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Kalmen Opperman: A Legacy of Excellence (A Book Excerpt)

editorial.notes: Look for Denise Gainey’s book on Kalmen Opperman to be released by Carl Fischer Music.

By: author.name: Denise Gainey

Life Lessons

I first met Kalmen Opperman because I wanted to research teaching methods to use with the students in my college studio (as part of a doctor of musical arts project). Through the years that I had studied and taught clarinet, I’d heard repeated testimonies about the unusual and highly successful methods Opperman used. However, when I began researching the literature on him in university libraries and on the Internet, I discovered that despite his legendary reputation among clarinetists, there was a dearth of information on him and his work. As a result, though I initially only planned to interview him about his pedagogical methodologies, after speaking with him several times (and at his own encouragement), I decided that I could never understand his unique approach to any depth without personally experiencing it. And so I began my private study with him during the spring of 2001 and continued that study until his death, at age 90, in 2010. The results were literally life changing.

For our first meeting, Kal told me to meet him at his Manhattan apartment and insisted that I take a cab rather than the subway, as he knew that it was my first time in New York City. He met me at the curb by his apartment, and I was immediately struck by his small stature, and more so by his incredible presence. Once in the apartment he introduced me to his wife, Louise, whom I would come to learn was always at his side, whether he was teaching, writing, or creating barrels and mouthpieces.

Kal asked if I had eaten, and decided that we should all go to breakfast before beginning the lesson. Unbeknownst to me, this actually was the beginning of the session, as the Oppermans asked me many questions about my life and background, and they also shared things about themselves. A recurring theme was Kal’s adamant statement that only a very few people are meant to study clarinet at the level at which he taught, and that he would determine if I met his criteria.

The formal lesson began as Kal watched me assemble my instrument and quickly showed displeasure at the way I placed the reed on the mouthpiece. “You can’t even put the reed on right!” was his adamant comment. He demonstrated what he wanted me to do, making it quite evident that everything done in relation to the clarinet be executed with the utmost care and respect from the time the case was opened and throughout the lesson, until the instrument was put away.

Kal sat in a chair across from me in the dim apartment, a bright light directed at me, and carefully scrutinized every aspect of my playing. The mood was intense, and this intensity did not abate, even during the frequent resting periods. The first thing he asked me to play was a one-octave chromatic scale. He was immediately frustrated by my lack of proper hand position and asked me to make several corrections. To Kal, proper hand position was the basis for building a sound technical foundation; without it, he assured me, I would not be able to improve technically on the instrument. He asked me to practice very slowly in front of a mirror until I could maintain the proper hand position at faster tempos. I had been made aware of these issues in the past; however, this was the first time that I fully understood the paramount importance of this to my success as a player.

Subsequent lessons began to have somewhat of a regular routine as he continued to identify my weaknesses and devise methods for me to overcome them. He did not want me to play before a lesson as teachers traditionally do, but wanted to see what I could do “cold.” He would begin by asking me to play three notes (throat tone G, A, and clarion B) slowly and perfectly connected. Once he was satisfied with that, we’d move on to chromatic staccato studies, études, and exercises that he would devise and call out to me. Although we were always working on technique, there was never a time when Kal did not stress tone and musicality. When I did something to please him, he would give a small smile or slight nod. When I was unable to demonstrate the skills that he requested, he exhibited great displeasure, almost as if he took my shortcomings personally.

As virtuoso Richard Stoltzman had related to me in an earlier interview, this was how Kal would determine my aptitude and ability level for the clarinet, as well as my respect for the instrument and for him. This was a challenging and at times painful period for me, as he broke down every aspect of my playing—and my preconceived ideas about the clarinet.
At the end of my first week of study with him, Kal put his finger in my face and told me, “You don’t know a damn thing about the clarinet . . . not a damn thing. You need to start from scratch and work like hell.” These were difficult words for me to hear, as someone at the end of doctoral program with several years of college teaching experience. However, it proved to be a first instance of many in which Kal cared enough about me to say the difficult things.

The study of staccato was an essential aspect of Kal’s teachings; therefore we devoted a great deal of time to it both in lessons and in practice sessions. In my lessons, staccato study was based on the chromatic scale, all the while focusing on maintaining proper hand position. Kal’s consummate understanding of the physical aspects of articulation (the tongue musculature, air speed, and embouchure) enabled him to quickly assess and improve the speed and clarity of my articulation. To my utter surprise, he demonstrated this to me in only twenty minutes. With Kal’s direction, I increased the speed of my staccato playing in a one-octave chromatic scale in sixteenth notes by over 60 percent.

He did this by having me repeat the scale as he constantly moved the tempo up and down on the metronome, while reminding me about the necessity of a consistent column of air and the importance of remaining relaxed. Kal stressed that I should not attempt this technique on my own, but only with his guidance. As with every other aspect of playing, he stressed frequent rest periods in the study of staccato.

Between my visits to New York, Kal consistently remained in contact with me, dedicated to monitoring my progress over the telephone. He would scold me for not calling him often enough with questions, and when I told him that I did not want to bother him, he emphatically stated, “You are not bothering me—my students are very important to me!” His deep concern for, and belief in, each of his students was evident—even for a new student such as myself. The intensity that he brought to each lesson was a result of his unshakeable belief that his way was the only true way to be a successful clarinetist. His approach would be very difficult to carry out in its purest form at the college level due to time constraints of both students and faculty, which is one of the reasons that he held very little regard for academia. He insisted on complete devotion to the instrument at all times, considering it to be a way of life, encompassing every aspect of the total person. He warned me that if I wanted to be successful, I would have to learn to make more sacrifices, and that my “previous life had no relation” to the level which he expected me to attain.

My intense sessions with Kal lasted from four to six hours with periods of rest interspersed, and a lunch break. During the break, he would tell me about his experiences and his students, show me some of the equipment that he had made, and play recordings of his students. During my initial visits to study with Kal, he introduced me to as much material as possible, giving explicit instructions on how to practice it, since I would not be able to see him as often as he would prefer. The amount of information we covered, as well as the intensity in which it was presented, was quite overwhelming. At one point during our third session, I began to cry out of frustration with myself. Immediately, Kal’s demeanour changed from harsh taskmaster to one of a compassionate parent. “You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself,” he said. “I am giving you five years’ worth of information in a very short amount of time—you are doing just fine! All you have to do is hours, that’s all. That is the only difference between you and the great players—hours.”

Throughout the course of my lessons, Kal would periodically have me experiment with his barrels and mouthpieces. The difference between his equipment and mine was startling and undeniable. The barrels and mouthpieces enabled me to achieve a much more fluid tone throughout the registers of the instrument. Over the years that I studied with him, he made several barrels and mouthpieces for me that have been the best I have ever played. Kal also adjusted my instrument, and personally took me to a repairman that he trusted to bend keys that he no longer had the hand strength to bend.
Sometimes, the focus of my lesson would be observing Kal as he worked with another one of his students, many of whom came from around the world to study with him. I heard amazing things from those students who truly followed the Opperman method: they demonstrated effortless technique, beautiful tone, and a solid determination to please Kal. Just one small smile from him for a job well done always felt as if the sun had come out. I was able to bring several of my students on different occasions to observe my own lessons, and many of them returned from these trips deeply affected by what they had seen in the tiny apartment on West Sixty-Seventh Street: a level of focus and dedication rarely found in any arena.

Kal always encouraged me to find a way to see him more frequently, urging me to take a leave of absence from my university teaching position to study with him for a semester or more so that I would really see the benefits of his teaching. He stated that he did not like to teach in a “foreign correspondence” style, but wanted to be able to oversee all aspects of his students’ development closely. Nevertheless, he was kind enough to continue to work with me, given the constraints of my teaching responsibilities. I would often get an envelope from New York containing a handwritten exercise just for me with the inscription “To Denise, Have fun! Kal.” He was always thinking of his students and what he could do to help each one improve. What other teacher today is not only able to teach the student, but can write the exercises and music that they play, can design and create their mouthpieces and barrels, adjust their instruments, can literally write the book on reed making and adjustment, and has the professional performing background that many only dream of? My experiences with Kal and Louise Opperman were truly life-changing in regards to the clarinet, my personal life, and my methodology. Kal did not just teach the clarinet—he taught the person, and cared deeply about each of his students, in and out of the lesson environment.

There comes a time in the life of every serious student when she meets a teacher who truly challenges her, pushes her past what she thought was possible; Kalmen Opperman was that teacher for me.


Denise Gainey is Associate Professor of Clarinet and Music Education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She holds the office of secretary of the International Clarinet Association. She is a Backun Artist/Clinician and a D’Addario Woodwinds Artist.

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