruments he made a little bit of undercutting (the tone holes), and he did lighten up the springs. Kalmen wanted me to have very loose fingers, for that reason the springs have to be very loose, just enough that they would close. As a test, he wanted me to play very loud. When a spring is too loose, the pad connected with it would open.

Choose a teaching vocabulary that does not imply tension

TP: There was a mental thing with me, pushing up made me think of the word “push” negatively. I said: „what if I just lean in?” To me just visualizing leaning into the note, instead of pushing up, made me more relax. It’s like when for articulation, I never use the word “attack”, because I think it’s a harsh word, and also the word “break”. De Peyer would just say: there is no such thing as the word break, there are registers of the clarinet and you are changing registers. If you think of this word, “break” and what that means, you’re creating an obstacle. You are just changing registers. But yes, for the high C’’’ he would say: “push up on the thumb and give it more upper lip”

Doubling other wood instruments

HM: Are you doubling, saxophone, bass clarinet, and the other clarinets?

TH: I do play saxophone sometimes. I just played an off-Broadway show in May and I had to play alto sax. I shouldn’t say that because of the music director: I hadn’t played sax in a year. I had worked with her before, she called and asked: ”do you want to do this show? It’s three weeks.” Sure, I like working with her, she’s wonderful, and it was sax, little bit of flute and clarinet and the music was sort of pop, rock, I looked at the score and listened to the sound track, there were no big long beautiful melodies in the sax, everything was for dramatic effect, I thought I sound good on that, I used double lip, I play a lot of bass clarinet and love playing double lip on bass clarinet, because you’re so open and you’re pushing all that air and you really feel the vibrations.

HM: Would you say, it’s an advantage to play double lip for doubling saxophone?

TP: I don’t know if it is an advantage or not. I do know some double lip players who do play double lip on clarinet, but single lip on bass clarinet. They feel that it’s too open, you know, once they open their mouth big enough and doublers who play double lip on clarinet and single lip on sax, for whatever reasons, they’re just more comfortable with it. I found when I was playing single lip and would switch from clarinet to sax that my embouchure for sax was too tight because it’s clarinet embouchure and to try to loosen it up was so difficult, but double lip made it so much easier.

HM: I think so too. I have only little bit experience on flute, but I admire people like you who do can all this.

TP: I used to play more flute than I do now because the control of the sound is difficult. I mean, the fingers are easy, but that control of the sound and switching from one to the other, and also if I feel that my clarinet playing is on this level, my sax level is here and then my flute playing here, there are people in town, here, who may not have the super high level but the level is more consistent between the three of them. And you don’t want to be: ”Oh! He can play the clarinet but his flute playing is so so! So, I don’t play that often, but yes. I admire those who, on a show, without thinking, can switch from clarinet to flute where I have to think consciously, very hard, the sound production, and I’m always worried if I have a very high note coming soft, I know on clarinet how to do that, on flute, I’m just hoping that it will come out soft, especially if I just have to think about.


I also play a Japanese instrument called the Hichiriki, which is a double reed instrument, it’s very small, no keys, seven holes, and it is double lip, but the reed is very small and when I switch in concerts from the clarinet to the Hichiriki, sort of the same thing: my embouchure is too tight for the Hichiriki, because if it’s too tight, on double reed it closes down the sound and I constantly have to remind myself: loosen up, so usually when I play Hichiriki in one of my concerts, I would play the Hichiriki piece at the beginning, or after an intermission. So, I’m not going from clarinet to Hichiriki. A few weeks ago, I premiered a piece here in New York, where the composer wrote a trio for two people: piano, clarinet and Hichiriki, but I was playing both. And she’d asked me whether I wanted to play both. Great, but I thought she would start with Hichiriki and go to the clarinet or from the clarinet to Hichiriki. She had me throughout the piece: one phrase on one instrument and sometimes, one measure to switch, so I had to adjust the embouchure and to loosen up, it was a challenge but that was interesting. But yes, for that kind of switching, I was glad that I already played double lip.


HM: Can you tell me something about breathing? How did Kal Opperman and Gervase de Peyer teach breathing?

Breathing in to a „T”

TP: De Peyer would spend more time on breathing. His parents were professional singers. He started out with a singer. His approach to clarinet playing, he said, was a vocal approach. He talked about a “T”, where you would have a line here (your shoulders) and you breathe in, down [the spine] and out [back, flanks, stomach, also chest]?. So, also Opperman sometimes would come behind me and put his hands on my shoulders, he said: “Do you have lungs here? No, there is no reason to lift your shoulders. It’s a sign of stress”. And Opperman was a real fanatic about playing relaxed. There should be no tension showing in your body. It’s hard work but you shouldn’t be tense. There was all this very deep breath in and down and feeling your back expanding and a sort of sitting on that air and then blowing, pushing that air out into the horn; but without feeling any tension.

Big muscle, little muscle, no muscle

HM: Breathe also into the back, into the flanks?

TP: To the sides, and he would me hold my back, and with my hands touching and breathe in and if your lungs are really expanding, they will spread apart, so like this (points to his flanks). He said if they’re not spreading apart, you’re not using all of that [the volume of your lungs]. De Peyer would often use this and I also use this with my voice students: He would say: ”Big muscle (diaphragm), little muscle (embouchure), no muscle (face, front)” to try to keep me relaxed and to be aware of what muscles you have to use and what muscles you relax. Our diaphragm is one of the biggest muscles in our body, and [the muscles of the lips] are very small, and then here, (on the brow) there are [practically] no muscles. These players that are manipulating their head, you see some are even squinting, all of that for musical purpose, [is not really helpful for sound production].

Sound quality

HM: What is important for a clarinet sound? What should one be able to do with its sound, artistically?

TP: Be flexible enough to meet the demands of the composer or of the music, especially in what I do. You know, most working clarinetists are playing a wide variety of music. I mean you’re playing Mozart, Brahms, you’re playing Stravinsky, Corigliano, Copland and pieces that have been written yesterday. So, you have to be flexible that your sound can meet their demands. I hear players sometimes play in a concert, and their Copland sounds like their Brahms. They have wonderful technique and a beautiful sound and play well, but why aren’t they changing sound? These are two different pieces, two different sound worlds and you have to be flexible to live in that sound world and also you have to be flexible enough that from one minute to the next, change! Unless you are recording the Brahms Sonata tonight, then that’s all you need! But if you’re playing Brahms and after intermission, you’re playing Copland you need to be able to change your sound to what the music and the composer want.

HM: Do you think I am right when I say, that’s possible when I use material that also obliges me to play with less force in the embouchure?

TP: Oh sure!

HM: I would say if you play quite hard reeds that gives a nice but dark sound, it is much more difficult to get this flexibility.

Stability versus flexibility and risk

TP: When I say that Pyramid, the V that’s closed or opened, if you’re using equipment that narrows in that sound, even if it’s beautiful, and whether it’s that reed or the mouthpiece or the instrument that is causing that centering-controlled sound, you’re going to have to work very hard. I’m not saying you can’t change the sound, and most people don’t, I don’t know if it’s the physical ability or the musical imagination, to change it. Sometimes I think it’s the musical imagination that they don’t have, or they don’t use.

HM: Maybe they’re looking for stability and security.

TP: Sure, aren’t we all (laughs)?

HM: It’s more difficult to play with light reeds and this open bore that you mentioned. You have also to work a lot and you have more sensibility. And if you have stronger material, you push a bit more with the air, but you don’t have risks that you sound squeaks or spreads.

TP: Or that risk of losing control. I mean in how I play, very flexible sound, I take that risk of losing control. And of course, I do lose control: but that is the risk I take to meet the demands of the music. But yes, if you are using a very stable, hard set-up, yes, you’re probably not losing control but you’re losing other aspects of music.

HM: Yes, I agree.


TP: And I understand that people do not want to risk losing control. Especially, you’re an orchestra player, you don’t want to take that risk, you don’t want to squeak in a concert. I don’t want to squeak, and I can come out of a concert, and someone I know asks: “How did it go?” My first comment could be “I didn’t squeak! I played two hours of solo music and I didn’t squeak, so for me that’s a good night”. But if I did squeak, so what? I hope I did some other things so people forgot [the squeak] and they listened to the music. And maybe at a certain level or a certain age, clarinetists who are working have that fear of losing control, because someone else would take their job!

HM: May be there is also more pressure today.

TP: Of course, because the technical level of players that are coming out from universities now is phenomenal, their technique is much higher than when I came out from school. They may be better clarinet players, but it doesn’t mean they’re better musicians. That’s not necessarily hand in hand with their technical ability. And they’re so many. I do think there is that pressure of being perfect, whatever in their own definition what perfect is.

Don’t be predictable

HM: It’s very difficult for these young people: when there is one job open, the admission is going around the world and you can just send your application by pressing some button on your computer… and 250 Participants for one job are applying.

TP: Who all can play. De Peyer used to say: he told me several times and I wrote it down. Now I have it laminated, because he said: “Do something, say something, don’t be predictable”. Because anyone, basically, can play the Poulenc Sonata, but there has to be a reason why someone should listen to me playing it! Or when I was playing with piano, he would say: play like if you are on the edge of a cliff and you’re leaning over that cliff. In performance, your pianist can hold you back off the edge, when you’re getting ready to fall over!

HM: You had great teachers!

TP: Yes I did. I think of them often, but to really be thinking about details, how much I miss them, such a huge influence on my life as a person and a musician, on my playing of course, and how lucky I was to find these teachers.


Staying with one etude for a longer time

Kalmen would tell us: ”Play this, when you pick up your horn in the morning, don’t warm-up anything, play that!” I remember page 14 and 15 of the Mimart etude book. Evaluate what you heard, that will tell you how you are that day: today, these fingers are a little lazy, or my tongue is a little sloppy. If you play a new piece every day, too many other variables come in every day. If you play that piece every day, that piece will tell you what to work on that day. You don’t have necessarily to work on that etude, but it would tell you what to do, you analyze yourself. I had never done that before, I always warmed up and I was: “…Yes!”

HM: But principally, you do a warm-up with long notes, legato? Or do you go always directly to the etudes?

Warm-up “ad more and more things”

  • I will start by long tones and not that long but usually, that was from Kalmen and from de Peyer, like just a low E, crescendo, when I would feel I’m half way into my air, put my thumb down: because up to the B and “diminuendo al niente” and that you just give the air going and the blood into the lips.
  • Then start using fingers because your air and your lips are working
  • Add one more thing, start with your fingers.
  • Then add your tongue.

Each time, you’re adding one more thing. And depending on how much new music I have to learn or on how busy I am would depend on how long the warm-up is. I a have a 9 o’clock rehearsal, there is not going to be a lot of warm-up.

HM: I could spend and play etudes for 2 hours…!

Warm-up and doing other things at the same time?

TP: Easily, yes! I like the long tones or playing just little snips of chromatic stuffs and Kalmen used to listen to political talk radio while he would be his wiggling because you don’t have to really listen so much, I mean you can hear what you’re doing. I would be doing my little finger with etudes by Paul Jeanjean, Vade Mecum[4] and I would just be watching the news! We were both political news junkies. I was just looking at that and could do an hour. But if I didn’t have that, something else there, I might get bored and stop. I can’t image doing this for an hour and nothing else. I know musicians who have to have silence to practice and others who need something else around them. I could practice here right now, and it wouldn’t bother me. As a matter of fact, the mental energy it would take to tune out the people actually helps me to focus. If I’m in a silent practice room, I start getting distracted by silence instead of distracted by noise!


HM: Do you change intonation by position of tongue or also with little bit fingering?

TP: I don’t think tongue. Air support, embouchure, and then fingering for intonation and also coloring. To color a note, whether you’re playing an A and if your finger is here or here [resonance fingering, examples see Mitchell Estrin or Dr. Julianne Kirk-Doyle, you’ll still be in tune but in different colors!

Hear - sing - play

De Peyer had an incredible ear. You could play the first two notes of the Copland concerto, and he would say: That second note is a little flat, and I mean minuscule but he was so good at that and he would focus on that and he also in the lesson, for intonation, you would be playing, he would say: stop! Sing the next note! And you had to sing that next note. And it had to be there [on the right pitch]. And if it was not there, in your voice, you would not able to play with the right intonation on your clarinet. And another thing, with Russianoff, my other teacher, I didn’t totally agree with him. I think sometimes I can have a beautiful sound and be out of tune! But that’s probably not true! He said: ”If you are in tune, then you sound good!” Most of it was air pressure and embouchure and being flexible enough!

Project Tokyo - New York

There are a lot of composers, and hopefully composers who like my playing. And that’s what I do since 2012. I then started a project Tokyo to New York: having pieces written by Tokyo composers and New York composers. I play the same program in New York and Tokyo. I have over 200 pieces composed for me by the Tokyo and New York composers:

HM: It must be a lot of work!

TP: A lot! Two weeks ago, I premiered seven new works. Of the seven, two of them I would like to play again. Two of them, I won’t play them again, One of them was very, very difficult…that keeps me busy in Tokyo, so I’m happy to do it.

HM: I am very thankful to you for this interview!


  1. Mimart, Prosper Charles Joseph. 1911. Méthode nouvelle de clarinette; théorique et pratique. Contenant des photographies explicatives de nombreux exercises et des leçons mélodiques. Paris: Enoch.
  2. Kycia, Carol Anne. 1999. Daniel Bonade: a founder of the American style of clarinet playing
  3. Mimart, Prosper. 1970. 20 etudes pour clarinette. Paris: Gerard Billaudot.
  4. Jeanjean, Paul. 1954. Vade-Mecum du clarinettiste: six études spéciales pour l'assouplissement rapide des doigts et de la langue = Vade-Mecum of the clarinet-player : 6 special studies to render the fingers and tongue rapidly supple. Paris: A. Leduc. [1]