A Lesson With Herbert L. Clarke by Claude Gordon

First Trumpet Lesson With The Master

My first lesson with Herbert L. Clarke was when I was 19 years of age. I started to learn to play, however, when I was 5 years old.

My father was a fine clarinet soloist with the Bands of the Souza era and my Mother, a concert Pianist. They presented me with a Cornet. M y Dad showed m e how to hold it, how to blow, he said, "Take a big breath and Blow." How to finger it and taught me the notes of the staff. From that day on, I practiced out of the Arban Book all day long—every day.

All of my Brothers and Sisters played instruments, and as a result we had an orchestra within the family, playing for hotels and radio stations of that time.

I started to play professionally when I was 8 years old, and played fairly well for a youngster, having a playable range from low F# to high F above high C. The best thing that I remember is that I never worried about playing,nor did I worry about analyzing what I was doing. I just practiced and could not wait to get a chance to play for an audience.

At 13 years of age, I had a Radio show of 15 minutes of Cornet solos with piano accompaniment every Wednesday evening.

This history is by no means complete, but meant only to show that there were no playing problems or worries, things just worked as I practiced all the time. Until I decided I should study with a teacher if I intended to be a successful player. This changed everything. I was taught things that I had never heard of before. Hold the Corners tight, stick out your jaw, push out your stomach, blow from the diaphram etc., etc.: All of the theories became endless. I started to worry, I did not have a playable High F anymore. I started to look in mirrors,(what for,I never found out). I then of course made my second big mistake. I started looking up all of the best players and asking questions. This started years of more misery and confusion than I ever dreamed possible, when doing something that you are supposed to enjoy. This in turn led to hunt for the magic mouthpiece that has never existed. For ten more years I limped along professionally, very frustrated and at 18 years of age I was not playing as well as I did at 8 years old.

A Cornet Legend Worth The Sacrifice

My Dad told me wonderful stories about H.L. Clarke, and I played his records continuously. Finally I decided to leave my home in Montana and travel to meet H.L. Clarke, who was in Long Beach, California. If he couldn't help me, what was I going to do?

These were Depression days and believe me it was a difficult task.

I went right to his home and rang the bell. What a thrill.!!! Here I was talking to the great H.L. Clarke. He invited me in and I was awed by his kindness, gentleness and interest. A complete opposite to some players I had met.

He asked a few questions and we sat and talked for some time. This interview was the best lesson I had ever imagined and I came away confident that I could be a successful player. At one point in our discussion I thought all hope was gone. I asked if he could make me a great player. His answer was a prompt, NO. He let that sink in (to my despair) and then said, "But, I can show you how!!" This was typical Clarke. If you on discussed 5 minutes, you would learn a lot.

My first lesson was the following Monday morning. I was staying at a hotel in Hollywood and had to leave my watch with the gas station in order to get gasoline to drive for the lesson.

I was quiete nervous when Mr. Clarke asked me to take out my horn and play. When I had finished there was a moment of silence and then I heard HRUMPH!!! Then he said, "You never took a correct breath in your life." (Wow, after all those years of pushing our the stomach as I was told by other players and teachers.) He then explained how that power is generated from the Chest muscles and gave me exercises to work on, to develop this. He explained the importance of good health to the player, that brass playing is a form of athletics.

My embouchure placement was terrible. I was playing completely on the lower red of the upper lip. Actually I'd had so many different embouchures during those early years that I could play anywhere on my mouth.


He suggested that I place it higher. He then thoroughly explained that the lips only function is to vibrate. Then I was hung-up on no-pressure playing. He then explained very patiently that there is no such thing as no-pressure, and to stay away from a mirror.

This face is especially interesting when today it is said that Clarke started the No Pressure System of playing. HE DID NOT!!! I recently read an article that stated that H.L. Clarke used to hang his horn from a string and practice that way. This is absolutely not true!!! Never did he advocate such a ridiculous method. He was demonstrating that a developed player could play with great ease and lightness and demonstrated by hanging the horn from a string and playing up to top notes.

He told me later that he was sorry he did this, as everyone got the wrong idea and it went like wildfire across the country. Supposedly a new No Pressure Method.

I was playing on a so-called high-note mouthpiece which was blocking every effort to improve. He said, "Let me see that mouthpiece" and then stated, "you'd better get rid of that and learn on a sensible mouthpiece." The next lesson (like so many students) I still had it. Clarke said, "Give me that mouthpiece!" and promptly threw it out the window. He then rummaged into a drawer and handed me a mouthpiece and said, "Here! Play this!" Believe me, I never questioned him. (It was a Heim #1.) I played this for years. I eventually went to a cup and backbore like Clarke and this is the size I play to this day. He explained, "The search for a mouthpiece is the beginning of the end."

He taught me very forcefully that you must put air through the horn. We were working on Study #1 of his Technical Studies. I was playing timidly and trying to play super-soft. (Isn't that what the book says?) Finally he stopped and shouted, "Will you put some air through that Horn!!!" He then knocked me flat. When I got back on my feet, he knocked me down again. Each time I got up he knocked me down, all around the large room where he taught. When he finally stopped, he shouted, "Now that's the way you play that thing and you don't forget it!!!"

No Fear!

He then thoroughly explained how you must whip all fear from your system.

He said, "Everyone that picks up a trumpet has a yellow streak around his back a mile wide. You tell a man that and he wants to fight. That makes him twice as yellow because he wants to protect his yellowness."

It was several years later that we started to put some finishing touches on Technical Studies and I could eventually take #1 up to Top F 16 repeats in one breath in a whisper. That was when he explained that you don't put the roof on a house until the foundation and sides are up.

It would take many books to record all that I learned from H.L. Clarke, truly the greatest of all teachers and still today the greatest and most respectd name of all.the soloists even though he has been dead for 37 years. He taught with parables and had proverbs for everything. As a result I never forgot all these wonderful things. Even in his late sixty's and early 70's he would demonstrate amazing feats. He played double High C and Triple High C at the turn of the century, however he never abused or over used his ability. His sound was big and velvet and yet he could cover an entire band with his power. He was never known to tire out, and no one has ever topped his technique.

I thought that I had developed a fast single tongue. I could do 16th notes at 144 on the metronome, for a solid minute. Clarke could do the same closer to 180.

While with Clarke, we went through Arbans page by page. We went through Saint Jacomes, page by page. That was when he taught me the value of understanding what the author meant. "Get the sense of it." he said. Understand what the exercise is for and use it correctly. Practice every model and then see how many more you can make. That's how he explained that it's (How You Practice, What you Practice and
When You Practice, that makes you successful). We thoroughly studied many wonderful works besides such as Gatti, Walter Smith and so many more that I couldn't list them all.

Some time back a high school professor, upon looking through one of my books asked: "Upon what authority did you write this?" I answered simply, "With Clarke I gained 50 years of Arban's experience; 50 years of Saint-Jacome's experience. 50 years of H.L. Clarke's experience and 50 years of my own. (Including 40 years teaching experience). All adding up to 200 years of experience. That is my authority. He didn't answer.

Clarke constantly expounded; "Don't sop where I did—go farther" In all of the years that I associated with him, I never heard him say an unkind word about anyone. This was not a weakness, but rather a sign of his great strength. When you studied with him, believe me, this rubbed off on you.

He would always point to the abilities of another great artist. He would talk, for example, about how Liberati had great control of his tongue, and what a great artist Kryl was. In this manner he taught you to appreciate other artists, rather than putting all of the attention on yourself, and to appreciate the work of others to gain their standing in this profession.

I have talked with those that said they took a few lessons from Clarke. Taking a few lessons is far different than studying. To study, takes a length of time. A player does not need many teachers. He needs only one good one.

I owe my successful career to Herbert L. Clarke. I studied many years and looked to him as a second Dad. He taught me how to play; how to think and reason; and how to teach. I had the chance to tell him how much I appreciated what he had done for me. True to his Nature, he answered: "I've done nothing; You have done it all."