By Rebecca Chicosky, Contributing Writer
Photos by Jennifer Moder
At around 7 o’clock on a chilly Tuesday evening, Bothwell Chapel filled with the rich sounds of 24 clarinets. On February 19th, McKendree University held its first “Clarinet Night” in which eighth grade through high school students were invited to a masterclass and concert alongside McKendree’s own clarinet section. The ensemble featured E flat, B flat and bass clarinets to an audience of parents, music teachers and overall lovers of the woodwind instrument. I got the amazing opportunity to play B flat clarinet in this ensemble and learn more about helpful and different ways to play the instrument.
The night kicked off with a small masterclass given by clarinet instructor Mary Nan Jordan. Mary Nan received degrees in clarinet performance from the Juilliard School of Music and Southern Methodist University before joining the United States Air Force’s band. She has been a clarinet professor at McKendree for six years and is loved by the students she mentors. Taylor Thulon, a senior music major at McKendree stated, “When taking lessons from Mary Nan, I did feel like I was becoming a better clarinetist. She focused on the little things that were unconscious by the time I was taking lessons from her, like my posture and the simplicities of playing the clarinet while also focusing on the music in front of me.” Mary Nan’s skills with the clarinet truly back up her credentials. Whenever she played an example to the students, her clarinet would grow from a whisper of a sound to a noise so in-your-face that it rang in your ears for a few seconds after she released her breath.
During her masterclass, Mary Nan went over proper techniques to breathe to get the richest, warmest sound out of the clarinet. Mary Nan commented, “How many of you think about breathing? Yeah, probably none of you because it is something we are used to.” One surprising technique featured an unlikely tool- a coffee stirrer. Mary Nan reasoned that by blowing into the coffee stirrer, you have to centralize the air that you would blow through a clarinet. I had never thought to do this, as a coffee stirrer is less than half the size of the hole of a clarinet. However, after trying out her technique, I could feel myself aim the air better and produce a more rounded and crisper sound than before.
After a thoughtful masterclass, the clarinet ensemble played three pieces, each showing a different style. The evening started with “First Suite in E flat” by Gustav Holst, my personal favorite, which resonated throughout the chapel. Then, “Nimrod,” a slow and wistful piece that nearly brought the audience and myself to sleep. Finally, the concluding song was a thrilling take on “Walk Like an Egyptian” by the Bangles. Mary Nan invited a member of the audience to come up and play on a tambourine and keep the beat as well as a second member to come up and play a set of hand shakers. Although the crowd appeared nervous, two volunteers eventually came to the front to keep the beat and add ambiance to the two-dozen clarinet feature. Each piece was specifically chosen to show off the versatility of the clarinet, from a rousing march to a catchy pop tune.
Overall, the experience of clarinet night is one that I will not soon forget. Watching the high schoolers look excited over trying a new technique reminded me why I continue to play clarinet: for the love of the instrument. Taylor Thulon commented, “I liked being able to share one of my passions with high schoolers who also share the same passion and play some music together.” Clarinet Night helped me to not only learn new things about my instrument, but reignite the fire in me that loves to play the wonderful woodwind instrument.