A Matter of Embouchure

If you have attended a bluegrass band or the orchestra, you may notice two musical instruments – the fiddle and the string bass – that appear identical except for size.  In the orchestra, the fiddle is called the violin and the upright bass is called the string contrabass or just the contrabass.  You may also observe that in the orchestra there are two instruments of intermediate size – the cello and the viola – that have the same appearance as the violin and contrabass. These four instruments constitute a musical family. 
 
The word “clarinet” is applied to at least seven different sized members of a musical family that range from the tiny Ab piccolo to the towering Bb contrabass.  The fingering for all is the same. The mouthpieces differ with the size of each instrument. If you can play one, you can play them all since the fingering is the same. It is just a matter of embouchure.
 
Embouchure can be defined as the use of facial muscles and the shaping of the lips to the mouthpiece of a wind instrument.
 
In 1970, I lived in Berkeley California and worked in a small restaurant off of University Avenue. It was a mom-and-pop place that did a lot of business through word of mouth. Actually, it was "Mom, Pop, Maddy and Grandma". Pop did the cooking, Mom kept the books and spread word of mouth because in 1970 there was no facebook page available. Grandma worked the floor, was hostess and general gofer. Maddy was one of the servers. 
 
Maddy reminded me of one of my sisters. She was my age, a little taller than I with an athletic build, swimmer's shoulders and dancer's legs. She had a blond boyfriend that she called her "Honky Hunk of Burnin' Love".  Mom and Pop were horrified when she used that phrase, but Grandma loved it.  Grandma was a widow and either a merry widow or wanted to be a merry widow, given her ribald observations and spicy humor. 
 
Like me, Maddy preferred John Mayall over the Beatles and told me that she thought Eric Burdon of the Animals was better looking than any of the Fab Four (The Beatles). I did suspect her of being too kind because Eric Burdon is even shorter than I am. And about as classically good-looking.
 
Unlike me Maddy was the third generation of her lineage born in this country (I was but the second) and she had no accent. I was to find to my chagrin that people would ask me what country I was from and not ask the Dutch friend sitting next to me. After all, I was a "NoDaker" with a distinctive regional accent that the Cohen Brothers have made light of in the movie "Fargo". Maddy's folks and Grandma were equally accent-free. Like my father, Grandma had grown up speaking the native languages of her parents in addition to English. In her case, she spoke fluent Mandarin and Cantonese. 
 
Maddy was pretty humble. She could afford to be – she had a booster club and public relations company in Mom, Pop and Grandma. All were happy to tell me that she had been a clarinet prodigy, was a champion swimmer and a track star.  She was indeed majoring in clarinet at UC Berkeley. 
 
Jake was the other server and  had a thick eastern european accent. On one occasion, Maddy's soprano clarinet playing was mentioned in earshot of Jake.  Jake said: "Well, I play clarinet too. But I bet mine is bigger than yours." Grandma snickered. Maddy elbowed her. Pop said: "Ohforchrissakema". It turned out that Jake played a Bb contrabass. He and Maddy got to talking classical music. One of them came up with a piece of sheet music for bassoon and soprano clarinet. Jake said he could transpose the bassoon part for his instrument.
 
A few days later after closing time, the staff gathered round. Jake's wife came to the restaurant and she and Jake hauled in a very large suitcase that took up the entire back seat of her Beetle. Jake opened the suitcase and from the parts within assembled a black and silver tower that stood almost five feet tall.  He and Maddy got down to business. Maddy's soprano clarinet seemed to create a rainbow of sound colors between my ears. I could almost see the notes. I could feel Jake's bass line in my stomach and in my loins. It was like hearing the voice of an Ent. There was something both sinister and superhumanly sad implied in the timbre of this large wind instrument.
 
When they finished, Maddy beamed like a beacon and Jake looked at his wife with an expression of quiet satisfaction. Mom and Pop applauded. Grandma said: "Holy Shit!" and I had to practically prop my jaw closed.
Not much later I became friends with George and Laurie. They were both musicians. George played the twelve-string guitar with a whole bunch of finger picks and made the guitar sound like an orchestra. Laurie played drums – one a Turkish doumbek – which she had purchased after serving in the Peace Corps in Turkey. She said that in the locality where she worked women weren't allowed to play drums. A woman could be murdered for breaking that taboo. She also had a set of tablas, the iconic Asian-Indian drum pair. George and Laurie were looking for a bass player and they didn't want a string bass or a bass guitar. So I introduced them to Jake and they hit it off personally and musically. 
 
Jake's wife and I sat in on their first jam session. Jake warmed up by playing the Clarinet Intro to "An American in Paris" and then segued into "Sunshine of Your Love."  After they were done, I said to Jake, "I know there are many more jobs for those who play the soprano clarinet.  You could do so yourself - it's just a matter of embouchure, right? And you could make a living making music and not have to wait on tables.”
 
Jake replied: "I know what you mean, but I have a special attachment to this big boy. It was a graduation present." I asked: "Where did you graduate from?"
 
Jake said, "Auschwitz"
 
In the narrative that followed Jake and his wife spoke as one. They finished each other's sentences.  This seemed to me to be the only way Jake could tell his story without falling apart. Jake was in high school when his family was brought to Auschwitz. Jake had learned to play soprano and bass clarinet in band. They were shown an assortment of instruments and asked if any of them could play one of them and if so, to demonstrate. Jake's mother knew what was coming. She urged Jake to try the contrabass clarinet in the collection. 
 
"You can do it.” she said,  “It is just a matter of embouchure." 
 
While Jake was playing the big clarinet for the benefit of his captors, he saw his family herded away to be murdered.  His last memory of his mother was her blue coat being swallowed up in a crowd of those who were about to be slaughtered.  Jake's wife said that he saw that scene every night before he went to sleep.  Jake lived because he was able to use the instrument to entertain the Nazis who murdered his family. When the camp was liberated, Jake was allowed by Allied soldiers to take the instrument with him.  He said playing it helped him to cope with what had happened to his family.
 
The movie "Playing for Time" is based on the similar experiences of one of the co-writers of that movie. The classical composer Olivier Messiaen wrote his "Quartet for the End of Time" while he was a prisoner of war of the Nazis.