March 2012, at the back of a cupboard
Finding this reed brought back a whole load of memories. There was a time in my life when I suppose all my dreams were in the 26 inches of black resonite that made up my clarinet – I wanted to play like Artie Shaw so very badly that I used to dream in swing. One evening, in a dream, I took to the stage with Louis Armstrong and we swapped riffs all night. It was amazing.
But this reed stands for everything that stood between me and jamming with Satchmo because the reality is, however much we picture that perfect sound, liquid phrasing and pure tone, it all has to come through this rough piece of wood. Every musician, no matter what their instrument, has had to overcome the brutish and mundane aspects of making a sweet sound.
As much as I would like to romanticise my affair with the clarinet, the battle with reeds and mouthpieces in particular put a dampner on things. A perfect reed would go limp in the days leading up to a performance. My unsatisfactory backup reeds would have to be broken in or painstakingly sanded and trimmed, often to the point of being unusable. A wayward reed would deliver a squeek at the wrong moment and ruin everything. To overcome these trials takes a special sort of perseverance that I am not sure I ever had. It was always easier to transfer my allegiance to another instrument until its particular technical challenges would hold me back. As a result I play a range of instruments to a mediocre standard.
One evening, I took a flute down to the river Thames which flowed about 200 yards from the bottom of our garden. I thought it would be swell to stand in the reeds and play as the sun was going down. But my mouth and fingers were so cold I could barely get a tune and I returned home quite discouraged.
Now I am a bit older I have a better grasp of the fact that the beauty we can imagine in our heads will never be achieved without a lot of perseverance, application, discouragement and messiness along the way. It’s a hard lesson but, once we have learned it, I think we can find that the difficulty has its own sort of beauty.