Gary Gray Visits the Vandoren L.A. Studio
Everybody knows that piece, so it’s kind of become a signature excerpt for the clarinet and, as a matter of fact, on a recent CD of mine that is what the producer and record company wanted to hear because they had heard that I had a special way with the Rhapsody in Blue, but Gershwin in general. You know, the clarinet is quite a flexible instrument and I think that’s why we have survived in classical and jazz and chamber music, folk music around the world, you know. If you go to any little country in Europe they’ve got a certain clarinet playing style.
You know, there’s a way to be able to bend notes on the clarinet and do things that you can’t do on the other woodwinds so well, except saxophone. So, that brings up another subject. I’m gonna wander a little bit because I’ve had so many years of experience. Back in school at Indiana University I had a great clarinet teacher, two of them actually, and I was able to split my six years there, three with each. I started out with Henry Gulick which was a wonderful gentleman who really helped my basic playing and my good taste in playing and then after three years Robert McGinnis arrived on the scene from the Juilliard School of New York Philharmonic. Bloomington Indiana, where I studied at Indiana University, became a mecca for music for those years I was there. So, thank you whoever is up above because I got a chance to play with great orchestras and I took up the saxophone and got involved in jazz too and I had a great clarinet teacher or two, especially Robert McGinnis who was the master of orchestral playing.
He came to IU from the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein. They were able to woo him away with quite a salary. The point I’m making is that while I had three years with “Mac” I told him, he said, “what do you really want to do?” I said, “I’d like to play in a symphony orchestra like you,” and he said, “Oh, well…” and he got out the excerpt book which had his name on it. This excerpt book had all the great, you know, clarinetists know, all the excerpts that we need to know to get into orchestras. In fact, nowadays they’re put in a list of order of importance which you’ll be asked to play. So, McGinnis started going through the excerpts with me and tearing me apart and after our three years together, my masters degree at Indiana, I actually auditioned and got a job.
I played a year with the Kansas City Orchestra and then I went close by to the St. Louis Symphony for a couple of seasons and found out that was not what I wanted to do. I really, I hate to use this expression, but for me it became a matter of do I really want to play all kinds of music, including chamber music and even some jazz, or do I want to play more of a what I called a “nine to five Beethoven job?” Because the St. Louis symphony would hand out your schedule for the whole year...that would be your life. That, and the little teaching I did in St. Louis, became my life for those three years and then I decided I didn’t want it. I had studied a summer with Mitchell Lurie at the Music Academy of the West and I found out he had this very colorful lifestyle being able to play for the movies and tv but also play chamber music, etc. I think if I have to give people credit for my long career, I’ll start with Mitchell Lurie because once I came out here he was helpful, he was a gentleman, he was an incredible musical example, and he kept his love of music no matter what people in charge were doing. I’m trying to be tactful about conductors; we all have a kind of interesting relationship with them and we respect them, but sometimes they, especially in Hollywood, the conductors don’t know what they are doing pretty much all the time.
But anyway, so those long years I’ve been here I’ve been fortunate enough to play all kinds of music in all kinds of circumstance and it’s, I think, added to my longevity and definitely to my being worthwhile as a musician in any circumstance. I know when the LA Opera started 30 years ago, I was asked to play in that orchestra for the first few seasons. It became my life and I really enjoyed it and I loved opera, but I thought, again, I had the same feeling I had back in St. Louis where the next season’s operas were coming and they were saying, well, you’d have to choose between staying in the LA Chamber Orchestra or deciding to go with the opera. I said, LA Chamber Orchestra, welcome! I liked the idea of it not being a full time job and I liked the idea of being able to teach and play for movies and tv, etc., and do a lot of chamber music on my own. So, I think if I would really call myself anything it would be a chamber music aficionado and lover because I love to play in small groups; I like to make music that is dependent on the moment, perhaps without someone with a baton.
I think maybe my students have been motivated to follow their own career path by my example because some of them get halfway through school and think, again, they don’t like just playing in orchestra. Or they don’t just like chamber music and they would like to really get an orchestra job. So, I try to help them prepare for that and do the audition. I connect with what a lot of people say, that you learn as much from your students if you’re paying attention. They are definitely my inspiration. I always have a class of ten or so at UCLA, private students, and it’s become my mission to make sure that they’re ready for the different possible careers in music and life, and that they really want to do it. I make it clear that it’s very competitive in every marketplace, whether it’s teaching or playing, and so you’ve got to love it and be willing to put up with the ups and downs of it.
So, to be more practical, I’ve talked about my long career and strong influences I’ve had in classical, jazz, and the movie business. One of the things might be what to practice and make sure that you really have the equipment to do what is necessary for the job at hand. One of those ideals, I think, is to have a really strong tone, of course, but wide dynamic range. I think a lot of clarinet players tend to play right in the middle of the dynamic range.
Good, it’s easy, it’s comfortable. But, you should be able to play a lot louder and a lot softer.
Let, you know, the devil take the hindmost, maybe if the acoustic doesn’t take it. I doubt that you are going to find many acoustics like that because even this small room that we are in for this particular occasion, you learn to play the room. Again, the audiences I think feel when they’re in a concert hall or whether they’re listening on tv to a movie score, they suddenly hear clarinet for five minutes, beautiful solo, I think they are taken by the clarinet’s personality possibilities because we really do have a great instrument here. Between the Vandoren mouthpieces and reeds that help you play it, you’re given a combination of equipment and a sonic possibility that you’re not going to get on most other instruments. I mean, I’m talking about from flute to tuba to even great violinists. It really takes a great violinist to draw you in and show you the dynamic possibilities of that one box of wood. Otherwise, it takes the whole string orchestra to really get your attention.
So, clarinet is my specialty. I also play saxophone. I do approach it the same, but...part of the possibilities of Vandoren, I think, are that whether you play saxophone reeds, you play their mouthpieces, the clarinet reeds, I always feel like their equipment is one that’s going to enable me to be my real self because I don’t want to play a setup that theoretically is famous, has a good history with some other players, but doesn’t work for me. So, Buffet and Vandoren have made my long career and I thank you to both of them.