The Christmas clarinet

Have you ever felt like one of the unwanted playthings from the Island of Misfit Toys?  You know, that sad, rather mystical place where Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer lands for a time and discovers a troupe of dispirited toys–a spotted elephant, a “Charlie-in-the box,” a choo-choo train with square wheels and a bird that swims, all held together by King Moonracer (a lion with brown wings)?

As a clarinetist, I can relate quite easily to those toys and their desire to be wanted, loved and included.  Especially when it comes to being part of a church worship service–it just doesn’t happen, does it?  Ask yourself when you can last remember a clarinet being in a church praise band, or featured in a “special music” moment.

I bet you’re having trouble coming up with that!  But trumpets–they’re in high demand at Easter, often at Christmas, sometimes at weddings.  Violins and cellos?  They’re commonly used for solos, or in ensembles.

Don’t forget guitars, bells, percussion and other brass instruments–even triangles and tubas are more readily seen and heard in churches than clarinets.

Some clarinetists harbor a deep-seated, though usually well concealed, envy of flutists.  Usually graceful, feminine types, flutists make frequent appearances in church services year-round.  Whether it’s a spring arrangement of “For the Beauty of the Earth,” a communion anthem or a descant during “Silent Night,” flutes are at the top of the list for worship instruments.  Breathy, sweet, high-pitched tones emit from the slender flute as the player gently dips and sways in rhythm, her fingers softly brushing the holes and her lipstick rarely disturbed as the mouthpiece scarcely grazes her gently pursed lips.

It happens that I am also a pianist, so I have witnessed firsthand this previously unexplored phenomenon.  At last week’s Chamber Singers concert, I ventured to inquire of tuba player Galen Benton if his brass ensemble had ever sought to include a clarinet.  Nope.  (And yes, I know clarinets are not made of brass!)  In accompanying for my church choir, I’ve seen a parade of lovely flutists come and go, being showered with accolades for their fine playing while I think of my clarinet, left at home like a misfit toy.  This past Sunday, a flute was featured along with the choir’s Christmas medley.  At our Christmas Eve service, I will accompany no fewer than two violins on “O Holy Night.”

But unless there’s call for Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” a jazzy arrangement of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” or an Oriental flair in “We Three Kings,” clarinets will not be starring soon at a sanctuary near you.

I should have known when, arriving late to the band scene as a seventh grader, my band instructor Mr. Mikkelson urged me to take up the clarinet because “You’ll be able to learn it quickly.”  Upon decades of reflection, I realize that’s because, while the clarinet may be one of the easiest instruments to play at all, it’s one of the hardest to play well.  Who wants squeaks, squawks and honks, not to mention that nasal, piercing noise, echoing through church rafters?  Apparently very few music directors and ministers, by my tally.

My other clue should have been taken directly from the Bible.  The Book of Psalms contains numerous references to instruments–harps, lyres, trumpets, “instruments of 10 strings,” timbrels, organs, cymbals–these all have their day, but the clarinet plays second fiddle, apparently even in God’s eyes.  Dear Lord, I’m not feeling the love!

On Christmas Eve, amid the glow of candles and the shining eyes of children, while the lyrical violins and “Christmas flute” add to the worshipful moments, my clarinet will remain tucked away, gathering dust, awaiting summer and city band and praying, like those on the Island of Misfit Toys, that it, too, may someday be beloved.

3 thoughts on “The Christmas clarinet

  1. I wish I’d read this earlier – I would have invited you to run across the street on Christmas Eve to listen to the lovely sounds of a clarinet at Emmanuel. Of course, our clarinetist did play “We Three Kings” but that was only because it was the only song that we had music for that wasn’t already being used somewhere else in the program.

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