How to Establish a Career as a Clarinet Soloist

Some Advice from Jonathan Cohler by Jenny Maclay

Interview conducted by Jenny Maclay

Jenny Maclay: Who are your musical inspirations? 

Jonathan Cohler: I have drawn inspiration from a wide variety of artists, not only clarinetists. One of my early inspirations was Harold Wright. When I was just 16, I was listening to a recording and I was suddenly struck by one long note that ‘Buddy’ played. I didn’t understand at first, how a single note could be so expressive. This was kind of an epiphany for me. I listened to the note over and over again until I really began to see how shape, color, vibrato, attack and dynamic could all be combined to produce such a beautiful note. This was the beginning of my venture into expressivity in music making. Following that, I began listening to many artists including violinist Jascha Heifetz, pianists Dinu Lipatti and Vladimir Horowitz, and a variety of great singers. Over the years, I have found inspiration in many artists.  

JM: You have a degree in physics from Harvard – why did you major in an outside field instead of clarinet?

JC: I have always been drawn to understanding how things work. My love of Physics has proven to be a great advantage to me in understanding acoustics in general, musical acoustics, and the physics of how all the musical instruments work, especially the clarinet. This has allowed me to gain great insights in how to learn the instrument and teach the instrument as well. My knowledge of physics has always played a central role in my learning, teaching, performing, and understanding. I am a self-motivated learner, and I felt I could learn more things and have more freedom to explore all my interests in an environment like Harvard as opposed to a conservatory. Harvard has an excellent music department and environment that lets a motivated person set their own course, and I took full advantage of that and was heavily involved in music throughout my studies there. In fact, I was able to play in the orchestra, found a chamber music society, and conduct several different projects and ensembles while there.

JM: You have a number of recordings and have an established solo career. How did your career evolve?

JC: I have been doing music my entire life. After college, I worked in the computer and publishing industries for more than a decade, but then I decided that I wanted to be in music full-time. So I launched my career by putting myself out in front of a large audience right away. My first recording, Cohler on Clarinet, received double five-star ratings from BBC Music Magazine, which was at that time, the largest classical music publication in circulation in the world. Soon after that, they featured me on the cover of their magazine in a CD including my recordings of the two Brahms Sonatas. That was how I got started. From there, it has been a slow and steady race, in which I travel regularly to teach and perform; I record, I conduct, and I cherish all of my interactions with the many clarinet enthusiasts from all walks of life around the world.

"Practice. Be ambitious. Be an entrepreneur. Build your own path, because nobody is going to do it for you." - Jonathan Cohler

JM: You have championed several solo works by Meyer Kupferman. What attracted you to his music and what special challenges does his music pose?

JC: I got involved with Meyer’s music early in my career as a soloist when I recorded his amazing piece Moonflowers, Baby! Meyer was one of my early supporters and gave me great encouragement early on in my career. I had called him to get his permission to record Moonflowers, as it had never been recorded before, and at first he told me that he had a recording company that already had a recording of the piece that they were planning to put out as the premiere recording of the work. Nonetheless, I sent him my press kit including my two previous recordings by FedEx, and the next day he called me back and told me that he and his partner had listened to my recordings, and they wanted me to put out the premiere recording of it! He was so nice and he offered to give me a free coaching at his place in New York. His insights on the work were invaluable in developing my interpretation. I will always be very grateful to Meyer for his encouragement, insight, and support.

JM: How is the life of a soloist different than that of an orchestral player?

JC: It’s a completely different challenge. As a soloist, you have to make your own pathway through the musical business. You have to be your own manager, your own marketing department, your own artistic adviser, and in general your own everything. Obviously, the music that you play is different from orchestral music, the programs, venues, and performances are different, and the fact that you have the ability to control your own schedule completely gives you more freedom, but at the same time, more challenges. The orchestral musician prepares for high-pressure, high-stakes auditions to get a good position, but once there, they can often stay in that job for many years, or even a lifetime. A soloist is constantly opening up new avenues, and making new opportunities for themselves to bring their music and teaching to new audiences.

JM: You have the most popular classical clarinetist page on Facebook and a popular website. Why do you think a strong online presence is so important for a classical musician?

JC: Classical music is a very small and selective audience, and through the web, and especially through Facebook, I can directly reach many, if not most, of the aspiring clarinetists in the world, who are the people most likely to be interested in my performances and teaching. These days, the world is too large to be able to reach the audience directly through live concerts alone, so mass media is absolutely central to the career of any performing soloist or chamber musician. Through my Internet presence, I am able to reach and communicate directly with an audience of avid clarinetists around the world in the hundreds of thousands. People in China, Columbia, and Czech Republic are just as close to me as those who live down the street in this global village that has emerged on the web.

JM: What advice do you have for aspiring solo clarinetists to establish a career?

JC: Practice. Be ambitious. Be an entrepreneur. Build your own path, because nobody is going to do it for you. Understand the importance of mass media and marketing. Believe in yourself. Make a unique and important statement in the world. Contribute to the art by always teaching the next generation of artists. 

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