Thus far my only solo conducting performance, which I don’t personally recall, occurred in Chicago when I was in my fourth year.
Mom, my younger sister Suzy and I were sitting on a blanket on the lawn near the stage of the outdoor amphitheater where the Philharmonic Orchestra was performing on a beautiful summer day.
Mom was sufficiently distracted for me to grab a twig and go to stand on the grass near the edge of the stage, facing the back of the conductor—who was facing the orchestra with his back to the audience. I began mimicking the conductor as best I could, with a slight time lag: bobbing my head and waving the twig in a Figure-8 motion; pointing my left index finger at some musicians, shaking it at others; intermittently raising and circling and/or shaking one or both arms.
My performance ended prematurely. Mom told me later in life that some people in the audience affably but quietly applauded my conducting as we returned to our blanket.
Such kindness received from strangers, which I imagine I must have noticed, no-doubt bolstered my self-esteem going forward, emboldening me to try new things.
Thus far my only solo musical performance—which I cannot forget, occurred in fourth grade in Sierra Vista, Arizona.
In music class I selected to play the clarinet: I wanted to play drums, but they were taken. Clarinet was the “best” instrument available when I got my chance to make a selection.
This is a common situation for people with last names having first letters which lie near the end of the alphabet. Because my last name begins with a “Y,” when something is conducted in alphabetical order sometimes I’m left without much of a choice.
I didn’t practice clarinet very often: I did things that I enjoyed more, such as hunting the desert, flying model rockets, playing lots of baseball, and reading space science books.
I learned to play the songs assigned in school, but I only knew which notes to hit, and at what time. I had no idea about ebb and flow of volume in time: my playing was staccato, emotionless, and mistake ridden.
The music teacher organized a “concert” to be performed by my music class. To my horror, I was given a solo piece to play.
From that moment until the concert, the only music I practiced was my solo part. To my surprise I became quite proficient in this solo part, and actually enjoyed playing loudly for the first time because I thought I sounded good.
On the afternoon of the concert I was nervous. I started to suck on my clarinet reed much earlier than I normally would. I sucked on the reed much longer than I normally would. I sucked the reed a lot harder than I normally would.
Even when the band began to play, I sucked on the reed while pretending to play notes and thinking about my upcoming solo. My reed would be perfect, and I would play notes which sounded like butter to the ears. I could hardly wait.
Take a big breath and let the music flow NOW!
What!? NO SOUND?!
Blow harder! ACH!!
Blow S-U-P-E-R HARD!!!
Two-hours-worth of slobber and I presume partially digested clarinet reed was suddenly expelled from the front of the clarinet in the form of a gelatinous blob.
The front row of parents, seated in folding chairs, cried out in horror and recoiled backwards onto the laps of those sitting behind them. Student musicians near me scrambled to escape the slobber.
The only sound which I recall hearing—in s-l-o-w motion, was my failed efforts to get my reed to vibrate at all, to make any note. I sounded like the blow hole of a whale!
It was not to be. I gave up.
My mistake was that I’d sucked on that reed until it practically dissolved. I don’t recall what happened next. After my “performance” I stopped playing music, but I picked it up again four decades later (electric bass).
However, since my solo clarinet performance I’ve only rarely played a solo performance in practice, either when alone or during rehearsal.
Paul R. Yarnold, Ph.D.
January 20, 2021