Today, 18 JUN 2010, I opened up my email box to find a note with the headline, “Very sad news.” I knew by looking at the sender what the message might read, and it did. Kalmen Opperman passed away early this morning.
This means I’ll never have that option to go take another clarinet lesson from him and am sad to say have not seen him in that environment for quite some time. He was 90 years old. He’s gone from master clarinet player, teacher, composer, and craftsman to eternal teacher. The news of Kalmen Opperman passing amplifies the fact that every time I open the clarinet case, I think of him whether it is putting the clarinet together, swabbing the instrument, keeping my hands steady and fingers close, or double-lip embouchure.
It is not possible to describe the amount of inspiration Kalmen Opperman gave me. The practice ethic and discipline of this man hooked me from the beginning and believe me, I’m hooked for life. Every part of his association was exciting: Phones calls, walking down 67th Street to his apartment in New York City for a lesson, sitting in the studio and waiting for him to eat, hear him take a phone call from a prominent clarinetist, watch him make or tweak a mouthpiece, find a piece of music, write out an exercise especially for you, show you the next method book and its challenges, tie a string ligature, fix a reed, hand position, embouchure, air support, countless volumes of knowledge you knew you never could possibly achieve or learn.
Early in my career as a clarinetist in the West Point Band I picked up the additional duty of working in the publicity section. One of the newsletters included a mail-back section to make sure the addressees still wished to get the mailing. I opened one from Kalmen Opperman and thought, “wow, this couldn’t be the guy who wrote the Modern Daily Studies.” I studied from this book in undergraduate school and the publication date made me think the writer must be long gone.
However, I realized that it was in fact the same gentleman and by the way, he had served in the West Point Band. I picked his number up from another clarinetist in the band and eventually called. All of his questions to me were short and to the point. Do you have my books? Have you worked out of them? Who were your teachers? How fast can you articulate? He fired them off one after the other just as he did for many other prospective students.
I was definitely a chicken after that call. But, about six months later, I called him back. It was probably the exact same conversation as before. This time, I took the notes down in order to prepare for the first lesson. I believe that was a Monday.
Tuesday night around 11:50 p.m., Kalmen Opperman called me, “Where are you?” At first I was shocked, but I believe I responded, “What do you mean?” “Where are you with your articulation?“ He told me during the question session before I should articulate chromatic sixteenths at some unbelievable tempo. I gave him a weak number like, “somewhere around 120.”
His words, “STOP, I don’t want you to go any further or you’ll screw yourself up! When are you coming to see me?” I went to see him the very next day on 17 August 1994.
Humbly enough, I already had my masters degree and a job with the West Point Band. But, Mr. Opperman steadily proved that I could not play the chromatic scale and that my hands were all over the place. He also introduced me to double-lip clarinet embouchure. He had a way of tearing a person down and then building them back up (if they could handle the process).
I just went to find my lesson book from that first day with Kalmen Opperman in 1994.
The top of the page has “Keep eyes on him.” Next I have a short list of instructions:
1. Behind tip of reed some (not on tip) – referring to tongue placement on the reed
2. Up and down, not back and forth – referring to how the tip of the tongue should move
3. Keep air flowing
4. Tongue close to reed
Then in big letters: Tongue smashes into reed too hard!
He gave me his chromatic scales “mac scales,” long tones (double-lip), and to practice #1, 4, 6, and 17 from his Modern Daily Studies book.
He also gave me the fives. Articulate five sixteenth notes on low e, then f, then f#, etc... chromatically. Then five chromatic notes ascending starting on low e.
It all seems simple, but much of this information and his demonstration of sound was overwhelming. And despite the fundamental subject matter, I knew this guy could teach. Having taken a few lessons from two other players during this time, I knew that rather than getting a tidbit or two out of a lesson, I would get a mass volume of info from Kalmen Opperman.
He called me again on August 22nd, 1994, and I jotted notes in my lesson book on that conversation. The key piece of information:
“Left hand placement. Playing open G, finger touches Ab and A keys. No mvt. of wrist of arm. GIVEN – Clar. playing is knuckles down.” If you read this page, take that statement, copy and paste it somewhere BIG, print it, and tape on your mirror as you watch your left hand.
So, this the first time I’ve looked at this lesson book for years and it re-inspires me to practice. Overall, I studied with Mr. Opperman for a ten year stretch. The first few years I’d take lessons about every two or three weeks. The later years were once a month or longer in between. I will cherish that professional experience for the rest of my life. Mr. Opperman breathed the fire of clarinet in me. I do not have the time to commit to the clarinet I once did, but if the lotto landed on me, I could fill the day up with clarinet easily. Any time I do have on the horn, I appreciate it so much more due to the eternal clarinet teacher, Kalmen Opperman.
My heart goes out to the all of the students of Mr. Opperman. Especially those who spent decades studying clarinet with him: Richard Stoltzman, Steve Hartmann, and Adam Ebert. I know they feel a massive loss. Mr. Stoltzman said at Opperman’s 90th Birthday Concert in DEC 2009, and I’m paraphrasing, “Kalmen Opperman teaches at a university which no-one graduates.”
It is not possible to write about Mr. Opperman without noticing his wife Louise. Heartfelt sympathy goes to Louise and Kal’s daughter, Roio, and son, Chuck.