There was a time when there were quite distinct schools of clarinet playing and you often could tell a player’s nationality by the way they played the clarinet; the German style was often characteristically even-toned in all registers, the French tended to favour a thinner, more agile sound, the Czech player would use vibrato, and so on. The English typically liked a more vocal approach capable of a generous sound coloured by a wide dynamic range. The advent of recordings and a more connected global music scene has to some extent put paid to these distinctions but I have always been fascinated by the English tradition and been keen not to let it die out.
Luckily just as the main English maker, Boosey & Hawkes was stopping production in the early 1980’s, Peter Eaton came on the scene and saved the day. A player by training, he had the foresight to buy up Boosey’s production equipment and he virtually single-handedly rescued the art of clarinet making in England, learning from some of the few remaining craftsmen how to make the instruments to English specifications, as well as introducing many much needed improvements of his own along the way.
I choose to play English clarinets because, more than with any other clarinets I have tried, they enable the player to express their personality and to vary the sound. Just as a singer might use a different tonal palette for different pieces of music, so one has the possibility to add shading and nuance to the clarinet sound with this type of instrument. One of the principal reasons for this is that the bore of the clarinet and mouthpiece is wider on a traditional English clarinet than on other instruments so therefore more sound is produced. One has the sensation of starting with a thicker sound which can be either pared down or allowed to sing – ideal for me because I aim to emulate the human voice or the singing sound of a stringed instrument when I play. A multitude of other voicings and sound worlds are possible too and ultimately the instrument has the mercurial ability to mimic all sorts of styles.
It has been exciting and interesting working with Peter Eaton and his wife Joanna over the years. In our many talks about the clarinet and its vagaries new ideas are often thrown up and the Eatons are continually looking to keep their clarinets as excellent as they possibly can, with sound and the optimum resonance of the wood being primary concerns. My clarinet feels to me like my own voice, it is a deeply personal expression of my musicality and Peter Eaton clarinets really help me achieve the sounds that I envisage in my mind’s ear.