I fell in love when I was six, sitting cross-legged on the sticky floor of the brand-new school cafeteria. Something about it struck me, transfixed me. I don’t know if it was because its bearers got to sit up front, or because its simple color scheme pleased my eye, or if I could somehow tell what it sounded like — and, if I could, why that would bring me to it, seeing as its bearers were fourth and fifth graders — but I instantly fell for the clarinet, head over heels in love, Harry to my Ginny, whom I would make my own four years later.
At least once a week for the next four years, I implored my mother to let me learn the clarinet. I looked forward to the fourth grade like other little girls did their imagined wedding days, excited for the free lessons the public schools would bestow. My mother said no, again and again and again; then she said maybe, but I would have to learn the piano, first. I did this. She still said no. Finally, when I was a year behind, a rented plastic model lent gravitas to my palms, and as soon as my first class let out, Dad drove us to Campana, where he found a Benny Goodman cassette tape that we played in the car for years on end. And although my clarinet was more beaten, less fashionable, its case more bulky than my classmates’, from my first class on, I squawked, squealed, squeaked, and screeched to my heart’s content.
Obviously, I still can’t tell you why I loved, demanded, the clarinet.
[Nor, frankly, can I articulate why I like most things. I love music, but I rarely notice lyrics. I love novels, but perform pedestrian literary analysis. I love eating, but love both one-note and “complex” flavors. I am typing this while watching Fiddler on the Roof for the twentieth time, although I often cannot make it through a new movie on my couch. (P.S. “Sunrise, Sunset.” Oh God. Oh God. Oh my God. Also, this wedding scene, generally, and its extended music, has to be one of the greatest forces of all time. Not just because it heavily features the clarinet. I’m still kind of sad Kevin and I never actually got together that klezmer band.)]
That said, although I may never know why I fell in love with the clarinet, I know why I love it. I love its weight in my hands. I love how the grenadilla wood smells, and how the cold silver-plated copper keys quickly warm to my touch. I love how it feels when I push the keys that push the fishskin pads that gently give when they hit the firm wood. I love the ritual of opening the case, smelling my instrument, gently, firmly, lovingly guiding the joints together, pressing them into each other, aligning them for maximum performance, test-blowing because, as perfect as this professional-grade instrument is, the middle barrels need just a bit of tweaking to ensure their clarity. I love to pull half a dozen reeds out of the box and inspect each’s grains to determine what I will attempt to play that day, even though God knows that shit is just impossible and I can barely tell what may or may not be semipassable that day. I love that I do know if a reed will be good once it’s in my mouth, and how its wood smell contrasts with the instrument’s.
And then there is the sound. I don’t know if I’d be so crazy about the sound if I did not play it, myself; maybe not, because, based on its relative dearth of repertoire, I assume I’d be more enamored of another. But, as my life actually stands, little is more beautiful than how Brahms melds it with cello, or how Copland distills it into a Western spirit, or its centrality in eastern European wedding music — and, of course, that original, scratchy 1930s Benny Goodman recording, with Gene Krupa whaling away in tandem.